By David Heinzmann
Gale, 327 pages, $25.95
With "A Word to the Wise," longtime Chicago Tribune crime reporter David Heinzmann joins the ranks of newsmen turned novelists, weaving an engaging tale of murder, mayhem and corruption in a city he knows inside out.
The story opens with the sinister disappearance of one Marcy Westlake, a feisty forty-something blonde bombshell who runs into serious trouble on a snowy deserted road, following a motel rendezvous with a mystery man. Enter Augustine—Augie—Flood, a former F.B.I. agent turned small firm lawyer, recruited by Marcy’s estranged husband to locate his missing wife. Cash-strapped businessman Dan Westlake needs his wife’s help to access a $350,000 offshore account inconveniently set up in her name, but dicey as this may seem, there’s really nothing to worry about, the husband assures his new lawyer. His wife has simply “gone off somewhere.” No big deal.
Of course, there’s far more to it, as Flood soon discovers. In quick order, we learn that Marcy’s husband is deeply enmeshed in a scheme to build a casino in the heart of the Windy City—a role that puts him squarely at odds with Chicago Outfit kingpin Nicky Bepps. A federal investigation into Bepps’ efforts to rig the casino licensing process has already put his plans in serious jeopardy, but Bepps is not about to give up. As Heinzmann sums things up: “There was more than just hundreds of millions of dollars at stake; the survival of organized crime’s most powerful criminals seemed to lie in the balance.” Murder, as it turns out, is simply one cost of doing business, and as the investigation intensifies, bodies start to pile up—including that of an unidentified woman who may (or may not) be Marcy Westlake.
"A Word to the Wise" is a resolutely traditional book—genre readers will recognize a range of stock characters and plot devices, including the sensitive but damaged loner sleuth, his beautiful and smart new girlfriend, and the requisite colorful sidekick—but it also offers a fascinating insider’s glimpse into some darker corners of the city’s corridors of power. Not surprisingly, Heinzmann is especially insightful in his portrayal of the media, showing how an “objective” press can itself become both player and played in the intricate dance so often performed between reporters and law enforcement. On this point, former G-man Flood and his newshound pal Keith Reece serve as Exhibit A: “If it suited the FBI’s purposes to have some little tidbit out there as events unfolded, then the official policy of no comments about an ongoing investigation would be circumvented with Flood and Reece having a whisky somewhere late at night.” Not quite as convincing are Flood’s legal shenanigans, most notably a disconcerting tendency to ignore attorney-client privilege in ways that would seem likely to jeopardize his law license. For example, after confiding in Reece—a reporter, no less—Flood reflects that “this was out of line professionally talking about a client. But he didn’t care.” Really? Even with Flood’s avowed self-destructive streak, this seems a bit of a stretch. Still, readers caught up in the story are likely to overlook such technical quibbles. Heinzmann is good with a snappy phrase—Flood’s legal assistant-cum-sidekick is described as looking “spiffy and officious . . . as though disappointing people gave him pleasure”, the name partner in Flood’s dodgy law firm is “a master of making a fiasco seem like the prelude to a victory parade” — and the story moves along at a steady clip, as the pieces click into place.
"A Word to the Wise" is not only about the ongoing battle between Chicago mobsters and law enforcement—more broadly, it’s concerned with a fight for the city’s soul. Will Chicago remain “a city of museums and concerts, ballparks and beaches" or is it destined to become a city of “slots and dollar drinks,” where mobsters cozy up with allies all-too-close to City Hall? Heinzmann seems to suggest that the verdict is still out—that beneath the city’s polished surface, old threats lie in wait. “Just because the Outfit in Chicago seems like a cliché or an anachronism, doesn’t mean that, if you mess with their money, they won’t still shoot you in the back of the head,” reporter Reece muses. It’s an apt summation of the message imparted by this clever, well-wrought mystery.
Amy Gutman is the author of two suspense novels, Equivocal Death and The Anniversary, both published by Little, Brown. A graduate of Harvard Law School, she lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun