Novel Within A Novel Continues 'Read With Me' Series

Sep 18, 2017

A Fine Line is a novel featuring Sebastian Drake, a former reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

A Fine Line is also the name of Drake's novel, which features Jack Cannon, a cop struggling to keep his job with the Chicago Police Department.

Drake's book is still a blank screen when we meet him in his lonely, messy apartment. Later, as Drake makes progress, we get a hint of his pre-journalism past. Nevertheless, Drake camouflages his history by giving alter-ego Cannon a somewhat different background; Cannon is on leave while officials investigate him for a recent incident.

Cannon had taken the shot at precisely the moment he saw the silhouette of the man with his gun drawn and pointed at him. It had all happened so fast, and he had soon realized that the downed man was not a man at all but instead was a sixteen-year-old and somewhat mentally-challenged kid, and the gun the kid had pointed at him was a full-size automatic, black, and constructed of cheap plastic.

The plots for these parallel stories take off when Drake and Cannon are visited by wealthy strangers who offer thousands of dollars to investigate cold cases. The main story, and story within the story, were created by Chicago writer Dan Burns.

Burns's novel -- the first in a planned series of Sebastian Drake books -- is our Read With Me selection for September.

The main plot revolves around Drake's investigation of an unsolved murder which happened 10 years ago. Sarah Mitchell, a senator's daughter, disappeared, and her body was never found. The only evidence of a crime was Sarah's severed hand, found at the Lincoln Park Conservatory. Sarah's brother Engel hires Drake as a private detective.

"For some reason, Engel knows all about Drake's past and knows that he has the exact skills he needs to solve this particular murder," Burns said, "and we learn throughout the story what those skills are."

The money is good, but Drake has another reason to participate. "Drake thinks that this job of solving the murder can help him get through his writing block," Burns said. "Getting out in the world -- investigating this case -- will help him get his book started."

In the video below, Burns reads the opening chapter in which Drake meets Engel:

Burns says Drake sprang to life eight years ago in a short story. "I sat him at a table in a coffee shop, a man walks in, and I wanted to see what happens," said the author. The story, "Letting Go," became Chapter 2 of the novel:

"Mind if I join you?" the man asked. He stood by the chair opposite Drake and waited.

Drake looked out the window and ignored the man.

"Excuse me, can I join you?"

Drake turned away from the life being played out in the street and, now agitated, looked up at the man. He scanned the room then returned his gaze to the stranger standing before him. "Are you serious?"

"You're Sebastian Drake."

"And you're interrupting. There are plenty of other tables."

Before another word was spoken, the man sat down across from Drake. He gave Drake the once-over, sizing him up, and he took a sip of his coffee while continuing to look directly at him.

Drake returned the gaze, the corner of his mouth twitching, his jaw clenched.

"You don't recognize me."

"Should I?" Drake asked, his patience thin ... The man sipped his coffee again then set it down. "I need to talk to you."

"I need you to move along."

"If you insist." The man reached inside his suit jacket, removed something from the inside pocket, and slid his hand down while it was still behind the veil of the lapel. He continued gazing into Drake's sunglasses. There was a loud click.

Minutes later, Drake walks away with a nice little prize -- a Walther PPK – and the reader understands that Drake has combat experience.

"When I was done with that, I thought, 'Well, what's next?'" Burns said, "and I wrote a screenplay for a feature film with Drake in the lead role."

The screenplay for A Fine Line won the Best Screenplay award at the 2014 Naperville Independent Film Festival; the film has yet to be produced.

Drake, a boozy loner with a mysterious past, ticks all the boxes for a classic noir hero. Cigarettes? Check. Bourbon? Check. Dame in bed? Check. If the author added a fedora, Drake would fit in with Dashiell Hammet’s Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe.

"I have this great office in downtown La Grange that would fit in a 1950s noir movie," Burns said. "You open up the door – it's a glass door – there's a nice little reception area, and in the back is an office where the detective would normally be."

Burns says the setting sparks his imagination, as does his library, which is filled with classic and contemporary favorites. "I read an awful lot of the noir genre and mystery genre," he said. "It gives me a good perspective on what writing was like in each of those time periods and what readers are looking for in those periods, and I just try to blend them together."

In the novel, Burns has Drake visit landmarks in various Chicago neighborhoods, such as a three-story stone house on the North Shore that belongs to Engel. Burns says he grew up on the North Side, but wanted to include buildings he wasn't familiar with.

"I just got in my car and drove around," Burns said. "I spent a lot of time at the [Lincoln Park] Conservatory, parking in that back lot and walking out to the front area where the open green space is." This place where police found Sarah Mitchell's hand is full of details any author would want to share, such as the gardener's work area which "smelled of moist earth" and "resembled a manicured jungle."

However, Burns reveals these details on an as-needed basis while keeping the dialogue front and center. During Drake's first visit to the Conservatory, Burns keeps the description spare as his protagonist stands outside waiting for someone:

"This is quite a day, Mr. Drake."

Drake turned around.

Chief Peters walked toward him.

"Hey, Chief. Thanks for agreeing to meet me."

"I guess I should thank you for the courtesy call. Frankly, I didn't expect to hear from you, didn't expect to hear about your investigation, until you crossed someone and I got the call from the brass above telling me to get you in line."

"It was your case," Drake said. "It's still your case."

Chief Peters nodded. "So, what's on your mind?"

"I guess the simple question is, how could you have closed the case?"

Chief Peters thought about the question, his hands in the front pockets of his dark gabardine trench coat, and he looked around to see who was close. "Sometimes, you just have to let it go."

Dan Burns is the treasurer of the Chicago Writers Association. A Fine Line is his third book. His website includes this trailer for his latest novel.

Next month, our "Read With Me" series turns to short fiction with A Woman Walked Into the Bar by Linda H. Heuring.

As always, we welcome your comments below. And if you talk about these authors and books on social media, please use #WNIJReadWithMe.