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Posts Tagged ‘Chicago’

BRUSH BACK by Sara Paretsky: Book Review

V. I. Warshawski is back, albeit a bit older and not quite as rash as before.  But her moral outrage is just as strong as ever when she believes there’s been wrongdoing or corruption, and she can’t seem to totally stop herself from getting into situations that put her in danger.

In baseball terminology, a brush back is a pitch thrown at the batter as a means to intimidate him.  It’s usually a fast ball aimed at the batter’s head, obviously a risky situation.  And while V. I. isn’t a batter, the danger to her is as real as if she were on the mound facing a ruthless pitcher.

V. I. grew up in a tough South Chicago neighborhood, and although she has moved onward and upward she has never forgotten where she came from and the friends she had there.  But she’s still surprised when a man comes into her office and greets her with unwelcome familiarity.  However, after a minute and a closer look she realizes he’s Frank Guzzo, a teenage boyfriend she hasn’t seen in thirty years.

Frank is now married and a father, working for a large trucking company.  He has reluctantly come to talk to his former girlfriend about his mother, Stella, recently released from prison after serving a twenty year sentence, or, in the local parlance, two dimes.  Stella was convicted of killing her daughter Annie, beating her to death and then leaving her body while she went to play bingo at the local church.

After all this time, Stella is claiming she was framed, that the young and inept lawyer who was provided by friends didn’t do anything to prove her innocence.  Frank is asking V. I. to look into the case, to help find evidence to exonerate his mother.

V. I.’s first response is to refuse, remembering how hateful Stella had always been to her family, jealous of the close bond between Annie and V. I.’s mother.  Stella was always violent, giving her children bruises and black eyes as punishments for their supposed misbehaviors and sins, so the private investigator has had no difficulty over the years believing that Stella killed her own child.  But Frank was V. I.’s boyfriend at a very difficult time in her life, and she finally agrees to visit Stella for “One free hour, Frank.  I’ll ask questions for sixty minutes.”  But that, of course, proves to be just the beginning of a case that involves Mob figures, police corruption, and multiple murders.

Once again, Sara Paretsky gives readers an intimate look into Chicago’s mean streets and obsession with sports.  Now pushing middle age, V. I. is trying to stand back a bit from the dangers she sees around her.  But circumstances, and her teenage cousin, push her into an investigation that nearly costs V. I. her life and the lives of others as well.

It’s a delight to see V. I. again.  Some familiar characters are here, Lotty Herschel, Max Lowenthal, and Bobby Mallory included.  But we also are introduced to V. I.’s cousin Pierre Fouchard and his seventeen-year-old daughter Bernie.  Bernie is staying with V. I. for a few weeks while she looks into Northwestern University and its women’s hockey program, and her intensity and desire for the truth remind the investigator of her own younger self.  But those two qualities can prove to be very dangerous to all concerned.

You can read more about Sara Paretsky at this web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her web site.

 

 

LITTLE CAESAR by W. R. Burnett: Golden Oldies

There aren’t many books that have sparked an entire genre, but Little Caesar has that distinction.  Written at the end of the 1920s by a previously unpublished author, Little Caesar became an overnight success for W. R. Burnett.  Reading this novel is a terrific way to go back to the beginnings of the original gangster story.

Little Caesar is the nickname of Rico, which in turn is the nickname of Caesar Enrico Bandello, a small-time mobster who climbs nearly to the top in the gangland of late twenties Chicago.  Physically unimposing, small and slightly built, Rico is single-minded about becoming the head of Sam Vettori’s mobsters and moving up the ladder from there. 

Rico doesn’t have the usual vices that many of his colleagues have.  He likes women but not enough to get sidetracked into a serious relationship with any one of them.  He doesn’t touch alcohol or drugs and doesn’t gamble, at least not seriously.  And because of his lack of these vices and his ruthless desire to get to the top, he almost manages to claw his way there.  Almost.

Rico’s biggest concern is that one of his men might “turn yellow.”  Squealing to the cops would be, of course, the worst thing a gang member could do, whether he did it voluntarily or was coerced or tricked into it by the police.  Regardless, there is no excuse for this in Rico’s mind, and he seems to have an uncanny knowledge of which man would turn cowardly and thus be a danger to the group.  He is without pity to those he deems to be any sort of risk.

Little Caesar was made into a film two years after the book was published and made Edward G. Robinson, in the title role, a major star.  Although the movie sticks closely to the plot of the book, there are some differences.  Rico’s best friend in the film is Joe Massara rather than Otero, his best friend in the novel, although in the book Rico never trusts Joe and has no use for him.  In the book Rico has two heterosexual relationships, but in the movie there are subtle homosexual overtones between Rico and Joe and Rico and Otero.

Also, for some Hollywood reason, Rico’s last words in the novel, “Mother of God, is this the end of Rico?,” have been changed in the film to “Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?” 

Burnett went on to write High Sierra, later made into a Humphrey Bogart film, and The Asphalt Jungle, featuring a very young Marilyn Monroe.  Burnett’s interest in and knowledge of the underworld gave his novels and screenplays a tough, gritty verisimilitude that resonated with readers.  There’s very little description and no deep thought by the characters in Little Caesar, just the chilling talk of a group of killers, led by the coldest one of all. 

