Mystery writer's death as grisly as his fiction

January 19, 1997
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

Was the recent death of mystery writer Eugene Izzi suicide or murder?

His body was found on Dec. 7 , hanging from the 14th floor window of his Chicago office. He was wearing a bulletproof vest, carried a set of brass knuckles and a disabling chemical spray and had a .38-caliber revolver in his office. His body was found on a Saturday morning, dangling over one of the city's busiest streets, Michigan Avenue. The rope led from Izzi's neck inside the building to the leg of his office desk.

Chicago police investigators were perplexed. Was it a homicide meant to look like a suicide or a suicide meant to look like murder? There were suggestions that Izzi, 43, was trying to direct the investigation from the grave, was trying to make his suicide look like murder.

Investigators found transcripts and notes describing threats Izzi had received shortly before his death. Local newspapers reported that Izzi told a retired Chicago cop about threats from an Indiana militia group. Izzi claimed to have infiltrated the group while researching material for a book and had angered some of its members. Izzi apparently took the threats seriously and moved his wife and two sons out of their home to a safe location. Izzi had taken to sleeping in his office with a gun nearby.

But was all this about the Indiana militia just a story? Maybe, maybe not.

Investigators also found an unpublished novel bearing striking similarities to the author's own final chapter in three computer disks stuck in his pants pocket. The manuscript describes a Chicago mystery writer attacked in his downtown office by militia members who loop a noose around his neck, tie the rope to the metal desk and throw him from the 14th floor.

But in the manuscript, the victim survives the murder attempt, hoists himself back up the rope, grabs the gun and kills the bad guys.

Police wondered whether Izzi killed himself accidentally while acting out the hanging to give his novel more realistic details. Chilling thought. The other idea is this: Izzi tried to meld fiction with reality by committing suicide. It's this latter theory that police have decided fits.

Last week the Cook County medical examiner's office issued a statement saying Izzi's death was suicide. The author, a steelworker before turning to fiction writing, had been on antidepressants and was seeing a psychiatrist. Dr. Mitra Kalekar of the medical examiner's office said it was a review of Izzi's novel-in-progress that led her to believe his death was suicide.

"The manuscript was like a suicide note," she said. "It was like a script of his own suicide."

No matter how he died, mystery fans are left without an exciting, prolific crime writer.

"His works are graphic, violent, use rough language, and are not very complimentary to women," according to an Evanston, Ill., librarian who compiled a list of Chicago crime and mystery writers.

I recently read "Prime Roll," a 1990 Izzi novel that moves between Chicago and Atlantic City. It's about compulsive gamblers, mob figures, and macho men trying to out-hustle each other. Frankly, I found the plot confusing. But I still enjoyed the book. I tried to figure out how Izzi did his research. He obviously spent a lot of time in casinos and a lot of time playing 21 and shooting craps. But his characters were flat and the novel wandered.

Still, I understand Izzi was a fascinating person.

"No author, no matter who it might be from Dick Francis to Tony Hillerman, was as charismatic with fans," said Judy Duhl, owner of Scotland Yard Books in upscale Winnetka outside Chicago where Izzi had appeared at several readings.

His works include "Bad Guys," (1988), "The Booster," (1989), "Eighth Victim," (1988) "Invasions," (1990), "King of The Hustlers," (1989), "Tony's Justice," (1993) and "Tribal Secrets," (1992).

Izzi grew up in a gritty steel-mill neighborhood on Chicago South's Side. Friends said his father was a thief. Izzi himself was a high school dropout who taught himself to "write from the gut."

For those who would like to know more about Chicago writers, there are several books on the subject. "Murder and Mystery in Chicago," edited by Carol-Lynn Waugh, Martin Greenburg, and Frank McSherry is an anthology of short mystery stories set in the Windy City. Authors represented include Sara Paretsky, Robert Bloch, and Frederic Brown.

And then there's "A Mystery Reader's Walking Guide: Chicago" by Alzina Stone Dale. Dale has written mystery reader's guides to England, London, and New York, but as a native Chicagoan is at her best in this volume as she captures the history, mystery and flavor of the city and describes great walks.

Unfortunately, future editions will likely include a walk by Izzi's Michigan Avenue office so tourists can see exactly where he hungx himself. But maybe that's what Izzi wanted?

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