If you didn’t know Theresa Schwegel was the author of four intriguing and often hard-boiled crime novels, you might easily ignore her latest works thanks to its innocuous title. The fact that it involves a boy and his dog — as depicted on the cover — doesn’t help either.
But don’t let any of that fool you. THE GOOD BOY is, in fact, the author’s most probing, complex and affecting crime novel to date.
Officer Pete Murphy’s career with the Chicago Police Department was rocked by scandal, and now he serves K-9 duty with his “partner” Butch, a narcotics-trained German Shepard/Malinois mix. When off-duty, Butch is best friends with Joel, Pete’s 11-year old son.
One night, Joel takes Butch and secretly follows McKenna, his rebellious 14-year-old sister, to a party at the house of a neighborhood bully. When Butch smells drugs, he instinctively springs into action; gunshots are fired. Joel and Butch flee the scene and are soon on the run from the bad guys.
When Pete discovers his son and dog are missing, he immediately begins his own unauthorized search, fearing that Joel is the victim of criminals who are looking for some serious payback from Officer Murphy. Meanwhile, Joel and Butch struggle to stay alive on the Chicago streets and one step ahead of those who might be on their trail as they head towards a secret destination.
Schwegel shifts chapters and points-of-view back and forth between Pete and Joel. This is how we eventually learn the details of the scandal that derailed Pete’s career and set his personal life and family on edge. We also learn about Joel’s life as a lonely but acutely perceptive outsider, and why Butch is his best friend.
Schwegel’s prose is deeply insightful and emotional, but also cynically hard-boiled when the character or situation dictates. Her paragraphs are often a swirl of cascading thoughts and sensations, yet they effectively portray Pete’s personal frustration and Joel’s isolation. At the same time, she manages to move the story forward as Joel, Butch and Pete make their way through the maze of Chicago’s varied neighborhoods.
The various characters and dialogue are presented with diamond-sharp clarity. Fortunately — and to her infinite credit — Schwegel never allows Butch to be anything more than a dog. Though highly trained and disciplined, Butch has no miraculous, anthropomorphic insights that save the day at the last minute. (In other words: Butch is good, but he’s no Lassie.)
THE GOOD BOY succeeds in being about a deeply fractured family, a coming-of-age story and a deeply felt and highly suspenseful crime tale all at once. As such, it could easily appeal to those who otherwise don’t enjoy crime fiction, much like the excellent stand-alone novels of Laura Lippman.
So force yourself to look past the seemingly dull title — which takes on an ironic double-meaning as the novel reaches its conclusion — and treat yourself to this wonderfully multilayered work from an author who gets better with each successive work. —Alan Cranis