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The Innocence Game by Michael Harvey

The Innocence Game by Michael Harvey

The Innocence Game by Michael Harvey (Knopf, 2013) is a somewhat overwrought thriller which pitches a simple idea into lofty literary territory but misses its target. Let’s start with the idea. America actually had a period of civilised behaviour between 1972 and 1976 when the practice of capital punishment was suspended. Unfortunately, the country reverted to barbarism in 1976 when the Supreme Court decided it was morally acceptable for states to kill people. From 1976 to 2011, 1,264 people have been executed with Texas being the least merciful, terminating 474 people. As of 2012, California has the most people on death row. Some 721 people are backed-up in the system because the state has had a moratorium on executions in place since 2006. As a percentage of population, more black men are executed than any other race — on the gender front, only twelve women have been executed since 1976. Against this background, it’s not surprising that some lawyers and groups of concerned citizens should have begun to champion the causes of many who are on death row. Some campaign simply on the ground that capital punishment is inherently immoral. Others reinvestigate the crimes alleged to have been committed, seeking evidence of innocence that would justify reopening the cases. For example, the Innocence Project seeks to exonerate wrongly convicted people through the use of DNA evidence. So far it has secured the release of 311 people now acknowledged wrongly convicted.

This book features three top journalism students who are enrolled on a special summer elective run by Professor Judy Zombrowski, a Pulitzer Prize winner who teaches at the Medhill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Chicago. Our three students are Ian Joyce who’s the first-person narrator but may not be entirely reliable, Jake Havens who’s one of these prickly brainy people, and Sarah Gold who may just be along as the young woman for both young men to covet. The professor who would prefer to be addressed as Z has a number of cases short-listed for the trio to investigate, but Jake hijacks the seminar group by introducing a case of his own. Apparently someone has claimed to be the killer in a cold case and offered evidence which may prove liability. Unfortunately, the case falls outside Z’s parameters for acceptance because the accused is dead. Not surprisingly, our trio make this case the cornerstone of their research effort.

Michael Harvey

Michael Harvey

As a result of their efforts, they soon believe they have uncovered evidence of similar cases but local law enforcement officers indicate they prefer the cases not be reopened. More suggestively, evidence goes missing from the supposedly secure store. We also have a stalker who follows our trio around and watches whether they are going to be able to identify him. So what we have in essence is three amateur detectives let lose on a cold case. They are too old for this to be considered a young adult reinvention of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, but there’s a slightly similarity in their initially naive approach to the task. Indeed, at first, it’s all too easy. Within a few minutes of scouting around a new crime in a wooded area, our team has found the body of the young boy who has gone missing. So Chicago’s finest came, presumably leaving their tracker dogs behind, and walked the ground. But it never occurred to them to try looking in a nearby cave. Similarly these wunderkind are almost immediately able to identify a witness who can demolish the prosecution case on the jeans allegedly worn by the killer. Naturally, the police are never interested in exculpatory evidence. It’s this type of idiocy that spoils the book. Young investigators do with ease what the best in the police force find impossible because said police are incompetent or corrupt.

Worse is the tone of the book. It’s written in a slightly minimalist style, often with short chapters, but it’s obviously attempting to ape a Raymond Chandler style of cleverness. Sadly, Michael Harvey does not have the literary skill to write a Marlowe book with three protagonists. What we get are jarring notes when phrases obviously intended to be read as intelligently flip (sorry, that’s a faint tautology) turn out to be excruciatingly shallow. Like, “The pile of hair parted itself, revealing a considerable length of nose and eyes of violent blue.” “He had thick shoulders and a long jaw covered by a blond scruff of beard.” or “His voice was ragged, like a car knocking through its low end of gears.”

It would be good to find an author who shines when he writes about his own area of expertise. He’s a law graduate and now a journalist. He’s more than familiar with the Medhill Innocence Project. He has everything going for him to write an engrossing book about uncovering evidence to exonerate those convicted of serious offences, particularly when the death penalty is in play. Unfortunately, this effort proves rather facile and uninvolving. The plot is, to put it mildly, clunky and depends on too many easy results and unscientific assumptions. If a book is to some extent going to turn on forensic evidence, the least the author should do is get the science right. Taken as a whole, the plot is quite convoluted and, at times, difficult to follow. The characterisation leaves a lot to be desired. I can’t say I was interested in any of the three. As to the prose. . . let’s just say it rubbed me up the wrong way and pass on to the sad conclusion that I really don’t think The Innocence Game is very good. In better hands, a plot following on from these ideas exploring the problems with the death penalty could be good. This is not really worth reading.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

  1. August 16, 2013 at 10:54 pm

    That’s too bad, because it seems like an interesting premise. Personally I find the death penalty to be moral (there are certain crimes for which death is the only just punishment), but the criminal justice system is messed up enough that in practice many innocent people have been sentenced to death. The most just compromise I see is commuting death sentences to Life Without Remotest Possibility Of Parole. Unfortunately, you are right; the Incompetent/Corrupt Law Enforcement gets overplayed today, to the point where Innocent if Presumed Guilty and Super Competent Amateurs have become hackneyed cliches. They can still be done right, but they need to be done carefully.

    • August 17, 2013 at 1:21 am

      I actually found the experience of reading this deeply frustrating. The initial chapters give the impression the book is going to be about the process of proving the innocence of one or more people currently in jail, except that all gets dumped as the dirty police angle gets played up and we have a real serial killer stalking the trio. It all devolves into a formulaic thriller with cardboard characters doing things to advance the plot.

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