You can read more about William Riley Burnett at this web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her web site.

 

 

 

BODY WORK by Sara Paretsky: Book Review

V. I. Warshawski is back, and that’s great news. The heroine of more than a dozen previous mystery novels, this tough Chicago P.I. never disappoints.

As she’s done in her previous books, Sara Paretsky puts layer on top of layer of motives and crimes for Vic to unpack. Vic’s young cousin Petra, whom we met previously in Hardball, is back.  Petra is young, spoiled, and needy, but she’s a relative, and Vic has a hard time saying “no” to her.  This time Petra has a part-time job at a very edgy nightclub in Chicago that is featuring The Body Artist as its main attraction.

The Body Artist’s act is composed of sitting on a stool on the stage, nude except for a thong and the exquisite artwork that covers much of her body, while erotic photos are flashed across a screen in back of her and two burka-clad figures dance erotically alongside her.  In addition, members of the audience are invited to come up to The Body Artist and paint whatever they wish on her body.

Petra calls on Vic one night saying that someone has just tried to kill the Artist, but when Vic arrives at The Gouge club the Artist isn’t interested in cooperating and the club’s manager is rude and hostile.  The following week Petra visits her again with tales of more unpleasantness at The Gouge–out-of-control young guys at one table, a rough-looking middle-aged man at another who’s trying to literally get into Petra’s pants, and a sliver of glass found in one of The Body Artist’s paintbrushes.  And again neither the Artist nor the club’s manager wants to speak to Vic or the police.

On Vic’s third visit to the club, a distraught young woman goes up to the Artist and paints a design on her body.  When a man in the audience sees the design, he loses all control and tries to confront her.  She flees the club and Vic runs after her,  just in time to see her shot and to cradle her body while she bleeds to death.

A few days later the young man from the club, who has been under suspicion for the murder, is found comatose in his apartment and admitted to the jail’s hospital.  His father comes to Vic’s office to ask her to investigate.  He doesn’t believe his son is guilty, but as the young man is unable to speak and tell his story, Vic needs to investigate.

There are a lot of intersecting story lines. Everyone from an Iraqi veteran with post traumatic stress syndrome, Ukrainian mobsters, a Mexican-American family coping with the death of a daughter, a big-time lawyer with a strange interest in the aforementioned family, and the owner of Club Gouge makes an appearance.  None of them will talk to Vic or even admit there are any problems.

Vic is surrounded by her usual group:  her landlord Mr. Contreras; her physician friend Lotte; her lover Jake.  Lotte in particular wants to know why Vic is always putting herself in danger, and Vic is trying to figure out the answer to that question herself.  Mortality is creeping into Vic’s consciousness.  She’s getting older and more reflective, and she’s wondering why she has this need to fight all the battles of the world.  Is it necessary?  Is it right?  And can she always win, or is it impossible to right all the wrongs she sees?

You can read more about Sara Paretsky at her web site.

THE CHICAGO WAY by Michael Harvey: Book Review

The Chicago Way seems to be a tough, corrupt way if Michael Harvey’s series opener is any indication.

Michael Kelly, a former Chicago detective who left the force after cocaine was planted in his car, is now a private investigator. His former partner, John Gibbons, approaches him in an attempt to get Kelly to help him find out the truth about a nine-year-old case in which a woman was brutally raped and stabbed.  The day after the attack, when Gibbons went to the hospital to interview the woman, she’s gone, and so is any indication that the attack took place.  Instead, he’s given a medal, a raise, and a promotion, and told to forget that anything had happened the night before.

Now retired, Gibbons’ conscience is bothering him and he wants to find out the truth of the rape.   All this time Gibbons had thought the victim had been killed in the attack, but she has just come back “from the dead” in a letter addressed to him, and he wants Kelly to investigate.  Kelly agrees, but the next morning he gets a phone call that his former partner has been found dead at the Navy Pier.  And when Kelly returns home from seeing the body, the rape victim is waiting for him, gun in hand.

The city of Chicago is brought vividly to life in this book, almost another character, with its buildings, highways, eateries, and bars.  It’s definitely a city that can both enthrall you and frighten you, depending on whether you’re a tourist or a resident, living on the Gold Coast or in the slums.

Harvey has a nice style, reminiscent of Robert B. Parker’s early Spenser books, with a fine mix of violence and humor.  It’s hard to combine these two, but Harvey does it.  He also does a wonderful job with the many characters that inhabit the novel; each one is given a separate and distinct voice. And there are a lot of supporting characters–Nicole, the crime tech whom Kelly has known since childhood; Diane, the news anchor who’s covering the Gibbons murder and provides a bit of sexual tension; Elaine, the rape victim who comes to life after nine years; Bennett, the assistant D.A. with an unrequited longing for Nicole; and two cops, Rodriguez and Masters.

The Chicago Way is the first in this series, with two other novels following. I plan to pick them up very soon and read my way back to the Windy City.

You can read more about Michael Harvey at his web site.