No author in his right mind would kill off a main character in the prime of a promising new series. Intellectually you know this. How, then, does David Ellis, author of the compelling new legal thriller “Breach of Trust” (Putnam), pull it off?
How does he write a scene in which Jason Kolarich ― the two-fisted, headstrong hero of a crime novel set in a city that’s a dead ringer for Chicago ― looks to be doomed, mere seconds from violent extermination at the hands of a bunch of bloodthirsty goons?
Logic and reason tell you that Jason will survive. Yet somehow Ellis makes the scene tense and suspenseful and even downright chilling ― or maybe the chilling part comes from the fact that Kolarich is forced to strip in a very, very cold room, while the bad guys pummel him.
“Breach of Trust,’ Ellis” seventh novel, has the kind of ripped-from-the-headlines plot that made a hit out of the TV series “Law & Order” and its apparently endless progeny: a corrupt governor. A brewing scandal involving greedy bureaucrats and government contracts doled out to reward campaign contributions. A lawyer fighting his own demons.
David Ellis, lead prosecutor for Blagojevich’s trial in the Illinois State House of Representatives, and a mystery writer who has written a new book, stands for a portrait near the Tribune Tower, August 25, 2009. (Alex Garcia/Chicago Tribune/MCT)
It’s fertile territory ― especially in Illinois, where the impeachment of Gov. Rod Blagojevich was a story that soared to such operatic heights of veniality and comedy owing to the disgraced former governor’s antics. If anybody could exploit those sad shenanigans for literary gain, it would be Ellis, who, when he’s not writing novels, serves as chief legal counsel to Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan. Ellis was the lead prosecutor in Blagojevich’s impeachment trial.
Yet “Breach of Trust” is much more than just a thinly disguised version of reality. (And its plot differs in essential ways from the fate that befell Blagojevich.) It is a rich, entertaining novel about modern crime and punishment, about the shades of gray with which so many aspects of our legal and political systems and the people who administer them are infused.
Kolarich is a terrific protagonist, a guy you root for and worry about and get mad at, too, when he undermines his own efforts by being stubborn and occasionally childish. Still reeling from the death of his wife and child, Kolarich signs up to help federal authorities nab a crooked governor and his slimy staff. Kolarich agrees to tape his dealings with the bad guys. Everything works fine until those bad guys get suspicious.
That’s how Kolarich finds himself in that icebox of a room, wearing only his birthday suit. If the villains find the recording device, Kolarich’s next stop is probably the bottom of the Chicago River or a similar body of water, because Ellis doesn’t name the city. Kolarich’s response to this dangerous pickle is nifty and inventive, emblematic of the first-rate narrative and descriptive skills that Ellis brings to this fast-paced, involving novel.
Now it’s time for the boilerplate, the critic’s version of a Miranda warning to suspects: “Breach of Trust” is not perfect.
It has weak spots, minor flaws. The love scenes have a clumsy paint-by-numbers feel to them. And there is too much repetition in spots; these feel grafted on to the story, added long after the fact, perhaps by an editor who was nervous about the reader’s ability to follow the twists and turns. But the padding isn’t necessary ― Ellis is a superb craftsman. The tale is a snap to follow.
In the best thrillers, you get an education as well as a great show. You learn the ins and outs of a world about which you may know little ― the world of law and politics and corrupt bureaucracies ― and you learn new things about the human soul under stress. Kolarich, questioning a man who possesses crucial information, gives us a quick tour of a guilty conscience: “I thought I saw him smile. But it was not one of those whimsical grins. It was a smile of pain. Bitterness. He was reliving the memory And, I thought, he was deciding to share it with me, something he hadn’t planned to give up. I saw that all the time in interrogations, too. The breakthrough. You get past that initial wall of denial and deception, and inside is a messy gooey mix of truth and emotion. They end up telling you more than you even knew to ask.”
Likewise, in “Breach of Trust” you think you’re signing on for a sharply written, expertly plotted thriller with a wink-and-a-nod relationship to recent events in Illinois politics. In the end, you get that and a lot more: You get a morality tale, bleak and brutal and tender, about a broken man’s hunt for justice.
By Julia Keller, Chicago Tribune (McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)