The Two Deaths of Daniel Hayes
by Marcus Sakey
Reviewed by Peter Handel
The Two Deaths of Daniel Hayes, the latest thriller by Marcus Sakey, aspires to be many things: a contemplation of the aftermath of a traumatic event (a "dissociative fugue"), a cat-and-mouse game between an extraordinarily evil villain and two (not particularly sympathetic) protagonists, both caught up in circumstances they don't always comprehend, and a love story of ever-shifting dimensions.
The story opens with a man (our hero, Daniel Hayes, except neither he nor the reader knows that just yet) staggering, naked and near death, out of the ocean onto a beach in Maine. In the distance: "A car. Legs cramping. Breath shallow. He couldn't force his lungs to take. To draw enough. Air. The shivering easing. Bad sign." At this point, we wonder if the entire story will be a derivative exercise in terse. Short. Sentences. A la Lee Child. But not to worry. Sakey mixes it up in terms of his prose style -- needlessly, in fact.
Meanwhile, back in Los Angeles, a woman on a mission -- again, we have no idea who she is or what she's after, changes her identity multiple times during a single day as she haunts the area. And finally, also in L.A., an icy, menacing shadow of a man interrupts a woman's morning shower, looking for Daniel.
We know these people will all meet; we know things are not what they seem, and now the job of the author is to sharpen these random puzzle pieces to resolution and possibly redemption. Gradually, the ongoing vagueness of the identity and relationship between Daniel and the mysterious woman becomes clearer, as do the reasons behind the unnerving tactics of the man pursuing them both.
Sakey gives it his all, but the results are so unwieldy that at times we find ourselves battered by the onslaught of revelations, a sea of convenient plot turns and the unending ease of the villain's ability to be a malevolent puppet-master in a complex world.
As a tightly edited summer blockbuster movie (which it may be someday), The Two Deaths of Daniel Hayes would be two hours of lively and entertaining pleasure. Key words: flashbacks, sexual blackmail, bursts of violence, Malibu, gunplay, hot sexy beautiful couple, amnesia, Anthony Hopkins as a very bad man. But in book form, it too often feels as though Sakey revels in manipulating the reader instead of building a solid foundation for his character's actions. It's a twist-a-thon of massive proportions, and we become almost numbed by the shifts in both plot and presentation -- because Daniel turns out to be a screenwriter, sometimes the story shifts from a straight narrative to screenplay format -- and it stops the action cold.
Sakey does have his point to make, and deserves props for that. The truth is subjective, he shows us, and he's right -- we all create our own story and our own internal version of reality, and so often, little of it is based on fact.