Jack Fredrick­son of­fers an­other smart mys­tery

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - BOOKS - By Lloyd Sachs Lloyd Sachs, a free­lancer, writes reg­u­larly about crime fic­tion for the Chicago Tri­bune.

Milo Rigg, the crime re­porter in Jack Fredrick­son’s smart, new mys­tery, “The Black Cage,” is the ob­vi­ous choice to cover the mur­der of two young miss­ing sis­ters whose naked, frozen bod­ies were found dumped in a ravine in sub­ur­ban Cook County. As a star colum­nist for the Chicago Ex­am­iner, Rigg in­ves­ti­gated the sen­sa­tional mur­der 15 months ear­lier of three teenage boys whose naked bod­ies were dumped in a Chicago for­est pre­serve.

But the 35-year-old Rigg is no longer at the Ex­am­iner, the fic­ti­tious No. 3 pa­per in town. Af­ter rag­ing against the po­lice on any and all me­dia plat­forms for their bun­gled in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the boys’ still-un­solved killing — turn­ing off read­ers in the process — he was ex­iled by his fi­nan­cially shaky em­ployer to the shabby, pink-painted digs of the Ex­am­iner’s sub­ur­ban “stuffer.”

Stripped of his by­line, Rigg now works part time on “mean­ing­less, sub­ur­ban, safe lit­tle sto­ries.” He drives in three days a week from the con­verted rail­road car in the In­di­ana dunes in which he lived with his wife be­fore she was killed two years ear­lier in a ran­dom, drive-by shoot­ing on the Dan Ryan.

When an ed­i­tor de­cides he needs his ace re­porter back in the fold, Rigg is ready. He has never stopped por­ing through stacks of notes on the boys’ deaths. His re­turn is not

good news for the crooked Cook County sher­iff and the morally com­pro­mised med­i­cal ex­am­iner, one or both of whom may have played a role in the dis­ap­pear­ance of a key wit­ness in the girls’ case.

But Deputy Jeremy Glet, whose rep­u­ta­tion took a ma­jor hit when he was cap­tured repo­si­tion­ing the dead boys’ bod­ies, “preen­ing” for TV cam­eras be­fore foren­sics ar­rived on the scene, wel­comes the chance to spar with Rigg again. He prom­ises his old jour­nal­is­tic neme­sis that he is onto some­thing “ex­plo­sive.”

Fredrick­son, a Hins­dale-based writer ac­claimed for his Windy City se­ries fea­tur­ing pri­vate in­ves­ti­ga­tor Vlodek “Dek” El­strom, is a sneaky stylist. On the one hand, he deftly engages in clas­sic, hard­boiled tropes: “He doubted any­one about to kill him­self would open a beer and take only a tiny sip be­fore pulling the trig­ger.” And though the beau­ti­ful su­per­vi­sor who se­duces Rigg may be the stuff of fan­tasy — she keeps her string of pearls on in bed — not many jour­nal­ism thrillers get as much right as this one does.

Rigg’s in­serted sto­ries read like ac­tual re­portage. Fredrick­son skill­fully doc­u­ments the anx­i­eties of a threat­ened in­dus­try, and you can’t beat de­tails like the burned-out dome light in Rigg’s Taurus, which tells us he spends too many nights work­ing in­side it.

For all that, “The Black Cage” boasts a sub­tle mod­ernist streak. If most crime nov­els cut sharp, crooked paths to their res­o­lu­tion, this one moves slowly, as if find­ing its way through a fog. There are no sud­den break­throughs to pro­vide ex­cite­ment; rev­e­la­tions ar­rive via the lo­cal line, not the ex­press.

Much of the time, Rigg seems to be caught up in his re­cur­ring pre-dawn night­mare, in which his wife’s arms beckon to him from be­hind the bars of a black cage. Ul­ti­mately, that un­set­tling im­age will con­nect to the mur­ders. If in the early parts of the novel the young vic­tims get a bit lost in the nar­ra­tive shuf­fle, their ab­sence ul­ti­mately leaves a deep im­print.

‘The Black Cage’ By Jack Fredrick­son, Sev­ern House, 224 pages, $28.99

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