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Chicago Tribune

South Side nightmare: Debut novel set in and around Chicago tops the latest mysteries and thrillers

By Paul Goat Allen, Chicago Tribune
March 22, 2008

Calumet City
Charlie Newton's debut novel, "Calumet City," a neo-noir crime thriller set predominantly in and around Chicago, is the literary equivalent of speeding down an amusement park water slide only to find an industrial strength meat grinder awaiting you at the bottom: By the time you realize what's happening, it's already much too late to turn back.

As the novel begins, Patti Black, a 38-year-old "ghetto cop" who patrol's the South Side, has her hands full dealing with the repercussions of shooting and killing two young gangbangers in a botched stolen-property bust. To complicate matters, it's an election year, a gunman just tried to assassinate the mayor, an assistant state's attorney has been kidnapped and the body of a long-dead woman—manacled and buried alive—has been found in the basement wall of a tenement.

Maverick police officer, generous helpings of blood and guts, subtle social commentary and political intrigue—sounds like pretty standard cop-drama fare so far.But here Newton steers his story line off its conventional tracks to a nightmare landscape replete with gut-churning horror. The dead woman in the basement turns out to be Black's abusive foster mother, the missing assistant state's attorney briefly lived in the same foster home, and whether Black chooses to admit it or not, more than a few sadistic crimes are eventually going to be connected to long-buried secrets from her past, a gruesome history that goes back to a foster home in Calumet City where a monster named Roland Ganz sexually brutalized children between broadcasts of Rev. Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's "The PTL Club."

When the sick specter of Ganz reappears in Black's life after decades of silence, she vows to track him down and kill him. Her search leads her straight back to hell—a.k.a. Calumet City:

"Picture transients, dead elm trees, bust-out strip joints, and pawnshops with no customers. Add smokestack winter all year long, and you're in Calumet City."

Chicago-born Newton's debut is anything but predictable; with a story line that includes tent-show evangelists, the ghosts of Capone-era gangsters, outlaw motorcycles gangs and an unlikely serial killer, a line from the novel describes the plot perfectly: " 'There's a boatload of strange here, for sure.' "

Readers may find Black's actions a bit melodramatic at points, but Newton's intimate portrayal of Chicago, especially the city's geographic demarcation ("the Southside says it works for a living, while the Northside pays five dollars for coffee and has maids to open their windows"), is a compelling and fitting backdrop to the dichotomy that is her life. "Calumet City" is an intense and explosive read destined to become a cult classic.