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.