The Chicago Way
By Michael Harvey
Knopf, 320 pp., $23.95
By Ken Bruen
St. Martins, 240 pp., $13.95
The Burnt House
By Faye Kellerman
Morrow, 448 pp., $25.95
Michael Harvey's smart, stylish debut PI novel was a welcome find in the August pile of mysteries. "The Chicago Way" opens in classic style with former cop Michael Kelly sitting at his desk with his feet up, pondering the Cubs' 10 greatest moments. His former partner, down-at-the-heel retired detective John Gibbons, shows up asking for Kelly's help. "You're the best I ever worked with," Gibbons says, and tosses the letter from the victim and an envelope of cash onto the desk.
He tells Kelly how on Christmas Eve, nine years earlier, he rescued a young woman who was being stabbed and raped. "Jesus, Michael. She was covered in blood and half-dead. Besides she was just a kid." He arrested the attacker who, later that night, somehow managed to escape his jail cell. Gibbons went along with the police coverup but never felt right about it. Now the surviving victim has contacted him and he wants Kelly's help to make amends.
In a setup that echoes "The Maltese Falcon," hours later Gibbons is found dead, shot in the stomach on a Chicago pier, and Kelly feels honor-bound to find his killer. As Kelly investigates, he discovers that the crime may have been the work of an infamous serial rapist, now imprisoned, and Kelly gets drawn into a relationship with glamorous, smart TV anchorwoman Diane Lindsay.
We've certainly seen plenty of PI/ex-cops who've been tossed off the force for standing up to authority, but Kelly feels fresh. He drinks Earl Grey tea, his best friend from childhood is a smart black woman who is the lead DNA analyst for the state crime lab, and he reads "The Iliad " and "The Orestia" in the original Greek. He's his own Greek chorus as he draws from those classics to comment on tragedies and betrayals. The dialogue is snappy and crisp, and characters pop off the page. The plot flows along swimmingly with plenty of surprises. The convoluted ending disappoints, but with so much going right in this novel most readers won't mind.
Ken Bruen writes some of the most malignant, darkly funny crime fiction around. In "Ammunition," misanthropic British inspector Brant is in a bar, knocking back whiskeys with his partner and polar opposite, Porter Nash, bemoaning the death of the great mystery writer Ed McBain. A shooter enters the bar. He takes aim at Brant from the doorway. Before he can pull the trigger, a woman pushes past and knocks him off balance. He recovers, gets off a barrage of bullets, and Brant goes down. In a trademark touch of the surreal, as Nash screams "Officer down!" into his radio, a drunk in the corner wants to know "Is it Christmas?" and hums "Jingle Bells."
Many of Brant's police colleagues can barely hide their delight that Brant has finally gotten his. But that bugger's tough. He survives. Nash sifts through Brant's old cases and realizes, "Who wouldn't want to shoot him?" But Brant is perfectly capable of wreaking his own unique brand of revenge.
This is not your typical British mystery. Bruen is one of those dark and brooding Irish writers, and the novel has more the flavor of Joseph Wambaugh with its spare prose, profanity-filled dialogue, multiple plots hurtling forward, and multiple viewpoints. It's safe to say that none of these seriously twisted, burnt-out cops harbors any illusions about serving the cause of justice. A female officer, who just made sergeant with the help of an exam stolen for her by Brant, wonders what happened to her "once bright vision of police work, some skewered notion of righting wrongs, doing the best you could, and all that good Oprah" pabulum.
After Bruen, Faye Kellerman's "The Burnt House" feels downright bucolic. This is the twelfth novel featuring Lieutenant Peter Decker and his wife, Rina Lazarus, and it's the usual police procedural with a healthy dollop of felicitous domesticity and Judaism.
A plane crashes into an apartment building, creating an inferno. Quickly the search-and-rescue operation turns into a weeks-long effort to recover remains. Decker is a good-guy cop, and he takes it in stride when, 46 days after the crash, the father of a woman supposedly on the plane, starts calling him daily. Farley Lodestone is convinced his daughter Roseanne was never on the plane, and that his son-in-law killed her and is using the crash for a convenient cover.
When all the rubble has been searched, Roseanne's remains are not found. But the remains of an unidentified individual are. What happened to Roseanne, and who is Jane Doe whose death predates the crash by years?
The details of police investigation and the character of Decker (what a nice change, a three-dimensional detective who's not burnt out on the job) are strengths of this novel. Though I found the book overlong, there are fans of the series who will find the detours into philosophy, religion, and family crises pleasant enough. But the novel's serious flaw is a gigantic coincidence from which the solution hangs. The book's length does nothing to camouflage the credibility gap.
Hallie Ephron is author of "Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel: How to Knock 'Em Dead with Style" and co-author of the Dr. Peter Zak mysteries. You may reach her through www.hallieephron.com.