PI Michael Kelly digs into the history of the Great Chicago Fire for his second case in what’s shaping up as a strong series (The Chicago Way, 2007).
A badly beaten blonde seeking help from old friend Kelly, who “was once something more,” lands this new adventure solidly in noir territory. Harvey delivers on the setup with fast repartee, quick scenes and a slate of characters who numb their melancholy with afternoon smokes and booze, but he’s after more than pastiche. Rather, he depicts the kind of “justice” meted out in the age of Starbucks coffees and hard-disk drives. Tailing the blonde’s two-fisted husband, Kelly learns that he “fixes” problems for a powerful, Daley-like mayor by pressing hard where it hurts. The husband enters an old-money Lincoln Park home and leaves, ashen-faced, moments later; the PI steps inside and finds a dead man dangling from a rope, his mouth stuffed with sand. The victim, Kelly learns, was an armchair historian with an interest in Chicago’s disastrous 1871 fire. The buff may have owned a first-edition history of the fire that many, including the mayor, badly want. Investigating that long-ago tragedy, Kelly uncovers some startling clues and leads. The most significant is that Mrs. O’Leary’s cow did not start the conflagration. Indeed, the current mayor’s great-great-grandfather and a cohort may have set things burning to clear Irish immigrants off land they wanted to develop. The mayor can ill-afford this revelation as he faces a challenge to re-election from a newly arrived black candidate who impresses with fresh ideas (Barack Obama, perhaps?). Kelly, the mayor, the challenger, a slimy curator and others muscle up with the goods they have on each other and start to arm-wrestle.
Dry wit, delectable clues and tricky leads hallmark this trenchant tale of the Windy City.