There’s apparently an award for everything, and the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association has announced its nominations for the Dilys, given to the mystery and crime novel that its member bookstores most enjoyed selling. This sort of thing would be off my radar entirely, except that one of the nominees, Marcus Sakey‘s The Blade Itself, was one of the best crime novels I’ve read in recent years. To be truthful, I don’t keep up with the genre as much as I’d like to, but the novel scratched a lot of itches: it’s a Chicago novel that understands how fractured Chicago’s class structure is, its heroes are defined by their ordinariness (something I’ve always liked about George Pelecanos‘ books), and there’s an out-of-time, postwar noir feel to the story that recalls my all-time favorite noir author, David Goodis. Here’s what I wrote about The Blade Itself for Kirkus Reviews:

One man’s attempts to shake off his checkered past are foiled when his old partner in crime returns.

Danny Carter and Evan McGann used to be a great team. The two grew up in Bridgeport, a rough-and-tumble and predominantly Irish Chicago neighborhood, where they quickly graduated from shoplifting to knocking over pawnshops. When one such heist goes bad, Danny’s able to get away without being caught, but Evan winds up doing a seven-year prison bid. Once paroled, Evan makes a beeline for Chicago, where Danny’s been keeping his nose clean by working as a construction foreman and settling into a comfy life with his girlfriend, who runs a hip nightclub. A standard-issue kidnapping plot ensues, but though there’s a ring of familiarity to the material, Sakey proves he has the chops to eventually do better things. He has a great feel for the moral dilemmas created by Danny’s return to criminal life, and he makes the most of Chicago’s geographical split between its north side (upscale, educated) and south side (working-class, pugnacious) without overworking the metaphor. The dialogue has all the efficiency and punch the genre demands, and Evan is a fully imagined thug-he’s simultaneously charismatic and fearsomely violent, and though his actions strain believability in the later chapters, he never becomes a tough-guy caricature. (And Sakey doesn’t shy away from describing the occasional bit of savagery in unsettling detail.) The author is working with themes and tones reminiscent of George Pelecanos; he shares the same interest in exploring the ill-lit corners of a city, prefers heroes who have a rough past and some dirt under their fingernails and has little interest in police or professional gumshoes. That streetwise attitude makes him a valuable addition to Chicago crime lit, a landscape currently dominated by authors of detective stories (Sara Paretsky) and legal thrillers (Scott Turow).

A promising start from a writer willing to get deep into a city’s grit. Agent: Scott Miller/Trident Media Group

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