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The Amateurs, Marcus Sakey, Dutton, $25.95.

The Amateurs by Marcus Sakey

I was talking to one of my long time customers the other day. This customer happens to be our county treasurer, and she mentioned that when there's a downturn in the economy, there's a big uptick in white collar crime. I realized when I was talking to her that I had read quite a few books recently that hinged on a found or stolen bag of money. Enough money to change your life. The county treasurer said that if she found a bag of money, she would turn it in. I said I thought that was a good plan, because in books when people find a bag of money, that's when all the trouble starts. Marcus Sakey's new novel—while about a stolen bag of money—starts with that full bag and the trouble blossoms from there.

Four friends who meet weekly in a bar—Ian, the coke snorting trader; Jenn, the travel agent; Alex, the bartender who's trying to pony up child support payments by working double shifts; and Mitch, the doorman at a fancy hotel—like to play "what if" games with each other, thanks mostly to Ian, who loves games. Their favorite what if: what if you had $500,000. All of them have an alternate life scenario. All of them are in their early 30's and either find that life is unsatisfying or they're kind of waiting for it to start. The bar they meet in is the one where Alex works, and one week they all meet the boss.

Alex's boss, a slick, creepy guy named Johnny Love (actually Loverin) takes a shine to Jenn, and Alex, disgusted, mentions that he saw a "big bag" of money in Johnny's safe. Johnny has asked Alex to play a bodyguard for him one night. When the friends are sitting around one night, their what if game then becomes real. What could be simpler than to stage a robbery and relieve Johnny Love of his big bag of cash? They're sure it's drug money that won't be reported. And since Alex will be posing as a bodyguard he'll be above suspicion. It seems like a fail safe plan.

This is a mystery, though, so of course the plan is far from fail safe. Many, many things go bad, and more interestingly, living on the outer edge begins to change all four of the friends, not just the people themselves, but their friendships begin to shift and change. My mother told me recently that people change friends every seven years, and in the case of Ian, Alex, Mitch and Jenn, their seven years feel like they are about up.

Sakey is a genuine narrative master. I've found all of his now four novels impossible to put down—he's definitely in the big leagues. He's also pretty skilled at manipulating your emotions (Alex has a young daughter—I'll leave it at that). This is the kind of book that used to be written by old fashioned storytellers like Mary Roberts Rinehart, Mignon Eberhart and Charlotte Armstrong. All of those women, who wrote standalone novels as Sakey does, were more than adept at telling a smashing story, giving your heart a bit of a twist, and leaving you wanting the next installment very soon. Thankfully Sakey seems to write just as quickly as those early mistresses of their craft. And he's updated the formula, adding his own modern, heart stopping pace to the more gentle storytelling style of those older writers. I can't recommend him much more highly, and if you're looking for a great summer read, Sakey is definitely your guy.

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