A few days before I read his latest novel, I saw Marcus Sakey sitting with a bunch of other local crime writers at a tavern in the Printers Row neighborhood. They looked as companionable as if they were brothers or members of a 16-inch softball team. Such is the nurturing and collegial nature of the local crime writers' world.
And so, Marcus Sakey's new novel, "Brilliance," is not at all like Marcus Sakey's previous five novels, all of which I have enjoyed, all of which fit comfortably under the "crime thriller" umbrella, and all of which were successful, financially and critically.
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After book No. 3, "Good People" in 2009, this paper dubbed him "the reigning prince of crime fiction." Sakey, all but blushing, said at the time, "I spent a week trying to get my wife to use that title, with very little success."
He and that wife, whose name is G.G., recently spent a week in London. Nice, huh?
Nicer still because while they were in London, they visited the "Good People" movie set.
"It was surreal," Sakey says. "They were hospitable and gracious, interested on different levels in me, but let's just say people weren't falling all over themselves because the novelist was on set."
Among "everyone," he means the director, Henrik Ruben Genz, and stars James Franco and Kate Hudson. They play Tom and Anna Reed, a young Chicago couple on the North Side who find a great deal of money in the apartment of their recently deceased tenant. This money is not theirs, of course, but they could really use it and so decide to keep it, thereby courting the attentions of some very nasty people, including a cop, drug dealer and thief.
"It was wild watching my imaginary friends walking and talking," Sakey says.
Why film in London, given that the book is set so firmly in Chicago?
"That's Hollywood," he says. "They tell me it was merely a financial decision."
He knows Hollywood. Sakey's first two novels, "The Blade Itself" (2007) and "At the City's Edge" (2008, and also known as "Accelerant") were snapped up by movie folk, including Ben Affleck. "The Amateurs" (2011) also got a deal, and he's still waiting for the West Coast phone calls about 2012's "The Two Deaths of Daniel Hayes."
Sakey is a native of Flint, Mich., and started his adult life working in advertising in Atlanta. Not yet 40, he and his wife have lived here for more than a decade, in a Lakeview brownstone with daughter Jocelyn. Ever since he gave up advertising for writing, he has been prolific, adding to his load when he became host last year of "Hidden City," a new Travel Channel series in which he visits various cities to explore, in participatory ways, their darker sides.
His wife has been busy too, getting her master's degree in childhood development at the esteemed Erikson Institute here. It was her concentration on autism that, Sakey says, "started to crank up my novelistic engine."
And so, with great inventiveness, Sakey has created an alternative world in "Brilliance," one in which a rare set of people (about one in 100 and known as "brilliants") are in possession of superhuman gifts that can be used in all manner of ways, such as beating the stock market for $300 billion or turning "invisible."
At the heart of what is at once mystery, thriller, family saga and romance is a federal agent named Nick Cooper, with great hunting gifts, who is on the trail of another brilliant who may or may not be a terrorist determined to start a civil war. The plot takes many unpredictable twists, the characters are multidimensional, the world quite believable and the social/political commentary pointed and often chilling.
In tackling this departure from the crime novels that built the foundation for his loyal book-buying base, Sakey says, "I was not worried, and I think the publisher (Thomas & Mercer) was cautiously optimistic. It is really the sales and marketing departments that worry about such things. I think readers follow the writer."
The book, part of a planned trilogy, has just been published, so it will take some time to see if Sakey is right. But Hollywood has already come calling, voraciously so, with Joe Roth and his Roth Films partner Palek Patel, whose most recent blockbuster was "Oz the Great and Powerful," winning a bidding war for the film rights.
Such is the self-assured nature of the local literary scene that I am sure Sakey will still be welcome at barroom gatherings of his crime writer pals. I like to think he'll pick up the tab.
Rick Kogan is a Tribune senior writer and columnist.
By Marcus Sakey, Thomas & Mercer, 452 pages, $14.95 paperbackCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun