Good thrillers begin at home, at least when it comes to Chicago crime writers. The spring list of new genre novels shows local writer Michael Harvey working at the top of his form, with "The Innocence Game."
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It opens with a deceptively slender prologue, as a local lawyer hands a young Chicago student the legacy his recently deceased mother has left him — a small insurance policy to cover burial expenses and a letter. In the first chapter, we find the student, Ian Joyce, one of three cream-of-the-crop students at Northwestern University's Medill School, at the opening of a seminar based on the acclaimed Innocence Project. Along with him sits Jake Havens, a brilliant young local attorney, and the equally brilliant Sarah Gold (who hails from the Michigan side of the lake). Leading the seminar is two-time Pulitzer winner Judy Zombrowski, known as "Z."
The ingenious plot unwinds with a brutal precision as Z's about to put them through their paces in research of old, seemingly closed, cases. It becomes immediately clear that Jake Havens already has an agenda for them, a child murder about which he has received a mysterious letter — and a swatch of evidence — in the mail. The trio of students is off and running, toward reopening a case that will turn the spotlight on a city-wide cabal of cops and forensic scientists and — yes — journalists. They're also running from cops out to restrain them and possibly even murder them. Nothing more local than a novel about Chicago crime and Chicago cops, but nothing more universal than the motifs of justice, revenge and various other dilemmas of the human heart.
"Red Sparrow," a first novel by retired CIA veteran field operations officer Jason Matthews, begins with the international sweep and scope we expect of dashing spy thrillers. Moscow, Helsinki, Athens! And — of course — sex, deception, world-class power politics and murder!
This admirably conducted debut opens in the streets of Moscow at night, with a young CIA operative trying to meet with his KGB mole and making mayhem not of his choosing. On the Russian side, we encounter a brilliant young woman, a former dancer sidelined by injury, whose uncle, a high-level Kremlin operative, recruits her as a "sparrow," an attractive woman trained to lure foreign diplomats into compromising situations that lead to recruiting them as moles for Moscow.
It's not a Hollywood "meet cute" when the two narratives come together, but it's potentially quite sexually and dramatically explosive, as each spy tries to recruit the other. Both end up doing a dance that brings in operatives and high-level politicians whose behavior is no less deceptive than that of the field-level spies themselves. "Red Sparrow" is one of those rare debuts by a spy who has come in out of the cold — or at least retired — bearing great batches of experience and the talent to pay off in suspenseful, even riveting scenes and magnetic characters.
I wish I could say half as much about "Prophet of Bones," a novel by Ted Kosmatka. For some reason that never became clear, he sets a potentially suspenseful story in an alternate world in which everything is pretty much the same as ours, except that born-again religion seems to have overtaken the study of science and history. So when scientist Paul Carlsson is directed by his U.S. company to go to the Indonesian island of Flores to investigate a dig, what he finds shakes up the nature of received belief. The bones in the dig appear to be much older than the mere 5,000 years the conventional science in this slightly altered reality has allotted for the age of the earth. Of course, this overturns a lot of things, beginning with Paul's future and the lives of some fellow scientists.
Good science fiction has to convince you of a real world, however bizarre by our standards. So while the pacing of the book was good and the plot somewhat compelling, I could never drink enough Kool-Aid to accept the novel's (rather unnecessary) premise.
My suggestion is to set this one down and go back to reread the Michael Harvey novel. That's what I did.
Alan Cheuse is a novelist and a regular contributor to NPR's "All Things Considered."
The Innocence Game
By Michael Harvey, 256 pages, Alfred A. Knopf, $24.95
By Jason Matthews, 448 pages, Scribner, $26.99
Prophet of Bones
By Ted Kosmatka, 354 pages, Henry Holt, $27Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun