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Thursday, May 23, 2013 08:42 am

Innocence, the mystery

Northwestern students face Chicago corruption

Michael Harvey

The Innocence Game, by Michael Harvey.
Knopf. 256 pages.

Mystery writers often set their stories in their hometowns. For Michael Connelly it is Los Angeles, for Sara Paretsky, Chicago. The late Stuart Kaminsky, who taught at Northwestern University, often set his mysteries in Chicago and its northern suburbs. While Michael Harvey was born and raised in Boston, he has adopted Chicago as his hometown. The Innocence Game is Harvey’s fifth mystery and his first stand-alone story. Harvey has previously written a series that features Michael Kelly, a hard-boiled private investigator with close connections to the Chicago Police Department. While Kelly makes a cameo appearance in The Innocence Game, the main characters are three Northwestern University journalism students enrolled in a research seminar that is part of Northwestern’s famed Innocence Project.

Illinois Times readers are familiar with the work of Northwestern students in obtaining justice for many who were wrongfully convicted. Harvey, who has a law degree from Duke and a journalism degree from Northwestern, obviously was impressed enough by the organization to write a novel spotlighting its work. The three fictional students, Ian Joyce, Jake Havens and Sarah Gold, focus on a case selected by Havens, the murder of a 10-year-old Chicago boy decades ago. Unfortunately, the person convicted of the murder was himself killed in prison. This makes any investigation outside the true purview of the innocence project. But evidence obtained by the students leads them to believe that the murderer is still roaming the streets of Chicago. The investigation commences leading the students down a road that they never suspected they would travel.

The Innocence Game is an interesting and fast-paced read. But it does suffer from a surfeit of stereotypes. Corrupt Chicago police officers dominate the story. Here the corruption is so pervasive and evil that it becomes unbelievable. The graduate students portrayed by Harvey should have “double O” numbers rather than names. No one I know who attended Northwestern, and I know quite a few, has ever accomplished what these students accomplish. On the pages of the book they are more Navy Seals than NU graduate students.

But the minor shortcomings of the novel do not destroy what is an enjoyable mystery. After all, most characters in detective novels require readers to suspend belief on repeated occasions. The Innocence Game is still an engrossing mystery. There are ingenious plot twists that will keep readers turning pages and wondering where the next plot twist leads. Even better, Michael Harvey is a wonderful narrator for Chicago, its suburbs and the Northwestern campus environment. One cannot be too critical of a novel that has several important scenes at Mustard’s Last Stand, one of the truly outstanding hot dog venues in the Chicago area.

Certainly Michael Harvey is a writer with a bright future. While The Innocence Game is a wonderful work of mystery, readers should also consider any of Harvey’s previous novels, The Chicago Way, The Fifth Floor, The Third Rail or We All Fall Down as a great and enjoyable summer read.

Retired judge Stuart Shiffman is a frequent contributor to Illinois Times.

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