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Former P.I. gives credence to 'Big City, Bad Blood'

| Sunday, Feb. 18, 2007

Sean Chercover has sold encyclopedias, worked as a video editor and car jockey, been a waiter, scuba diver and truck driver. He's written for television, film and magazines.

All of the above play into his debut novel, "Big City, Bad Blood."

Well, maybe not selling encyclopedias.

"I'll try to work that in the next book," says Chercover with a laugh.

While he sprinkles elements of his former occupations throughout the thriller, it is Chercover's work as a private investigator that most informs "Big City, Bad Blood." Set in Chicago, it involves a Hollywood production that runs afoul of the Outfit, a Windy City euphemism for the Mafia. The protagonist, Ray Dudgeon, is called upon to protect the film's location manager, who inadvertently rents a building from a wiseguy. Problem is, it's not the wiseguy's building to rent, and when the real owner returns from Florida, the location manager is worried that his life is in danger.

Chercover knows this territory, having worked as a P.I. in Chicago and New Orleans. But his character crosses over into morally ambiguous territory, with one of the novel's themes being that sometimes doing the right thing entails acts that are less than honorable.

Sometimes, readers think Chercover condones such behavior.

"Ray does some things that are morally questionable that I certainly don't approve of, and wouldn't do," he says. "He's got psychological issues; he's an angry man, and he's got some violence (in him). It's amazing to me that people somehow think I'm responsible for approving of his actions, when I think I make it pretty clear in the book that he's behaving in a way that's not necessarily healthy."

While Ray Dudgeon's case takes some fantastic twists and turns, there is more monotony than action in the life of the average P.I. One of the aspects Chercover highlights is the often adversarial relationship between police and detectives, something he found out firsthand when started practicing the craft.

"I was a 25-year-old kid, and I took the job very seriously," Chercover says. "The police were pretty full of disdain (for me), even though I'd gone through the training and gotten duly licensed. Still, they didn't care for it a whole lot."

In Chicago, at least, police dealt with Chercover on a professional basis. When he moved to New Orleans, cooperation was marginal, at best. Noting that a private investigator is considered an officer of the court and is expected to cooperate with law enforcement, the only way he was able to make any inroads was by using the ancient system of bartering.

"In the real world, a lot of information is traded by way of doing favors for each other," he says. "They can tell you the bare minimum and comply with what they're expected to do, or they can be friendly and supply you with more information. And you need that; you absolutely rely on that goodwill."

Some of the skills Chercover employed as a detective did serve him well when he turned to writing, especially the need to spend long hours at one task. But his tenure as a scriptwriter sometimes impeded his approach to the novel. While it did teach him to use language economically, the demands of television are not always concurrent with literature.

"The downside of writing for television is you often give short shrift to other senses," he says. "Like the sense of smell, which is very important. That's used very rarely in television, unless someone comes across a dead body; then they might react. But in a book, you're inside this character's head, so things like sense of smell, sense of touch, are easily forgotten when you're used to writing for television."

Chercover grew up in Georgia and Toronto. While he likes those areas, there was no doubt where he wanted to set his first novel.

Chicago, he says, is an "incredibly optimistic city, and also corrupt. Its very foundation was built on graft and corruption, and, yet, it also manages to get things done. New Orleans was also built on graft and corruption, but doesn't get things done the way Chicago does." Additional Information:

'Big City, Bad Blood'

Author: Sean Chercover Publisher: William Morrow, $23.95, 294 pages

Book signing

Who: Sean Chercover, with Marcus Sakey When: 7 p.m. Wednesday Admission: Free Where: Joseph-Beth Books, SouthSide Works Details: 412-381-3600

Capsule review

Private investigator Ray Dudgeon seems to be an ordinary middle-aged guy. He likes to have a drink or two, enjoys a good meal, is dating a lovely nurse, has a couple of interesting pals, likes jazz.

Of course, there's another side: Dudgeon's trigger happy, and responsible for a few bodies that have turned up around Chicago. In 'Big City, Bad Blood,' he's protecting a Hollywood type from the Mafia -- or the Outfit, as it's known in Chicago. As the title implies, there are a lot of bruised feelings and a fair amount of carnage. Author Sean Chercover, a former private investigator, knows this turf and gives the story more than enough grit and surprises to sustain interest in this above-average debut that has the potential to be a long-running series.

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