Talking Cops, Robbers, and Storytelling with Author and Hidden City Host Marcus Sakey

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Crime novelist-turned-TV host Marcus Sakey is taking the game of cops and robbers to a whole new level. In fact, he’s taking it to a whole new medium.

As an award-winning author (his most recent novel being the well-reviewed The Two Deaths of Daniel Hayes), Marcus has made his living getting inside the minds of fictional characters and bringing them to life on the page. Now, he’s turned his attention to getting inside the minds of some of history’s most famous - and infamous - characters in order to breathe new life into the tales that made them legends and bring them to the small screen in a new, more interactive way.

Whether he’s strapping on riot gear or getting pepper sprayed (and subsequently giving his censor a workout), Marcus is learning on camera as the audience does, nearly scriptless, as he accompanies Hidden City viewers on a tour of the good, the bad, and the controversial embedded in the cultural memory of some of America’s greatest cities.

Now, Marcus is sitting down with me before Hidden City’s premiere tonight, December 6, at 10/9C on the Travel Channel to talk about why his new job rocks and the stories that have intrigued him the most.

Why not bring these old stories to life through the written word rather than by reenacting parts of them?

It’s interesting, my books have never been based on actual incidents. I’ve never recreated a crime or even a character. I sort of steal the sparkly bits . . . but for me I really like the act of making it up. But the show is kind of an interesting approach in that it lets me take that spirit and apply it to things that did happen, so I’m kind of free to go into people’s heads and guess what I think a killer might have been imagining or how a person was feeling, or get very descriptive on the mood of a city that’s under siege.

Criminals exist everywhere, so what is it about looking at a particular city’s criminal past that really gives you a better sense of its individual character?

Criminals and crime do exist everywhere; and, in fact, the vast majority of it is the same everywhere . . . So for us, the crimes that we’re looking at are the ones that really are kind of unique to an area, that really tell you something about it. As a novelist, I really do believe that the world is made of stories, the stories you choose to tell, the stories that happened to you, the stories that shape you, those are really the stories that are you. So looking at the crimes and criminals that could only have happened in these particular cities, that were deeply entrenched in it and changed the city, it’s a really good way to kind of understand a place. And certainly it’s a lot more interesting, a lot more revealing, and I think a lot more honest than the shopping district or the tourist traps.

In your research as well as for the show, how do you adapt to working and fitting in with all the different types of people you do? I imagine working with a cop is quite different from working with a guy with a rap sheet.

You know, in some ways they’re not as different as you’d think, which is strange but true. I think if you bought a cop a beer and took him off the record he wouldn’t disagree. There’s rules to both sides, and there’s a bit of a game that both are playing. But for me, a big part of it is that in the moment at least I try not to pass value judgments, I’m trying to understand. I see that as my job, coming to understand. And to understand what happened in any particular story, you need to understand everyone’s point of view. It does make for some funny juxtapositions, though, honestly.

There was this one in Boston where I was interviewing the special agent in charge of the Boston FBI and we were talking about bank robbers. And we left there and the very next thing we did that day was then go on a pub crawl with a former armored car thief — which was a really funny one-two! But man, I came away with a much better understanding of the story from both sides. There’s a bit of whiplash with it.

Which city has had, in your opinion, the most exciting or intriguing stories or has been most intriguing for you?

There really have been so many — it’s one of the things I’ve loved about this show is that we’re done some really unexpected things, everything from the assassination of Harvey Milk to the LA riots. I think one story that I just get a kick out of personally, as a crime novelist, is the story of the Barefoot Bandit, this 18 or 19-year-old kid who was on the run from the law stealing planes and boats and being chased by SWAT teams and helicopters and escaping, and did all of it without physically hurting anyone, which is the other thing. That story just really appealed to me as like this Peter Pan criminal fantasy.

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Emmie Scott is an English major-turned-marketing exec, with a passion for writing, humor, sharing knowledge, and "pink drinks." After hours, she started Are Toe Rings Professional Attire?, a blog for college grads and twenty-somethings looking to find their way through that daunting labyrinth called…

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