The Fifth Floor
Michael Harvey
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The Fifth Floor
Michael Harvey
288 pages
July 2009
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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In his second outing (after The Chicago Way), Harvey has written a charming thriller about city politics, this one centering on the mayor’s office on the fifth floor of City Hall. I use the word charming intentionally, because the ironic, wise-cracking Mike Kelly is a particularly likeable character, a guy who has made his share of mistakes, been set up and pushed from the Chicago PD, and now works as a PI.

Assuming a noir-ish persona a la Phillip Marlowe, Kelly is still haunted by the death of his best friend, a young woman murdered in the previous novel. Having made plenty of mistakes during his romantic entanglements, Kelly is a champion of those who struggle against a justice system that favors the rich and powerful.

When he is contacted by Janet, an ex-girlfriend now married to one of the mayor’s fixers, Johnny Woods, Mike is deeply concerned for her safety. Her face bruised and battered, Janet reveals a marriage damaged by increasing domestic violence, her volatile husband taking out his rage on his helpless spouse.

Intending to gain some leverage on Johnny, Kelly begins following the mayor’s man. Unsuspecting, he tracks Woods to the scene of a recent murder, Woods’ face registering the same shock Kelly experiences. Now the case suggests more at hand than the chronic abuse of husband toward wife.

And, strangely enough, Kelly’s research delivers him into the distant past, the long-mythologized theory of the 1871 Chicago Fire cause by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow: “The flame burned hot. Even down the hallowed halls of history.” Given the new theory that appears in an April Fool’s article in the 1970s, Kelly stumbles across an explanation that seems actually credible: a connection between the mayor’s family and a land grab that set up a political dynasty. Janet’s concerns pale in the light of this potential scandal, especially in an election year.

What Harvey so smoothly accomplishes is the perfect melding of politics, power, corruption, and what some will do to keep an explosive secret. Using sources in the Chicago PD, including his dead friend’s fiancé, Kelly builds a network of opposing parties and strange political bedfellows, as well as the odd academic and a lady judge unsure whether dating Kelly is a bit too dangerous.

With a talent for visuals, Harvey sets his thriller in the heart of political power players: the notorious fifth floor, where a tough, pragmatic mayor uses his extraordinary powers of persuasion to manipulate city politics to support a private agenda - “There you could catch a glimpse of ambition, the faintest whiff of avarice and the footsteps of those who curried favor.”

Mix in a teenaged girl terrified for her mother’s life, an incipient romance quickly going south, and Kelly’s penchant for standing up for the underdog, and Harvey delivers a well-written tale, infused with the long-buried secrets of the Chicago Fire.

Chicago politics are the stuff of legend. People love their myths but love their scandals even more, exposing the greed and mendacity of public servants glutted on the spoils of political power. Kelly takes it all on, proving himself, once again, the guy to watch in Chicago.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Luan Gaines, 2008

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