Jack Fredrickson offers another smart mystery
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