Character or plot?
Scrap the “or.” Give me an “and.”
Those with high standards want both, naturally.
Michael Harvey makes it look easy.
There’s an accepted shorthand style to detective novels, at least those whose Ancestry-dot-Com explorations would name, nail and point to Dashiell Hammett as the no-question-about-the-DNA grandpa. Some writers dip the tip of their paintbrushes in Hammett’s ink, try to make it look like they’re not. Some hope you don’t notice. Harvey takes a bath in the stuff.
The quick-clipped style isn’t easy, keeping the tension rolling and the information flowing. Harvey makes it look like a walk on the beach. His main dude PI guy Mike Kelly brings the heart. OK, not the heart exactly. The humanity—just a touch. Cubs fan. Old Style guy and Bud man. Reads—and studies—Greek classics.
Check out Mike Kelly’s first yarn, the taut, tough and to-the-point, “The Chicago Way.” It pack lots of plot. There’s a pretzel-bag full of salty twists and scene after scene of quick, sharp dialogue. But it’s that zap-to-the-point descriptive style that pays Hammett homage—and does so beautifully.
“I didn’t have any sisters, didn’t need any. I had Nicole. I met her when I was nine. She was seven. It was a hot, heavy afternoon. Late August in the city. We were playing football in the street when she made the mistake of walking by. There was an older kid there named Maxie. He was big and round, Polish and plenty tough. He’d blow his heart out with a speedball on his sixteenth birthday. I didn’t cry. Don’t know anyone who did.”
Kelly might tell Sam Spade to quit being such a softie.
In an interview (lesasbookcritiques) Harvey is asked how he sees Kelly and his hometown, Chicago. Predictably, Kelly thinks of a certain smash-mouth sport. “I always go back to the Chicago Bears, a team which, in so many ways, reflects how Chicago feels about itself,” says Harvey. “The Bears basically like to hit people in the mouth. Hit them in the mouth. And keep on hitting them in the mouth until the whistle blows. And maybe hit them once more after the whistle blows.”
In “The Chicago Way,” as the plot points fly and jaws crack, there’s also an everyman quality to Kelly’s interests. He lives on the streets and is comfortable chatting up a serial killer in prison, but the solution involves as much personal insight as clue-sniffing. If you don’t care for clipped, terse character descriptions and Elmore Leonard-esque dialogue, there’s nothing to see here. If you enjoy a well-plotted story that trusts and respects the reader, “The Chicago Way” is about as good as it gets, with flashes of humor too. “Three questions buzzed through the early morning fog I call my brain: What kind of woman has a last name of Bange? Why was Channel 7 Action News calling me at three-thirty in the morning? And what kind of woman has a last name of Bange?”
Chicago private investigator Mike Kelly has friends—and he needs them to break through an old case brought to him by a retired cop. The theme is rape, dunked in revenge. What seems like a case turns out to be a trap. I’m not giving away too much. From the opening jolt of action, the pace rarely slows. I won’t offer a plot recap but Kelly works his way methodically where the stories and information lead him and he overcomes his share of hurdles to figure out who’s with him and who is against him.
Michael Harvey borrows well. The result is a swift, punchy story. I’ll take that over weak attempts at “originality” any day of the week. “The Chicago Way” is highly effective. I was yanked along for the ride from page one.