By August 28, 2007 3 Comments Read More →

Book Reviewing: The Chicago Way

Reading the Chicago Tribune Books section on Saturday — yes, Saturday — I had a strange feeling in the middle of Adam Langer’s review (“Just the facts“) of Michael Harvey’s The Chicago Way: I thought it was unfair. Like Langer, I gave the book a mostly negative review. But some of his criticisms bothered me. I guess I’m saying that he didn’t like the book for the wrong reasons.

Langer’s main theme, summarized in the subhead (“City’s people and texture missing in debut crime novel set in Chicago”) seems to be that the book doesn’t have enough of a sense of place.

But often, the Chicago depicted seems less that of a private eye who grew up on its streets than that of a location scout. Key scenes and confrontations take place at Navy Pier, Millennium Park and the Drake Hotel ballroom; mentions of Wrigley Field and the Cubs abound; and the author’s characters seem more in their element in North Side yuppie bars and coffeehouses than in the prisons, streetwalkers’ haunts and crime labs that give the novel its urban grit. 

Saying that the locations seem two-dimensional is a valid criticism. But throughout the review, it seems as if Langer is more bothered by the locations themselves. Granted, Navy Pier, Millenium Park, and Wrigley Field aren’t the most original choices, but they certainly are locations that millions of people are familiar with. Millions of people have interest in them, too — that’s why they’ve become tourist destinations.

I tend to favor crime novels that are rich in atmosphere, with dingy diners and cracked sidewalks, but I don’t see that as a requirement. Maybe I’m getting Langer wrong, but I get a whiff of a logical fallacy often employed, as a matter of fact, by tourists: discovering an overlooked tavern/diner/thrift store/neighborhood, people think they’ve discovered the “real” Chicago. The fewer people know about a place, the more “authentic” it is.

But those places are links to the past, not representations of the present. Yes, they may be authentic to an era, or to the proprietors’ personalities, but they’re not necessarily authentic to the experiences of millions of people. They may be a more soulful version of Chicago — they may be the parts of Chicago I like best — but I would have to argue that in fact “real” Chicago is becoming more and more like the real everyplace else: an endless series of chain establishments. The offbeat holes-in-the-wall are rapidly getting paved over.

So there’s nothing wrong with writing about Navy Pier — if the writing’s good enough. (And if Wrigley Field isn’t part of the real Chicago, I don’t know what is.) Different things are important to different writers. Sense of place may be more important to Langer, and plot may be more important to Harvey.

Early on, Langer states that, before he even started reading, he was looking for something in particular.

My daughter still asleep, I cracked open Michael Harvey’s debut crime novel, “The Chicago Way,” preparing to be transported back into the Chicago I remembered, the rich, atmospheric, densely populated burg that gave birth to an alphabet of great writers starting with Algren, Bellow, Cisneros and Dybek.

It’s hardly fair to fault Harvey for not being Bellow, is it?

The most important part of book reviewing may be matching the right book with the right reviewer. Langer is a great writer (Crossing California), but he’s not a crime writer — he writes general or literary fiction strong on character and sense of place. His expectations seem a little unfair for the book:

“The Chicago Way” does not sufficiently distinguish itself from its forebears to exist on its own as either great literature or essential popular-genre fiction. 

I have doubts that Harvey was going after Great Literature.

Actually, you know what? I liked the review — I just think it was written for the wrong book.

So what did I dislike about The Chicago Way? First of all, it wasn’t bad. But with so many great books out there, I can’t recommend an almost-good book. I enjoyed the snappy banter. I even thought it was fun seeing the “location scout” Chicago portrayed as mean streets. Well, hell, since Booklist reviews are so short, here’s all of what I had room to say:

The opening pages are packed with the kind of wry, dry narration that goes down as smoothly as a pulp paperback with a shot of rye. But the case that walks in through Chicago PI Michael Kelly’s door is no laughing matter: find a brutal rapist who walked out of jail nine years ago. Harvey is a cocreator of A&E’s Cold Case Files, and his plot reflects a true-crime sensibility. As Kelly’s investigation uncovers a growing body count, DNA evidence, antirape activists, and a John Wayne Gacy-like serial killer all come into play. But as much as we enjoy a mix of vintage prose and contemporary settings, wisecracking banter is the wrong tone for a topic like rape. The prose sobers up somewhat as the tale goes on, but Harvey never gets the blend quite right. It’s a twisty page-turner (and Chicagoans will enjoy seeing the Lincoln Park and Wrigleyville neighborhoods cast as mean streets), but if Harvey had chosen either a lighter plot or darker prose, the book could have been much better.

It could be said that all reviewing is a case of weighing a work against one’s own preferences and expectations. But still, it’s important to try to evaluate a writer against what he or she is trying to accomplish. I may take issue with Jason Starr, but it’s not because he’s not Sandra Cisneros

I may have put too much emphasis on the tone thing in The Chicago Way. But that’s what struck me most at the time, and I still think he could have had a better book if he would have chosen to go either funnier or darker. But if I’m looking for a book that captures Chicago in all its nuance, I’ll look elsewhere.

Maybe in a book by Adam Langer.

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About the Author:

Keir Graff is the editor of Booklist Online and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix.

3 Comments on "Book Reviewing: The Chicago Way"

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  1. pete_anderson@comcast.net' Pete says:

    I can partly see Langer’s point – I’d much rather read about an all-night diner on Archer Avenue, a dive bar in Uptown or a strip joint in Cicero – but that’s not to say that the tourist traps can’t be good story settings too. In fact, Navy Pier or Millennium Park could both use a grisly murder or two to take off the gloss and add some good old Chicago grit.

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