A Death Foretold

updated 02/17/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/17/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

NO MATTER WHO WAS RESPONSIBLE, it was an exit scripted with a grim tabloid flourish. On Saturday morning, Dec. 7, a man in downtown Chicago looked up to see the body of crime novelist Eugene "Guy" Izzi dangling from a noose hung out his office window 14 floors above Michigan Avenue. Within minutes police arrived at the office to find a scene littered with tantalizing clues. The burly, 220-pound author, dead of asphyxiation by hanging, was wearing a bulletproof vest, and his pockets were stuffed with $481 in cash, brass knuckles, a can of Mace-like spray and what appeared to be notes of recent threatening phone calls. On the floor lay a .38-cal. pistol—loaded but unfired.

A month later it was revealed that police had also discovered three computer disks containing the 800-page manuscript of the 43-year-old author's final novel—which not even Izzi's New York City publisher Avon Books knew he'd been working on. In it the native Chicagoan, who grew up in the blue-collar neighborhood of Hegewisch, reportedly describes in detail a deadly scenario that reads, eerily, like an accounting of his own final moments: A street-smart Chicago mystery writer, armed with Mace and brass knuckles, is thrown from a 14th-floor window, with a noose around his neck, by Indiana militiamen.

For weeks family, friends and fans pondered the mystery: Had the writer been murdered, perhaps by the racist militia he claimed to have infiltrated while researching his final book? Or had Izzi, who made no secret of his troubled past—including alcoholism and drug use—taken his own life? The official answer came on Jan. 15, when the Cook County coroner's office ruled his death a suicide—a verdict his family, though not all his friends, accepted.

Thus ended a life that, from the beginning, read like a seamy excerpt from one of his novels. His father, Eugene "Gino" Izzi, was a reputed small-time gangster who was jailed for armed robbery in 1956. According to former neighbor Trudy Altendorf, Guy, his mother, Lorraine, and her three daughters were treated as pariahs by some residents. "The father was in prison," she says. "The rumor was you shouldn't let your kids play with those kids." Izzi dropped out of school at 16, served two years in the Army during the early '70s, then took a job as a steelworker in his old neighborhood. Dean Ubik, whose family still owns the South Shore Inn, a Hegewisch bar Izzi frequented, says he was a "cocky guy" who "would come in on Monday mornings and have a black eye from his weekend escapades."

Izzi filled his books with the characters he supposedly knew from his neighborhood: hit men, psycho killers and vengeful cops. But some, like Ubik, suspect that many of these demons were in his mind. "Guy would write about having to carry an ice pick when he walked around," Ubik says. "Maybe...the world was threatening to him. To me, Hegewisch is a very safe place."

Izzi would later credit his wife, Theresa, 37, a former waitress he married some 18 years ago, for persuading him to try to make a living writing novels, which he at first typed at the kitchen table after their sons Gino, now 19, and Nick, 16, had gone to bed. Success didn't come easy; Izzi submitted seven books before The Take was published in 1988. "He was an angry guy," says Chicago author Bill Brashler. "That's what gave him power and force in his writings."

With profits from his books, Izzi bought a house in the sedate Chicago suburb of Park Forest. But he split from his publisher, Bantam Books, in 1992 after sales of his book Tribal Secrets proved disappointing, and moved back to Chicago the following year. Associates describe him as "paranoid," though Izzi, who sometimes wrote under the pen name Nick Gaitano, insisted that he had good reason to fear many of the people he had met while researching his books. Last November he told a friend, ex-cop Bob Rice, that he had received menacing voice-mail messages from a female member of a militia group. "She said, 'You can't hide from us.... God have mercy on your soul,' " says Rice, who heard the tape.

Izzi's death came just months before the scheduled April publication of his 17th novel, A Matter of Honor. "I spoke to him about a week before he died, and his spirits were great," says Lou Aronica, senior vice president of Avon Books. "He was thrilled." But as Theresa told the Chicago Reader three years ago, "He's atoned for every sin in everybody's mind but his own.... He has trouble forgiving himself."

PATRICK ROGERS
LORNA GRISBY in Chicago

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