Book World: 'The Third Rail' by Michael Harvey

(Courtesy Of Knopf - Courtesy Of Knopf)
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By Gerald Bartell
Monday, April 26, 2010


By Michael Harvey

Knopf. 285 pp. $24.95

Early in Michael Harvey's knockout thriller, "The Third Rail," foulmouthed Chicago Mayor John J. Wilson summons Michael Kelly, a private investigator, to an empty dining room in a Greek restaurant. A sniper has been terrorizing the city, and the mayor worries that the fatal shootings will harm tourism. He asks Kelly to take out the sniper on the q.t. "Put a bag over his head and drop him down a [expletive] hole," Wilson says. "No arrest. No trial. No questions asked." Kelly goes along with the mayor. It's all part of "The Chicago Way," as the title of Harvey's first installment in the P.I. Kelly series had put it.

In that novel and in this, the third one, reprisals, trade-offs and clandestine deals keep the city oiled and operating. Actually, even before he's summoned to hizzoner's side, Kelly has his own nasty brush with the sniper. This happens one snowy morning when a man named Robles approaches a woman standing on a mass-transit train platform. He points a gun at her left temple and fires. She drops "like a puppet with the strings cut all here and there, arms, legs, and a smear of lipstick across her lips and down her chin."

Robles, we learn, knew when Kelly would be on the platform and shot the woman to lure the detective into pursuit. Kelly takes the bait, barreling into a nearby alley, where a man wearing a stocking cap KOs the detective with a handgun. After Kelly recovers, a man named Nelson phones him and says Robles shot the woman to make Kelly suffer.

Robles, he discovers, is a psychotic killer and Nelson's accomplice in a vendetta against Chicago's Catholic diocese. Their anger toward the church, which is not immediately explained, fuels their attacks on innocent parishioners, motorists and train passengers. Fearing a terror plot, the FBI moves in, and one of their agents persuades Kelly to investigate it "as an unofficial consultant." By agreeing, Kelly now secretly serves two masters. "I figured what the hell," he says, "double dipping was practically a birthright in Chicago."

Kelly has no idea why he's ensnared in the case, which turns out to be as intricate as a map of the Chicago transit system. He learns that trains play a part: The platform shooting took place on the 30th anniversary of the harrowing crash of two of the city's elevated commuter trains. He himself, then 9 years old, was a passenger on one of them; his father was the conductor. Nelson, meanwhile, has gone down into the subway to install light bulbs filled with anthrax. Knowing how long it takes vibrations from the trains to loosen the bulbs, he screws them only partway into their sockets. Soon they'll crash onto the rails, sending deadly bacteria into the tunnels and onto the streets.

Harvey dispenses the pressure plays, cruel surprises and heartbreaking setbacks of his plot with crack timing, never allowing the reader a moment to unfasten his seat belt. And all the while Harvey renders Kelly's Chicago in crisp, tough and ironic prose. The goats that Polish immigrants once tied in the yards of Bucktown have been supplanted by "angst-ridden hipsters, spiked Goths, and dewy-eyed emos." A subway attendant sports "a row of large teeth that looked like unwashed elbows." A judge involved romantically with Kelly ends up held hostage in an abandoned housing unit where she hears the "the drip of water . . . the scratch of a footstep."

Harvey's finish challenges the argument that hard-boiled detective fiction is ultimately romantic. If some, but not all, aspects of Kelly's investigation turn out well, it's not because good trumps evil. It's because Kelly is swift and canny enough to outdo the other players. Whatever comfort he finds as he finishes the case is cold indeed. He heads alone into the streets to disappear "into the forgiving crush." Harvey may see the windup as more than the Chicago way. It may be the universal way.

Bartell is an arts and travel writer in Manhattan.

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