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Home » Books & writing

Book Review: Michael Harvey’s THE THIRD RAIL

Submitted by on April 6, 2010 – 1:51 am 10 Comments

I’d just schlepped my way through a couple books that were dull and slow-moving so as I picked up Michael Harvey‘s The Third Rail, I thought, “If this doesn’t grab me in three pages, I’m done.” No worries there. The breakneck pace compelled me from the first, third, forty-seventh—all the way to the last page.

In this third novel featuring Chicago P.I. Michael Kelly, he’s on the hunt for a sniper targeting random commuters on an L train and along a busy highway. After the killer (or an accomplice) makes a personal call to Kelly and delivers cryptic clues to his home, the detective starts wondering if the events may be related to an L crash thirty years earlier, one that Kelly happened to be in when he was nine years old. In a plot that never stops hurtling forward and taking unexpected turns, Kelly uncovers nefarious plans involving bio-weapons, greed, corruption and the Catholic Church.

Though I sped through Rail and enjoyed the ride—it reads like a ’70s action flick starring Steve McQueen as Kelly—I realized afterward some things didn’t make sense. Revenge is directed at a blameless person because the blamed party isn’t available, and it’s unclear what a sniper attack on Lake Shore Drive has to do with the 30-year-old L accident that occurred at a different location. (There are other spoilery head-scratchers I can’t discuss.) I even asked my husband to read the book in case I missed something and he could answer some questions for me. He couldn’t.

I think the problem stems from Harvey incorporating aspects of two real, unrelated incidents—a 1977 L accident and a 1993 Pentagon report called “Terror 2000”—into one story and they don’t mesh seamlessly. Throw in the Catholic Church angle and there’s a lot of ground to cover; two separate novels might have been a better idea (Harvey said in this Amazon interview a follow-up is possible). I take no issue with the ending leaving some threads untied—it adds to the sinister feel—but am confused by the lack of clarity and logic of the answers that were provided.

Nerd verdict: Third Rail zips by, but derails a few times along the way



  • jenforbus says:

    Very interesting. I’m not familiar with this series. Have you read the first two books, PCN? Did any of those plot hole issues come up in the previous books?

  • EIREGO says:

    I have read many a book like that, PCN, so I get what you are saying. Tough call for me. I want nothing more than a book I can tear through at breakneck speed, but if it doesn’t make sense at the end, I feel really empty when I am done. Kind of like eating too many Red Vines. Sure they taste good, your mouth has a blast and the label says zero calories and no fat, but I need something filling and nutritional, dammit!

  • READER#9 says:

    Books that pin me to the couch and keep the pages turning until I’m done are wonderful, but you’re right, I need to have the journey worth the time it took to get there. I’m sure we have all had those moments at the end of a story when you find out the bad guy’s reason for wreaking havoc and find out it was for really silly reasons. I have thrown books out the window when that happens.

    Just to be clear though, you aren’t picking on Steve McQueen movies are you? Sounds more like a Chuck Norris film to me anyway.

    • Pop Culture Nerd says:

      The reason for revenge isn’t silly but the retaliation is directed at the wrong person.

      I’m definitely not making fun of McQueen movies. I meant this is something that’s gritty, action-packed, with a hero who gets things done.

  • Maybe I’ll just pencil this one onto The List, PCN. I love the sound of a Steve McQueen kind of tale, but I like the ends to be tied up. Thanks so much for the excellently written review ~ no loose ends there!

  • Carl says:

    I’d suggest you read it again–it all made sense to me.

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