Michael Harvey,
The Fifth Floor
(Black Lizard, 2008)

This is the second book in a mystery series featuring Michael Kelly of Chicago, a former cop turned private detective. Kelly is a contemporary weld of Mike Hammer and Jim Rockford. He's likable but tough. He's not afraid to get his own hands dirty. And he gets so annoyed at how the system works (or doesn't work) that he ends up taking care of business in his own fashion. Laws may or may not be bent in the process. But he's not a total South Chicago street urchin, all grown up. He holds a passion for reading and re-reading the classic literature left to us by the Greeks and Romans. He keeps his gun stored on the bookshelf behind his copy of the Iliad.

In the inaugural episode, The Chicago Way (Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), Kelly is asked by former colleague John Gibbons to investigate a cold case involving the rape of a young woman that took place nine years earlier. The perpetrator had never been identified or caught. But soon enough, Gibbons is found dead and Elaine Remington, the victim herself, shows up to continue the search. Kelly gets some in-depth, behind-the-scenes information about rape cases from his long-time best friend Nicole Andrews, who is doing forensic work with such victims. Tragically, Nicole's involvement leads to her own murder. Michael Kelly is left to solve both ends of the case and to bring all of the responsible parties to a certain kind of justice.

The Fifth Floor deals with another intense and personal crime: domestic violence. Former girlfriend Janet Woods comes to Kelly's office bruised, battered and complaining about her husband, Johnny Woods. She wants Kelly to do something about him. The challenge is that Johnny has valuable connections in the city: he works as a "fixer" for the current mayor of Chicago, John J. Wilson. With ties to that fabled office on the fifth floor of City Hall, Johnny Woods might be a difficult perp to take down.

We're all familiar with the reputed world of Chicago politics. It's not just a stereotype or myth. But while Kelly is tailing Woods, he stumbles upon the dead body of a local historian who is said to be an expert on the Chicago Fire of 1871. The man's rare copy of Sheehan's History of the Chicago Fire has been stolen. What might Woods, Wilson and even mayoral candidate Michael Kincaid have to do with this murder? How do the recorded details of that devastating fire relate to what's going on in Chicago today? And how can Kelly protect Janet Woods and her daughter from further harm?

As he does in the first book, the detective gets help (albeit, sometimes reluctantly) from members of the local police department and media. Some of the characters from the previous investigation show up again to offer some assistance. And there are a number of scenes of graphic violence, as there must be in this kind of treatment. There's nothing "cozy" about this series. The author is engaging us in a realm of all-too-real crimes that reflect not only their urban environment but also the times we live in. Life is a tragedy, at best.

Both mysteries are told in the first person from Kelly's point of view. What's refreshing in both cases is that Kelly's backstory is allowed to surface naturally. The audience is given just enough to go on, and that's it. In fact, author Michael Harvey honors the readers by uncovering his character's past bit by bit. We don't need to know Kelly's details all at once to understand his investigative approach. Still, the author keeps us turning pages, because a little part of us really does want to discover all the facts. We want to know what drives this man to do what he does. This technique combined with the revelations driven by strong dialogue serve to move the storyline along quite well. This second book is even better than the first, in those respects.

But The Fifth Floor has an additional historic twist that raises the genre yet another notch. Kelly has to do some research on the Chicago Fire in addition to his usual contemporary criminal-related legwork. This aspect makes the plot even more intriguing. That's what drew me to the book in the first place. And because of my favorable impression of this second episode, I went back and read the first one. I'll now be putting Harvey's name on my list of authors to keep track of.

This mystery series is a real winner, and I hope that it continues. Those readers familiar with the streets of the Windy City will appreciate the dedication to accuracy in the setting. But you don't have to be from Chicagoland to be able to picture the action. And you don't have to have read The Chicago Way to understand Kelly and the other characters in this book. Harvey reminds us that there are indeed some bad guys out there, and they can come in either gender and any color. And maybe private detective Michael Kelly isn't the only person taking matters into his own hands.

[ visit the author's website ]

review by
Corinne H. Smith

17 October 2009

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