‘Innocence Game’ plays with old cases, new faces


Michael Harvey knows a good cold case. Perhaps it’s in his DNA? At any rate, he’s really good at writing them.

Harvey got his start in the genre as the co-creator and executive producer of the Emmy-nominated TV series Cold Case Files.

He also has had a successful run with four Chicago-based crime fiction novels featuring private detective Michael Kelly, including his superb debut, The Chicago Way. Kelly, a former Chicago police detective, has a knack for stumbling upon city hall’s past wrongdoings which bubble over in the present with deadly consequences.

'The Innocence Game' by Michael Harvey (Knopf; 256 pages; $24.95)
'The Innocence Game' by Michael Harvey (Knopf; 256 pages; $24.95)

Harvey takes a surprisingly enjoyable departure from his Kelly books, which is one of my favorite crime series, with his first stand-alone novel, The Innocence Game.

This thriller is inspired by Harvey’s classes at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and imagines what happens when a few students dig into what one believes is a wrongful murder conviction.

Fourteen years after an alleged murderer dies in prison, Ian Joyce, Jake Havens, and Sarah Gold undertake an investigation after one of the students receives a piece of the victim’s blood-stained shirt with a note from the real killer.

Their amateur sleuthing skills help them stumble across a body in a park in the Chicago suburbs, indicating a possible return of the killer, but is it the same one? The discovery inspires the students to nose around further, from the Evanston, Ill., campus of Northwestern to some seedy sections of Chicago and beyond, drawing interest and ire from the Chicago police department as their snooping overturns rocks that weren’t meant to be overturned: cover-ups and corruption.

Harvey has a smooth and succinct style that works in his favor, especially when it comes to dialogue. We see the story unfold through the eyes of Ian, an intelligent student whose personal hardships allowed him to go unnoticed during his undergrad years at Northwestern. Yet he’s instantly likable to the reader, even though that’s not the case with his fellow students at first.

Creating an empathetic protagonist isn’t easy and can be mishandled by new and seasoned writers alike. For instance, author Michael Koryta also started out with a private detective series featuring flawed but heroic Lincoln Perry. Like Harvey’s Kelly, Perry’s faults are overlooked because we see ourselves in the character. When Koryta recently turned to stand-alone supernatural thrillers, except for the fine Cypress House, he forgot to lend empathy to the lead characters, making the books less enjoyable than they could have been.

Harvey, on the other hand, makes sure we’re on Ian’s side from the very beginning. He’s an outlier. His mother’s death haunts him in dreams. He’s had a mad crush on Sarah for years. He’s envious of Jake’s good looks and confidence.

We root for Ian in this tantalizing and taut thriller, which scores Michael Harvey’s The Innocence Game a triumphant victory.

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