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P.I. Kelly: Hot on the trail of crime in Chicago

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Michael Harvey has had a panoply of careers. He’s been a lawyer and an investigative journalist; he’s co-creator of A&E’s real-cop TV series, Cold Case Files; and, these days, Harvey is also writing crime novels that show off the grit and the glitz of Chicago.

His protagonist, Michael Kelly, is a fictional private investigator who frequents a neighborhood watering hole on Chicago’s North Side. That fictional bar, the Hidden Shamrock, bears the same name as the bar Michael Harvey actually co-owns in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood.

Dim lights and a back room give the Hidden Shamrock a hint of noir, something any good detective hangout should have. But this neighborhood joint is a bit more upscale. At around 4 p.m., just a few people sit at the polished wooden bar. The bartender fills a few glasses with ice and booze then draws a pint of Guinness from the draft. A large framed poster of a boxer hangs on the wall.

“That is Charlie Kelly, who is my great-great-uncle. He was a boxer in New England,” Harvey says. Harvey has pale blue eyes, tousled hair and a hint of a gruff beard. “I’m originally from Boston. His father was Michael Kelly and that’s who the character is named after. So there’s a little bit of Kelly on the walls and a lot of Kelly in the nooks and crannies of the Hidden Shamrock.”

The fictional Michael Kelly, a former Chicago cop, visits the bar at least once in each of Harvey’s four novels to meet with a client or nurse a drink. He’s an Irish scrapper — a hard-boiled but sensitive investigator who reads the works of Greek poets like Aeschylus and Homer. The P.I. keeps Homer’s The Iliad on his bookshelf — with a gun hidden behind it.

Like his protagonist, Harvey is also fascinated by classical literature. He has been studying classical languages for much of his life.

“These guys are some of the greatest observers of the human condition that Western civilization has ever known,” Harvey says. “Aeschylus, Sophocles, all these guys — they talk about murder, rape, incest, greed, jealousy, power, revenge. All of the stuff of a crime novel.”

Touring Chicago Through Crime

The modern-day crimes Michael Kelly investigates take him all over Chicago. Harvey says those travels help further the plot, but they also give readers a glimpse of the city the author has come to love.

“I came here right when I got out of law school and I didn’t want to go back to Boston,” he says. “So I came out here to interview for a couple of law firms. And I remember something Oprah Winfrey said because it resonates with me: ‘When I got here I just felt like I belonged here.’”

P.I. Kelly meets clients in bars and restaurants as he tracks down suspects, finds murder victims and shoots it out with the bad guys. He leads readers to areas that are both popular and obscure; from Chicago’s touristy Navy Pier, to drug-ravaged areas of the West Side, to the opulence of the Gold Coast, down into the city’s subway tunnels and on the tracks of its elevated trains.

The train, known as the “L,” winds its way through Chicago, rumbling past apartment buildings and businesses. It figures prominently in Harvey’s last two novels, The Third Rail and We All Fall Down.

In The Third Rail, a killer begins his crime spree at the Southport L stop. Harvey reads from the book:

Fifteen more seconds and he needed to move. He gripped the gun in his pocket and walked back toward the entrance to the L platform. A dark-eyed woman was putting on lipstick and standing by the stairs. Her bad luck. He moved closer and snuck a look down the stairwell. No one coming up. More bad luck for her.

Harvey says his stories focus on the L because it’s such a signature part of Chicago.

“It fit into the books for a lot of reasons,” he says. “First of all, it stretches from the north to south to east to the west and connects all different parts of the city. And the other thing about the L and public transportation was that I knew that I wanted to get into the whole issue of biological weapons and possibly using them to attack a city — and public transportation in Chicago would be the L. It would be a prime place where that might happen.”

A Career Made For Crime Writing

Harvey’s contact with cops, prosecutors and criminals comes first hand. As an investigative reporter, he interviewed John Wayne Gacy, who murdered 33 teenagers and young men. He went on to co-create Cold Case Files, a TV show about homicide forensics, with journalist Bill Kurtis.

“All of the experiences I’ve had in the field inform the intangibles of the books,” Harvey says. “How cops talk to each other; how a crime scene works; how an investigation works; what it’s like inside of a prison. You can write about them in fiction but if you’ve been there you have a huge advantage.”

A Change Of Pace On Chicago’s Lakefront

At Chicago’s North Avenue Beach, hundreds of sunbathers stretch out on the sand. The water sparkles and the city’s skyline is etched perfectly against a clear sky. Investigator Kelly comes here often.

“He runs basically up and down the lakefront,” Harvey says. “It is one of the great places to run in the country really — spectacular views and great running paths. And so he gets out there and runs his 5 to 7 miles up and down the lakefront. It’s a wonderful thing and a great way in the books to put Kelly in a different environment ... he can meet all kinds of people while he’s running or just be thinking and it gives you an opportunity to paint another landscape of the city.”

And an opportunity to paint another mystery, which, according to Harvey, is already underway.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio.

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