Those who have been fans of the Michael Kelly mystery series by Michael Harvey will find his new stand-alone thriller, THE INNOCENCE GAME, an interesting and quietly compelling change of pace, both conceptually and stylistically. If Kelly is a literary descendant of Philip Marlowe, the three graduate students who drive this book are descendants of much-loved fictional detectives as well (more on that in a moment) updated for the 21st century and aged just a few years, with more than a touch of darkness added to the background.
THE INNOCENCE GAME focuses on three Medill School of Journalism graduate students who have made the cut for the exclusive and prestigious Innocence Project, which re-evaluates the cases of those who may have been imprisoned for crimes they did not commit. The students are each a case study of sorts all by themselves.
"Those who have been fans of the Michael Kelly mystery series by Michael Harvey will find his new stand-alone thriller, THE INNOCENCE GAME, an interesting and quietly compelling change of pace, both conceptually and stylistically."
Ian Joyce, who provides the first-person narration for a great deal of the book, reveals from the start that he is not quite right. Coming off the heels of personal tragedy, he has some secrets of his own that are slowly revealed as the story unfolds, not the least of which is a quietly hidden talent brought to bear on the mystery that soon consumes the trio. Jake Havens is driven, obsessed, and multi-talented in several disciplines. On the surface, he is a good person to have around but with some sharp and prickly edges to his personality. Sarah Gold seems to be along for the ride as a potential love interest for Joyce --- a situation that surprises no one more than the subdued and somewhat reticent Joyce himself --- but, as with the two seminar participants, there is much more than is immediately evident on the surface.
The case that the trio chooses to examine involves the murder of a boy that occurred 14 years previously. The accused and convicted killer is already dead, yet Havens has received an anonymous note from someone taking credit for the crime, accompanied by a small but important piece of evidence that seems to support the claim. The three begin to follow what is a very cold trail and discovers what appears to be a number of similar murders that have taken place, with a suspect being tried and convicted and subsequently dying in jail. Even more interesting is that there seems to be an element in Cook County law enforcement that does not want any of the cases reopened: evidence goes missing, and the efforts of Joyce, Havens and Gold to uncover new facts while re-evaluating old ones are discouraged. Meanwhile, a mysterious and increasingly malevolent figure watches their efforts from the sidelines, deriving some sadistic pleasure from the manner in which the students move ever closer to him and in greater proximity to danger.
I was somewhat put in the mind of a Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mashup by THE INNOCENCE GAME, advancing the age of the classic protagonists a bit, making them more studious and slightly looser, and adding a dark and sinister twist to the proceedings. Make no mistake, though: this is not a tween or even a young adult novel, given that the tone and subject matter are too dark and adult to include it in those genres. Rather, it’s a book that demonstrates what might have been if the main characters had grown up as strangers and come together perhaps a few years later in life (no fraternal relationship between Joyce and Havens notwithstanding).
Whether or not one discerns such a homage to be present, readers will find themselves quickly and irresistibly being tugged along from the beginning of this tale to the end. And for those fans of Michael Kelly, a couple of the regulars from that series, including The Man Himself, make cameo appearances here.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on May 24, 2013