By Glen Young
Fictional sleuth Alex McKnight is back and his fans are pleased, but no
more so than his creator, Michigan-born author Steve Hamilton.
Returning in his eighth novel, McKnight ventures west from his home base
in Paradise to ominously named Misery Bay, where he is asked to
investigate the suicide of a college student, a young man who appeared to
have it all, but who instead hangs himself from a large, lonely tree near
the shores of Lake Superior.
After a five year hiatus that saw Hamilton publish a second stand-alone
novel The Lock Artist, Hamilton decided McKnights return should have
the reluctant hero veer west. I knew he had never gone west in the
U.P., Hamilton says. I knew it was very different out that way; I knew
hed have to wander out that way some time and get in trouble.
Hamilton knew the only way he could have McKnight find the mystery of the
western U.P. was to travel there himself, so he drove the Seney Stretch
along M-28, eventually landing in the tiny town of Toivola. When he saw
the nearby sign for Misery Bay, Hamilton knew he had found the right spot.
Its not even on the map, unless you have a really good map, he says of
Absorbed in an environment he describes as forlorn and forgotten, he
began to imagine the details of his new project.
Like any crime writer, I asked myself whats the worst thing that could
happen here, before fixing on the new books entry point, the suicide of
a promising young man. He says the location is perfect for Alexs next
adventure, because its such a lonely place and theres this big tree
overlooking the lake.
The tree figures prominently in the story.
As he has for all his Alex McKnight novels, Hamilton resurrects other
colorful characters, chief among them Jackie Connery, owner of the
familiar Glasgow Inn in Paradise, the spot McKnight is likely to be
sipping on a cold Molson while waiting for something to happen. Jackie is
as taciturn as ever, opening the story by telling some unsuspecting
snowmobiler in a pink suit to leave and never come back when the man
tramples on the local affinity for Lake Superior.
The first major twist in the story comes when Roy Maven, another recurring
character and chief of police in Sault Ste. Marie, calls on McKnight with
the hope of enlisting the sleuths help. Turns out the dead boys father
is an old colleague of Mavens. Theoretically theyve always been on the
same side, even though they knock heads sometimes, Hamilton says of the
tension in the relationship between Maven and McKnight.
As the boys father struggles to make sense of the suicide, he turns to
his old buddy Maven. Its like the ultimate heart-breaking mystery,
Hamilton says of the weight of the suicide. Of the questions surrounding
what drove the young man to suicide, Hamilton believes, Its almost an
impossible question to answer, which necessarily becomes the novels
Enlisted because he might be more likely to get the boys college pals to
open up, McKnight reluctantly, as always, agrees to give it a shot,
expecting to find little useful information, eventually uncovering more
than enough to unravel the details that resolve the case.
ANATOMY OF A CHARACTER
Hamilton believes Alex McKnight has evolved since the first novel in the
series, the Edgar Award winning A Cold Day In Paradise, published in
He still blames himself for what happened, Hamilton says, referring to
the shooting death of his partner when McKnight was a Detroit police
officer, a shooting that occurred 14 years earlier. When you first meet
him, its been a few years since all this stuff happened in Detroit and
hes hoping not to deal with it.
Dealing with it is a major current in the novels. McKnight has moved north
to forget, but he cant. Surrounded by his past, both personal and
professional, the retired cop finds hes constantly being called upon by
new friends to help.
Though Alex McKnight took a hiatus, Hamilton did not. Still working his
day job at IBM, he also managed to keep writing, turning out stand-alone
mysteries in Night Work, and The Lock Artist, both well received by
critics and readers alike. Its strange to think of a fictional character
as needing a break, he says of McKnight, but he really did.
Hamilton also wanted to take a break from his fictional creation. I never
want it to get easy. You can tell when someone hasnt burned a lot of
calories on a middle book, he continues, explaining he didnt want
readers to think of him this way.
He believes the experience of the stand-alone books has been helpful. I
hope I became a much better writer having gone through it. He feels the
break from the series was necessary. That was all I knew, and I sort of
had this idea that you need a break or youd be stuck.
Having returned to the series, Hamilton has plans for even more. I cant
imagine ever not wanting to go back to Alex, he says. Im working on the
next book, and its Alex. Im sure Ill stay with him for the next two.
About his absence from Michigan, Hamilton says the space is helpful to his
writing about home. If youre in the minute details every day and you get
to look back, you might miss something. From the distance of his New York
home, he believes, I can look back and know what Michigan is I know for
a fact I couldnt have written these books if I hadnt moved away and had
a chance to look back.
Steve Hamilton will visit the Mackinac Island Public Library on August 26.
For more details about his books and his book tour, visit