Crime Does Pay

Writing about wrongdoing hits the right note for novelist and Michigan native Marcus Sakey
Books - Crime
Photograph by Frank Pinc

“Really spicy,” crime author Marcus Sakey instructs the waitress at a hole-in-the-wall Thai restaurant in Chicago. “Really, really spicy. Your sister stopped believing me. She hasn’t made it spicy enough the last couple of times. Spicy! I can take it!”

When Sakey’s chicken arrives 10 minutes later, absolutely saturated in red peppers, it is indeed hot. In a way, it’s shocking, this guy from Flint and West Bloomfield shoveling down Thai cuisine so fiery that the waitress laughs and confesses in limited English that she won’t eat it so spiced herself. But those who have read any of Sakey’s wildly acclaimed novels might not be surprised at his extreme tastes. Sakey, 34, is not your average mystery author. His first book, 2007’s The Blade Itself — named a New York Times Editor’s Pick and one of Esquire’s Top Five Reads of 2007 — was a blistering tale of violence and revenge. He followed it earlier this year with At the City’s Edge, which, like its predecessor, used his current environs, Chicago, as a fantastically rich landscape for the novel’s chaotic plot. His latest, Good People, published in August, is a fascinating and deliciously tense exploration of how far decent people will go to fulfill their dreams. As the tale goes, when yuppie Chicagoans Tom and Anna Reed, burdened with massive debt from a string of unsuccessful fertility treatments, find $400,000 in the kitchen of their deceased tenant — who, unbeknown to them, had some serious gangland ties — their sense of right, wrong, and objectivity gradually recedes until they find themselves in a horrifying underworld mess.

“The plot for this one came from the idea that everyone commits crimes,” says Sakey, who wrote ad copy before penning novels. “Everybody steals, everyone cheats, everyone smuggles Cubans when they come back to the country, and we just rationalize these things: ‘There’s no crime because nobody gets hurt.’ And that’s fine, I agree. I like Cubans, too. But the idea is, how far can you take it? And I wanted to try and set it so that everyone would at least give it some consideration: You know it’s bad, you know you’re lying to yourself … but it’s 400 grand.”

Whether it’s a moral statement or just Sakey having fun, there are no easy outs in Good People. Not all of the characters whom readers like are going to make it through, at least not with their bodies fully intact.

“That makes me really happy,” Sakey says. “I enjoy the mayhem on the page, being able to ask, ‘OK, what would I do if I were a really bad man?’ ”
Sakey’s scream-out-loud passages wouldn’t work if he weren’t so talented. But, boy, can this guy write well. With prose as lean as freshwater fish and a pace that would make Dale Earnhardt jealous, it’s safe to say that Sakey hasn’t made his last editor’s list. In fact, with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck recently acquiring the film rights to The Blade Itself, Sakey’s star is rising faster than even he anticipated.

“Right now it’s optioned, so they’re working on a script,” he says. “It’s their production company, so they wouldn’t necessarily be acting or directing in it, but here’s hoping. The last movie Affleck directed, Dennis Lehane’s Gone Baby Gone, I thought it was fantastic. They didn’t ‘Hollywood out.’ It stayed challenging; it made you keep up. If your attention wandered, you were screwed, which I loved. I like demanding something from the audience.”

What can we say? That’s hot.

Lee is a Chicago-based freelancer. E-mail: