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P.I. Kelly: Hot On The Trail Of Crime In Chicago

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P.I. Kelly: Hot On The Trail Of Crime In Chicago

P.I. Kelly: Hot On The Trail Of Crime In Chicago

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Michael Harvey has had a variety of careers. He's been a lawyer, an investigative journalist, and is co-creator of a TV series on cable channel A&E called "Cold Case Files." And now Mr. Harvey is writing crime novels set against the spectacular backdrop of Chicago.

In the next installment of our series "Crime in the City," Michael Harvey provides a guided tour of the city as seen by his fictional private investigator, Michael Kelly. The first stop is the shadowy backroom of Kelly's neighborhood bar.

NPR's Cheryl Corley is on the case.

CHERYL CORLEY: The bar the fictional private eye Michael Kelly frequents is on Chicago's Northside. And like any good detective hangout, the dim lights and backroom give just a hint of noir atmosphere. But this neighborhood joint is a bit more upscale. And at this hour, just a few people sit at the polished wood bar.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

CORLEY: The bartender fills a few glasses with ice and booze, and then draws a pint of Guinness.

Mr. MICHAEL HARVEY (Crime Novelist): We're at the Hidden Shamrock in the Lincoln Park area of Chicago.

CORLEY: That's Michael Harvey, the author of the Michael Kelly series. He's a co-owner of the Hidden Shamrock. He has pale-blue eyes, tousled hair, and a hint of a gruff beard. On one of the walls of the bar hangs a large, framed poster of a boxer.

Mr. HARVEY: That is Charlie Kelly, who was my great-great-uncle. And he was a boxer in New England; I'm originally from Boston. And his father was Michael Kelly, and that's who the character's named after. So there's a little bit of Kelly on the walls, and there's a lot of Kelly in all of the little nooks and crannies of the Hidden Shamrock.

CORLEY: The detective - a former Chicago cop, according to the storyline - shows up at the bar to meet with a client or just to nurse a drink, at least once in each of Harvey's four novels. He's an Irish scrapper, a hardboiled but sensitive investigator who, like the author, reads the works of Greek poets like Aeschylus and Homer - his epic, "The Iliad," is on Kelly's bookshelf and hidden behind it, a gun. Michael Harvey has studied classical languages for much of his life.

Mr. HARVEY: These guys are some of the greatest observers of the human condition that Western civilization has ever known. And what do they talk about? Aeschylus and Sophocles, all these guys, they talk about murder, rape, incest, greed, jealousy, power, revenge - all the stuff of a crime novel.

CORLEY: The more modern-day crimes that Michael Kelly investigates takes him to all parts of Chicago. Those travels, says Harvey, further the plot. But they also give readers a glimpse of the city that the author has come to love.

Mr. HARVEY: I came here right when I got out of law school. And I didn't want to go back to Boston; didn't really want to go to New York - mostly because I was from Boston. So I came out here to interview for a couple of law firms, and I remember reading something Oprah Winfrey said, which resonates with me: When I got here, I just felt like I belonged here.

CORLEY: So private eye Kelly meets clients in bars and restaurants as he tracks down suspects, finds murder victims, and shoots it out with the bad guys, leading readers to areas popular and obscure, from Chicago's touristy Navy Pier to drug-ravaged areas of the West Side, to the opulent Gold Coast down into the city's subway tunnels, or on the tracks of Chicago's elevated train.

(Soundbite of train moving)

CORLEY: The train, which is called the L, winds its way through Chicago, rumbling past apartment buildings and businesses. The L figures prominently in Michael Harvey's last two novels, "The Third Rail" and "We All Fall Down." It's here at the Southport L stop where a killer begins his crime spree.

Michael Harvey reads from "The Third Rail."

Mr. HARVEY: (Reading) 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.

(Soundbite of train announcement)

Unidentified Voice: Randolph and Wabash is next.

CORLEY: So what's the fascination with the L? Or is this just a really signature part of Chicago?

Mr. HARVEY: It really is a signature part of Chicago. It fit into the books for a lot of reasons - first of all, because it stretches from the north to the south and the east and the west, and connects all different parts of the city. And then the other thing about the L and public transportation was, 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.

CORLEY: Don't want to give people ideas.

Mr. HARVEY: They have ideas way before I do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HARVEY: So if I'm getting them, they're probably like third- or fourth-hand.

(Soundbite of a bell)

CORLEY: But 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. Harvey and journalist Bill Kurtis would go on to create the "Cold Case Files," a TV show about the forensics of homicides. The two discussed their early collaboration.

Mr. HARVEY: It was right after O.J., and no one really knew very much about DNA and how forensics was changing the face of homicide investigations - except we were, because we were out doing investigative reports. And so we would talk to the police and the prosecutors every day. And we would see how forensics was quickly coming online and changing everything.

Mr. BILL KURTIS (Co-Creator, "Cold Case Files"): We called it a cold case file, and it kind of picked up, and then...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KURTIS: ...went far beyond what we were doing. Think of the rich reservoir that he has to pull from, and the detail that he is able to add.

Mr. HARVEY: At its fundamental level, it's about storytelling. All of the experiences that I've had in the field inform the intangibles of the books -you know, how cops talk to each other. You know, how a crime scene works, how an investigation works, what it's like inside a prison. You can write about them in fiction but if you've been there, you have a huge advantage.

(Soundbite of ocean waves)

CORLEY: Michael Harvey and I end our day at North Avenue Beach, where hundreds of sunbathers stretch out on the nearby sand. The water sparkles, and the city's skyline is etched perfectly against a clear sky, as we stand near the running path. Investigator Kelly comes here often.

Mr. HARVEY: He runs - basically up and down the lakefront. I mean, it's one of the great places to run, I think, in the country, really. Spectacular views and great running paths. And so he gets out there and runs his five to seven miles up and down the lakefront. It's a wonderful thing and it's a great way, again, in the books, to put Kelly in a different environment, something that maybe people know about or don't know about, about this part of the city. And he can meet all kinds of people while he's running, or just be thinking, or gives you an opportunity to paint another landscape of the city.

CORLEY: And another murder mystery already under way.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

(Soundbite of music)


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