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Marcus Sakey sheds the constraints of a crime novel

Marcus Sakey (pictured Schubas) branches out innew genres with his new novel “Brilliance” set an alternate Americwhere some have uncanny

Marcus Sakey (pictured at Schubas) branches out into new genres with his new novel “Brilliance,” set in an alternate America where some have uncanny powers. | Kevin Nance~For the Sun-Times

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Book launch party

Author Marcus Sakey will discuss and sign “Brilliance,” at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Sheffield’s, 3258 N. Sheffield.

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For most of his career as a leading Chicago crime novelist, Marcus Sakey cared about the conventions of his genre. There was always a bad guy (though maybe not all bad, or bad for understandable reasons) who did something terrible. There was always a good guy (though maybe not all good) who tracked him down and made him pay. Always.

But in his crackling new novel, “Brilliance” (Thomas & Mercer, $14.95), Sakey has thrown his purist’s caution to the wind.

This high-concept, genre-bending yarn, to be published this week and already the basis for a major motion picture in the works from the company that produced the “Dark Knight” trilogy and “Inception,” is an uncategorizable stew of mystery, thriller, speculative and science fiction enriched with generous dollops of allegory and social satire.

“Brilliance,” projected as the first volume of a trilogy, imagines an America all but identical to our own — except that, about 30 years before the story begins, a generation of highly gifted savants was born. Unlike the so-called “idiot savants” of Rain Man ilk, the Brilliants, as they’re known, don’t suffer from crippling social limitations such as poor communication skills or lack of empathy. They enjoy uncanny powers, such as the ability to read people’s darkest secrets from their body language, or to spot patterns in the stock market, or to become invisible by finding the exact place where no one is looking — while being otherwise normal.

Inevitably, these prodigies come to be persecuted because they’re different and, by the way, unnervingly superior to the rest of the population. That leads to a villain Brilliant who strikes back against those who hunt his kind — including a federal agent, Nick Cooper, also a Brilliant, who is assigned to bring him to justice.

“There’s an old adage that you should write the book you’d like to read — which is simple to understand, a little more difficult to actually do,” says Sakey, 39, over a recent lunch at Schubas in Lake View. “Though I’m deeply proud of the books I’ve done, I was always trying to fit the constraints of a genre. With this one, I fell in love with the idea, and I just wanted to go great guns on it and not worry about what it would be called, what category it would fit into. Sometimes I call it ‘alt-fic’: a book, movie or TV show that centers on one idea that changes the world, like ‘Lost’ or ‘Inception.’ And that’s with I did with ‘Brilliance.’ ”

The idea for the book came from the work of Sakey’s wife, G.G., a child development specialist who works with autistic children. “She was telling me these fascinating facts about the kids she was working with, about all the unusual challenges they have but also their special gifts,” he recalls. “What struck me was that they face a lot of challenges, especially social challenges, because communication is so difficult for them. Understanding what another person is expressing emotionally is also very hard. I latched onto the idea of the gifts, though, and said, ‘What if you gave them to people who were otherwise anywhere in the human spectrum?’ They’re smart, or not, or nice, or not. They aren’t defined by their gift, but they’re shaped by them. As their lives progress, it changes how they look at things and, more importantly, how everyone else looks at them.”

The Brilliants become that latest and most virulently hated minority on the planet — but in this case, it’s not a simple case of xenophobia.

“The Brilliants aren’t subjectively more capable; they are more capable,” Sakey says. “But where does that leave the rest of us? So it’s not just a novel about how it’s bad to hate other people. We can all agree on that. But I wanted to round it out a little more, so that it’s more complicated. Yes, these people are a minority and deserve to be treated with respect. But over time, that minority is going to make the rest of us obsolete, and that scares people. I’m a father recently — my daughter is 16 months old — and if I knew that by the time she came of age, she would essentially be a second-class citizen, it would be very hard for me to be out there holding a rally for everybody to get along, even though that’s the way it should be.”

The concept is so promising that Legendary Pictures acquired movie rights to the book in a seven-figure deal after a hotly contested auction last spring. David Koepp, the fourth-highest-grossing screenwriter of all time — he penned the scripts for “Spider-Man,” “Jurassic Park,” “War of the Worlds” and other blockbusters — is already at work on the screenplay. “Getting him attached was just an unbelievable thrill,” Sakey says with a smile. “I did a happy dance.”

Sakey, in fact, is increasingly dancing around Hollywood. A film adaptation of another of his novels, “Good People,” is currently shooting in London and due out next year; the cast features James Franco, Kate Hudson and Tom Wilkinson. Sakey also recently took a turn in front of the camera himself as the writer and host of the Travel Channel series “Hidden City,” in which he was pepper-sprayed and attacked by dogs, among other adventures.

But being a novelist is still his first love, and the second and third installments of the “Brilliance” trilogy are yet to be written. “I’m always looking for the sweet spot between entertainment and thought-provoking ideas,” Sakey says. “When you hit ’em both, you keep somebody up past bedtime because they can’t stop turning the pages, but when they finish the book, hopefully they’re still thinking about it. That’s what I’m always going for.”


Kevin Nance is a local free-lance writer. Twitter: @KevinNance1.

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