When last we read Theresa Schwegel, she was four fine novels into a successful career.
The first book, "Officer Down" (2005) won the prestigious Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author. That was followed by "Probable Cause" (2007), "Person of Interest" (2007) and "Last Known Address" (2009). In the midst of all this writing, she moved back to her hometown of Chicago from Los Angeles and received 2008's 21st Century Award, presented at the Chicago Public Library Foundation's Carl Sandburg Literary Awards gala.
Schwegel — always skilled with dialogue, plotting and pace — began writing novels when studying for a master's degree in film/screenwriting and was advised by a teacher to rewrite her thesis screenplay as a novel, which became "Officer Down." In her latest novel, "The Good Boy," she exercises greater ambition and more emotional depth than any to be found in her previous books, all of which fit snugly under the "crime" umbrella.
Make no mistake: There are any number of crimes, very bad guys and girls, gangs and drugs and guns in this book, but it is not so easily categorized. That is because it is also a family drama, a boy-and-his-dog tale, and a tense and moving novel with Chicago firmly and colorfully as the backdrop.
That is where we find the Murphy family.
There is Pete, a cop working K-9 duty with his dog, Butch, operating under the shadow of a lawsuit and months of press coverage about his relationship with a female judge he was assigned to guard; wife Sarah, dealing with the change in the family fortunes and the death of her brother; daughter McKenna, starting to explore her teenage years with abandon and keeping company with some unsavory friends; and 11-year-old Joel, a bright boy all but ignored by his family and left to creative cops-and-robbers game with his friend Molly and with Butch, when the dog's home.
Pete finds himself in another jam that only gets worse after Joel and Butch interrupt a party where McKenna is cavorting with some gangbangers. Shots are fired, threats made, and Joel and Butch flee. Unable to go home for fear of leading gun toters to the family, the pair embark on an inner city odyssey that gives the book its suspenseful spine. With a not-always-helpful map and just a couple of bucks, they traverse the not-always-kind city, trying to make their way to the only person Joel believes can help: that aforementioned judge.
Pete is on their trail, too, and eventually fellow cops get in the game.
It makes for an exciting trip, one in which Joel displays courage and resourcefulness that belie his age and any of the troubles his parents may have imagined him to have.
He's a great kid, and Butch, though obviously not talking, is as brave and heroic as any of the canine characters in Jack London. (It is no coincidence that Joel totes a copy of "White Fang" in his backpack).
It would be unfair to detail how things work out, where the trip finally leads. But I can give you this: "As Joel watches his dad, the awareness he felt before takes him over entirely and he can see everything all at once right here, ground level: forget Tomorrowland. Forget made-up stories. This is what a hero looks like."
This is one "made-up" story you will not soon forget. And you will have grown so close to its characters, including Butch, that you will wonder and worry about where life will take them.
It was Leo Tolstoy who wrote, in the famous first sentence of "Anna Karenina," "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
Schwegel gets that and tells this one family's story in all its complexities and uncertainties.
Rick Kogan is a Tribune senior writer and columnist.
"The Good Boy"