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Michael Harvey
The Third Rail
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2011

Alfred A. Knopf / Random House
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-307-27250-8
Publication Date: 04-20-2010
290 pages; $24.95
Date Reviewed: 08-21-2011

Index:  Mystery  General Fiction

We don't want to just watch the detectives — we want to learn something new about them. The challenge for the author of a series of mystery novels featuring a PI is to parcel out bits and pieces of an initially enigmatic, emblematic character's past while preserving the protagonist as surrogate for our desire to see justice done. Michael Harvey gets the balance just right in his third Michael Kelly novel, 'The Third Rail.' He pulls back the first-person, close camera that brought us through 'The Chicago Way' and 'The Fifth Floor' to give readers a wider perspective on both Michael Kelly and those who seek to do him harm.

Harvey doesn't waste a word and he doesn't waste a moment of the reader's time. Shots are fired before you finish page one. Someone is killing riders the el train but the real target is Kelly himself. As Kelly and his new damsel, Federal Judge Rachel Swenson are drawn deeper into the case and into the chase, the stakes are raised. And readers begin to learn something of Kelly's past.

The plot of 'The Third Rail' is a nicely complicated machine, with lots of moving parts that keep the reader guessing and catching up just as Kelly or those who seek to harm him step briskly ahead. Killings on the el bring in the Mayor and his political shock troops, as well as the press. Between his political enemies and his criminal enemies, Kelly is kept entertainingly busy. The grit of Harvey's writing ensures that all of this has a true feeling of consequence though. We care about the people who come into the cross-hairs. Even those capable of inhuman acts seem realistically human.

'The Third Rail' offers us some real insight into Kelly's background, tied, not surprisingly, to a real historical event, a train derailing that took place in the late 1970's. Harvey has smudged the actual events to fit in with his Kelly's past, and the revelations that follow give readers fresh insight into Kelly's choices. Once again, the Mayor makes a number of major impressions. He's a delightful wielder of power. Kelly's friend Vince Rodriguez gets fleshed out, while Rachel gets pulled into circumstances befitting her position as a federal judge.

Harvey keeps the tight prose and pacing of the previous novels, even as he adds depth and color to his characters and their lives. He writes some passages in the third person as we see events from eyes other than those of Michael Kelly. Harvey also strikes out to work on a larger canvas, bringing in the Department of Homeland Security and the "Terror 2000" report.

'The Third Rail' is a smart weapon that takes aim at your heart and peace of mind. What happens to the characters hits your heart, and what can happen to the rest of us will undermine your peace of mind. It's a novel that will deprive you of sleep while you are reading it because you simply want to find out more about these people and what will happen to them. But it will also deprive you of sleep after you're done, worrying about your own place in this puzzle. 'The Third Rail' demonstrates that the satisfaction of getting to know the detectives need not come at the expense of suspense.

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