Monday, May 03, 2010

Michael Harvey at the Poisoned Pen

Michael Harvey recently appeared at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore, on his tour for The Third Rail. It was a fascinating evening of Chicago politics, mystery, and possible terrorism.

The Third Rail is the third book in Michael Harvey's Michael Kelly series, set in Chicago. When his first book, The Chicago Way, came out, Chicago was everywhere in crime fiction. Harvey said yes; he mentioned authors Marcus Sakey, Sean Chercover, and Bryan Gruley, who was nominated for an Edgar Award for Starvation Lake.

Harvey said The Third Rail was different from the other books in the series. This one is a thriller. He wanted readers to get right into it, right away. He had no plan for it ahead of time, but he wanted to dive in, and he wanted to drop readers right into the middle of a murder. There's a spree killer in this one. Harvey said he's covered spree killer cases. They kill a whole bunch of people in a short period of time. They are usually reaching out to the police (in this case, to Michael Kelly), and taunting them. Spree killers want attention. There is a series of spectacular murders in the book.

Harvey said he's covered cases in which the police are behind a curve, trying to catch up. Most of the time, they are in control of the case, the hunters vs. the hunted. Most times the police decide what the leads are, and they're dictating the action. But, with spree killers, it's just the opposite. They're not in control at all. While the police are looking at one crime scene, the killer is at another. The police aren't in control. The killer will usually reach out to the media, which is unsettling.

In The Third Rail, there are a lot of things happening, and murders happening. Michael Kelly doesn't know what is going on, until about 150 pages into the book, when he eventually catches up. Then, things begin to turn, and the slowly reel in the killer. The case hinges on an accident on the CTA in 1977, and that accident is part of Michael Kelly's childhood. It's based on a real accident on the El. That El crash reveals Kelly's backstory, and the El connects the story. As Hemingway said, it's a "movable feast," a movable crime scene. Everyone in Chicago knows the El, and that shows their vulnerability. It becomes a dangerous place.

That crash in 1977 was very visual. Harvey said it was fun to write about; there were lots of reasons to use it in the book. As he goes along, Kelly figures out that the 1977 crash is the reason the murders are happening.

In February 1977, there actually was an accident on the El in the downtown area, on a curve on the the loop. One train stalled, and the train behind it smashed it three or four times. Four cars fell down into the street, hitting cars below, and twelve people were killed. Cars were left dangling. The page one story for the Tribune was written by David Axelrod. Harvey takes readers inside that train accident as it happened, and we see it through Kelly's eyes.

One other important aspect of the book deals with terrorism. Terror 2000 was a Pentagon report for the Clinton White House. It was never released, but Harvey saw an abstract. It was an assessment of what terrorism would be like in the next millennium.

There were two scenarios. One predicted terrorists would hijack planes and fly them into buildings, and the Twin Towers were listed as possible targets. The abstract came out in 1993.

The other scenario predicted a bio-weapons attack in a subway. That scenario included weaponized anthrax, injected into a light bulb. The light bulb would be screwed in, over the tracks, and, over time, the vibration would loosen the bulb, until if finally dropped. The light bulb acts as a timing device, but no one, not even the terrorist, knows when it will drop.

Harvey said they do bioweapons research at Fort Dietrich, Maryland. In 2009, they took an inventory, and there were 9,400 missing samples, unaccounted for. These are Class A pathogens. Scientists just signed things out. Harvey leaves that scenario hanging at the end of The Third Rail. We're not at all prepared for that kind of attack.

The sequel is all about this issue, biological and chemical weapons. There are now microbiologists training in processing these weapons as part of a crime scene. There has been $50-$60 billion put into biolabs preparing for these kind of attacks. But, the front line, in the first hours, will be local police, fire, rescue workers. That's the scenario of the next Michael Kelly novel.

There's an urgency to these issues, but there's no one in charge at the government level. The cops, doctors, CIA, Homeland Security, all have a piece of the problem, but everyone looks at it from a different angle. There's no chain of command. No one knows what it will really be like; it's all theoretical.

Harvey asked if we had heard of Black Biology. It's a term used to describe genes that are spliced together, and supercomputers and microbiologists spit out viruses and pathogens. They build viruses using advanced genetics. There are 20,000-30,000 labs that can create stealth viruses that will lie dormant in the body until triggered. And, someone can trigger it. The government has twelve or thirteen labs around the country creating viruses themselves, and then the vaccines against them. It's everything from Ebola to the Black Plague. One of the labs is at the University of Chicago. There's a biological arms war going on.

