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Reviews Wed Feb 20 2008

Review: At the City's Edge by Marcus Sakey

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At the City's Edge

by Marcus Sakey

(St. Martin's Minotaur, 2008)

Things may have been looking up for twenty-seven year-old Jason Palmer. After returning to Chicago from a stint in Iraq, Jason has no greater plans for his summer than girls, booze and spending time with his brother Michael and nephew Billy. All too quickly, these languid plans are changed when Jason’s daily run along the lakefront brings him face to face with a man he calls “Soul Patch” and the gun he finds shoved in his face. Jason’s quick wit and Army training save his life in that moment, but he’s afforded little time for comfort when he’s faced with identifying Michael’s murdered body, pulled from the burned down rubbles of his bar later that day. With his young nephew to care for and justice on his mind, Jason takes the case into his own hands and joins forces with a disparaged police officer to uncover a network of crime running far deeper below the city than he could have ever imagined.

At the City’s Edge, Marcus Sakey’s second novel, is a fast-paced and engrossing read. We learn early on that Michael was part of a group of people who informed the police on gang activity in the neighborhood. The first hint that the murder is the product of something more than random violence is born in the mind of police officer Elena Cruz, who recalls Michael saying that “there were things going on in the neighborhood that were worse than anybody guessed, that the gangs were the tip of the iceberg. Saying that he would have proof soon.” Having been taken off the streets to work behind a desk after her affair with the police chief became public knowledge, Cruz is eager to get her hands back in the game and prove her worth to her male colleagues. Together, she and Jason risk their lives to find out the truth about Michael’s death, a truth that shakes the core of what these two strong-willed characters think they know.

Sakey’s knowledge of the inner-workings of gangs shines brightly here and his skilled research is a refreshing touch to what might otherwise be an unconvincing tale. Evidence of this can be found in the Acknowledgements, in which Sakey thanks several members of the Chicago Police Department, but it can also be found in such details as Cruz’s involvement in the Gang Intelligence Unit, statistics about high school drop out rates and gang recruitment, and the presence of the Lantern Bearers, a sort of halfway house for gang member rehabilitation. Sakey states that the book is not a sociological study, but his effort to incorporate his learned knowledge about gang activity gives the story a hardened edge that make you wonder just how far the author would go to tell this story.

At the City’s Edge takes place in the fictional Crenwood, a South side neighborhood rife with poverty and violence. Though the neighborhood’s imaginary name might immediately stand out to the erudite Chicagoan, Sakey makes sure to impart the rest of the story with a very real sense of the city. Jason lives in a Chicago where he can witness the impoverished meeting the upper class from the window of his apartment at Clark and Division, where he’s sure that while everyone is familiar with Upper Wacker “he doubted many had taken the ramps down one more level, to the bowels of the city, a bleak lost place where service trucks moved between exhaust-stained roll doors under the timeless haze of yellow sodium light.” He lives in a Chicago where the Sox play in Comiskey Park and the El rumbles over everyone’s heads. The digs at the gentrified Lincoln Park do grow stale after the third or fourth iteration, however it cannot be denied that Sakey knows and loves his city well.

Though the characters are a bit too emotive for my tastes – Sakey’s attempts to illustrate Jason’s sensitive side only serve to caricaturize him and the eventual romantic liaison with Cruz is as obvious as it is unnecessary – At the City’s Edge proves to be a well-crafted crime thriller whose story is as much about very real social ills as it is about keeping the reader guessing. The truth about Michael’s murder may come as no shock to anyone familiar with Chicago history, but the similarities between this fiction and those facts provide all the shock-value needed. But on another level, this is a story about one man and the lengths he would go to defend what meager life he has left. “Pick up the gun and you live forever in its shadow,” Jason reminds himself in the midst of the story’s climax. The line serves as a fitting adage for all who are touched by this reality.

* * *

Learn more about Marcus Sakey at his website www.marcussakey.com and at The Outfit, where he joins literary forces with six other local crime and mystery authors.

 
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