Steve Hamilton North of Nowhere Reviewed by Terry D’Auray

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North of Nowhere

Steve Hamilton

Thomas Dunn Books/ St. Martin’s Press

US Hardcover First

ISBN: 0-312-26897-1

259 Pages; $23.95

Publication Date: May, 2002

Date Reviewed: April 5, 2004

Reviewed by: Terry D’Auray © 2004




Steve Hamilton introduced his series character, Alex McKnight, in ‘A Cold Day in Paradise’ in 1998 and promptly won Edgar, Shamus, and SMP/PWA awards for best first novel for his efforts. An auspicious beginning to be sure, and one that has continued to deliver first-rate reading throughout the subsequent five books in the not-yet-completed run. ‘North of Nowhere’ is number four in the series. (I’m playing catch-up.)

McKnight is a former baseball catcher who never made it to the big leagues, and a former Detroit cop, injured on the job in a shoot-out that left his partner dead and him with a bullet still lodged in his chest, fully aware that he “didn’t have room for another one”. He retreats to Paradise, Michigan, in the icy Upper Peninsula, just across the Canadian border, to disengage and to heal, surviving by renting out cabins built by his father. Paradise is an out-of-the-way setting, sparsely populated and still dominantly pristine, both beautiful and wholly unforgiving. Winters are long and treacherous, and summers, well, they’re lovely, but short.

In “North of Nowhere’, McKnight is cajoled out of his recent isolation and into to a guy’s-night-out poker game as a last-minute substitute. The game is held at the expansive home of a wealthy home decor entrepreneur, Winston Vargas. Vargas, with his ostentatious house, trophy wife and grandiose real-estate development plans, is not at all McKnight’s kind of guy. (To say nothing of his nippy and noisy Chihuahua named Miata.) In the midst of the poker game, three masked men break into the house, hold the players face down on the floor at gunpoint, and rob Vargas’ safe and art collection. Shortly thereafter, three of Alex’s friends are accused of staging the hold up. Knowing the cops have the wrong culprits, McKnight sets out to track down the right ones, and uncovers layer and after layer of secrets - wrong doing for the right reasons, and wrong doing for the wrong reasons.

Hamilton’s plotting is sure-footed and ingenious; his stories unfold in directions not easily anticipated, but entirely believable. He moves things along quickly, but not frenetically, building tension with a well-sequenced series of action scenes alternated with reflective moments, giving the reader a chance to breath and to savor the substance of the unfolding narrative. His characters are unusually rich for this type of genre writing, each a fully textured mix of what-you-see-is-what-you-get and puzzling, all too human ambiguity. McKnight is a loner, prone to brooding and isolation, as mandated by his historical “moody, broody detective” forebearers. But his brooding is well motivated and believable, not obsessive, and works to invigorate the story and enrich its protagonist.

Hamilton’s prose is as clean and pristine as the setting of his novels. His stories are told in the first person with dialogue that rates among the best in the genre. He’s equally adept at describing the Upper Peninsula geography in language that evokes credible atmosphere and demonstrates an abiding respect for the environment. His setting becomes an integral part of his narrative, both its beauty and its harshness serving to mirror the themes of the story.

Above all, Hamilton is smooth – meshing character, plot and setting into a sensitive, believable tale that goes down easily. Writing with environmental sensitivity, believable and fallible characters, and astute plotting, Hamilton is so smooth that it’s easy to forget just how hard such smoothness is.