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Originally published Sunday, May 12, 2013 at 6:10 AM

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‘The Innocence Game’: three students, a crime and a Raymond Chandler overdose

Michael Harvey’s Chicago-based crime novel tells the story of three Northwestern University students investigating a child’s death. Harvey appears May 16 at Seattle Mystery Bookshop and Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Michael Harvey

The author of “The Innocence Game” will sign books at noon Thursday at Seattle Mystery Bookshop (206-587-5737 or seattlemystery.com). He will appear at 7 p.m. Thursday at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park (206-366-3333 or thirdplacebooks.com).

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‘The Innocence Game’

by Michael Harvey

Knopf, 256 pp., $24.95

In Michael Harvey’s latest crime novel, three Northwestern University journalism students court danger while investigating the long-ago death of a child.

There’s Ian, who is smart — “I’d managed a nearly perfect score on my LSAT” — and mysterious, but has something weird going on with his mouth. He says, “I smiled thickly,” and I have no idea what he means, but I feel bad for him. He says, “My response was a grin that was lopsided and leaking at the edges,” and I want to hand him a rag. Ian is edgy. A fellow student mentions a town and says, “It’s where I’m from,” to which Ian, agitated, says: “What does that mean?” I mull Ian’s question, thinking: They must have dumbed down the LSAT.

There’s Jake, also smart; he graduated from the University of Chicago Law School, top of his class. But he doesn’t want to be a lawyer. Jake is tough. He fights a Northwestern football player and puts him “on his belly” in three seconds. (What does this say about Northwestern football?) Jake gets a parking ticket, throws it in the gutter and says, “---- them.” Jake is an outlaw.

And then there’s Sarah, who is pretty. Ian says “her skin was perfect,” her chin “perfectly square,” her legs “perfectly proportioned.” She sounds pretty perfect, until Ian, smitten, says her smile “threatened to melt the wallpaper off the walls,” a description that seems more suited to bad breath and has me really, really questioning that “nearly perfect” LSAT score.

Ian walks into a cellar and says, “It was pitch-black, but my feet walked the space like it was my own coffin.” Let’s see. Coffins? Not real big. Not much room for walking “the space.” The people inside coffins? Dead. Unless they’re zombies, they’re not walking.

It’s hard to take page after page of this, but when confronted with descriptions that sound like Mad Libs — “angry tooth,” “wintry grin” — you take comfort where you can; you read “the dry whispers of dead children,” just grateful the whispers weren’t wet.

I wanted to like this book. The real-life students at Northwestern, just north of Chicago, have done dramatic work, helping free innocent men from Death Row. So why did Harvey — author of a crime-fiction series featuring private investigator Michael Kelly — have to go full cartoon?

I blame Raymond Chandler. He wrote the kinds of lines — “His ears were large and might have flapped in a high wind” — that lesser wordsmiths still try to match. I wish they would stop.

And I wish Harvey could have at least gotten the science right. Many wrongful convictions trace to bogus forensics, with bite-mark evidence among the worst. But Harvey describes multiple bite marks, spread across 15 years, yielding a “nearly perfect” match — the kind of absurd overreach that leads to the kind of dubious convictions that Northwestern students, the real ones, wind up exposing as bunk.

Ken Armstrong: karmstrong@seattletimes.com.

A Seattle Times reporter, he is the co-author of “Scoreboard, Baby: A Story of College Football, Crime, and Complicity,” winner of the 2011 Edgar Award for best fact crime book.

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