Michael Harvey is the creator of Cold Case Files. He is a journalist and documentary producer who has won numerous Emmys, and an Academy Award nomination for his documentary on the Holocaust. Most of his work is in criminal justice and law. In 1994, he saw that DNA was becoming important. Harvey called the O.J. trial, "DNA's coming out party." The cops were talking about it. They were going to be able to take old boxes off shelves, and have whole new cases.

So, he went to A&E with a proposal, and they wanted to know why people were going to care about DNA and cold cases. But, Cold Case Files was born. It had huge ratings. Harvey worked on that from 1996 to 2006. He produced the first fifteen hours himself. When A&E wanted thirty shows a year, there were three or four crews working on it.

In 2006, Harvey quit Cold Case Files. He said he had fifty pages of a novel tucked away in a drawer, with no aspirations. He just wanted to finish it, and see if he could finish a novel, beginning, middle, and end. He had no plan, no outline. He said he trusts the process, and just keeps writing, and the plot happens. The story will reveal itself to him. That book became The Chicago Way.

Michael said he submitted his manuscript. He Googled agents, and found ones that handled his kind of material. He found a big agent who handled major commercial writers of thrillers and crime fiction. He said he believes in starting at the top. Life doesn't need help kicking you down the ladder.

He sent the manuscript on Saturday. On Monday, he received a one line email, "Got your book. Read first chapter. Interesting. David." Two days later, another email. "Still reading the book. Good for you. Still like it. Good for you." And, he had questions about Harvey. Harvey was working on a show at the time, and he was back in Chicago on Friday when he received the email. "Finished it, and want to represent you." He said he knows it's not easy to get breaks in the creative field. But, an agent can get you read, not necessarily published, but he can get you read.

Harvey said, in writing, the #1 thing that holds you back is yourself. You have to be willing to put yourself out there. Don't beat yourself up before someone else does.

When asked where Michael Kelly came from, he said he was a throwback. He surprises the author. Kelly decides for himself what he'll do. He's a throwback to Chandler, Hammett. Hammett took the Western hero, and brought him into the city. He's one person against a big foe, by himself. He uses his wits; has his own set of laws, and he's true to what he believes in. That's the archetype hero.

In the Kelly books, he's going more and more against the larger institutions of society. Those are institutions that have let people down, as shown in Katrina, Wall Street, the Catholic Church. People feel an anger and helplessness. Their trust has been betrayed. Kelly is going against these people. Is he going to change institutions? No.

Chicago politics came up in a question, and Harvey said his books are true as to how Chicago politics work, but those are not true incidents. He said, politicians at the highest level, and the best in the White House, have an enormous sense of ego, a lust for power, a lust to maintain power, and a sense of paranoia. That paranoia fuels the rest. They know they have possible enemies.

When asked why he's writing about Chicago, instead of Boston, Harvey said he grew up in Boston, but knows Chicago as an adult. He covered Chicago for four years for CBS, and knew the various areas of the city. He grew up in Brighton, the Mystic River area of Boston. It was a blue collar, Irish, Italian area. There were two bedrooms in his house, and seven kids. He didn't know Boston politics.

Chicago has a rich cultural history. It's a visual city, with a great deal of beauty. The best thing that happened to the city was the Chicago Fire, so architects could rebuild the city. But there are tons of extremes. There are ghettos, and even thoughts of bringing in the National Guard to stop the killings there.

Michael Harvey said after the next Kelly, he wants to write a standalone set in Boston, and then go back to Kelly.

Michael Harvey's website is

The Third Rail by Michael Harvey. Alfred A. Knopf, ©2010. ISBN 9780307272508 (hardcover), 304p.


Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Another great event at Poisoned Pen!

Wow, I think a lot of work went into this book. Complex but fast-moving plot, interesting setting. Thanks for sharing this with us, Lesa!

Mystery Writing is Murder

Lesa said...

I agree with you, Elizabeth. I think Michael spent a great deal of time researching this book. It was really well-done.

Kay said...

Lesa, thanks for sharing this Poisoned Pen visit with us. I read about Michael recently and decided that I would check out his books. I purchased all of them for my Kindle. Think I will have a good time with them. This info will just add to the experience. I love cold case mysteries.

Beth Hoffman said...

I really enjoyed reading this post, Lesa! Thank you for introducing me to Michael. I will have to add him to my list.

Lesa said...


I don't think you're going to be disappointed at all in Michael's books. I want to hear what you thought!

Lesa said...

Always my pleasure to introduce new authors, Beth!

Charmaine Clancy said...

I love the covers!

Lesa said...

I hope you like the books as much as the covers, Charmaine!