Starting in 2007 with THE BLADE ITSELF, his debut novel, Marcus Sakey began building his own shelf in the bookcase with a series of independent works dealing with what occurs when bad things happen to believable characters. His fourth book not only continues to explore this line of thought, but takes it to new places, wherein he deftly juggles a complex quartet of characters who are so out of their depth that they’re barely aware they’re drowning. Everyone, quite ironically, gets what they want in THE AMATEURS. What Sakey really gets into here --- and he’s very subtle in doing this --- is demonstrating that when you reach down into the pit and pull out that jewel you have lusted after, it’s often wrapped in barbed wire that’s hanging on to it as well.
THE AMATEURS begins with an introduction to a group of friends, four people who have gradually gravitated toward each other into an informal Thursday night drinking meetup at Rossi’s, a Chicago bar and restaurant with pretensions for something more. Alex is a bartender there, a job in which he seems to be stuck even as his ex-wife has moved on to better things, taking their daughter with her while holding his unpaid child support obligation over his head. Mitch is seething internally, not only at the minor indignities he experiences each day on the job, but also with unrequited love for Jenn. A thirty-something, quietly hot travel agent who yearns for excitement beyond the vicarious enjoyment she receives from sending clients to exotic places, Jenn happens to be involved in a friends-with-privileges relationship with Alex. Ian, the fourth member of the group, is a broker who had beginner’s luck early in his career but now seems to be on a “one and done” track, held back by his addiction to cocaine and distracted by his compulsion to gambling.
The opportunity to change everything for all four of them emerges when Johnny Love, the shady owner of Rossi’s, offers Alex a side job to provide some quiet “muscle” for a business transaction that is to take place in a few days. Love has a reputation as a drug dealer, and Alex is aware that Love’s safe is bursting with cash. The quartet quickly --- too quickly --- conceives of a plan to separate Love from his money. Each of them has his or her own reasons. Alex can catch up on his delinquent child support, which he believes will keep his wife from leaving. Ian is deeply in debt to some very bad people. Jenn is seeking a thrill. And Mitch? He has a mad-on for Love anyway, but he primarily wants to protect Jenn. So they devise, what seems to be on the surface, a good plan. And it almost immediately begins to fall apart.
One can sense that these folks are amateurs simply by the way Ian obtains the guns they use to pull off their planned heist. At first it doesn’t look like a failure; in fact, everyone initially gets what they want. But they steal a lot more than money. And suddenly, they are in very big trouble, much worse than when they began. It would be bad enough if it was just Love looking for them, but the people who really want to find them make Love look like an amateur himself. As the group dynamic slowly and then quickly begins to change, it becomes obvious that none of them are going to make it out the other end without leaving some parts behind.
The climax is by turns better than you might expect and worse than you can imagine. One of the few characters left standing is too good to consign to limbo, so I would imagine we might be seeing him or her again in a future Sakey novel. THE AMATEURS is a cautionary tale that will keep you on the straight and narrow during the day and haunt your dreams for months to come. But it is more than an excellent thriller. It is a character study, one in which Sakey expertly explores the dynamics of a group of individuals under stress and how they react. From beginning to end, THE AMATEURS will haunt you like a ghost.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on June 27, 2011