I am very impressed by Penguin UK in picking up some of the most interesting books from across the Atlantic. I wrote about Chris Mooney’s ‘The Missing’ recently and now Penguin have yet another US coupe – Marcus Sakey’s debut novel, the widely talked about ‘The Blade Itself’.
I first heard of this book from Lee Child who passed me an ARC last year, but to be fair I was so busy I didn’t get around to it till much, much later. Then I bumped into Marcus Sakey at Thrillerfest 2006 in Phoenix Arizona. Marcus was part of the debut authors who banded together to form the collective KillerYear. So what were my thoughts about this audacious and much discussed novel?
Well as a fan of Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos and Elmore Leonard this little number patrols the same darkened alleyways of those master wordsmiths, but Sakey is no rip-off merchant because he has his own finely tuned voice to tell this story, and a sharp ear for dialogue. The title is a line from Homer, so straight away we’re tipped off that this book has an existential angle. I am so pleased Penguin have brought this debut tale to British shores, because I know it will captivate a hungry readership. So what did make of the this interesting debut?
The plot is about paying off for a troubled past, it’s about atoning for our sins, but most of all it’s about life and death – as Danny Carter the protagonist has to do just that. And what a sweaty ride this proves to be. You see Carter has made good by crawling out of the poor Irish quarter of Chicago, with a good job, a wife he loves and a life that is sweet, but there is a shadow from his past that returns to haunt him. The shadow is that of his old ‘friend’ Evan McGann.
Carter was involved with McGann when they raided a pawnshop late one night when Carter was young and naïve. Carter escaped but McGann, who liked the feel of his gun too much, and ended up in prison for his deadly actions. But McGann followed the rules of the game by keeping Carter’s name away from the boys in blue.
Many years elapse but after release, McGann tracks down his old friend Carter and lays down his rules, rules of atonement, rules of the underworld; and McGann has become a psychopath. Carter wants nothing to do with McGann and his plan, but the ties that shackle him are the deeds of his past – the pawnshop raid and the sound of a gun blast. So Carter finds himself roped back into a past he had hoped he had freed himself from. The novel then evolves between a tense cat-and-mouse game between Carter and McGann as the job takes shape. The novel becomes a claustrophobic experience as we can see no easy way out for Danny Carter, especially as Evan McGann has such a hold over him. The finale had me whipping through the pages faster than I would normally do, but Sakey has stripped the description into terse action that made me roar ‘BRAVO’ at the climax. I just wonder what Sakey has in store for a follow-up because ‘The Blade Itself’ is such a mesmorizing debut and glad to see it available shortly in the UK.
Shots decided to ask Marcus how he came to write such a remarkable thriller.
Ali Karim Arm-wrestles Marcus Sakey at Thrillerfest 2006 Arizona
Writing ‘The Blade Itself’ by Marcus Sakey
I’ve always been suspicious of authors who talk about a “lightning bolt,” a moment when their novel appears to them fully formed. It sounds so pat, one of those lines authors drop in interviews, like the suggestion that their characters talk to them, that they argue with a writer’s plans or insist on going a different direction. This is just one man’s opinion, but if your characters are speaking to you, I think it’s time to adjust your medication.
Personally, I didn’t see the book as a whole until I wrote THE END. I never had a vision that laid it out, and I never awoke from a four a.m. dream to find the thing complete. (I did have many a late-night revelation, but most involved bourbon.)
But damned if I didn’t feel a lightning bolt all the same.
It happened one evening in early summer, as I was walking home from the train. I live in Chicago, in a neighborhood I adore, full of shops and restaurants and life. The trees on my block were in bloom, and all the apartment windows were open. My wife had just phoned to remind me of our dinner plans, and mentioned that she was wearing a dress I suspect would be illegal in many countries. Earlier that week, I’d sold my first short story to a small U.K. journal. I was happy.
And bang, mid-step, an idea flattened me. All I cared for could be taken away. These things that I loved—my home, my life, my wife—made me vulnerable. You, reading this right now, had best realize it’s true for you as well. The more that you have, the more you have to lose.
By the time I climbed the steps to my building, I was toying with the rudiments of THE BLADE ITSELF. I would write about a character who was completely aware of what he had. A guy who came from a harder world. A protagonist who’d suffered rough times, come out the other side, and built a better life; the sort of smart, decent man who used a lousy past as the foundation for a better future.
And of course, I would also write about the guy who wanted to take it all from him.
The book took about ten months of full-time effort. To prepare, I did some eye-opening things: rode with homicide cops, visited murder scenes, watched an autopsy. Because my protagonist is a retired thief, I learned how to pick a lock (it’s easier than you’d think—two hours of practice and I could pop the deadbolt on my front door.) I spent time exploring my characters, figuring out what kind of music they listened to, where they’d had their first kiss. I banged a number of head-shaped holes in the wall of my den trying to figure out the structure and the plot.
But the genesis of the whole thing?
Lightning from a clear blue sky.
To read more about The Killer Year Writers –