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Book Review: At The City’s Edge by Marcus Sakey

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Jason Palmer is an Iraqi war vet who was forced out of the military after his unit suffered losses while on a mission it shouldn’t have been on. Once stateside, however, he finds that Chicago can be as deadly as any of the “alien cities” of Iraq.

Elena Cruz is the first woman to make Chicago PD’s Gang Intelligence Unit, but she’s stuck at a desk, working a database and hoping, in what by now seems somewhat clichéd, to get in on the real action of busting bad guys.

The two are brought together by the murder of Jason’s brother by a conspiracy of sinister men with a shadowy agenda that links the city’s ghetto to the halls of its power brokers. Palmer and Cruz work together while on the run to unravel the secret that links the gang behind the murder, the conspirators and Jason’s brother in this second effort from the author of acclaimed The Blade Itself.

At The City's Edge begins with an attack by two black guys one early morning after Jason finishes his daily run. He uses his military training to take them down, but it is what they say that hits him hard. It involves his brother, Michael. How could Michael get mixed up with these guys? Jason visits Michael’s bar in a fictional Chicago ghetto of Crenwood and tries to find out what Michael could possibly be involved in, but his brother reveals little other than a hint at something bad — he’d met with cops, possibly informing on one of the gangs. They part ways after insulting each other. The next morning, Michael’s son, Billy, arrives at Jason’s apartment scared, his clothes filthy and torn. When Jason drives to the bar, he finds it a pile of burned rubble.

At first, Cruz thinks the murder was simple gang retaliation but Michael Palmer’s young son remembers it was several white men who had come earlier to the bar to meet with his father. Could these mysterious visitors be related to the apparent gang hit? The answer reveals a conspiracy.

In contrast to Sakey’s earlier work, where the antagonism was limited to a former crime partner and once a childhood buddy, City’s Edge features a complex vision of a corrupt Chicago, a town big enough to contain hidden battlefields which extract an invisible toll on the inhabitants of the ghetto, battlefields that, like those a world away, are stages for power plays between hidden forces. There are here the makings of a social novel, then, a commentary on urban blight and its effects, one dripping with the familiar noir cynicism:

“You know what stared this whole thing?

Ronald nodded. “That woman cop, Cruz, she told me.”

“A power play. That’s all. The man in the number two seat wanted to move up, so he scraped together a file on his boss’s sins, and sent it to someone else so his hands stayed clean.”

It’s the people in the middle who get hurt. And the only people who are trying to make a difference, to hold back the tide, are people like Palmer’s brother Michael, a man who was involved in trying to change into a better place a part of Crenwood where his bar is situated, a man who was engaged in a kind of private nation building effort of which his brother Jason had been part of a world away; and Jason himself, a veteran with a discharge other than honorable, who must try to clean up the city by dealing with the conspiracy that killed his brother.

Another broken character who is trying to make a difference is Washington Mathews, a man who suffers guilt-induced flashbacks because of the murder of a boy at the time when he himself was a child. Now he runs an oasis for those who want to escape a life of violence and early death. (Ironically, he is redeemed from his guilt by an act of violence to save Bill in the book’s climactic struggle.) The rest, like the businessman-politician and benefactor of Mathews’ halfway house Adam Kent, really care nothing about the people they ostensibly seem to help, considering the entire neighborhood as nothing more than a cog in their grandiose plots. It’s all just power plays.

The ending of City’s Edge is surprisingly powerful, connecting to an earlier story told by Mathews about the Lantern Bearers and the need for a few brave men to stand in the face of darkness. Jason seems to be such a man and Sakey definitely a writer to watch.

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About A. Jurek

A. Jurek is one of the editors at Blogcritics. Contact me at: a.jurek@blogcritics.org
  • http://www.xanga.com/bastet Lynn Voedisch

    Sakey is a writer on the move and this, one of his early books, uses Chicago almost like a character. It’s slick, well-crafted and doesn’t waste a line of dialog.
    I wish he’d stay in this style, for it suits him so well, but he’s been branching out. He says he’s now working on a book based on the coast of Maine. I don’t really get it. Chicago has all the elements that Sakey uses so well to bring grit and soul to his crime fiction.
    Maybe it’s Hollywood. This is one of the books optioned for a film.
    His first, The Blade Iself has already been filmed.
    Will success spoil Marcus Sakey?