Children of Chicago, by Cynthia Pelayo

When we describe someone as haunted, we usually mean that they exhibit a palpable sadness or sense of guilt. We aren’t usually talking about someone as angry as Lauren Medina, the protagonist of Cynthia Pelayo’s Children of Chicago. Lauren is a very angry woman. Her anger has made her a very dangerous member of the Chicago Police Department. Her anger is a weapon that keeps anyone from looking for its root cause. But then, if people know what was really going on, would they even believe Lauren?

Lauren is haunted by a fairy tale. This is not a metaphor. She is haunted by a character straight out of one of our oldest stories: the Pied Piper. We meet Lauren at the scene of yet another senseless gun crime in one of Chicago’s poorer neighborhoods. As Lauren and her partner scope out the scene and start to take witness statements, Lauren spots a piece of graffiti that frightens her to her core. This graffiti reminds her of her little sister’s drowning, a crime that Lauren refuses to let herself think about. This fear—and the disapproval of her colleagues for her trigger-happiness—adds to the pressure Lauren feels while trying to solve the case. The stress turns the whole book into a pressure cooker.

Children of Chicago moves back and forth through time. In the present, Lauren chases clues about the Pied Piper while her colleagues think she’s unstable. In the past, we see Lauren’s troubled home life and the reasons why she’s so very angry, so much of the time. We also see two young perpetrators after they’ve committed their crime, attempting to appease the Pied Piper and avoid spilling the beans to the cops, their lawyers, and their psychologists. This book never went in the direction I expected it to, even though I recognize the time and narrator shift devices. Pelayo uses them in some very creative ways.

I had some trouble with this book. On the one hand, this book is very original. I really appreciated the supernatural touches. On the other, I struggled with Lauren’s propensity for violence. Recent years have had me questioning the way that police tend to be glorified in mysteries and thrillers. They’re almost always the heroes. Even when they bend the rules, we see them (usually) working towards a greater good. There are strong clues in Children of Chicago that Lauren’s acts of violence are points of conflict with Chicagoans and other members of the police force, but there are so many that I had a hard time believing that Lauren would still be in active service. She should have been benched. This isn’t meant as a criticism of Pelayo, who, as I said, acknowledges how problematic Lauren is. Rather, I just feel surprised at this book, at this time.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

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