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Reviews Sun Nov 24 2013

A Thriller in Black, White and Green from E.C. Diskin

Abby Donovan, protagonist of first-time novelist E.C. Diskin's The Green Line, is a youngish, rather naïve white lawyer transplanted to Chicago from Georgia. She is so overworked and easily confused that when she tries to take the train home one evening she accidentally gets on the Green Line instead of the Brown Line that would whisk her to her Wrigleyville townhouse, and promptly falls asleep.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Kindle-5cover050813.jpgWithin minutes of waking and disembarking at the Cicero stop in a panic, she encounters a diverse assortment of black people. They include:

  • An old woman ranting about how she would like to shoot all white people

  • Two leering "thugs" in "tattoos, gold chains, and baggy clothes" who immediately start to menace her

  • A crowd of 10 young black men, also wearing the telltale gold chains and baggy clothes, who also begin pursuing her at once

  • A couple of drunks

  • A drug-addicted prostitute, soon to be murdered

Add in some pregnant teenage welfare queens, and the ultimate nightmare fantasia of the white urbanophobe would be complete.

Now, to be fair: the book was started in 2004, and maybe things were different back then. Maybe Diskin, who lives in Oak Park, has simply had much worse transit luck than I have. (For several years I commuted regularly through the area at various hours by train and bike, and while any train line has its unsavory characters, this atmosphere of constant threat was far from my experience.) And Abby does stop to consider whether her panic might be tinged with racism.

Diskin also seems to have recognized that this picture may raise some eyebrows, because after thrusting her protagonist into this hotbed of heavily racialized vice, she proceeds to make sure that every villain in the book's primary criminal conspiracy--that is, the one responsible for the murdered prostitute--is white. The head honcho is not only a blond, rich, soulless hunk, but also a coddled mama's boy, an overt racist and xenophobe, a sexual harasser of his young assistant, and, to top it all off, a hater of children. Diskin might plausibly claim to be an equal-opportunity caricaturist.

The spoiler-averse should note that none of this information gives away any twists. This is a thriller, not a detective story, and readers learn nearly every important point of the crime story long before the heroine puts the pieces together. The fun is strictly in watching with bated breath as Abby is imperiled time and time again and wondering whether the villain or some rescuer will reach her first.

Her first rescuer is the sole non-black person she can find on that bad night in Garfield Park, a Iraqi convenience-store owner named Ali. Her second is Marcus, an undercover internal investigator for the Chicago Police Department. It's clear that both men are very good not only because they come to Abby's rescue but because they have tragic pasts, as Abby does herself; indeed, all the main characters are so freighted with backstory it's surprising they can walk upright.

For Ali, the story only gets more tragic. First, the police attempt to take his building, claiming drugs were being dealt inside the store, and not long after he turns up dead. At this point Abby is moved to investigate and, thankfully, begins to reveal herself as more than a shrinking Southern belle. When Marcus contacts her, the two team up to reveal a scam run by some very bad cops enabled by a perhaps-too-flexible tool of the law: civil forfeiture.

At this point, too, Diskin begins to write with far more ease and authority than when she's trying to depict the casual conversation of young black men or convince us that a Chicago cop, or any human, would speak of "some woman that lives in one of the few remaining projects by Cellular Field." A former Chicago attorney herself, she translates legal concepts deftly into the world of her novel. And she's chosen a meaty one to place at the center of her plot. Civil forfeiture allows the government to essentially convict a piece of property itself--a building, say, or a vehicle--as an instrument of crime, and confiscate it regardless of whether its owner can be connected to the crime. (A 2010 Reason article notes that civil forfeiture proceedings "often have odd case titles, such as U.S. v. Eight Thousand Eight Hundred and Fifty Dollars or U.S. v. One 1987 Jeep Wrangler.") The fate of that property? Enriching the agency that seized it.

It's easy to see the potential for abuse, and the practice has often come under scrutiny since it began to be widely adopted in the mid-'80s; a 2000 national reform act raised the burden of proof for federal cases but left identical state laws untouched. In Illinois, enforcement agencies are not even required to account for property seized this way, and probable cause is still enough to seize it. And as a New Yorker piece from this summer attests, these laws continue to wreak havoc on the lives of people who have done nothing more than live with a relative who breaks a law or be pulled over en route to making a large cash purchase.

So there's an activist impulse hiding at the heart of The Green Line that one might not expect from the first few scenes. Another redeeming quality is the genuine excitement that builds in the book's second half as the bad guys concoct ever-more-elaborate schemes to get Abby and Marcus out of their hair. The plot zags through a Chicago that feels a little too small to fully recognize--the main characters keep running into one another all over town, and an old friend reappears just at the moment he happens to be working on a pro bono case relevant to the mystery in which Abby is embroiled. One eleventh-hour coincidence in particular is so contrived that I momentarily wished for a paperback copy to fling across the room. But the increasingly frantic game of tag between heroes and villains does pull you along, even if there's little doubt who the victors will be.

Diskin has done some canny marketing after self-publishing The Green Line, including drawing in initial readers with a free Kindle download and even directly soliciting customer reviews on the book's last page. It's worked: in a turn that ought to give hope to self-publishers everywhere, one of Amazon's house imprints, Thomas & Mercer, has picked up the title for a full reissue slated for Nov. 26.

One could wish, as Diskin embarks on a promising career, that she develop a sharper ear for dialogue and a deeper feel for the city; one might even suggest a prolonged regimen of riding the Green Line just listening to people talk. But she will probably not need these things to succeed, and if she continues to draw on her law background and gift for zippy plotting, she will continue to please the average suspense reader very well.

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