Suit­case Charlie

John Guzlows­ki

  • Review
By – November 19, 2018

John Guzlows­ki beau­ti­ful­ly con­jures up the seamy side of the alleged­ly inno­cent 1950s with a thrilling ser­i­al mur­der mys­tery fea­tur­ing two booze­hound detec­tives. For Detec­tive Hank Pur­cell, mem­o­ries of World War II, now ten years dis­tant, invade with reg­u­lar­i­ty. Both he and his Jew­ish part­ner, Mar­vin Bon­darow­icz, have been known to break the rules. Both men are sur­vivors of the mean streets, appeal­ing in their humor­ous repar­tee and in their will­ing­ness to seek jus­tice, even if insub­or­di­na­tion is part of their means to that end.

The case Hank and Mar­vin are on requires an answer to this ques­tion: Who cru­el­ly dis­mem­bered a young boy and stuffed his body into a suit­case left on the side­walk, no doubt meant to be dis­cov­ered? What is the motive for such cru­el­ty? Hank can’t help but remem­ber the Nazi butch­ery he wit­nessed first­hand. Has it found its way to 1956 Chicago?

Soon after the detec­tives under­take their inves­ti­ga­tion, sev­er­al par­al­lel inci­dents occur; it’s unclear if this is a crime spree by one per­pe­tra­tor, or if these are inde­pen­dent copy­cat mur­ders. What will the effects of these hor­ren­dous crimes be in the neigh­bor­hoods where the suit­cas­es turn up? Why these neigh­bor­hoods? Why are the soles of the vic­tims’ feet sliced in an isosce­les tri­an­gle pat­tern? To rep­re­sent, when placed togeth­er, the Star of David?

Slow­ly but sure­ly, the author builds cred­i­ble ref­er­ences to anti-Semi­tism and its con­se­quences. Leads appear that Hank would like to pur­sue, but Mar­vin, who now announces him­self a defend­er of his peo­ple – in fact, makes it clear that their per­se­cu­tion had been his motive for becom­ing a cop – turns Hank away from pur­su­ing the anti-Semit­ic pos­si­bil­i­ty. After all, the vic­tims in the suit­cas­es are not Jews.

Con­ver­sa­tion between Hank and a Jew­ish lan­guage tutor, Mr. Fisch, ush­ers in ref­er­ences to clas­sic anti-Jew­ish libel, like accus­ing them of rit­u­al killings. At this point, the inves­ti­ga­tion seems to sharp­en its direc­tion. Rit­u­al killings, or imi­ta­tions there­of, are exact­ly what has been under­way in Chicago.

Mr. Fisch leads Hank and Mar­vin to ques­tion Pro­fes­sor Zeink, a refugee from Ger­many who had been part of the Ger­man attempt to make an atom bomb. From here, the plot moves sure-foot­ed­ly to a pow­er­ful and plau­si­ble conclusion.

While the mys­tery and its res­o­lu­tion are pow­er­ful, the novel’s great­est attrac­tions are the char­ac­ter­i­za­tions of the part­ners and the stun­ning evo­ca­tion of time and place in a great Amer­i­can city. In impor­tant ways, Chica­go is the main char­ac­ter, and Guzlows­ki gives it mus­cle, pulse and breath.

Philip K. Jason is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Eng­lish at the Unit­ed States Naval Acad­e­my. A for­mer edi­tor of Poet Lore, he is the author or edi­tor of twen­ty books, includ­ing Acts and Shad­ows: The Viet­nam War in Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary Cul­ture and Don’t Wave Good­bye: The Chil­dren’s Flight from Nazi Per­se­cu­tion to Amer­i­can Free­dom.

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