Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Crime Writer Michael Harvey on Chicago: The L, The Cops, and The Watering Holes

Michael, thanks for chatting with me about The Third Rail.

Your narrator tells his story in first person, but we get a bad guy’s perspective in third person. Why did you choose a double point of view?

Good question. My first two books, The Chicago Way and The Fifth Floor, were both written in the first person, from Michael Kelly’s point of view. I enjoy writing in Kelly’s voice and wanted to keep him in the first person. My plot for The Third Rail, however, called for multiple crime scenes that unfold almost simultaneously across the city. In order to maintain and feed the dynamics of that story line, I felt it was critical to get into the killer’s head at certain points and allow him to drive the action forward. So I kept Kelly in the first person, and used the third person for my killer.

This decision is not without risk. But I figure nothing ventured, nothing gained. I will be interested in readers’ reaction to the switching. Did it bother them? Did they like it? Did they even notice? We’ll see.

Your plot involves some real-life events, including a 1977 el-train crash that I remember seeing on the news. Were you around when this crash happened? When did you decide you wanted it to be a facet of your novel?
I was a kid living in Boston, so, no, I don’t remember the 77 L crash. I first heard about it when I was working as a journalist for CBS in Chicago. At that time, I took the L just about every day and certainly recall many days when I thought our train was going off the edge as it negotiated a turn in the Loop.

I decided I wanted the accident to be part of the novel about halfway through writing it. I knew my spree killer was going to attack the city through the L system. I just didn’t know exactly how. Or why. As I ran through different possibilities, I remembered the old L accident. I was especially intrigued with the idea that the accident could be used as a vehicle to tie into Kelly’s childhood, and help strip away a little more of his character. Once I saw that possible tie-in, I knew the 77 crash was going to be part of the book.

Many a cop (both fictional and real) is willing to walk into danger despite the wishes of their loved ones. The same is true of Michael Kelly, a former cop and now a private investigator. What makes Kelly determined to do it despite his girlfriend’s desire for him to find a safer job?

The easy answer is... that’s just Kelly’s job. The better answer is... that’s his nature.

I have interviewed a lot of cops, firemen, EMT workers, military personnel -- people whose job it is to put themselves in harm’s way. They understand the risks inherent in what they do and, for the most part, don’t assume those risks lightly. Their comfort level comes from a belief in their own abilities and an implicit trust in the people they work with every day. They figure if everyone does their job, chances are nothing bad is going to happen. Do bad things happen? Yes. Do people die? Yes. Do these folks realize that? Yes. But they don’t dwell on it. Their nature allows them to tolerate a considerable amount of risk, and do the jobs no one else in society wants to think about.

Interesting! One of your more evil characters saw active duty in Afghanistan. Is the reader to deduce that he was twisted by war, or was he a warped individual before he went overseas?

That’s up to each individual reader to decide.

One of the great things about writing (and reading) novels is that each reader brings his or her life experiences to the novel, and essentially completes the story with their own interpretation of events and character.

I believe Robles was twisted well before he hit Mogadishu. As I said in the book, he was born in a toilet in a Greyhound bus terminal. And it went downhill from there. His experiences overseas probably didn’t help things, but he was already in trouble before he joined the military. At least, that’s my take.

The mayor of Chicago is fictionalized in your book, but he’s very similar to Mayor Daley—-especially with that intensity that seems to border on insanity. Did one inspire the other?

Wilson is based on my impressions of a number of different politicians. Most tend to be highly driven and a little paranoid, with an unsettling mix of ego and insecurity. These folks like the spotlight, crave power and know how to use it. Scary? Sometimes. Interesting? Without a doubt.

You paint a negative, almost a sinister vision of the Catholic church. Is this Michael Kelly’s perspective, or is it yours?

It’s Kelly’s experience, more than perspective. And it’s an evil that is not limited to the Catholic Church.

One of the subsets of the Kelly series is the idea that the major institutions of society -- government, big business, the Catholic Church etc., -- are morally bankrupt, act only in their own self-interest and are not to be trusted. I think this reflects a feeling many people have when they look at the real world these days. Katrina, the war in Iraq, Wall Street’s meltdown, the Catholic Church’s ongoing abuse scandal -- the examples are, unfortunately, almost too numerous to list.

Kelly, in some ways, represents the little guy whose job it is to jump in the water and swim with these sharks. He gets bitten a lot, and is understandably wary. But he wins some of the time. At least enough to pay the bills and keep him in beer.

