I’ve been a big fan of Marcus Sakey’s work since 2007 when I sucked down The Blade Itself like it was a mug of Budweiser and two-for-one domestics happy hour was only an hour long. The guy’s a fucking fantastic storyteller, able to keep you rooting for the characters and keep your ass in your seat for long stretches as you’re just dying to see what happens next. With each book his craft gets better and The Two Deaths of Danile Hayes is indeed his best yet – and that’s saying something as the Nerd fucking loved The Amateurs, no doubt the darkest of Sakey’s novels.
But character development, pacing, plotting – of course dude has that shit down if he’s a crime novelist with an avid following. (Which he, you know, is.) No, what the Nerd is hoping to discuss in his review of Daniel Hayes is one of Sakey’s less talked about traits, that being his ability to do big twisty crime fiction stories that actually practice some restraint. But before I elaborate, let me use some of that restraint stuff myself as I try to explain the novel’s plot without spoiling too many first and second act surprises. (Jesus, how’s that for a fucking segue? I think I can hear my balls negotiating a murder-suicide pact.)
The story opens with a man waking up naked and freezing on a deserted beach. He finds a BMW unlocked nearby and uses it to warm up. When he’s done struggling to live, he realizes that he can’t remember who he is, all his memories from before the beach just plain gone. He soon deduces that yes, this car is most likely his and if so, according to the registration in the glove box, his name is Daniel Hayes. But if he is Daniel Hayes, who the hell is that guy and why does his glove box also contain a handgun?
So yes, The Two Deaths of Daniel Hayes is indeed an amnesia thriller (Robert Ludlum of the Bourne books and Gregg Hurwitz of The Crime Writer fame are both cleverly referenced in the novel) but, like I said, one with restraint. You’ve got Daniel running around trying to figure out who he is, bad guys and police after him over a crime he can’t remember committing, and a whole lot of cool Hollywood insider shit to boot (certain key parts of the novel are even written in a screenplay format), yet Sakey never lets this shit get too, well, “big.”
Yes, there are great twists and turns carefully spaced throughout the novel where Daniel finds out something new about his past or re-remembers some old memory, but it’s never too cartoonishly over-the-top. The final wrap up does not involve the uncovering of a secret US government program or a dastardly plot by the Chinese or terrorists or whoever the big, faceless overseas bad guy of the moment is supposed to be these days. No, instead the reveal is human scale and satisfying in its simplicity, with tension and stakes that are no less high than if Daniel was a fucking Manchurian Candidate or some shit like that, partially just because, you know, we care so much about him.
The Nerd has probably thought at the time that every new Marcus Sakey novel dropped that it deserved to be his big breakout, his instant-household-name-maker, if you will, but I think The Two Deaths of Daniel Hayes could legitimately be the one that makes it happen, the one that makes not just mystery fans with their ears to the ground take notice, but the novel that captures the imagination of the reading public at large. (If I took another pass at that sentence I might be able to make it just a touch longer.) The Two Deaths of Daniel Hayes has a June release and I’d be awfully surprised if I didn’t spot it in a few beach bags this summer (what the Nerd is doing rifling through ladies’ beach bags is his own damn business) or if my uncle doesn’t try and and tell me about it at a family barbeque. (“It’s got a guy’s name in the title and he’s got amnesia and a gun in the glovebox…I think it’s by this guy Daniel Hayes…”) But then again, in a world where the reading public’s imagination is captured by rapey Swedish novels that read like the fucking practice run printing of the Gutenberg Bible, the Nerd can hardly claim psychic powers.