A few pages into Marcus Sakey’s latest crime novel The Two Deaths of Daniel Hayes and I felt as though I was running blindfolded at full speed through a dark hallway while being pursued by dangerous individuals. This feeling is similar to the one experienced by Daniel Hayes, the novel’s protagonist. The story begins with a man staggering from the surf, alone, naked and freezing on a deserted Maine beach at night. Not exactly the best of circumstances in which to find oneself, but add on the fact that he doesn’t remember who he is or why he’s there, and you have the makings of a fast-paced, nail-biting thriller.
After Daniel struggles from the surf and realizes his predicament, he staggers off the beach and finds a car parked nearby. Inside he finds clothing that fits and which is somewhat familiar to him. He also finds an envelope with cash, a gun, a Rolex and the car’s registration listing the owner as Daniel Hayes of Malibu, California. With no other leads to his identity, Daniel makes his way back to his home on the West Coast. During his weeklong trek, he is pursued by police in other states, and he becomes aware that he is wanted in connection with a crime. Unable to remember the security code to his house, he breaks in and, once inside, searches for clues to his identity. Having tripped the alarm, he is aware that his time is short, and as the police close in, Daniel flees with his laptop. After changing his appearance and checking into a seedy hotel, Daniel heads for the internet in hopes of discovering why he is being sought by the police. He quickly learns that his wife, Laney Thayer, a television actress has been killed in a car crash on the Pacific Coast Highway, and Daniel is wanted for questioning.
Throughout the novel, Marcus Sakey weaves themes of identity, trust, and the lengths one will go to in order to preserve one’s life. As soon as Daniel sneaks into his home, he finds that he has only his instincts to guide him, and must put his trust in people that he believes he knows, yet can’t remember. At one point Daniel accuses an actor, who was his wife Laney’s friend and colleague, of having an affair with her, only to be told by the actor that he is gay.
Sakey’s third person narrative allows the reader insight into the character’s thoughts and motives. Daniel is a likeable character, although you don’t know whether that opinion will change if and when he gets his memory back. Early on the reader is introduced to Bennett, a blackmailer looking for a diamond necklace which Daniel’s wife Laney had promised him. Bennett is portrayed as a smooth, controlled killer, determined to get the payoff that is owed to him. He’s as menacing holding an ice cream cone as he is holding a gun. While Bennett pursues Daniel, he, in turn, is being followed by a young woman named Belinda Nichols. The reader doesn’t know whether Belinda is following Bennett to kill him, or because she hopes he will lead her to Daniel. The most colorful character in the novel is Sophie Ziegler, Daniel’s attorney. Sophie is something of a noir throwback to those women who inhabit the novels of Raymond Chandler. She talks tough, has a heart of gold, and can handle anything thrown her way. You love her, and only wish she appeared more often during the story. Although the detecting in Sakey’s book is done primarily by Daniel, there is a detective assigned to the case. Detective Roger Waters (yes, there is a Pink Floyd reference) has just a small part, and like Sophie Ziegler, I wished he had more time on the pages.
Sakey delivers just what the reader wants in a crime drama – a story that hooks you from the first page, complete with believable characters, a busy, modern-day setting that spans from a beach in Maine to a busy Hollywood movie lot, and enough twists and turns to keep you on the edge of your seat when it ends 387 pages later.