It seems to me one of the tragedies of our current literary situation (which I pray is transitional) that authors who have something to say and good author’s instincts often lack the “school of hard knocks” experience and editorial hoop-jumping that forced us old guys to learn our craft. John Sturgeon, author of Crimes of the Levee, strikes me as having that problem.
Crimes of the Levee is set in Chicago in 1905. “The Levee” is a vice district, where prostitution, gambling, and drug use are endemic (some of these things, like prostitution, are actually legal). Patrick Moses is a police detective who works there. He is a practicing Catholic, but embittered by the deaths of his wife and children. His chief friends are the prostitute he dates; his partner, a German-American named Gunter; and the priest who was his father figure when he was growing up in an orphanage. But he keeps them at a distance. When the pain gets too great, he drinks or uses opium.
He and Gunter are public heroes as the book starts. They arrested Simon Kluge, a serial killer who has just been executed. Now they are asked to hunt for a missing woman – the niece of the Italian ambassador, who is rumored to have been kidnapped by white slavers and put to work in the Levee. At about the same time, fabled merchant Marshall Field summons Patrick personally, asking him to investigate the death of his son. Supposedly, Marshall Field, Jr. shot himself while cleaning his gun, but the father doubts that story. To his puzzlement, Patrick finds that the old man himself seems to have organized the cover-up.
To top it all off, women are being murdered again, in the very same way Simon Kluge killed his victims. Was the wrong man executed? Or did Kluge have an accomplice?
Crimes of the Levee, taken as a story, is a pretty good “mean streets” sort of tale. There’s a good sense of place and atmosphere. However, I had trouble figuring out the story’s final resolution – I think I may have puzzled it out, but it seemed to me too subtle by half.
But my big problem with the book was the writing itself. Author Sturgeon has problems with basic spelling and punctuation – he has trouble with verb tenses. He uses question marks where they’re not wanted and leaves them out where they are. He employs redundancies, as in this passage: “This Sunday, I had hoped for rest, peace, and quiet. What I got was conflict, and this took away from everything else.” He confuses homophones, such as “vial” for “vile.” At one point the hero breaks an arm, but the author barely considers the problems that would create for a man living alone – such as in tying a necktie.
The author seems to have done a fair amount of research for this book, but some subtleties pass him by – for instance, he doesn’t seem to know that, up until the 1970s, unmarried women were addressed as Miss and married women as Mrs. He uses “Ms.,” which in those days was nothing more than a regional mispronunciation. And the diction was generally was too modern, something that diminished the atmosphere for me.
Still, this was a pretty non-objectionable book considering its subject matter, and there are no digs at Christianity. I recommend it conditionally, with my criticisms in mind. I probably won’t read the next book in the series, though I’ll admit I am mildly curious.