Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, there are many books that blur the line between literary fiction and crime fiction. Those books explore much more than just crimes, their motivations, and their investigations. That’s the sort of book that Theresa Schwegel’s standalone The Good Boy is, so let’s turn the spotlight on that novel today.
The novel’s focus is Chicago police officer Pete Murphy, his wife, Sarah, and their children, McKenna and Joel. As the novel begins, the family has recently moved to a new-to-them part of Chicago, and Pete’s recently become a part of the K-9 team (his furry partner is Butch). The changes have all stemmed from an earlier case in which Pete was assigned to protect Judge Katherine ‘Kitty’ Crawford after she received death threats. Those threats resulted from a ruling which, quite indirectly, led to the murder of Felan White, and from the media hype that ended up falling out from that ruling.
One day, Pete and Butch respond to a call and end up stopping Felan White’s twin brother Ja’Kobe. That’s difficult enough, since Ja’Kobe claims it’s harassment and that Murphy is after him because of the other case. Things get more complicated when a very reluctant Pete is persuaded to let Butch search the vehicle for drugs. He alerts and makes an attempt at Ja’Kobe. Pete calls him off, but not before he bites the young man (‘though not at all seriously). Now, Pete knows he’s in for it, and it’s not long before Ja’Kobe and his family start the lawsuit process.
In the meantime, Pete’s eleven-year-old son, Joel, has problems of his own. He feels more or less ignored, so he’s made his own world (more on that shortly). One day, he finds out (admittedly through sneaking and snooping) that his older sister McKenna is planning to go to a party at the home of Zack Fowler, a young man Joel already has good reason to hate and fear. Determined to protect McKenna, Joel gets a few supplies, takes Butch, and goes to the Fowler home.
Joel’s reconnoitering the party, trying to find McKenna, when a group of gang thugs shows up. Before long, there’s trouble. Drugs are exchanged, which puts Butch on high alert. He tries to go for the contraband, one of the partygoers sees him, and there’s a shooting (no – I promise – neither Butch nor Joel is shot). At this, Joel knows Butch will be in trouble; that, plus his fear, spur him and he runs off. After getting clear and calming down, he decides what to do. He’s going to go in search of Judge Crawford, who once jokingly told him she’d defend him if he ever got in trouble. He feels that if he tells her what he knows about the party, she’ll put things right. Together with Butch, Joel goes on the run to try to get to the judge’s office.
In the meantime, Pete’s facing the Ja’Kobe White case, the backlash from the previous case, and trying to protect McKenna from the consequences of being at a party where there was a shooting. When he and Sarah discover that Joel’s gone missing, they are, as you can imagine, frantic. Each has a different way of trying to find their son, and as the two main plot threads weave together, we learn what really happened at the party, and how it connects with the case Pete’s been facing.
This is a gritty novel. I can say without spoiling the story that Joel is not killed. But some of the Chicago areas in which he finds himself are, to say the least, not nice places. And some of the people Pete deals with as he searches, both for his son and for the truth about the shooting, are nasty. Schwegel doesn’t gloss over the harsh realities of drugs, prostitution, gang wars and so on. Chicago can be a very dangerous place.
As much as anything else, this is also the story of the Murphy family. We get an ‘inside look’ at this family’s dynamics, and it’s not always a pretty one. Pete and Sarah have their own problems, and are struggling to find their way back to each other. Each deals with the search for Joel in a different way, and we see how that impacts how they interact. For her part, McKenna is trying to fit in in a new place that she hates, among new people that she wants to like her. She’s bright enough to know what happened to her father’s career, and part of her blames him. And she’s all too aware of the trouble between her parents. But she also depends on her parents, and at her core is a decent person.
Part of the story is told from Joel’s perspective (third person), so we learn quite a bit about him. He has a phenomenal memory, he’s bright, and he’s imaginative. He is also a vulnerable boy who only wants to set things right and go home again. From his perspective, he can’t go to his parents with what he knows about Zack Fowler and the party. The way he sees it, if he does that, he’ll have to tell them the truth about other things that, in his young mind, he doesn’t want to get in trouble for doing. So, to him, the only option is to bear his burden by himself.
The novel also raises some interesting ethical questions. For instance, the Chicago Police Department want Murphy to make the legal tangle with Ja’Kobe White go away. They want him to agree to a settlement, rather than try to prove his case. And that’s not an easy decision, for several reasons. There are other issues, too, that don’t have easy answers.
As I mentioned, this is as much a literary novel as it is a crime novel, and the writing style reflects that. There’s a literary approach to the narrative, and there are explorations of character that are sometimes tangential. Readers who prefer a straightforward, linear story will notice this.
The same could be said for the story’s structure. It’s not a strictly chronological structure, although it roughly tells the story in sequence. The point of view shifts mostly between Pete’s and Joel’s perspective, with the shifts being clear to the reader. You might say it’s the same larger story told from two different angles. It’s told in the present tense; readers who prefer past tense will notice this.
One more point is in order here. There is an incident at the beginning of the novel that will be disturbing to those who love animals. It doesn’t involve Butch, but pet lovers will want to know this.
The Good Boy is an unvarnished look at some of Chicago’s underside. It’s equally unvarnished in its depiction of family dynamics, the pressure of being a police officer, media hype, race relations and the struggle to get through it all. It features a copper who’s just trying to do the right thing, whatever that is, and a young boy who’s doing the same, the best he can. But what’s your view? Have you read The Good Boy? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 10 October/Tuesday, 11 October – Inside the Black Horse – Ray Berard
Monday, 17 October/Tuesday, 18 October – The Gentlemen’s Club – Jen Shieff
Monday, 24 October/Tuesday, 25 October – The Fixer – John Daniell