The Blade Itself
Marcus Sakey's debut novel has been the subject of advance buzz of
such volume that I feared there was no way it could live up to such
high expectations. But I am pleased to report that it does --- and
even surpasses them.
THE BLADE ITSELF does not merely hint at greatness from the first
page; this top-shelf crime novel delivers it. The opening --- a
pawnshop burglary that just feels as if it's going to go wrong,
even before one starts reading (if such a thing is possible) --- is
perfect. Sakey effectively transmits the deep contrasts between the
two hooligans about to carry out the deed: the reluctant Danny
Carter and the loose cannon named Evan McGann. The opening also
introduces the author's attention to minor details --- in this
case, how the false bottom of a cabinet drawer sounds different
from a real one, and what true vertigo really is --- and continues
throughout the book.
It is the story contained within THE BLADE ITSELF, however, that is
the star here. The burglary does indeed go badly, at least for
McGann, who winds up doing hard time in a hard place. But Carter
escapes, and thanks to an ultimatum by Karen, his lady love, he
gets out of the life. Seven years after the burglary, Carter has
reinvented himself, becoming the de facto manager of a construction
company and settling into quiet domestic bliss with Karen.
McGann's return into Carter's life is sudden and unexpected; McGann
has been released early for good behavior and, as we see rather
dramatically, is eager to pick up precisely where he left off ---
with Carter as his partner.
For Carter, McGann's reappearance is a waking nightmare, an
all-too-vivid reminder of the life he left behind and to which he
promised Karen he would never go back. He initially rebuffs McGann,
but McGann is in no mood for rejection. From McGann's point of
view, McGann did stand-up time for Carter and is owed big time for
the years that were lost --- years during which Carter prospered as
a free man. McGann turns up the pressure on Carter, until Carter
feels he has no choice but to go along with McGann's scheme, which
threatens to upset and destroy everything that Carter has worked
toward since turning his life around.
To make matters worse, just when you think that Carter's situation
isn't going to go any further south, Sakey plunges him into
latitudinal depths heretofore unexplored. Sakey's talent, however,
isn't limited to sending Carter deeper and deeper into the
concentric rings of his own personal hell. The author sets up a
subtle, and troubling, moral dilemma for the reader. There is a
legitimate question as to whether or not McGann is all wrong here
or, conversely, if Carter is 100% virgin pure. After all, McGann
did stand-up time, refusing to implicate Carter in the burglary.
And while McGann's impulsiveness brought about McGann's own
downfall, it was not as if Carter was unaware of his friend's
tendency to go sideways when he agreed, however reluctantly, to
accompany McGann on a burglary run.
These issues complement, rather than interfere with, the storyline,
which hurdles toward an explosive confrontation, a chance for
redemption and, against all odds, a satisfying climax.
THE BLADE ITSELF is far more than an impressive debut; it is a
milestone in what is sure to be a marvelous career for Sakey, the
mark of a talent that demonstrably runs long and deep. Stick this
one on your must-read list.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on December 22, 2010