Novelist Marcus Sakey has been probing the dark side of Chicago since 2007, having published five crime thrillers including Good People, which is currently being developed into a film starring Tobey Maguire, reportedly. For his latest project, the Roscoe Village resident broadened his scope. As the writer and host of the new Travel Channel series Hidden City, Sakey travels America to investigate some of the nation’s most iconic true crime stories. The author visits 12 metropolises and explores the more notorious corners of their pasts—the tales which reveal a city’s true character, he says.
The debut episode airs Tuesday, Dec. 6 at 9 p.m. CST, and features three of Chicago’s defining dramas: the reign of terror of serial killer H.H. Holmes, the rise and fall of John Dillinger, and the violent culture clash of the 1968 Democratic National Convention riots. The A.V. Club talked to Sakey, freshly returned from taping in Alaska, about how he uncovers Hidden City’s stories, the unique joy of getting pepper-sprayed, and fashion tips for interviewing porn stars.
The A.V. Club: You’ve described Hidden City as Anthony Bourdain meets Castle.
Marcus Sakey: Yeah, with one part Jackass thrown in.
AVC: How exactly does that work?
MS: I’m a crime novelist primarily, so the idea is, taking a novelist’s approach to going to different cities and taking a look at a couple of crimes that define the city, or reveal the character of the city. The Jackass part—which also really does fit the storytelling idea—is that I like to get as much as I can into my stories. Even before the show, I spent a lot of time touring the morgue, shadowing detectives. So now to that I’ve added things like getting pepper-sprayed or getting attacked by a dog, which helps me get closer and understand what everyone involved was going through.
AVC: How did you develop the idea?
MS: The executive producer of the show [Tom Cappello] is also the head of Crazy Legs [Hidden City’s production company]. He and I were friends 10, 12 years ago, in separate lives. Then he saw that I was writing books, and he was pitching shows, and he reached out to me to see if there was something we could do together.
We’re trying to capitalize on the strengths of novels as a way of storytelling, but for real-life crimes. While we stick to the facts of the story, I’m able to do things journalists aren’t, like put myself in the heads of people involved and guess what they’re feeling. It sort of evolved around this idea that you can understand a city best not through the shopping districts and the tourist spots, but through the darker places in it.
AVC: Was it a challenge to adapt to telling nonfiction stories?
MS: It’s been interesting, because I’ve always done a lot of research. My novels are never directly based on a true crime incident, but I want to get the details right. I want to know how homicide detectives think, what a SWAT team might do to prepare. This just takes it to the next level of getting as close to the people involved as possible.
One of the stories we did for Chicago was the ’68 riots, the Grant Park riots. And we talked to the people on both sides, the protestors and the cops. We talked to a member of the Chicago Seven. But also, I went through basic police riot control training. And to understand the protestors’ side, I got pepper-sprayed—which, my mother said, “Please don’t ever do that again.”
AVC: Was that as much fun as it sounds like?
MS: It was awesome, yeah. I recommend it on a Saturday night. The funny thing is, the guy who did it was very gracious about it. But he could tell I was stalling, I think—because I was about to get hot pepper juice sprayed in my eyes. [Laughs.] So as I’m trying to think of extra questions, he just sort of blithely takes this container out and says, “What an officer would do is, shake it up sort of like this”—and then, wham, it was perfect laser-focus right in both my open eyes. It sucked!
It’s not really about doing something stupid just for entertainment. You really do come away with a better understanding. For example, while I don’t recommend it as a fun time, now I can understand why police went through the training where they feel free to use it. It’s not damaging, and it certainly is incapacitating, and if a cop feels like he or she is threatened, much better to go to that than a nightstick or certainly a firearm.
AVC: The first episode is about your hometown of Chicago. Other than the ’68 riots, what stories will you be telling?
MS: We’re also talking about H.H. Holmes, of Devil In The White City fame, maybe the worst serial killer in American history, and we’re also talking about John Dillinger. So between the three of them, while they’re all very distinct, you come away with a better understanding of Chicago as a city of contradictions, and a city with a lot of swagger, and how all of those things pull together to form a city.
