Whodunit?

At first it looked like suicide, but now the mysterious death of US crime-writer Eugene Izzi sounds like a murder plot from one of his novels.

The office door was closed like it always was. Guy let himself in, pausing to check the dark corridor. Christmas lights flashed on and off in some business down the hall. He pulled the door shut and used his keys to secure both locks. Under his coat he could feel the bullet-proof vest pinching his skin as he walked across the small room to the window. Michigan Avenue shimmered 200 feet below and for a second he felt safe until small beads of sweat suddenly appeared on the back of his neck. A door banged somewhere nearby and Guy jumped, realising everything he feared had come into the room with him.

These words could have been written by the Chicago thriller-writer Eugene Izzi. They weren't because they describe the events of his death. The author, known to his friends as Guy, met a grisly end at his office last month. As police learn more about Guy's last night, they find that it increasingly resembles one of his own murder mysteries.

Steven Andrews was walking through Chicago on 6 December, admiring the city's Christmas lights. The 25-year-old security guard was thinking about his shopping list as he looked up at buildings strung with fairy lights. It was then he saw Eugene Izzi dangling at the end of a rope, 14 storeys above the ground. "I thought it was some kind of stunt," says Andrews. "The rope went inside an open office window. Then the wind caught the body and I realised it was a dead guy, so I called the police."

When Chicago detectives arrived they found Izzi's office still locked. Once inside, officers saw a rope tied around the leg of an old desk, anchoring the author's corpse. The body was hauled back inside and police found the author was wearing a bullet-proof vest, his pockets contained $481, a can of chemical spray, a set of brass knuckledusters and notes about white supremacist groups which had threatened the author's life. Police report that the room was otherwise empty, but Izzi's friends say that he had a "cubic ton of computer disks" which they had been told was research for a novel not yet written, a investigative-based thriller about America's right-wing militias.

On Friday 5 December Deborah Scneider, Izzi's agent, took a call from the writer. She was delighted to hear from him. A new book by the 43- year-old is due in April. It is called A Matter of Honour, and Scneider expected it to establish Izzi as one of the world's top crime writers. Major Hollywood studios had already approached her about the movie rights. After years of modest success, Izzi was ready for the big time.

Scneider thought Izzi's call was about a long-anticipated book tour. Instead the author was in a troubled mood. "He wanted to talk about death threats," she told a colleague. "He was so upset. He finished up saying he would not survive the weekend. He said he expected to be killed by Sunday. He asked me to look after his wife and children."

Scneider is now said to be in a state of shock. She had heard Izzi express his fears of assassination before and had begun to take them more seriously. Now that he is dead she is said to have taken steps to protect herself. Izzi had given her information about militia groups during discussions of the book he was about to write. Scneider feels that if Izzi was killed by right-wing extremists she is also in danger.

Izzi became a writer the hard way. He dropped out of school and worked in a steel mill on the tough south-west side of Chicago. His gritty, hard- boiled prose is filled with mobsters, cops, criminals and racial unrest - the fauna of Chicago street life. His heroes are usually echoes of himself, generous but tough men on a mission against evil. After years of writing, in 1987 Izzi published his first novel, The Take, about a Miami police officer. The book, dedicated to his wife, "who inspires me", was later reworked into a TV movie. A string of novels followed, and had begun to sell in Britain, winning favourable reviews in newspapers and magazines.

Izzi would throw himself into his research. He once spent time on Chicago's streets to study the homeless. He wrote an essay about the experience for the Chicago Tribune. In it, he described the struggles of his own life: "I'd been homeless before. In August of 1981, my wife had finally had enough of my drinking, of never having any money, of four of us living in two-room shacks while I sat in gin mills and poured whiskey down my throat. I would come home and give her a beating whenever she gave me a problem."

The author wrote that he lived in a barber's shop after his wife left him. They were later reconciled, and friends said that Izzi was a member of Alcoholics Anonymous and had not had a drink in more than a decade. A friend said that at the time of his death, Izzi and his wife, Theresa, "were happier than they've ever been" and were "close as can be" to their two children.

