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Book Review: The Amateurs by Marcus Sakey

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Marcus Sakey seemed to come along at just the right time. The way this reader saw it, crime fiction was hitting a rather dull phase with predictable plots and over-emphasis on gore. 

Sakey, who had been laboring as an ad writer in Chicago, decided to make the artistic leap, snagged an agent and went on to see his first novel, The Blade Itself published to instant acclaim. For readers in Chi-town, Sakey was an instant hit. Although not a native, he knew the dark alleys, the gritty street corners, Lower Wacker Drive, and — better yet — Lower Lower Wacker Drive (where few dare to tread). Chicago has Sara Paretsky as its leading mystery genre star, but she had been missing in action for several years, spinning off on social topics that bored or irritated her regular readers. Now Paretsky's back and Sakey has emerged to stand by her side. Best of all, both are good enough to hold the national stage; Sakey will soon see The Blade Itself made into a movie, and more films are likely to follow.

His latest book, The Amateurs may not be the best novel Sakey has turned out, but it has his signature stamp of honesty and true-to-life dialog. He listens closely to the way people really talk (I'd put him up next to Richard Price any day), and the result is dialog that moves the plot along without effort and with realism. Here he takes four young people — adrift in their lives, afraid they're never going to make real careers for themselves — and dangles the chance to get rich quickly in front of them.

All they have to do is swindle Johnny Loverin, ( a.k.a. Johnny Love) a big shot, loudmouth creep who runs a bar where one of the young daredevils, Alex, works. As the narrator asks: "Four normal people who had never won deciding to storm the casino. Could life really be that simple?"

Well, you know the answer to that question. Everything about this caper is trickier than it looks. The money they intend to swipe isn't for drugs, it's for something much worse, and young Jenn, a travel agent who never manages to get away, ends up driving a car laden with the stuff. The cops are on their trail. Something like the Outfit is after them — only these people are far more vicious. Johnny Love is hot as a hornet. And Alex has to find a way to get some child-support cash to his ex-wife or she and her new husband will take his daughter away. And he's supposed to ask Johnny Love for a raise?

Each of the four has a personal need to make the caper work, which ups the energy level. The drama plays out brilliantly, with each breath of relief followed by a shriek when a giant hand slaps a protagonist on the shoulder. The danger is unrelenting until the end, when one character, who introduced the book in a flashback, continues a reminiscence of what life would have been like if the four had not tangled themselves in crime so far beyond their comprehension. It's what happens when amateurs play an expert's game.

Note: Marcus Sakey will appear with writer Laura Caldwell at 7 p.m. (6 p.m. social hour) on Tuesday, Jan. 12, at a presentation of the Society of Midland Authors at the Cliff Dwellers, 200 S. Michigan, 22nd. floor, Chicago, IL. The program is free; donations are accepted.

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