In The Two Deaths of Daniel Hayes, Marcus Sakey has written a seriously good thriller. Really good. So of course we can’t tell you too much about it.

“It drives me crazy when people [he means reviewers] give away all the stuff I worked so hard to make surprises,” Sakey says during a call to his home in Chicago, where, he reports, “life is a little chaotic.” He and his wife g.g. just moved to new digs a mile and a half west of Wrigley Field two days before our call.

Chicago’s neighborhoods have been the setting for all four of Sakey’s previous novels, including the highly regarded The Blade Itself (2007) and Good People (2008), the film version of which will be produced by and star Tobey Maguire. It gives nothing away to say the new book is, therefore, a departure, opening in Maine and ending in Los Angeles, with a crazy sort of road trip in between. Nor will it deprive readers of the edge-of-the-seat, smack-to-the-forehead pleasures of every nasty twist and turn of the plot to let them know that the title character suffers from amnesia. When the man awakens to find himself lying naked on a desolate beach, he has no idea who he is or how he got there.

Sakey’s publishers are so happy with the new book that they are calling it “a breakthrough achievement.” Sakey himself sounds more circumspect. Despite the truly scary, brutal edges of some of the characters he imagines, Sakey seems like a good-humored guy you’d enjoy having a beer with. He says he likes calling into reading group discussions about his books. He admits to “pet peeves” rather than towering rages. One of his pet peeves, he says, is discourtesy. “I’m a big fan of courtesy. I think it’s basic human decency to be courteous to one another.”

So, is his latest thriller a breakthrough? “That’s a hard question to answer. I will say that I feel it’s my most ambitious book. And it was a monster to write. It’s the book I’ve thrown away the most of. I reached a point where I realized that what I was writing was kind of bleak and joyless. I wasn’t enjoying it and I didn’t think others would either. So I had to throw out probably 150 pages. Which is pretty much a call for martinis.”

One of the biggest challenges, Sakey says, was finding a way to make all the plot twists and thematic layers of his story work together. “I wanted to make them honest surprises, where each significant discovery Daniel makes takes the book in a different direction. . . . And—I hope this doesn’t sound pretentious; I don’t think I’m pretentious—I was really trying in the way I told the story to say something about memory and about what stories mean. I think memory is just a story we tell ourselves, and if that’s true, then our identity is always malleable. There’s no certainty in who we are; it’s just the choices we make.”

But themes and ideas, Sakey acknowledges, are a touchy subject when it comes to writing a thriller. “There’s this perception that, ‘oh, you’re a thriller writer,’ pat on the head. But if a book doesn’t have ideas, I don’t understand why you’d read the book, much less write it. Without that, it’s just run, run, chase, chase, shoot, shoot. That doesn’t give me anything to anchor to as a reader and certainly not as a writer.”

Sakey grounds his ideas and twisty plots in small, vivid details. “I’m a big fan of the pull-out detail that makes you feel it. I like the little bit of verisimilitude rather than two pages of explanation.” And that tendency extends to his scariest characters. “A lot of times when people try to make things scary, they go into this weird slasher-movie mode. Like the more ridiculous and bloody harm they can make a character do while laughing the better. I just don’t buy that. I get annoyed by authors who do that.”

Which prompts Sakey to talk about another of his pet peeves. “I’ll hear some authors say that they don’t read while they’re writing. I don’t understand. Because first of all I am writing all the time, so then when is it I’m allowed to read?”

Sakey says he reads widely in his genre—Elmore Leonard, Dennis Lehane, Richard Price, to name a few—“but I probably read more outside the genre than within it. My tastes run to David Foster Wallace, David Mitchell, Thomas Pynchon, Michael Ondaatje, Michael Chabon, Michael Cunningham. It’s like somebody once said: There are two kinds of writing, good writing and bad writing. I don’t really care what the genre is, I read the good stuff.”

You can put Sakey’s The Two Deaths of Daniel Hayes right up there with the good stuff.

 

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