Friday, 1 May 2009

EUGENE IZZI'S THE CRIMINALIST: A Forgotten Friday Entry

Eugene Izzi was found hanging outside the window of his Chicago office in December 1996, the noose anchored to his desk. His death was ruled suicide, but it took place in strange circumstances. When I wrote about it for the Financial Times, I dismissed the idea of murder (in his pockets was the manuscript, on disc, of a novel about a man who infiltrates a white supremacy group, and there was a suggestion that such a group might have been seeking revenge for his own infiltration of them) but did consider that he might have been enacting a scene from the novel, which then went wrong. But in Izzi's 1996 novel Players, a career criminal arranges his own death, in order to provide for his family, and after publishing 16 novels in just ten years Izzi might have been feeling a similar need.

Izzi broke onto the scene with 1987's The Take, and his third book, Bad Guys (1988) was a classic which already set up his main themes of corruption, betrayal, revenge and other difficult personal choices. Izzi wrote feverishly, and in some of his books the material can seem out of control, but when he was at his best, he was among the best and most hard-boiled writers in the field. He was George Pelecanos, but more into the corruptions of the criminal and cop world, and offering less in the sense of redemption coming from the hard work of everyday life.

The Criminalist was his second novel published posthumously (the first, A Matter Of Honor, was a sequel to Bulletin From The Streets, two books which seemed to take off from Elmore Leonard's City Primeval, but neither in a very convincing fashion). It is one of his very best, having the same sense of powerful anger all his books do, while avoiding that headlong speed-rap prose that particularly detracted from some of his longer novels, including those two Leonard pastiches.

Dominick diGrazia is the criminalist of the title, a sort of super-cop who operates as a lone wolf within the Chicago Police Department. DiGrazia is a trained forensic scientist who prefers to remain on the street, and he has powerful friends in high places to cover his back in the political snakepit that is the CPD. When a corpse is discovered in an alley, maimed in the same way as a famous unsolved murder from twenty years earlier, DiGrazia manages to take over the investigation himself.

Since DiGrazia’s ex-partner, now retired, had been the original investigating officer, and since the original victim was the sister-in-law of a cop, who was accused of killing her, the strands of the story are set up carefully. The most detailed and labyrinthine plots exist within the police, which we see primarily through the eyes of Janice Constantine, a veteran beat cop who becomes DiGrazia’s temporary partner.

Many of Izzi’s core personal themes throw themselves up here, the ones that appeared to reflect aspects of his own life: abusive parents, distrustful marriages, the inability of people to transcend the hands dealt to them by life. But his usual sense of rage is tempered here by care and even sensitivity; using a female point of view seems to help give him some distance, and, unlike some of his novels, he's here concerned about keeping the reader guessing about what is true and what isn’t. The investigation may reach its conclusion with a slight anti-climax, but the story plays fair even as it carries you along. You could also look at it as a precursor to TV shows like CSI, in that Izzi took the popular forensic strand of crime writing, and transferred it to actual investigators. This time, his adapting of his work to popular trends worked perfectly, and it deserved to be a springboard to greater success.

We can speculate about what sort of conditions conspired to grant Izzi the artistic peace to keep this novel so well under control. We can also speculate further about the locked-room mystery he left behind with his death. We can regret that this was the last Izzi novel we got to see (the family apparently decided not to release the novel which was on his person when he died, just as they honoured his wish to keep his second novel, The Eighth Victim, out of print—it's not great, but it's not THAT bad!). The Criminalist was said by some sources to be Izzi's best-selling novel, though when I interviewed his editor, Jennifer Sawyer-Fisher, she said the book had received only a 'small boost' from his death. When I originally reviewed The Criminalist ten years ago, I said that, given the circumstances of his death, 'it’s heart-warming to read something so good'. That's still true, and after George V Higgins, he's the writer I'd most like to see get back into print.

THE CRIMINALIST Avon Books, USA, 1998

2 comments :

George said...

Eugene Izzi had a similar originality to George V. Higgins. Izzi's novels kept getting better so it was a shock to realize there would be no more brilliant Izzi novels after his mysterious death.

Keith Rawson said...

Izzi is an author who should be sorely missed, unfortunately most of his massive catalogue is out of print, which is a shame. I wish a small publisher (or the original publishers.) such as Hard Case crime or Stark house would bring some of his novels back into print.