by Marcus Sakey
Published by Dutton
326 pages, 2008
A Misfortune in Cash
Reviewed by Jim Winter
If you suddenly had half a million dollars, what would you do with it? In Marcus Sakey’s latest thriller, Good People, Tom and Anna Reed find out. After a fire alarm goes off in the ground-floor unit of their Chicago duplex, they discover their tenant dead in his bed from a drug overdose and a stash of cash in his kitchen. Perhaps they should have asked themselves where it came from before they claimed those riches as a windfall.
Their renter, who called himself Bill Samuelson, seems to have secreted more than $300,000 in flour sacks, cereal boxes and other receptacles. The Reeds don’t miss their tenant so much. Samuelson wasn’t the friendliest neighbor, but at least he paid his rent on time and minded his own business. And his demise looks like a blessing.
Understand, Tom and Anna have money problems -- credit card bills and the mortgage on their duplex and the expense of fertility treatments that still aren’t working. No one could blame them for stowing the dough in their basement, and then using part of it to write a cashier’s check to Citigroup. Found money, right?
Well, not exactly. See, Bill wasn’t Bill. He was actually Will Tuttle, a known armed robber, and the money wasn’t just socked away a little at a time over several years. It’s the haul from the biggest headline in Chicago at the moment, the robbery of a major (unnamed, rather vapid and wholly generic) celebrity at a posh nightclub. Two people died in that incident, including one of the robbers and the bodyguard of a drug dealer named Malachi, who was seeing the celebrity on business.
What’s not been reported in the Tribune or on WGN-TV at 10 o’clock is the more than three hundred grand that went missing, along with some merchandise taken from the dealer. But Malachi knows. Jack Witkowski knows, too. And Jack is angry. Tuttle killed his brother, Bobby -- another of the thieves -- while skipping out on the celebrity’s mugging. Now Jack wants that money himself, along with blood and some measure of satisfaction.
Before long, Tom and Anna, who thought their problems were finally all behind them, find themselves stalked not only by Jack Witkowski and one of Tuttle’s surviving criminal partners, Marshall Richards, but also by the drug dealer and an ambitious homicide cop named Christopher Halden. Halden wants a piece of the robbery case. Drug dealer Malachi just wants his merchandise back. Jack wants vengeance, no matter who he must kill to get it.
Like Chicago author Sakey’s previous works, The Blade Itself (2007) and At the City’s Edge (2008), Good People features an antagonist who blames his own violent actions on other people. In Good People, Jack Witkowski starts out focusing his rage on Will Tuttle, the robber who passes himself off as Samuelson. After all, Will murdered Jack’s brother and took the money. No one could argue with that, even a cop. However, when Will/Bill turns up dead and the cash turns up missing, Jack realizes the Reeds have taken the ill-gotten gains. And he decides that they should pay for Bobby’s death.
What’s different in this new novel from previous Sakey works, is that Jack starts out as a sympathetic antihero. He’s a robber on a big job, wondering whether sibling Bobby should have come along. We see him grieving in a bar weeks later. However, as his obsession with the stolen money grows, so does his hatred for innocents Tom and Anna Reed.
Detective Halden is not helping matters. He’s hooked onto the robbery case as a golden ticket to a promotion and a cushy retirement. He eventually reaches the point where sacrificing the Reeds to close the investigation seems a reasonable thing to do.
Ironically, it is dealer Malachi who ultimately becomes the couple’s ally. Malachi threatens husband Tom one day at lunch, revealing that he knows who Tom and Anna are, and the identity of their late tenant. He doesn’t want the money, he says, just his merchandise. To Malachi, this is a business transaction, albeit a violent one. He tells Tom simply, “if you’re not on a side, then you’re not on my side.”
By the story’s final act, Tom and Anna Reed are running from Jack, running from Malachi and running from the police, all the while asking themselves, “Are we good people?”
Sakey steps up his game a notch in Good People. His characters are much more complex than those in his previous novels. With the exception of Jack Witkowski, and possibly Will Tuttle (who’s out of the picture before this story goes very far), the characters in these pages aren’t portrayed as entirely good or entirely evil, but simply as folks trying to figure out how they’re supposed to get through life. But if Jack devolves into a bundle of irrational rage, Malachi is the center of calm in the yarn. There is a problem, he solves it. Malachi is what he is, and he has no problem doing what needs to be done. Tom and Anna Reed, on the other hand, spend the entire book trying to figure out who they are.
Given the same circumstances, who’s to say we wouldn’t all be asking ourselves that question? | February 2009
Jim Winter is a writer, reviewer and former comedian in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he does tech support for an insurance company. He’s an occasional contributor to Crimespree and frequent contributor to both The Rap Sheet and the comedy podcast The Awful Show. His short stories have appeared in Pulp Pusher, Spinetingler Magazine and Plots With Guns. Check out his blog, Edged in Blue.