Breaking out

Author Steve Hamilton tries his hand at hard-boiled crime fiction


When Michigan native Steve Hamilton wrote his second stand-alone crime novel, “The Lock Artist,” in 2010, it seemed like a temporary diversion. The author soon returned to his familiar “Alex McKnight” series, which centers on an ex-Detroit cop and reluctant crime solver who lives in Sault Ste. Marie.

But the Mystery Writers of America awarded “The Lock Artist” the prestigious Edgar Allan Poe Award for best novel in 2011.

For most authors, the success of “The Lock Artist” and the “Alex McKnight” series would be enough satisfaction. But not for Hamilton.

“I was itching to do something different,” he said.

His latest offering, “The Second Life of Nick Mason,” hits bookstores this week. The book proves he can move in an entirely new direction: a fully-developed, hard-boiled crime fiction novel.

“I’ve always read hard-boiled novels,” Hamilton said.

He particularly likes authors like Raymond Chandler, who he called a “special writer who elevated it into an art form.”

“It is so much part of the American ethos — the lone gunman,” Hamilton said.

In the new novel, his protagonist, the titular Nick Mason, is the ultimate loner and anti-hero. After seeking the help of an incarcerated crime boss to escape from prison, Nick finds himself living what Hamilton called “an impossible double life.”

Nick appears to have everything going for him: a swank downtown Chicago apartment, a restored 1960s muscle car, dapper clothes and plenty of spending money. But he also has a tether. As part of the deal, the crime boss has given Nick a cell phone that he must answer when it rings.

These phone calls instruct to do dirty deeds, no questions asked. During his first assignment, he’s spotted by the cop who put him away to begin with. The cop vows to put him back in. While Nick is deeply entrenched in the world underground crime, Hamilton tried to make him a sympathetic character. Mason seems to find a sympathetic woman who can love him, but she doesn’t know about his sinister secret life.

“I wanted to make readers root for him,” Hamilton said.

As the book progresses, other subplots twist around the hard boiled protagonist.

When Nick was sent to prison, his wife and young daughter moved on to a new life. When he tries to reconnect with them, it puts them in grave danger. There’s also a violent ex-gang member who gives Nick his assignments and keeps track of him for the imprisoned crime boss. The possibility of redemption comes to Mason when he tangles with corrupt cops who are trying to hide evidence that could put them in jail.

Hamilton said he has stockpiled ideas for seven more Mason books in his head, something he never did when he was writing his McKnight books.

“What I like about this series is that the phone call could ask him to do anything and go anywhere,” Hamilton said.

Much of “The Second Life of Nick Mason” is set in South Chicago, which Hamilton described as “a beautiful city of neighborhoods.”

“It’s an unmistakable place, a little world of its own,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton compares this novel to the “Parker” series penned by late mystery writer Donald Westlake under the pseudonym Richard Stark. The 24-book series featured Parker, a bad guy similar in many ways to Nick. Hamilton envies Westlake’s success in having his books turned into sensational movies. “Payback” and “Point Blank” are both based Westlake’s “The Hunter” novel. “The Second Life of Nick Mason” has already been optioned for a movie by Lionsgate, with “The Hunger Games” producer Nina Jacobson tapped to produce.

Putting out this novel was an agonizing process for Hamilton. Initially, St. Martin’s Press, which published of all his preceding books, was set to publish “The Second Life of Nick Mason.” But Hamilton and his agent decided the book wasn’t getting the support it deserved in terms of promotion and marketing. He made a radical call and bought out the contract. St. Martin’s Press shot back, saying it had cancelled the book. Once the manuscript was back on the market, Hamilton had 10 offers within 24 hours. He ultimately signed with G.P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

“There wasn’t supposed to be this big breakup, but I knew this might be my last chance to do something special,” Hamilton said.

While he’s left his publisher, Hamilton assures fans that he has not abandoned the “Alex McKnight” series.

“I’m definitely be going back to him,” he said. “I did 10 books with Alex, and I owe everything to him.”

Steve Hamilton

Author talk and book signing 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 18 FREE* Schuler Books & Music (Meridian Mall location) 1982 W. Grand River Ave., Okemos (517) 349-8840, *This is a ticketed event. Tickets are available May 17 only at the Meridian Mall store. Guaranteed seating tickets are free with purchase of “The Second Life of Nick Mason.” Standing room only tickets are free, no purchase required.


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