Michael Harvey – “We All Fall Down”

Thanks to Mystery Scene magazine (love that publication) I recently learned that Eric
Ambler’s “The Dark Frontier,” his first novel, included anticipation of the atomic bomb. “The Dark Frontier” was written in 1936.

Quoting from a 2005 review on Amazon: “It stars an unlikely secret agent, Professor Barstow, a middle-aged and overworked physics professor, who turns into Conrad Carruthers, debonair agent determined to stop nuclear proliferation.”  The same review said “The Dark Frontier” is part “great spy story” and part adventure story. The reviewer offered up four stars.

Michael Harvey might be just as prescient. It’s easy to believe we’ll encounter something along the lines of the citywide attack he imagines in “We All Fall Down.” Harvey’s concern is biological weapons. In the author’s note to “We All Fall Down,” he quotes scientists and experts (without naming names) who say the biological weapon scenario he envisions—or something even more frightening—is plausible.

For me, however, the mash-up of mystery and sci-fi/thriller doesn’t quite work. The story felt like Michael Connelly stirred with Michael Crichton or Elmore Leonard (Detroit-era Leonard) crashed into the movie “Contagion.” Dope peddling bad guys in one scene, talk about black biology and released pathogens in the next.

One line of narration straight out of an urban crime novel: “Marcus climbed down the fire escape and sat with his back against the building. He pulled seven bullets out of his pocket, loaded four into the revolver, and clicked the chamber shut. He’d only had the gun a week when he and Twist found the dead doper, curled at the edges and lying in the basement of a rock house.”

And another out of a sci-fi thriller: “I pushed down on the second button. Images of scientists in suits collecting samples appeared on the upper quarter of my visor.”

One line of dialogue out of an urban crime novel: “Tell him the Korean’s out. Your crew’s gonna be dealing directly with us for product.”

And another line of dialogue out of a sci-fi thriller: “Scientists work with something called BioBricks—very specific strings of DNA with defined functions. An example might be a BioBrick that represents the molecular expression of the lethal properties of bubonic plague.”

The combination left me unfocused. I had a hard time believing PI Michael Kelly would be given such a huge role in protecting and assisting with the subway tunnels that are the focus of the black biology portion of this story.

One other minor complaint is the shift from third person to first and then, on top of that, the story is told from multiple points of view.  (I’m usually a fan of multiple points of view but the switches on first- and third-person too just left me jarred.)

That said, Harvey can certainly write. There is energy, imagination and sharp dialogue here in abundance. I thought the connection to the Greek writer Thucydides was a good touch. And it’s easy to be deeply troubled by Harvey’s scenario here. Easy. Please don’t share your copy with the bad guys.

I gave “The Chicago Way” five stars after I read it last year. (“…a pretzel bag full of salty twists and pages of quick, sharp dialogue.”)

Here, Harvey continues to tap the style of Chandler and Cain, two of my favorites.

But “We All Fall Down” made me yearn for more time with Kelly’s pure PI instincts and the real streets and current threats of Chicago.

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