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Friday, January 16, 2009

The Fifth Floor, by Michael Harvey (hardcover, $23.95)

Stylish and spare, Harvey is probably my favorite of the recent spate of Chicago writers to hit the scene. Perhaps I wouldn't have used the word "spare" had I gone directly to writing this review after finishing the book. Instead I plunged right into reading Michael Robotham's Suspect, and Robotham is like James Lee Burke, lush and generous with his prose.

Michael Kelly -- how unusual to have a character who shares the same first name as the author -- returns as the framed ex-cop who now operates as a private investigator. This time Kelly butts heads against Mayor John Wilson, his minions, and the longstanding Chicago tradition of don’t-look-don’t-tell.

A personal case involving a former girlfriend morphs into a larger one involving murder and City Hall. The catastrophic Chicago fire of 1871, which leveled most of Chicago's buildings and killed hundreds of people, may be related to underhanded doings on the part of Mayor Wilson's ancestors. At the beginning, however, all Kelly knows is that his client and her daughter are being threatened by her husband who works for the mayor's office as a "fix-it" guy, and that the husband is a suspect in the murder of an amateur historian.

What I liked about Harvey's first book, The Chicago Way, were the characters and the way Harvey brings Chicago to life -- it's not just some huge anonymous city that is the backdrop to the plot. I remember seeing "Dracula" on Broadway, and Edward Gorey's stage was definitely as much a presence as any of the actors. That's the way I feel about Harvey's depiction of Chicago. The story would not be as interesting were it placed somewhere else.

In The Fifth Floor, the minor characters are charming, repellent, or quirky, and have their own lives. They are never there just so the main characters won't sound stupid talking to themselves. Look for Teen, Willie Dawson, and Hubert Russell to provide short yet memorable appearances. Also look for a Barack Obama sound-alike to dash in at the last minute to become part of the story.

The larger storyline wasn't as appealing to me as that of The Chicago Way, probably because it would have been hard to top Nicole's story in the first book, but I suspended belief enough to join in the speculation about why it would matter to the current mayor if it came to light that there was hanky-panky back in 1871. Nevertheless, it was a good read with what is becoming Harvey's trademark, an eye-raising twist at the end.

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