AVC: You just got back from Anchorage. What did you uncover there?
MS: I uncovered that Anchorage is chilly and dark. [Laughs.] Actually, it was lovely. It was the first of these cities that I hadn’t been to, and I liked it a lot. I loved Alaska, it’s magnificent. And again, you really do find that the crimes of a place sort of fit it. Nobody is accidentally in Alaska. The people who are in Alaska are there because they choose to be, so they’ve sort of got a real frontier ethic. The people are incredibly friendly, interesting, smart people—but they also stay out of each other’s business.
That kind of plays to one of the crimes there. Robert Hansen, who was a baker, had the lovely habit of kidnapping women, strippers mostly, and then taking them up to his cabin in the woods and hunting them. Which is pretty horrific, but it’s one of those things [that] can only happen in a place like that, where people don’t get in each other’s business too much.
AVC: How do you decide which stories are representative of each city?
MS: We go in with some idea of what we think we’re going to find in the city, and we look at dozens of possible crimes for each, and we pick the three, in general, that pull together into some sort of theme that we think will fit the city. I write the episodes afterwards, after I’ve gone and spoken to everyone and drawn the themes out of that experience.
In Seattle, Colton Harris, the Barefoot Bandit, fit with our other crimes to really focus on Seattle as both a place with a strong youth, rock-and-roll culture, and also a place—the Pacific Northwest—that remains isolated. It remains its own pocket of the country, and that fits a kid who, at 19, was stealing planes and bouncing from island to island.
AVC: What other cities will you visit in the first season?
MS: The first season is 12: Chicago, Atlanta, Boston, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New Orleans, the Florida Keys, Austin, [Washington] D.C., Seattle, and Anchorage.
AVC: Any favorite stories so far?
MS: It’s more been about favorite experiences. I’ve gotten to meet some amazing people through the show. I sat down with the cop who killed Charles Whitman, the University of Texas tower sniper. He was one guy alone there, facing off against a monster. It’s amazing. Our history would be different if this guy hadn’t had the radio on and happened to hear that this was happening.
In Atlanta, I got to train with the SWAT team, which was mildly humiliating [laughs], but really illuminating, too. These guys were so passionate about what they do, and so intense about it, really motivating each other.
AVC: Have any of the stories surprised you as you researched them, or turned out differently than you were expecting?
MS: A lot of them have, as we dig into them. For me, a lot of the surprise is coming to a more sophisticated understanding of how these things happen and what they mean.
One of my favorites probably is the ’68 riots, here [in Chicago]. I write crime novels and thrillers—I’m a big fan of cops. You can never forget that they run towards what everyone else runs away from. It was interesting to dig into that and truly come to understand how chaotic it was. The cops went too far in that riot, some of them at least, but it was far less a cops-versus-hippies thing and much more a flat-out culture and generation clash. We found this great footage of Daley from the time—you know, clean-cut, 1968 Daley addressing the city—at the same time the Yippies, Abbie Hoffman and the others, are coming in. Just juxtapose those two against each other, and no fucking kidding they came to blows!
I also got to interview a porn star in L.A. about the Wonderland murders. This was one night with a drug deal gone wrong, murder, retributions, and John Holmes, the porn star, was involved. One of the people I got to interview was Bob Chinn, who Burt Reynolds’s character in Boogie Nights is based on. But we wanted to talk to a modern porn star, so I met with a woman named Kayden Kross. She was great. She was so articulate and thoughtful and fully aware of the psychodynamics of what it was she was doing. It was a fascinating interview.
The funny thing is, it was awkward and uncomfortable for me—not at all because of her, but because of trying to figure out what you wear to go talk to a porn star. I’m staring at my closet thinking, “Would that look like I’m hitting on her? I don’t know…”
AVC: What did you end up wearing?
MS: [Laughs.] If I recall, I went with a safe black button-up and a “my wife is back at the hotel” expression.