At the City’s Edge
by Marcus Sakey
Published by St. Martin’s Minotaur
320 pages, 2008
Mr. Palmer’s Neighborhood
Reviewed by David Thayer
Chicago is the City of the Big Shoulders, the City That Works, America’s Second City, and home to the Cubs, the Chisox and a raft of crime writers who grew up reading Mike Royko and Studs Terkel, and listening to broadcaster Harry Caray sing during the seventh-inning stretch. Chicago is a state of mind.
At the City’s Edge is Marcus Sakey’s second novel, after last year’s The Blade Itself. In it, he set out to re-create the magic of his debut work, but with mixed results. Protagonist Jason Palmer is a former soldier, recently returned from George W. Bush’s Iraq war with a less than honorable discharge and a series of flashbacks to the encounter with insurgents that cost him his career. Jason is back in Chicago displaced by his memories.
And there’s no peace to be found at home, either. Jason, just finishing off a day’s run, is attacked for reasons unknown by a couple of black guys who seem intent on kidnapping him. Then, things take a really terrible turn when Jason’s brother, Michael -- a tavern owner who’s made ample enemies by speaking out against gang violence in his neighborhood -- is murdered, found dead in the burnt-out remains of his business. We feel the impact as Jason arrives at the scene of his brother’s slaying:
Taking in the scene, as well, is Elena Cruz. She’s a Chicago cop serving an administrative stretch in database hell, but her heart is with the Gang Intelligence Unit. Her take on Michael’s murder is straightforward: gang retaliation for Michael’s involvement with youth projects in the neighborhood.
Author Sakey has created here a fictional Chicago neighborhood he calls Crenwood, a pastiche of street hoods, vacant lots and crumbling bungalows. Despite the area’s manifest deficiencies, Michael Palmer insisted, defiantly, on remaining there to run his bar and rear his son, Billy. Billy -- who, it turns out, saw his father’s killers. And they were white men, not the black thugs most familiar from the gangs. After striking an uneasy alliance to solve the mystery of Michael’s death, Jason and Elena -- who’s hoping that her work on this homicide will redeem her professionally -- discuss the significance of young Billy’s identification:
Billy Palmer is also at risk of having a short future. The people who killed his father are now after the son, and it falls to Jason not only to protect his nephew, but to protect himself in the bargain. However, our hero wants to do more than run; with Elena Cruz, he wants to figure out why Michael had to die, and exact revenge for his sibling’s murder -- a more complicated task than he originally imagined, as he realizes that the reasons for Michael’s demise are hardly as straightforward as the authorities believe.
At the City’s Edge offers some intriguing secondary players, among them ex-con Washington Mathews, who is running a halfway house for gangsters wanting to leave “the life.” Mathews is about to receive an enormous check from a local alderman -- enough money to supply his shoestring ministry. He’s known Jason Palmer since he was a boy and is well aware of his brother’s good works on behalf of Crenwood. Mathews serves both as mentor and role model for Jason, but is being manipulated by politician-businessman Adam Kent. And let us not forget Anthony DiRisio, who cruises the neighborhood, inflicting mayhem associated with a real-estate scam that is targeting Crenwood. Gentrification of that neighborhood would mean soaring property values, and DiRisio will do just about anything to get rich. It is never clear enough what DiRisio stands to gain ultimately; he kills without mercy in pursuit of his goals -- a one-man execution squad.
Despite all of these thriller elements, though, At the City’s Edge is really a mystery at heart, by dint of its pacing, writing style and point-of-view cuts. But a mystery somewhat lacking in credibility. The conspiracy that cost Michael Palmer his life is complex, without being altogether plausible. Murder committed in pursuit of a future for Crenwood that is marked by restored gray stone buildings and designer baby carriages? There’s something too simplistic about that plot, too cliché-ridden. Other than DiRisio and Cruz’s former partner, the bad guys in these pages emerge in a convenient hierarchy. It’s a contrivance that relies on stereotypes -- evil capitalists and crooked politician -- rather than well-drawn characters.
This novel’s climactic scenes are crowded with explanations of motivations that, frankly, have been quite apparent to the reader for some time, all pointing to the fact that the writer of big checks may have ulterior motives. The trip to a disappointing ending is fast and furious, packed with action scenes, vignettes and flashbacks, many of them quite exceptional. But they seem, like a herd of cats, determined to scatter in all directions.
At the City’s Edge contains the undertone of a social novel, an attempt to explore the vicious dynamics at work in cities such as Chicago. Marcus Sakey brings passion and good intentions to this aspect of his story, spending time with the characters whose lives are wasted within the confines of a few square blocks. One of the recurring images he uses is that of a jail cell, of freedom lost -- or never realized -- but no fresh insight emerges, nor does the time spent pay off in dramatic terms. Call this novel a near miss from a talented writer, who still promises great things in the future. | February 2008
David Thayer is a Seattle freelance writer and author of the blog One More Bite of the Apple. He’s also a published poet, his work having appeared in an anthology as well as literary magazines. Thayer has recently completed a crime novel, the beginning of a series about cops in the New York Police Department's Intelligence Division.