Thursday, April 22, 2010

Chicago central part of crime thriller ‘Third Rail’

By Vick Mickunas, Contributing Writer
Dayton Daily News
5:30 PM Friday, April 16, 2010

“The Third Rail” by Michael Harvey (Knopf, 285 pages, $24.95)

Crime fiction can be a rather location specific literary genre. Many crime writers tend to prefer certain metropolitan settings for their novels; locales such as the Los Angeles freeways or the steel canyons of New York City. Sometimes location exerts a power that is as crucial as any other element in the story.

The novelist Michael Harvey sets his stories in Chicago. His latest, “The Third Rail,” could not have been set anyplace else — this book is 100 percent Windy City inspired. This is his third book featuring the private investigator Michael Kelly.

“The Third Rail” begins in classic crime novel style, with a murder. A crowd is waiting for the elevated train to arrive. An unfortunate woman is randomly chosen by a killer who hopes to be observed as he commits the act. Kelly witnesses the crime and chases the shooter.

The killer wanted Kelly to chase him. That was all part of the plan. This criminal is a serial killer who has been recruited to embark on a shooting spree that will inspire fear in the hearts of Chicagoans. Kelly is drawn into the investigation after he witnesses that first shooting.

The killer targets more victims. As the carnage escalates, our private investigator begins to sense something almost personal about these crimes. What could they have to do with him? When Kelly was 9 years old he was riding on an elevated train when something tragic happened. Could there be some possible connection between that accident and this current crime spree? Some odd coincidences make him wonder.

Kelly gets ensnared in a sinister web that only he can untangle. Meanwhile, beneath the city a terrorist pauses along a desolate stretch of subway tracks to unscrew a light bulb from the wall. He switches that bulb with one of his own. The new bulb contains weaponized anthrax.

He leaves the bulb slightly loosened inside the light socket. The vibrations from the trains rumbling past will eventually loosen the bulb. The terrorist hopes that the bulb will finally vibrate out of the socket, shattering on the floor and releasing a deadly cloud of anthrax.

The author was inspired to create these convergent plot lines by some real events. The incident Kelly experienced at age 9 was based on an actual disaster that took place Feb. 4, 1977, when four CTA elevated train cars flew off the rails and down onto the street. There were 11 fatalities.

The idea of a light bulb filled with anthrax came out of an actual Pentagon report that was called “Terror 2000.” Harvey took those events and folded them into an action-packed story that takes many circuitous twists and strews many clues. The plot thickens; the tension builds. Down in the subway a government agent observes: “Then the train was past. The bulbs continued to rock, in a subtle, declining arc ... ”

I had no clue until the end who might have actually conspired to commit these crimes. “The Third Rail” is an electric, high-voltage page turner that smokes, sizzles and scorches.

Contact book reviewer Vick Mickunas at

PW Talks with Michael Harvey

Second City Sins

by Lenny Picker -- Publishers Weekly, 2/22/2010 12:00:00 AM

Ex-Chicago cop Michael Kelly pursues a nasty killer in Michael Harvey's crime thriller The Third Rail (Reviews, Feb. 1).

Is there something about Chicago that makes it more corrupt than other big U.S. cities?

If you ever watched the Chicago Bears, you know all there is to be learned about the city. The Bears play smash-mouth football, with an emphasis on smash. Bears fans love defense, and concussions, and watching players from the other team leave the field on a parade of stretchers. Chicago plays by its own rules and keeps its own score. Chicago is going to inflict its pain, take its pound of flesh, and tell you about it all day. If you substitute politicians and politics for “da Bears” and football, you'll have an idea of how the power brokers in this city operate.

How much of an effort have you made to be true to life about the way Chicago works?

I've been an investigative journalist and a documentary producer in Chicago. I think my take on the city's power brokers and the way various layers of media operate rings pretty true. Truth, of course, is a relative term, depending largely on where you sit and how hard you really want to look.

What led you to use the 1977 el crash in The Third Rail?

I was aware of the incident and always wondered how it happened and the effect it had on the people who were walking through the Loop that day. As I got into the details of the accident, I thought it could serve as a nice vehicle for the story's plot line. The first article I read on the crash was the Trib's next day, page-one story, written by a guy named David Axelrod, then a beat reporter, now Barack Obama's right-hand man in the White House.

How did your other work affect your fiction?

Being a journalist and documentary producer has helped me write clearly and with an economy of words. When you write for television, you also learn to write cinematically, to use muscular language and create pictures with language. My background as a lawyer helps most in organizing my thoughts and dealing with complex background material and/or convoluted plot lines. What has helped me the most is my background in Latin and ancient Greek, which made me familiar with some of the best observers of human nature in the history of western civilization. Growing up, I translated all of these guys and wound up absorbing a lot of their ideas.

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