Sunday, August 31, 2008

Blow-Ins From the Windy City

In case you missed yesterday's Chicago Tribune Book Review, here's a piece of mine that ran yesterday, 8/30

Don't tell anyone in New York or Los Angeles, but Chicago is where it's happening when it comes to crime fiction.

Of course we've known about it for a long time: Those good folk who gather to ramble at The Outfit blog — Sean Chercover, Barbara D'Amato, Michael Allen Dymmoch, Kevin Guilfoile, Libby Hellmann, Sara Paretsky and Marcus Sakey — won't let us forget it. And the light continues to shine, getting brighter with each book by a growing group of local writers. Sakey's third book, Good People, and Michael Harvey's second, The Fifth Floor, are both terrific reads, perfect examples of the ways talented writers grow.

I loved The Blade Itself, Sakey's first, and waxed ecstatic about it in these pages. His next one, "At the City's Edge, suffered a bit from the second-novel blues, but it did pass the time with some pleasure. And now comes Good People, Sakey's best book yet.

A good part of its attraction is the set-up. Tom and Anna Reed, a couple in their late 30s, earning decent money in jobs they don't really hate, had enough cash flow a few years back to buy a two-floor apartment in Lincoln Square. But now they're deeply in debt, having spent more than $100,000 on in-vitro fertilization procedures that always end in failure. The Reeds have had to let their basement apartment to a man who calls himself Bill Samuelson, a taciturn hermit who never has visitors and always pays his rent with cashier's checks.

We know from the start that Samuelson is really Will Tuttle, a minor-league criminal who behaved badly a month before, after the robbery of a famous film star with an expensive substance habit in a private club in River North. Interrupting a big drug deal, Tuttle and three others took $400,000 in cash, an equal amount's worth of heroin, and killed a bodyguard. On the way out Tuttle killed Bobby, the younger brother of the gang's leader, Jack Witkowski. (Asked how two boys named Witkowski wound up being named Jack and Bobby, Jack says, " 'My mother. ... Big fan of the Kennedy brothers.' ")

Tuttle took the cash and drugs, became Bill Samuleson and hid the loot in his rented apartment. An overdose kills Tuttle in his bed, and a fire in the kitchen set by a pan he left burning on the stove sets off his smoke alarm and brings Tom and Anna. They react smartly, knowing that throwing water on a grease fire is not a good idea. Anna finds a large bag of flour on a shelf, opens it — and out comes $370,000 in bundles of $100 bills:

"They stood in silence, staring at the money. It was funny, she thought. In the movies it would have been ten million. Some ridiculous sum. Three hundred and seventy thousand dollars was a lot, no doubt. But it wasn't completely outside the realm of their experience."

So the Reeds rationalize as they begin to think of keeping the money — paying off some credit cards and making another try at in vitro. At first they want to believe their tenant was one of those misers you read about, hoarding his money for some psycho reasons. Even after they realize it's from a robbery, Tom and Anna persuade themselves they aren't really bad people.

But Jack Witkowski is — as brutal a villain as you never hope to meet. He does have his moments of humanity: He comes to admire the Reeds for their tenacity, for example, seeing in them something like his own twisted drive. But he wants his blood money, the only revenge he can get for the death of his younger brother, whom he persuaded to join him in a big job that was out of Bobby's depth.

After Jack and the frighteningly smooth drug dealer Malachi try to convince Anna and Tom that keeping their loot will cause innocent bystanders much pain, Witkowski berates Tom:

" 'That's the problem with you people. ... I'm not saying I wouldn't have taken it. I would. Did, as a matter of fact. But I didn't tell myself it wasn't hurting anybody. I wanted it, so I took it. You get my meaning?'

" 'No.'

" 'Let me put it another way. ... You really believe you didn't bring this on yourself?' "

The Fifth Floor is equally impressive, but in different ways. By choosing to continue down the traditional private-eye route he explored so well in The Chicago Way, Harvey joins the Raymond Chandler firm by creating a familiar core around which he can spin a million dark dreams. Michael Kelly, his resourceful ex-police officer, can still crack wise with the best of them and bed anything that looks female. But he also can bring you to tears with memories of old loves and hates—especially when a case involving wife and child abuse touches some old wounds:

"I thought about the guy who once called himself my father. The death of quiet inside an apartment. A footfall on the doorstep and voices down a hallway. A quiet, dangerous sort of rumble. Something you developed an instinct for. Ten years old and creeping through the kitchen as the voices got closer. Out the back door and into the fading sunlight."

Harvey is co-creator and executive producer of TV's Cold Case Files documentary series, so he knows something about how police comport themselves. Kelly's friends and enemies still on the job behave so perfectly that you expect them to give you a ticket. But Harvey also was a journalist, and in the two veteran scribes who are important to one of his cases — one a freeloading Pulitzer Prize winner, the other a buried hack in Joliet — you can sense his juices really beginning to flow. It's enough to give newspapers a good name.

The fifth floor is that place in City Hall where the mayor sits. The fictional head man, named Wilson, comes from a long line of mayors, going back to John Julius Wilson, who ruled before, during and after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Following Johnny Woods, a fixer in the mayor's office and the man who an ex-girlfriend tells Kelly has been regularly beating her and is now threatening her 15-year-old daughter, Kelly watches him go into a house on North Hudson that survived the fire. Woods comes out a minute later, looking stricken. Kelly slips into the house and finds the body of an old man, his throat filled with sand.

What follows is a tangled, fascinating tale about a rumored 19th Century land swindle that might have involved John Julius Wilson. Naturally the current mayor is anxious to do anything he can to keep the family name from being smeared — especially because he's facing a tough election against a charismatic, Barack Obama-like candidate.

Readers of The Chicago Way will remember that it ended with the death of a much-loved (especially by Kelly) woman. At her grave on the first anniversary of her murder, Kelly spots a familiar face: Rachel Swenson, a federal judge. One thing leads to another (including a favorite sausage recipe from an ancient mob boss), and they begin an edgy romance, complicated by the fact that he's now working for the mayor and she's a supporter of his opponent. Again, all their words and actions stand up on the page in bursts of believability.

As all the threads of the story come together in a sneaky denouement (I guessed it about five pages earlier; you might pick up some hints before that), Kelly does a lot of eating — at the Billy Goat Tavern, where the waiters imitate John Belushi imitating them, and many other places you'll want to visit.

Welcome back, Marcus and Michael. It's better to be blinded by your light than to stumble in other writers' darkness.

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