The TV Way: a review

Upon first looking into Michael Harvey's The Chicago Way, it seemed fairly certain that book/daddy wouldn't like it. The title came from one of the more crowd-pleasing and embarrassing bits of dialogue David Mamet wrote before creating the TV tough-guy hack fest, The Unit. A reminder: It comes from Sean Connery as the tough old Chicago bull in The Untouchables lecturing Elliott Ness about how applying a policy of escalating-response revenge to the Capone gang would be an effective tactic in law enforcement, though one not widely endorsed in the academy or in court.

In addition, as the co-creator of A&E's Cold Case Files -- and regardless of the possible worth of his novel -- Mr. Harvey has enjoyed the kind of high-profile media interest (interview on NPR, "tour" of Chicago bars on, that kind of thing) unavailiable to most first-time novelists. Yes, that shouldn't matter in a critic's ultimate judgment, but in his preliminary considerations over whether he should spend time and effort and blog space on a book that was getting more atttention than most, it is a factor (hardly the only one, but still, a factor), and critics who say otherwise are either fooling readers or themselves.

And then there is the novel's basic set-up: a serial killer -- one of the more tiresome thriller devices these day -- and the main character himself, a private detective-loner, Irish ex-cop, telling his story in the first person. Some might call this classic; book/daddy finds it cause for concern. I have become wary of the Raymond Chandler school of world-weary street knights, cracking wise (but with a touch of melancholy) over their shots of Scotch. The self-indulgence that this male sentimentality often involves no longer disguises whatever hard-bitten critique it offers of American city politics, urban decay, class-based injustice, etc. Exhibit A: the smug tone of voice that Robert Parker's Spenser has put on for the past 15 years or so, combined with the rather obvious male fantasy figure he's become. (A wit and a wine connoiesseur! Catnip for the ladies! Yet his lover is a Harvard Ph.D! Oh, Spenser, you're sensitive and butch!).

This doesn't mean book/daddy has adopted a simplistic rule concerning noir novels, first person = bad, third person = good. James Ellroy, after all, generally writes in the third person, and he's terrible, while Ross Macdonald wrote in the first person, and he's a master. But it does mean that I approach new, first-person, P.I. yarns with a degree of suspicion.

Right about now is when the "turn" happens, and I declare that The Chicago Way surprised me, that it really is terrific. The truth is it did surprise me. After reading several pages, book/daddy was struck with how lean and controlled Mr. Harvey's prose was -- in the voice of Michael Kelly, his P.I.

There's very little of the aren't-I-clever?, flashy-Chandler, "tarantula on angel food cake" observations. book/daddy forgave Mr. Kelly the Cicero references (Kelly reads the Latin classics). And although Mr. Harvey's tour of Chicago's beery netherworld and beery public world seems a little gimmicky and boosterish at times (Go Cubs! You losers!), there was enough of an undertow of regret and weariness and cold winter blues that made it all rather appealing.

The complexity of the case also broke through the more obvious echoes or, if you prefer, homages. Kelly's former police partner is murdered -- shades of the opening of The Maltese Falcon. He wanted Kelly to look into an old rape case of theirs, believing that the guilty party was actually a serial killer who, although convicted and put in the pen, seems to be still at large -- leading Kelly ultimately to interview said convict in the pen about possible sidekicks or accessories (shades of Silence of the Lambs). Cover-ups, hired Mafia hits, a tough TV newswoman, it all gets thrown in to keep things interesting (following the famous Chandler dictate to authors that, when things get slow, just have somebody come through the door with a gat in his hand).

But then the story turned decidedly Spenser-ish, and book/daddy found himself having to forgive more and more as the novel didn't really break through formulas as implausibly pile on more of them. Kelly, for instance, used to be a boxer (a boxer who reads Cicero .... hmm). And he got driven out of the force on what were rather trumped up suspicions. And he gets some agreeable face-time with Chicago's reigning, if elderly don. (Lots of private eyes are on a friendly basis with Mafia capos). Then there's the twist that has one woman taking over another's identity, and Kelly has to dig up old high school photos to prove it. You don't know how many people, having seen Body Heat, have murdered old classmates but neglect to burn all their yearbooks or family photos.

And so on.

But what finally froze book/daddy's gripy little heart was his growing awareness that Every Close Friend of the Detective Was Implicated or Threatened Somehow in the Evil Conspiracy.

It's a grand, tired-old-crap, Golden Age TV device. It keeps up the detective's sense of loss and betrayal and his (heart-tugging) emotional ties to what is turning into a small slaughter of Chicago citizenry who otherwise might just be strangers and therefore why would he bother with them? A semi-spoiler alert: Just as you always knew an old Army buddy who showed up on Mannix would wind up betraying their friendship and a sweet babe who threw herself at Mannix would always wind up dead, in The Chicago Way, Kelly, over the years, has cultivated a remarkable number of friends who are murderous cads, who are conspiring to kill him or cover-up an old crime or who tragically take a bullet for the lovable lug because He's a Maverick Who Won't Be Chased Off a Case.

First-time novels tend to be derivative; there's no shame in stealing from the greats. But given the hosannahs The Chicago Way was receiving, given Mr. Harvey's expertise in the TV writing game and given how smart he seemed to be, initially, in freshening up genre formulas, it was disappointing, if not more than a little irritating, how by the end, Cubs-like, the book just kept choking.

September 25, 2007 9:12 AM |



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This page contains a single entry by book/daddy published on September 25, 2007 9:12 AM.

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