Sunday, October 19, 2008

Chercover Pulls the Trigger

In case you missed Saturday's book section in the Chicago Tribune, so ably edited under severe stress by Elizabeth Taylor, here's what I had to say about Sean Chercover's great new book, TRIGGER CITY:

Chicago private investigator Ray Dudgeon is having a bad night. Rolling over onto his right side, where a beating by two crooked cops had dislocated his shoulder, he triggered a nightmare and woke up with the taste of his own blood in his mouth. “The taste of blood, sudden sweats and flashback images sometimes happened when I was wide awake,” he says. “... The episodes had diminished during the months I'd spent with my grandfather down in Georgia, but when I came back to Chicago they were right here waiting for me.
“Chicago was full of triggers. Chicago was Trigger City.”

This has been an unusually rich year for crime fiction, a lot of it from Chicago writers such as Sara Paretsky (Bloody Kansas), Marcus Sakey (Good People) and other members of the local blog called The Outfit. But Sean Chercover's second book about Dudgeon, after last year's terrific Big City, Bad Blood, manages to rise to a unique height, even in that exalted company. He seems well on his way to becoming the Ross Macdonald of his time, close to rubbing shoulders with Dashiell Hammett in the Crime Writers' Hall of Fame.

Business has been bad for Dudgeon since the aftermath of his mauling, and he and his part-time trainee Vince now mostly try to pay the rent and buy the occasional beef sandwich at Al's #1 Italian on Taylor by doing divorce work – snooping on errant friends (and ex-friends like Ray's old flame Jill) for a few dirty dollars. Dudgeon's cheapo health insurance won't pay for much of the extensive shoulder surgery he needs, so he has to depend on Percocet and bags of frozen peas for relief. He's even trying to find a buyer for his beloved 1968 Shelby: “It easily constituted over 80 percent of my net worth. I could barely afford the insurance on it.”

So when Isaac Richmond, a retired U.S. Army Intelligence officer, hands Ray a check for $50,000 for two months' exclusive work, looking into the murder of his daughter by a fellow employee, Dudgeon is sorely tempted. “All I had to do is take a case that had zero chance of success. A case I should turn down cold,” he says as he tries to convince Richmond that it's hopeless. Later, delivering a finder's fee to the cop friend who suggested him to Richmond (twenty-five $100 bills inside a copy of Ken Bruen's The Guards -- “Great book, you'll like it. Full of bent cops, very realistic,” Ray says – he gets 20 minutes alone with the Joan Richmond file. Richmond, head of accounting for a large department store, was shot in the face at close range in the door of her apartment by a man she had hired, computer expert Steven Zhang, whose mental health had been deteriorating for several months. Zhang then returned to his home and shot himself in the head.

But before Dudgeon can return Richmond's check, he uses the keys the man gives him to enter Joan's home. He discovers they had similar tastes in music (Chercover's books and stories are fully scored with everything from blues to rock), and that she was a secret drinker of frozen Skyy vodka. About to leave, he decides to take a look under a bed – and he's hooked.

“I knew it was totally irrational, but I was livid with Joan Richmond for keeping a diary under her bed. For making me feel like the thirteen-year-old boy who found his mother's cold body naked on top of the sheets, an empty pill bottle beside her, a half-empty bottle of Sambuca on the nightstand...”

Dudgeon isn't the only one hooked into swooping forward on a dark journey into the world of top secret “Black Ops,” where attackers use expensive weapons and gadgets made without labels. Joan Richmond was set to be the star witness in a Congressional investigation of a vast private military complex called Hawk River earning big bucks in Iraq, run by a pair of heavies who might give you nightmares.

There's plenty of exciting and scary action in Trigger City, but Chercover never lets it stand in the way of believability. In many ways – using the Iraqi war as a major ingredient, seeing how Ray Dudgeon grows and changes because of what's happened to him – the book could be the first of a new age of crime fiction.

Now, about that Crime Fiction Hall of Fame. How about giving Chicago's homegrown heroes and heroines a place to stand up and shout?

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