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Sometime back I did some research on whether some of the one-off authors I had read had written other books. One of the authors I did research on was Michael Harvey, whose ‘The Chicago Way’ I liked very much. It is a murder mystery / thriller kind of book, in the Chandlersque style set in modern day Chicago. The main character in this book, Michael Kelly, was a private investigator. Kelly’s speciality was that he quoted ancient Greek and Latin literature during important scenes in the story. From that perspective he was unique and different from other heroes. When searching for other Michael Harvey books I discovered that he had written two more and the next book in the series involving Michael Kelly was ‘The Fifth Floor’. I was quite excited to know that and so I ordered the book and got it. I picked it up a couple of days back because I was in the mood for some light reading and I finished it today. Here is the review.

Summary of the story

I am giving below the summary of the book as given in the back cover of the book.

When Michael Kelly is hired by an ex-fiance to tail her abusive husband, what looks like a bread-and-butter domestic dispute turns out to be more than he bargained for. The tail leads him to a body and the answer to one of Chicago’s most enduring mysteries : who started the Great Fire of 1871 and why.

As he explores further he is drawn into a web of corruption and intrigue. A mysterious enemy is out to frame him for murder and rewrite the past he didn’t even know he had. Soon Kelly will find himself in the last place he wants to be – City Hall’s fifth floor, where the mayor is feeling the heat and looking to silence any investigations.

Michael Kelly, the tough-talking Irish cop turned private investigator first encountered in The Chicago Way, returns in an equally stylish, hard-boiled follow-up that cements Harvey’s credentials as heir apparent to Leonard and Chandler.

What I think

The book started off well. The first page went like this :

      I pushed the slim volume of poetry across my desk and into her lap. The woman with auburn hair, perfect posture, and a broken life picked it up.

      “I can’t read this,” she said, and lifted her head.

      “That’s because it’s in Latin,” I said. “Why don’t you take off the sunglasses?”

      “Why don’t you translate for me?”

      “Take off the glasses.”

      The woman slid the dark frames up and off her face. Her left eye was green and watering. Her right was black and swollen shut. The cheekbone below it offered a study in shades of purple, blue, and yellow.

      “You get the picture?” she said.

      “The poem is by Catullus. First line reads Odi et amo. Translates as I hate and I love.”

      “And this is my life?”

      “People say it’s a love poem, but they’re wrong. It’s about abuse, about not being able to get out, even when the door is wide open and the whole world is yelling that very thing in your ear.”

After reading the first page, I thought Harvey and Kelly will be in top form and I thought I will be reading another rip-roaring thriller like ‘The Chicago Way’. But unfortunately, the plot became complex and after a while it wasn’t even clear what the main plot was. Was it about the ex-finacee’s abusive husband? Or was it about the Great Fire? Or was it about the corruption? Or was it about the mayor? The story moves into and across these different threads without any focus and in the end it tries to tie up the loose ends. Even the Greek / Latin literature references were not many. There is a prison scene where Michael Kelly has a fight with a fellow prisoner. It was interesting to read, but the best prison scene I have read is in ‘Killing Floor’ by Lee Child – it is really wonderful.

Some of the characters who appeared in ‘The Chicago Way’ also come in ‘The Fifth Floor’. One of them undergoes a huge transformation and from a distinguished judge becomes the hero’s love interest. This is Rachel Swenson’s description in ‘The Chicago Way’ :

Rachel got up in one motion. She had that Grace Kelly in Rear Window sort of movement. An immaculate, elegant flow you couldn’t learn or even think about. Unless you didn’t have it, that is. Then it was all you thought about.

In ‘The Fifth Floor’ Rachel is described like this :

      Rachel was wearing jeans and a pale blue sweater. Her eyes matched the sweater. Her teeth were white and her hair carried a hint of honey. She had some sort of shiny lipstick on and a touch of blush across her cheekbones. Her nails were hard and clear with white tips. They tapped a tattoo on my kitchen counter and waited.

The ‘Grace Kelly’ description was one of my alltime favourites. When I read the first book, the image of Rachel Swenson was that of a graceful queen, who was refined, sophisticated, beautiful and beyond the reach of ordinary mortals. In the second book she becomes a mere mortal. In some ways it was sad.

Overall I have to say I was a little bit disappointed and the book was not satisfying. That is the bad news. What is the good news?

The first page of the book started pretty well. I think that is an awesome first page 🙂 The book was fast-paced and the pages flew by. I finished the book before I knew it. Also, there is the character of the mayor in the story, who is quite interesting. Once upon a time, while reading books like this, I would have hated a character like that of the mayor. But now, after becoming older and wiser, I have to say that the character of the mayor is depicted quite well in the book in all its complexity – it depicts beautifully how a politician has to worry about good governance and getting things done and realize a noble vision and how he also has to play nasty games to stay in power and how easy it is to see things in black-and-white but how reality is filled with grey. I actually liked the mayor’s character very much.

For a supposedly hard-boiled thriller, there is this beautiful description towards the end of the story.

      Willie gestured down to the box on the table between us. For the first time I registered holes, poked into the box’s cover.

      “Mayor wants you to have this.”

      Willie took off the top. Inside was a pink baby’s blanket. Nestled inside the blanket was a puppy, brown and white teeth with long ears and gold markings.

      “What’s this?”

      “The mayor’s springer had her litter. Mayor says you need one. Told me to make sure you got a female.”

      I looked down. The pup opened one yee, then the other. I tried to look away, but it wasn’t easy. The pup yawned and rolled over on her back. Apparently, it was time for a belly rub.

      “Pick her up, Kelly.”

      I did. The pup licked the side of my face, burrowed her head into my chest, and promptly fell asleep. I looked over at Willie, who was fighting it but smiling all the same.

***

      The cabbie dropped e in front of my flat. I carried Her Highness upstairs and put her down just inside the front door. The as-yet-to-be-named pup took a look around and another look back at me. Then she made her way into the bedroom. I followed. She was sitting on the floor and staring up at my bed. I shook my head no. The pup had other ideas. She got a running start, bounced off the side of my box spring, and landed snout first, on the floor. I laughed. The pup yelped. She might have considered it a bark, but, trust me, she was kidding herself. I leaned against the door frame and watched as she took another go at the promised land, otherwise known as a soft mattress. The pup came up short again, hitting the ground, butt first this time, with a thud. She got up a bit slower, walked over, and sat down in front of me.

      “What do you want me to do?”

      She cocked her head, wagged her tail, stretched her paws out in front of her, and wriggled her butt in the air. I’d discover later this was a signal. The pup wanted to play. At the time, I thought she was probably going to go to the bathroom. Instead, she yelped again. Once, twice. Then a whole series of them. Finally, I did what any new parent would do. I caved, picked up the pup, and set her down on the bed. She ran around in circles for half a minute or so, then found a spot on my pillow. Thirty seconds later, she was asleep again. I turned off the light and closed the door.

It is a lovely description of a sweet creature, isn’t it?

Final Thoughts

So, what do I think about ‘The Fifth Floor’? I think it gave some interesting information about the Great Fire in Chicago in 1871. It is a fast-paced read. The story is not that great, but it has its redeeming features. Will I read another book by Michael Harvey? As he has written just one more called ‘The Third Rail’, I would like to give it a try. When I read the blurb, it looked like a screenplay-friendly book 🙂

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