The Chicago Way
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2007
Knopf / Random House
US First Edition Hardcover
310 Pages; $23.95
Publication Date: 08-21-2007
Date Reviewed: 09-18-2007
Some novels don’t simply have characters — they are characters, as a whole. This is certainly true for 'The Chicago Way', which ambles up the reader like a big irresistibly friendly dog — simple, stylish and fun. You look this book in the eye, and you can't help but like it. In fact, 'The Chicago Way' is so easy to enjoy that it's easy to overlook the craft that goes into its creation. The crystal-clear characters, the crisply-described action and the flavor of the titular setting blend effortlessly to submerge readers in a world not their own. Hopefully. For all the friendliness of the novel itself, the world of Michael Kelly, an ex-cop and Chicago PI, is a perfect pitch-black noir. People die.
It doesn't seem a likely when we first met Kelly, sitting feet up with a cup of Earl Grey contemplating the Cubs. But that idyll is quickly soured when Kelly's former partner, John Gibbons, still a cop, shows up. He's looking into an unsolved rape, a cold case that he worked some eight years ago. Gibbons is quickly killed and Kelly is put in the picture. When Gibbons' client shows up to hire Kelly, he's already motivated to find out what got his friend killed. The fact that said client is a battered blonde is icing on the cake.
The appeal of Harvey's stripped-down prose is instantly engaging. I was reminded of Charles Willeford, as well as noir icons Hammet and Chandler. There's an almost child-like simplicity to Harvey's writing, which extends to his treatment of more adult subject matter as well. This is to say that though 'The Chicago Way' has a veneer of forensic crime fiction, and deals in serious matters such as the complex nature of rape, it never lingers beyond the necessary. Harvey's easy-to-read style is easy to read in part because he knows when to elide detail and when to include it. One of the great joys of this novel is Harvey's circumspection, his willingness to let remain stoically silent in the face of life's most ugly moments. That silence may or may not speak volumes, but it surely makes 'The Chicago Way' enjoyable without being either lightweight or gruesome.
The small cadre of characters in 'The Chicago Way' is another important aspect of the novel's appeal. Michael Kelly is familiar enough to be quickly understood but quirky enough to stay in your memory. A fondness for the classical languages helps. You like Michael Kelly; he's a pretty straightforward stand-up guy, not too full of himself and not overly wrapped in the noir dress and behavior code. His cohorts are equally appealing, particularly Nicole Andrews, a childhood friend who is now a DNA expert. Hers and Kelly's back story informs the novel, and nicely dovetails with other plot points. Diane Lindsay is the TV reporter you might see every night on your local eleven o'clock news, nicely written to be just a bit tarter than you might expect. I was especially fond of Vince Rodriguez, a detective assigned to the case who doesn't enjoy his plot arc as much as readers will. What've most enjoyable overall is how well-defined each and every character is. This is a book that will satisfy your inner neatnik with characters scrubbed as clean as the prose.
But there is always an exception, and in this case the character that is not neat is the setting itself, the city of Chicago. Harvey uses his intimate knowledge of the city put the reader is a number of real places, including the coffee shop where he wrote portions of the novel and the bar he himself owns. I must admit that heretofore, I've never really cottoned to Chicago. It's always seemed both uninteresting and unduly unpleasant. But Harvey's travelogue writing makes even the downtrodden areas seem captivating, and I found myself wanting to eat at the restaurants that Kelly frequents. Alas, there is no Mr. Beef franchise here in California.
If there are any weaknesses in 'The Chicago Way', they stem from the plot. Harvey does a fine job, to be sure, and the twists are pretty twisty, but compared to the level of skill displayed in the writing, what transpires has a hard act to follow. I suspect a fair number of readers (not me, to be perfectly honest) will see what happens from a decent distance. On the other hand, when Harvey threads his plot and characters together more closely, as he does with Kelly and Rodriguez, the results are extremely rewarding. The relationship that they develop is one of the highlights of the novel, nicely handled and craftily planned.
There are some important themes that get just the right amount of airtime 'The Chicago Way'. But they don’t get in the way of a good story. Michael Kelly, er Harvey — you can't help but blur the two a bit — is, in the final analysis, a skilled writer with great instincts. He's still a bit rough 'round the edges, and all in all, readers are going to like that a lot. He's not perfect, but then neither are you. Harvey is wise enough to use that affinity in his novel, to keep it simple and clear, like a punch in the nose. And the broken nose that results? It looks pretty damn good after all. Friendly, like a big happy dog.