THE CHICAGO WAY by Michael Harvey. Everything old is new again,
as the saying goes. But what if it was bad to begin with? Would it be better? That theme underlies the chaos of Michael Harvey’s first novel, but as for the novel itself it is, fortunately, a moot point.
Harvey uses just about every PI novel plot device you can think of, but he does two key things that make them work: first, he only borrows inspiration from the best, and second, he writes one wickedly good book. The Chicago Way starts about like you expect a book titled The Chicago Way to start, with protagonist PI Michael Kelly leaning back in his office chair, feet propped on his desk, having a drink; Raymond Chandler, anyone? Dashiel Hammett? Yes and no. Michael Kelly is drinking Earl Grey tea.
And who walks through his door? No, not a buxom blonde. Not yet, anyway. Instead, it’s his former partner on the Chicago PD, who is working on a case leftover from his days on the force and is seeking Kelly’s help. Before long the partner is dead and Kelly is the prime suspect. Sam Spade, anyone? And before Kelly’s bruises from the investigating Chicago homicide cops have really started turning purple, who drops by his office? Why, a blonde with a gun, of course.
But despite Harvey’s steeping in the lore of great crime fiction past, this is no mere knock-off of the all-time greats by a hack looking to sell a few fast books. From the opening sentence the astute reader can pick out the influences of other writers and not care less; the author is in command from the outset. Spare prose is a given, but nice turns of phrase and hidden surprises are not. Kelly reads Greek classics. For fun. And in the original Greek. He drinks, he smokes, he uses a computer. The style and construction are straight from the 40's, and the villian(s) could be the grandchildren of some of Raymond Chandler’s best bad guys, but the viewpoint is 21st century bleak, with just a hint of optimism. Let’s call is 21st Century noir.
Kelly soon finds himself chasing leads that turn bad, people die, and it’s his fault. Who can he really trust in the gathering maze, and who is his client? It’s a mess, a bloody mess, and the surprise ending has the same shock value as with all great crime novels. Sam Spade wouldn’t really turn over his girl-friend, would he? Yes, he would. And a first time writer like Michael Harvey couldn’t really write this good of a book, could he? Yes. He could. And he did.