Thursday, December 10, 2015

Steve Hamilton, A Cold Day in Paradise (1998)

Hamilton, Steve, A Cold Day in Paradise, Minotaur, 1998
______, A Cold Day in Paradise, Minotaur, 2000 (pictured)

Rating: 7/10

A Cold Day in Paradise at Goodreads
A Cold Day in Paradise at IBList

For this week's list of FFBs, please see Patti Abbott's blog.

Steve Hamilton's first novel, also the first novel in the Alex McKnight series, is undeniably strong. I enjoyed it not primarily for its mystery and suspense, which does waver throughout, but for its presentation of its main character and his integration within the plot and locale.

In brief, Alex McKnight is a former Detroit cop now retired in the backwoods of northern Michigan. The early retirement was a result of having been shot three times while on duty in an incident that left his partner dead. An incident that also left McKnight heavily and understandably scarred. Fourteen years following the event, as McKnight is practicing to become a local private investigator while maintaining his late father's hunting shacks, Maximilian Rose, the madman who shot him, has re-surfaced in his community of Paradise (hence the novel's title).

The focus that Hamilton places on Alex McKnight's psyche over what happened so long ago, and how it drives him in the wake of seemingly impossible events, works particularly well. It is deeply entangled with the plot and mystery that it never appears heavy-handed, and our concern for the suffering McKnight is genuine. It helps that McKnight is a less than stellar model of the ethical individual, nor is he a fearless former cop who thrives in the wake of violence. McKnight is instead headstrong, often impatient and rude, qualities that might win him some minor battles as a P.I., but in the long run won't garner him any favours. More striking, however, than his reactionary attitude, is the crippling fear that has been plaguing him his entire life, heightened by the shooting in Detroit. This is McKnight's central flaw, one that prevented him from acting against Rose and played a role in his former partner's death, and one that promises to be a handicap for any potential career as P.I. Like Lawrence Block did with Matthew Scudder, Hamilton has set up a protagonist who was directly responsible for the death of an innocent, and gains our sympathy as we read of their struggles and changed moral outlook.

An interesting aspect of the novel is the contrast between McKnight's overcoming his fear yet establishing a deep form of isolation within his community. Though some relationships with minor characters do not change, every positive relationship he has or has had with any important character devolves to the point that, aside from his pub buddies, he is left completely alone. The only exception is, arguably, Leon Prudell, who despite not being a friend establishes the possibility of becoming a future ally.

I mentioned early that the plot wavers, though it is not a drastic wavering and it never gets close to being derailed (no real spoiler here as I only hint at the issue). Half-way through the novel a man is taken down whose involvement in the mystery is obviously a plant. From this event we are led off the so far well maintained plot path, yet the confusion it seems to want to generate only led me to reasoning out the main elements of what was actually transpiring. The problem is that it is so obvious a plant that rather than becoming scattered, my (usually scattered) mind became instead focused, and the spell of suspense was cracked. Regardless, the denouement is satisfying and the character climax, more important in several respects, works nicely.

The novel was generally well received, and also garnered a number of award nominations and awards, including the St. Martin's Press/Private Eye Writers of America Best First P.I. Novel by an unpublished writer. Following publication the book received Best First Novel awards from both the MWA (Edgar Allan Poe Best First Novel) and the PWA (Shamus Best First Novel), and was a finalist for the Anthony and Barry First Novel awards.

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