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CITIES BY THE BOOK: CHICAGO // A novel with a cop's-eye view


By Hugh Holton

Forge/Tom Doherty, $23.95

Reviewed by Jean Heller

Although shopping malls, chain stores and fast food joints have gone a long way in homogenizing the landscape, American cities still have their own unique personalities. This is the first in an occasional series focusing on books about a single city.

A reader who didn't know that Hugh Holton's day job is his 27-year career with the Chicago Police Department could guess from his photograph on the dust jacket of his latest novel, Chicago Blues, that he is a cop. Holton's eyes are riveting and hard, also a fair description of both the book and the author's view of his home town.

Holton's Chicago is filled with interesting and tough people. Some are good, some are bad, and some don't know the difference.

Reggie Stanton is a former Chicago cop who would be in prison for murder were it not for the intervention of the FBI, for whom he now works in special operations, described as a division that "does what is necessary."

What is necessary for Stanton, the child of an African-American mother and a Nazi war-criminal father, neither of which he ever knew, is to guard the life of U.S. Sen. Harvey Banks. Banks is about to open a crime hearing in Washington that should bring down Chicago's mob boss, Tony DeLisa. DeLisa wants Banks dead and hires two German assassins to do the job. If you've already caught on to one of the book's surprise twists, don't fret. It's never well-concealed within the story, either.

Before the Germans arrive, Stanton kills two DeLisa goons as they try to draw Banks into a trap. The style of the murders _ done with throwing knives _ draws the attention of police Cmdr. Larry Cole, who investigated Stanton for four similar killings 15 years earlier and still doesn't know how or why Stanton got off. Arrayed against Cole's investigation are a string of conspiratorial FBI agents who want DeLisa for themselves.

Everything begins to fall apart for everyone when Karl and Ernest Steiger arrive to carry out their million-dollar assassination.

What raises Chicago Blues above the typical police procedural are the scope of the story and the array of interesting minor characters well developed by Holton.

The most interesting by far is Reggie Stanton's grandmother, Ida, who raised him and saw to the training that eventually turned him into a cop/agent/assassin. Although Ida Stanton is 90 and losing her vision, her mind is razor-sharp. She is astonishingly proud of her grandson's accomplishments and hungers to hear details of his work. He still takes her advice.

Another is Stanton's too-little-seen girlfriend, Billie Smith, who also is of mixed blood, African-American and Vietnamese. It is through Billie's eyes that the reader begins to see Stanton's darker side.

The least interesting is DeLisa, a one-dimensional, sadistic monster who tortures his enemies physically and his daughter psychologically. DeLisa never rises above the stereotypic mobster thug who would be more in place in the '30s and '40s than in the '90s.

And finally, there is Judy Daniels, a policewoman with a penchant for finding trouble, a woman who cannot get dressed in the morning without putting on a disguise.

Ultimately, Chicago Blues succeeds because the story is grim, gritty, fast-paced and fun. So what if none of this would happen in real life? If real life were this darned fascinating, we wouldn't need novels.

Jean Heller is the author of the mystery thriller Handyman (Forge/St. Martin's Press).