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Michael Harvey, Mystery writer
At the end of the first chapter in "We All Fall Down" (2011), the fourth novel in Michael Harvey's superb series that stars tough-talking, tenderhearted Chicago private investigator Michael Kelly, the reader stumbles over something as surprising as a bullet-riddled corpse.
It's an image. An image so profound in its understanding of life in Chicago and of crime novels in general that it stops you cold:
"It was still dark as I tramped down Addison. The first streaks of morning stained the Chicago night -- fresh paint on old canvas. Underneath, a city slept."
Many, many mystery novels are set in Chicago and feature private investigators. But the new color that Harvey brings to the job is a mix of things: an eye for detail, a tip of the hat to the city's legendary political corruption, and an imagination vigorous enough to create a complex and driven hero whose accouterments routinely include a gun, a Budweiser and a book by Greek historian Thucydides.
On the tattered old canvas of Chicago, Harvey has created a new and authentic picture of crime and -- sometimes, but not always -- punishment.
"Chicago is a character in my books," Harvey said on a recent afternoon. "It's a lively, vibrant, diverse place. Back when I was a reporter, wherever I went, I'd feel the city over my shoulder."
The 53-year-old writer was sitting in a wooden booth at the Hidden Shamrock, the Lincoln Park bar that Harvey purchased with two friends from his alma mater, Holy Cross, shortly after Harvey arrived in Chicago in 1987. He'd just graduated from Duke University Law School and had been hired by a local law firm.
Within months, two things immediately became clear to him, Harvey recalled: He loved Chicago -- and he hated practicing law.
So he enrolled at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. That degree led to a job as a documentary producer at WBBM-Ch. 2, where he discovered a taste for stories involving the criminal justice system -- the murders and mayhem that defined Chicago since the days when Al Capone was in the catbird seat. Harvey created, wrote and produced a cable-TV series called "Cold Case Files."
But he also had an ace up his sleeve: a yen to write fiction. And when it came time to sit down and do it, Harvey knew he didn't want to set his novel in Boston, where he'd grown up, one of seven kids. Nor did he want the action to take place in New York or Los Angeles, two cities that also have bred great crime stories.
He wanted to write about Chicago. Thus was born "The Chicago Way" (2007), a fast-moving novel that brims with the sights, sounds and -- most important -- the textures of Chicago, its neighborhoods and its night life, its people and its problems, its river and the lake that edges nervously next to it.
Harvey's protagonist, Kelly, is a cop-turned-private-eye with a soft spot for dive bars and lost causes. In "The Chicago Way," he tries to get to the bottom of an unsolved rape case. In "The Fifth Floor" (2008), he finds the link between a dusty old book and the mayor's darkest secret, a link that's important enough to drive someone to murder. In "The Third Rail" (2010), he races around the city in pursuit of a sniper who's taking potshots at commuters on "L" platforms -- although graver peril may lie elsewhere. In "We All Fall Down," the stakes are even higher, as Kelly confronts a bioterrorism threat.
"I don't outline anything," Harvey said, describing his work method, which includes writing in longhand as well as on a laptop. "My characters are very real to me, and they go where they want to go. When I write, they walk out onto the page and they go. I'm reading the words off the inside of my head. I'm recording it as they're talking.
"It's not rational. It's instinctive."
Harvey and his wife of four years, Mary Frances O'Connor, live in Lakeview with two springer spaniels named Maggie and Tipper. He just finished a stand-alone mystery, "The Innocence Seminar," about a group of Northwestern students trying to expose a wrongful conviction. Kelly makes a cameo, but the kids run the show, Harvey said. And he has signed a contract to write two more novels in the Kelly series.
Moreover, he and novelist John Grisham plan to produce a documentary series about wrongful convictions that Grisham will host.
No matter what the medium, storytelling is his calling, Harvey said. And the stories he likes best are gritty and meaningful -- and set in Chicago.
"I'm privileged to write novels," he said. "And to write them about a city I love -- that's the ultimate privilege." -- Julia Keller
December 17, 2011