The Blade Itself
by Marcus Sakey
Published by St. Martin's Minotaur
320 pages, 2007
Partners in Crime
Reviewed by David Thayer
The title of Marcus Sakey's debut novel derives from a quote by Homer, "the blade itself incites to violence." Set in Chicago, this novel is about points of origin, neighborhoods, people who grow up together, who drink in the same bars, watch the ballgame together through the haze of blue-collar smoke. It would be easy to imagine the Greek philosopher's blade as the city of Chicago, tempting to visualize Homer on the El, gazing through the window at the retreating skyline, at clotheslines strung from fire escapes, walls blackened by decades of grime, slashed with gang symbols, bursts of color from a spray-paint can. He might wonder if what incites people to violence grows unchecked in the cycle of the urban life and death, a play repeated as long as the city stands.
The set-up of The Blade Itself is simple. Two childhood friends, Danny Carter and Evan McGann, plan to rob a pawnshop. The reader gets an early glimpse of how edgy things get in the commission of a crime, how even the small details can be unsettling. This excerpt sets the mood:
Out of the darkness stumbled a stooped man with greasy hair. He ran one hand along the wall to steady his cautious shuffle. A pint bottle nosed out of a frayed pocket. Reaching the trash bin, he glanced in either direction and unzipped his fly. Took a piss with one hand like he was in the men's room of his country club.
As it happens, the robbery goes wrong. A man is killed and Evan is arrested, convicted, and shipped off to Stateville Prison. Danny escapes. Evan does the stand-up thing, doesn't rat Danny out, doesn't roll over to make a deal. This is where one story ends and another begins, where the novel finds its legs seven years later.
The segue forward delineates how far Danny has traveled from the beginning. He has found a good job, a loving girlfriend, Karen, a place on Chicago's North Side, and the trappings of a middle-class life. Little is made of how Danny managed to pull off this transformation, but a few scenes that focus on Evan leaving jail provide clear evidence of a threat to that hard-won decent existence. In a scene reminiscent of Cape Fear, Evan one day finds Danny, slides onto the neighboring barstool, and begins the process of reminding Danny how much he owes to his former cohort in crime.
He loomed near the back wall, feet apart like a boxer. His gaze smashed through the cigarette smoke and gruff laughter to hit Danny with a physical force, and Danny's fingers slipped a little on the glass, splashing some of the whiskey on his shirt. They stared at each for a long moment, and then with measured steps, Evan started over.
The Blade Itself now shifts gears, becoming a cat-and-mouse game between Danny and Evan. The latter wants his partner back, wants Danny's help to do another job, and when Danny balks, Evan menaces Karen in an alley. But Danny draws strength from the memory of his late father, a hardworking man who never deviated from the straight and narrow.
This is not a noir story but a thriller that focuses on the plot points as Evan escalates the pressure, and Danny reacts. The subtext -- "the more you have, the more you have to lose" -- provides the emotional currency as this story moves toward resolution and climax. The strength of Sakey's approach is in the pacing, which is fast enough to keep the pages turning. Interestingly, when the author shifts focus to his characters and their relationships, he relies heavily on sketches of the Windy City to remind readers of what's at stake here, rather than plumbing the depths of how Danny chose one life over another. This excerpt, for instance, describes Danny's reaction to his involvement in the crime that Evan planned from their first reunion in the bar:
After the disastrous phone call, he'd found himself at loose ends. He wanted a place to think, and had set out for a bar in the neighborhood, but when he got there the idea of being so close to home felt sleazy, like bringing a mistress to the marriage bed. He'd gotten back into the truck, planning to head for another neighborhood, but ended up just driving, circling the city.
As effective as the prose is, Danny's evocations of regret sound hollow without a more solid grasp of how he made the journey from Evan's partner to responsible citizen. Too often the reader finds Evan's assessment of Danny's weaknesses to be right on the money, and what should feel poignant feels instead like manipulation. The literary device of the departed father "speaking" to Danny is a shortcut to the values issue; namely, it is OK to do the crime as long as you get away with it. There's no way Danny's father would ever have approved of that notion.
Danny steers clear of the values question, despite the fact that getting away with a crime in this novel's opening scene is the seminal moment in his character's development. By never showing his hand, Danny -- and the author -- avoid the more complex idea of a flawed protagonist, choosing safer ground in which Danny is the victim of both circumstance and inferior opportunity. That might have made sense in another era, say the 1930s; but is being Irish and lower-middle-class enough of a stigma to drag Danny Carter back to "the life"? His fear is plausible enough; Evan can place him at the scene of a murder, but Evan hates the cops. Danny is the moth to Evan's flame, and despite Danny's street smarts, he's drawn into the crime of the moment: the kidnapping of his boss's son.
Marcus Sakey hits his stride with Evan McGann, who is a top-notch antagonist, and the author's descriptive prose is excellent. The dialogue here is robust, more so when Evan is around. Danny's interactions with the secondary characters lack the electricity of the exchanges between the erstwhile partners. Evan cuts the story into ribbons, his malice energized by his sense of entitlement, his actions governed by his single-minded desire to hurt Danny, score big, and leave town with enough cash to live the dream.
The Blade Itself never answers the question implied by its title: What is it that incites us to violence? It is an interesting query, maybe one Marcus Sakey will explore in future work. It seems he has the skills and instincts to delve deeper into the labyrinth of human emotions and seek that elusive answer. The promise of his debut effort bodes well for this novelist, and for readers, too. Sakey is another gifted wordsmith exploring the urban terrain he knows and so obviously loves. | January 2007
David Thayer is a Seattle freelance writer and author of the blog One More Bite of the Apple. He's also a published poet, his work having appeared in an anthology as well as literary magazines. Thayer has recently completed a crime novel, the beginning of a series about cops in the New York Police Department's Intelligence Division.