I was not familiar with Hugh Holton before picking up Windy City, the second in his series of novels to feature Detective Larry Cole of the Chicago police force. The book jumped out at me though for being told in an inverted style and I was curious to discover Holton’s take on the form.
The novel opens with a retired prostitute being followed by a man in disguise intent on raping and killing her. When he breaks into her home he is surprised by her cop fiancé and hastily acts to kill him and dispose of the body.
Within a few pages we know the killer’s identity: Neil DeWitt, one of the richest men in Chicago. We also learn that his wife Margo is fully aware of his proclivities and, when she makes a slip up in conversation with Police at a gala, we learn she has some of her own.
Unlike many inverted stories the detective does not need to search for the killer. Cole suspects the pair from the beginning of the novel but the challenge for the police and for the reader comes in proving the connection, particularly when the DeWitts hire a corrupt former governor of the state to represent them.
This proves to be an intriguing starting point because it enables Holton to focus on a small group of characters. We spend a lot of time in the novel following the DeWitts and seeing them plot and scheme to try and throw Cole off their trail and I do think we get to know them well as a result. The problem for me was that I found their characterizations very hard to accept as credible.
The two characters are given some back story and Holton does take the time to explore their motivations. Unfortunately the aspect of their story that is the least detailed is the early phase of their relationship as they begin to commit crimes and explore their sociopathic desires together. Given their status as a married pair of murderers makes them unusual, it is all the more disappointing to see this aspect of their relationship not treated with much depth or detail.
Instead Holton focuses on following their reactions to Cole’s investigation and attempts to throw him off the trail. This sort of a cat-and-mouse game has the potential to be interesting and there are a few points where I feel it is quite successful. One of those comes at the end of the second section of the novel where there is a big development in the case but unfortunately the next chapter takes the action to a lurid and melodramatic place undermining any good work the previous chapter had done.
Not only does Cole quickly identify the killers, he seems to quickly work out their plans and their likely next steps. The positive aspect of this is that it enables the book to sustain a surprisingly brisk pace but it may prove disappointing to those who want to see the police having to work hard to make those key connections.
Cole is not the most dynamic of protagonists although his family are appealing and sympathetic characters. He is shown to be persistent and hard-working however and I did appreciate that Holton uses his own Police background to flesh him and the other Police characters out.
That is not to say that this is an entirely realistic police procedural. That one of his team is nicknamed the Mistress of Disguise or High Priestess of Mayhem suggests at least a little eccentricity but the conflicts within departments and details of the cultivation of relationships with the coroner’s office feel more grounded in something approaching reality.
There are however some plot elements that struck me as too far-fetched to be taken as credible. This is not just a matter of the lucky breaks that Cole seems to get but also some of the risks that the couple willingly face when carrying out their tasks often leaving evidence pointing right at them. While being immensely wealthy could conceivably shield them from some accusations, their behavior is so inept and obviously suspicious at points it is hard to imagine how they wouldn’t have already come under deeper suspicion.
As much as I wanted to love this book I came away feeling frustrated and disappointed. I thought that the pair of killers had a lot of potential but the decision not to treat the story in a realistic way but rather as a thriller contributes to their story feeling somewhat ridiculous.
In spite of its faults however I would say that it was an engaging read. There were some good ideas here and while I think it gets the balance wrong, it is at least quite interesting.