Welcome to Murder by the Book's blog about what we've read recently. You can find our website at www.mbtb.com.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Calumet City, by Charlie Newton

Due out in March is the trade edition of Calumet City by Charlie Newton ($14). For those of you who sense that Carol O'Connell's Find Me perhaps showcases the last appearance of her signal character, Mallory, and are stricken by that thought, here is a book for you.

Patti Black's bleak childhood as an orphan in a foster home and on the wild streets of Chicago will sound familiar to the readers of Carol O'Connell's Mallory series. As a grownup Patti has finagled her way into a job as a cop, one who deals with the neighborhoods in which she once ran as an almost feral child. After years of walking the thin line between her current legitimacy and her dubious past, several incidents occur to bring her past dangerously close to the light.

Newton's detailed depiction of the part of Chicago tourists don't see and his rapid pacing make this a genuine thriller. However, in my opinion, Newton sometimes commits the same "sin" as O'Connell: He overemphasizes what a misfit his character is, how she lacks basic social skills, how other people quake in her presence with just one (menacing) look from her. He is, thankfully, not at O'Connell's level. This is a small negative criticism of both authors whose otherwise solid storytelling takes the reader past the point of drowning in affectation.

A warning: one of the storylines deals with child abuse.

minister. The heady realization that he will be meeting and getting to intimately know the controversial ex-prime minister, not to mention the hefty paycheck, gives the acerbic, unnamed (appropriately so, don't you think) narrator a cause for celebration … until things start to go wrong.

Imagine Tony Blair charged with crimes against humanity in a world court for aiding and abetting the capture of alleged terrorists in Pakistan, who are then shipped to a U.S. military compound where they are tortured. Substitute "Adam Lang" for Tony Blair, and you have yourself the inspiration for this Robert Harris novel.

At first I was excited: the narrator was witty, sarcastic, sophisticated. The narrative flowed with verve and seemed full of insider looks at publishing. Because a book cannot exist with just the fun stuff showing, we had to eventually meet "the conspiracy." The narrator's ghostwriter predecessor supposedly committed suicide during a ferry ride to Martha's Vineyard, leading, of course, to all sorts of double entendres involving the word "ghost." In continuing his research, the new ghost stumbles across his predecessor's research that indicates the prime minister's rise to power and term in office may not have been all it seemed. Which leads to a frightening assumption that perhaps his predecessor's death may not have been all it seemed. It is after the narrator adjourns into incipient paranoia that the book ceases to fulfill the promise of its beginning. But as well as Harris is capable of creating a chilling scenario and as probable as the ending may eventually turn out to be, I nevertheless found the resolution to be ludicrous.

It may surprise you that I suggest you read it: for the humor, for the wit, for the promise of what could have been.

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