"There is no reason for Guy to have committed suicide," says one of Izzi's closest friends, Andrew Vachss, a New York lawyer and writer who also follows the style of Elmore Leonard, Izzi's inspiration and mentor. "He loved his family, adored them. He had a major book coming out in the spring. One of Guy's greatest joys would have been to pick up the Chicago bestseller list and see his name on it. I can't see him killing himself just before that was due to happen. Guy was also terrified of heights. He was not the kind of guy to jump from a high building."

The Chicago coroner has yet to issue the author's death certificate. "It looked at first like a straightforward suicide," says Dr Mitra Kalelkar. "Normally I'd release a body hung like his on the same day he died. This is not a straightforward hanging. The way the scene was arranged, his clothing and the bullet-proof vest all raise suspicions. None of the injuries confirm suicide." Kalelkar says she has examined the contents of Izzi's stomach because his neck injuries were inconsistent with a leap of over 14 feet. For example, no spinal bones were broken despite the fact he was over 6ft tall and weighed more than 15st. "There are some indications of sophisticated drugs in his stomach, which is why we have just ordered new toxicology reports," Kalelkar says. On the basis of the coroner's most recent findings the Chicago Police Department has begun to move away from declaring the author's death a suicide.

Izzi's friends increasingly lean towards murder as the cause of his death and there are tantalising pieces of evidence pointing that way. Some of Izzi's friends say the writer had infiltrated right-wing groups to research two previous books. By putting their lives in print he had apparently violated their rules and been labelled a "race traitor". Invasions, published in 1990, exposes the lives of neo-Nazi prison gangs such as the Aryan Brotherhood. Four members of the Brotherhood have been released from Chicago jails in the last six months and all of them are being sought for questioning. A group of Izzi's friends, dissatisfied with the pace of police investigations, have now hired private investigators to examine the circumstances of his death.

In his last months, Izzi told many friends that he thought he was being hunted by a radical right-wing hate group that wanted to see him dead. In 1994 Izzi received a specific threat that he showed to Deborah Scneider. It was pushed under the door of the writer's office and said that he would soon be "swinging from a lamppost". After that he changed his telephone number every few weeks and used a post-office box as his home address.

Bob Rice, a retired police detective who had known the writer for 10 years, said Izzi contacted him almost two months ago after receiving a death threat on his answering machine. Rice said Izzi let him listen to a tape of the message in early November. It was from a woman who said Izzi had been sentenced to death because he had violated the code of a militia group. Izzi told Rice he had infiltrated such a group in Indiana for research. The writer hired a bodyguard soon after, according to a friend.

Izzi then moved his wife, Theresa, and their sons, aged 16 and 19, into a downtown Chicago hotel, where they were living at the time of his death. "There is no question that Guy was in the midst of investigating certain individuals at the time of his death - that's beyond dispute," says Andrew Vachss. "You don't wrap yourself in a Kevlar vest and carry a handgun if you're relaxed about the environment around you. He was completely sane and dedicated to his craft which happened to mean digging up dirt."

It is not unusual for radical right-wing groups in America to target their most vocal opponents. The "militia movement" is generally white supremacist and anti-government. It is credited with the Oklahoma bombing and the death of Alan Berg, a former Chicago lawyer who was murdered in 1984. FBI sources say there is a "substantial number" of open murder cases where the militias are the prime suspect.

"Eugene Izzi was labelled a `race traitor'," says Tawanda Shaw at Klan Watch, a group which monitors white supremacists from an office in Birmingham, Alabama. "That's the ultimate crime, and these groups are certainly capable of murder. They also like to target certain people as `examples'. A high- profile author would, to them, be a perfect choice." Andrew Vachss, for one, says he won't be satisfied with any verdict but murder. "Guy made absolutely no arrangements for his family," he says. "There is no way he would have left his family this for Christmas."

Papers blew across the desk as the office window was scraped open. A length of rope attached to the desk leg was suddenly yanked tight, shifting the desk and spilling a cup of old coffee. Coloured lights from a nearby building danced in the shuddering puddle. Shadows passed across the room and Guy was gone. All that remained was a mysteryn

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