‘Suitcase Charlie’ a mystery with Jewish shadings

I’d like to tell you about a book that’s somewhat of an enigma: It actually borders on humor in the way it’s presented, but the story is dead (and I use that word because it truly fits the text) serious about matters that are important to us as Jews — especially since this is so soon after Kristallnacht.
Let’s see what I can tell you without giving away too much, because I really hope you’ll read it for yourself. It’s a very unusual addition to the mounds of previous writings that we call, collectively, “Jewish books.”
This is “Suitcase Charlie,” named for the way in which someone transported his murder victims — three of them — all young children. Not necessarily Jewish children, but there was a clue that defied meaning at first, yet couldn’t be ignored and was finally interpreted. On the soles of each small corpse’s feet were triangles — on one, pointing up; on the other, pointing down. A severed Jewish star.
The setting is Chicago, and if you ever lived in that city, you will identify throughout with the specifics as they’re woven by name into the story: the neighborhoods, the parks, the streets, the landmarks. But even if you don’t know the city, you’ll always be interested in, sometimes even amused by, the lead characters: a pair of policemen, partners assigned to do some legwork on this perplexing and frightening case. (No — not the suitcases — although that word also has a perplexing, frightening connotation here.)
Marvin Bondarowicz is Jewish; Hank Purcell is not. They are beat cops reporting to Lieutenant O’Herlihy, and we readers follow the first two as they follow — or don’t follow — the direction of the third. We learn how different they are at home from how they are on the street, which is pure old Chicago in every way. They break the rules, get called out, even threatened with being fired, but they persevere as the people they are, the only way they could ever be. So their search becomes as gritty as the city itself, and the two pull the reader along with their diverse, sometimes dangerous and sometimes diverting, actions and interactions.
“Suitcase Charlie” runs to 314 pages of the swiftest reading ever — the writer’s command of American/Chicago vernacular helps move you along at a quick clip through a lot of fast action. And that may be somewhat of a surprise coming from this author, because John Guzlowski was born in a displaced persons camp to Polish parents who met while slave-laboring under the Nazis.
Somehow, that little family wound up in Chicago, in a part of town that gave Guzlowski plenty of material to spark this story. As he grew up, he saw houses burned and people beaten and killed in the street. But he overcame in the biggest way. He graduated from the University of Illinois with a B.A. in English, then went on to get both M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Purdue, and finally became professor of English literature at Eastern Illinois University before retiring to Virginia, where he’s now a literary critic and poet of an award-winning collection, “Echoes of Tattered Tongues.” In much of his other writing — and there has been much — Guzlowski recalls those who didn’t survive the war. But in this one, he’s honoring those who didn’t survive Chicago.
The clue on the book’s back cover is not just an invitation; it’s a scene-setting puller-inner: “May 30, 1956: On a quiet corner of a working-class neighborhood, a suitcase is discovered…inside is the body of a young boy, hacked to pieces…Two hard-driving detectives are assigned to the case…Purcell still has flashbacks ten years after the Battle of the Bulge; Bondarowicz, a wisecracking Jewish cop who loves trouble as much as he loves booze…Their investigation takes them through the dark streets of Chicago in search of an even darker secret…”
This mystery will be solved on Dec. 4, with the book’s official publication.

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  1. Steven Leek

    “So soon after Kristallnatch?” 12 years later is hardly “So soon.” Otherwise, good stuff!

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