Everyone in your book has an agenda, either political or personal. Is this Kelly’s cynicism, or is this the way you view Chicago?

Both. In my experience as a journalist and documentary producer, I have found most people in positions of power tend to act in their own self interest – with the prime directive being save one’s own skin at all costs. There are exceptions -- but that’s what they are....exceptions.

Did you study the history of Chicago’s elevated trains before formulating your plot, or after?

I knew about the 1977 train crash, but did not initially think I’d use it in the book. As I got into the writing, I kept coming back to the crash both as a way to tie Kelly’s past into the plot and as a tool to strip away more of his character.

Overall, I have always thought the L would make a wonderful crime scene. It’s a huge, mobile, daily undertaking that runs through the heart of the city and connects all its component parts. It’s a place where a killer can find anonymity – be it on a crowded platform, in a dark tunnel, or tucked up in a building that overlooks the tracks. It’s an exciting place, a place every Chicagoan recognizes, and, whether we like it or not, a sometimes dangerous place.

One of your scenes takes place in a ruined building in Cabrini Green. Did you visit this site? The details seem very specific.

I lived in Cabrini for three days as a journalist. We did a report documenting living conditions in the housing project in the early nineties. Cabrini was a dangerous place. It was also a place a lot of wonderful people called home...a place where a lot of families lived, loved and cared for each other. Gunfire be damned.

Such a sad truth. You have a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University. Do you live in the Chicago area?

Yes. I live about a half mile from Wrigley Field. Another place of great tragedy in the city.

Haha. I'm married to a Cubs fan, and he's either angry or sad for most of the summer. :)

The Third Rail is the third Michael Kelly crime novel; will there be more in the series?

Yes. The Third Rail leaves a couple of story lines unresolved. Some people probably won’t like that, but it was done intentionally. Why? Because that, more often than not, is how life works. Even when a homicide detective clears a case, it’s rarely tied up into a nice, neat package. It might appear that way, but appearances can be deceiving. There are usually questions in even a closed file that linger; certain facts that still don’t make sense; suspects that might not have killed anyone...but are suspicious nonetheless. Homicide detectives look at all of this as extraneous and a headache. They usually just want to catch the killer, close the file and move on to the next case. As a result, these lines of inquiry often remain open, unresolved and, for lack of a better word, messy. That’s just how it is.

Anyway, the next book in the Kelly series takes one of these unresolved, messy story lines from The Third Rail and follows it to its logical...or perhaps illogical conclusion. I guess that’s the long way of saying the next book is a bit of a sequel to The Third Rail.

Kelly’s girlfriend is a judge, and sometimes in the narration she is referred to as “the judge” rather than by her name. Is this symbolic?

I don’t think so. “Judge” is just more likely to come up when Rachel is being talked about in her capacity as...you guessed it... a judge.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer said you have “done for Chicago what Raymond Chandler did for Los Angeles and Dashiell Hammett for San Francisco.” Wow! Were you surprised by this accolade linking you to the biggest names in crime fiction?

Hammett, Chandler and Ross Macdonald essentially created the private detective genre and were three of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century. I could write another five lifetimes and not touch any of their work. But it’s a nice thought, and I appreciate it.

Your novel contains a great many details that only Chicagoans might recognize: Tom Skilling giving a weather report, someone reading Michael Sneed’s column, the typical behaviors of Irish south-siders. How do you decide which details to include? Do you ever put in homages to your personal favorites?

I own The Hidden Shamrock, Kelly’s favorite watering hole, and get my coffee at Intelligentsia, so I guess those are two favorites. Otherwise, I try to find places in the city that people might relate to, or find interesting. I especially look for scenes that convey the intangibles and atmospherics of Chicago. It’s a great city, so why not!

Good question! How can readers find out more about Michael Harvey and the Michael Kelly novels, especially The Third Rail?

They can go to my website www.michaelharveybooks.com or my Facebook page.

They can also follow me on Twitter at TheChicagoWay, and can go to Knopf’s home page.

Thanks for the conversation, Michael.


Unknown said...

Hey Michael - My name's Susie. We met at the book club Tuscan Market book club in Arlington Heights. You spoke for a bit to my husband John Corbett. Just letting you know that a handful of us is coming to your bar tommorow evening. See you there!

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