If Steve Hamilton has ever written a boring book chapter, he must have consigned it to the yawning recesses of a desk drawer someplace—back there with furry old Tootsie Rolls and mangled Post-Its—because I’ve certainly never read it.
More often, I’m impressed by the high-pitched tension, multilayered plots and character enrichment that he brings to his tales about former Detroit cop Alex McKnight. I’ve even come to enjoy McKnight’s persistent bitching about the cold weather. He does, after all, live in Michigan’s remote Upper Peninsula.
In a town called Paradise, of all things.
Read the Rap Sheet’s review of three thrillers inspired by the Watergate scandal.
Hamilton’s entry into the mystery-writing field came with plenty of fanfare. He won the 1997 Private Eye Writers of America/St. Martin’s Press prize for Best First Private Eye Novel with A Cold Day in Paradise, the book that introduced reluctant sleuth McKnight. That work then went on to capture both the Edgar and Shamus awards for Best First Novel in 1999 and spawn what are now eight sequels.
Although he’s also penned a couple of nonseries novels, Night Work (2007) and The Lock Artist (2009)—the latter of which scored him a second Edgar Award—it’s the McKnight stories that have secured Hamilton his greatest following. With good reason.
His now 50-something protagonist was once a promising minor-league baseball catcher. But McKnight was never quite able to step up to the major leagues. Instead, he joined the Detroit Police Department, from which he retired eight years later, after a shootout that left his partner dead and McKnight with a bullet lodged “less than a centimeter from my heart”—too near his most vital organ to be safely extracted.
In the aftermath, McKnight relocated north to Michigan’s densely forested Upper Peninsula and into one of half a dozen cabins his late father had built, mostly during the 1960s and ’70s—“one per summer until he got too sick to build them anymore”—in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town of Paradise (a real place at the eastern end of Lake Superior, in case you’re wondering). He figured on living quietly in that chilly countryside, renting out his father’s cabins to summer vacationers and winter snowmobilers, maybe playing some recreational hockey and tipping back a few frosty Molson ales at the nearby Glasgow Inn.
But friends, acquaintances and the occasional adversary in serious trouble keep interrupting McKnight’s tranquility, compelling him to exercise the investigative skills he learned as a big-city policeman.
In Die a Stranger, the ninth installment in Hamilton’s series (following last year’s Misery Bay), the party bestirring McKnight to action is Vinnie LeBlanc, an Ojibwa tribal member, veteran blackjack dealer and the “retired” detective’s best friend and neighbor. Following a disastrous, clandestine delivery of high-grade marijuana across the border from nearby Canada—“disastrous” because it left five corpses on the remote airstrip where the plane carrying that shipment landed—Vinnie has disappeared, along with his considerably less-upstanding cousin, Buck Carrick. There’s no logical link between these two incidents, and McKnight wants to believe that Vinnie has simply gone off somewhere for a spell to mourn the recent death of his mother, rather than fleeing a murder scene.
Yet the ex-cop can’t help worrying that something serious has gone amiss. He knows that drug smuggling is fast becoming a big business in border areas such as the Upper Peninsula, and he fears Vinnie might have tried to rescue Buck from the consequences of an illegal action, only to find himself in danger as well. His concerns are exacerbated when the local sheriff suddenly receives a phone call from Vinnie, asking him to pass along word that he and Buck are OK. The sheriff tells McKnight to stay out of the matter, but he can’t. “I am my own worse enemy. I realize that,” McKnight muses. “I get something in my head and I can’t let go of it and I drive myself and everyone else around me absolutely crazy. Even when I know I’m doing it, I just can’t stop.”
So, accompanied by Vinnie’s estranged father, ex-con Louis LeBlanc—who’s jetted east from Las Vegas after hearing from one of the Ojibwa “old-timers” that his son is missing—McKnight goes looking for his friend. It’s a task that will see him wheeling back and forth across the Wolverine State, lead him to a couple of supposedly hippie drug dealers and leave him prey to a psychotic criminal boss. By the time this tale spins to a close, more lives will have been lost, sacrifices made and futures put in serious doubt. It all adds up to a storytelling burden that couldn’t be borne easily by many novelists, but that Steve Hamilton carries off with confidence.
There’s ample action in these pages, but Hamilton knows that thoughtful readers want more than guns pulled, fists thrown and dialogue delivered glibly. He makes McKnight a master of self-deprecating humor. He’s also a keen observer of Michigan’s environmental bounty (“I drove through the desolate pine barrens west of Paradise, past the Lower Tahquemenon Falls, where the tannins from the cedar, spruce, and hemlock trees turned the water the color of root beer”). And as Hamilton bores more intently into Vinnie LeBlanc’s backstory (highlighting, for instance, his reasons for leaving the reservation to live among whites), he also adds dimension to Alex McKnight as a man with multiple flaws and too few friends to waste.
If I have a criticism of Die a Stranger, it’s only that the interactions between Vinnie and his redemption-hungry father, whom he hasn’t seen in years, take place primarily offstage, where readers can’t watch and learn more about the younger man by observing the pair’s undoubtedly strained exchanges.
But then, even in Paradise you can’t expect perfection, right?