July 5 2012 12:00 AM

Author Steve Hamilton brings back ex-Detroit cop Alex McKnight in 'Die a Stranger'


Last weekend, Steve Hamilton was in the Upper Peninsula, enjoying the cool breezes off the big lake and a whitefish fry at the local Lions Club. He was staying in Brimley, not far from Paradise, the literary home of Alex McKnight, the protagonist of his award-winning mystery series.

In Hamilton’s new McKnight book, “Die a Stranger,” Alex’s best friend, Vinnie LeBlanc, has gone missing — and that’s after the bodies have started stacking up. McKnight has every reason to believe that Vinnie and his cousin Buck, who’s also missing, are somehow caught up in a drug scheme that uses small-town airports as drop-off points.

Hamilton will discuss and sign “Die a Stranger” Saturday at Schuler Books & Music.

Although “Stranger” is not as dark as his last McKnight mystery “Misery Bay,” Hamilton keeps pushing the noir envelope in his series. Any day now you expect the Coen Brothers to pull into Paradise to do a film treatment of this beloved series.

Hamilton — who grew up in Detroit and graduated from the University of Michigan before moving to upstate New York for a job at IBM — said he started “Stranger” just like his other eight books in the series, with “something interesting McKnight can get mixed up in.”

“I saw this news item about planes that fly in from Canada late at night to drop off drugs,” Hamilton said. “That’s how I started. Once I got on this track I found this other character, a mysterious stranger.”

The stranger plays a dramatic role in the mystery, and Hamilton said “oddly enough even though the book was to be about Vinnie, he disappears.”

Hamilton said when writing about Vinnie, an Ojibwa tribe member who deals blackjack at the Bay Mills Casino, he has a couple of tribe members read over his finished manuscript. “You have to get it right and not overstep your boundaries,” he said.

He said it’s important to the credibility of the series that McKnight’s relationship with the Bay Mills Tribe is accurate.

“He may be close friends with Vinnie, but at the end of the day McKnight’s an outsider.”

Hamilton said many readers will find the ending of “Die a Stranger” unsettling since it is not tied up neatly, but he said that’s the direction crime fiction is moving: “It’s like real life.”

Dedicated readers know that McKnight, who frowns on domestic chores, is often found at a local bar for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The owner, Jackie, was originally from Scotland, and he has turned his bar, The Glascow, into a Scottish pub that stocks McKnight’s favorite beer.

“My friends tell me I should build a place like that in Paradise,” Hamilton said. In the book, the bar is used as a tidy place for McKnight to discuss what’s going on in a particular case or to get blunt advice from Jackie.

A few years ago Hamilton decided to take some time off from writing his McKnight series, which was unsettling for his fans.

“I needed to take that break. I didn’t want for it to get too easy (to write). I never want to get close to that where you just go through the motions. But I always knew McKnight would come back.”

The time Hamilton spent away from his Alex McKnight series was well-spent, considering that “The Lock Artist,” which he wrote during that respite, won an Edgar Award for best mystery in 2010. The story, about a 17-year-old mute with uncanny lock picking skills that the mob wants to utilize, was recently optioned for a movie.

Hamilton’s first book in the McKnight series, “A Cold Day in Paradise,” also won an Edgar for best first book in 1998.

Hamilton said his fans will find McKnight in the new book “a little older and a little wiser.” They also will love the idea for Hamilton’s next excursion for the mysterious McKnight, which takes him back to Detroit, where he was a cop before being shot and moving to the Upper Peninsula.

“He’ll go back into his past and consider what the city is now and what it has become. It will have more back story and flashbacks and what it feels like to see parts of the city lost.”

Hamilton said that the book will also be about the love Detroiters have for their city, despite its challenges.

The author said he’s not far into his next book. So, in the meantime, enjoy McKnight’s infamous road trips, as he pursues some very nasty drug dealers who pile up bodies like cord wood and won’t take no for an answer.

Steve Hamilton

7 p.m. Saturday, July 7 

Schuler Books & Music

1982 Grand River Ave., Okemos


(517) 349-8840