Saturday, February 20, 2010

THE LOCK ARTIST: Steve Hamilton

Steve Hamilton's Alex McKnight series of seven books took awards right from the start. Then in 2007 his stand-alone, NIGHT WORK, came out to great reviews. And now it's 2010, and THE LOCK ARTIST is getting more than great reviews. It's a deep, dark, stirring book, a permanent road marker in significant noir fiction.

Right from the start, Michael is as open with the reader as he can be: He's been in the news before, and now he's served nine years of jail time, orange jumpsuit and all. But the story of how and why he's in prison isn't one he can tell sequentially -- it's too hard in too many ways. He'll tell it instead in three directions: from the events of 1999 and those of 2000, and gradually, imperceptibly, opening the door to the tragedy of 1990 that launched his life of pain and sacrifice. He's a boxman -- a safecracker -- a lock artist.

And within the box of his soul, one notched wheel after another has to be turned, pressing all the lock pins carefully into loaded positions, to open the final secret.

Although the entire novel is told by Michael, from his inner eye, we know by the second page that words and images on the page are his only speech; since 1990, he hasn't spoken a word out loud. Think about it: How safe could a mute person be as a repository for secrets, for pressure, for crime? And he's the perfect foil for someone who needs to talk, because he won't interrupt, won't say, "that's nothing, you should hear what happened to me ... " He's the Miracle Boy who .. well, in his words:
I won't drag you through all the doctor visits I sat through. All the speech therapists, the counselors, the psychologists ... Looking back on it, I must have been the ultimate wet dream for these people. To every one of them, I was the sad, silent, totally lost kid with the messy brown hair and the big brown eyes. The Miracle Boy who hadn't said one word since that fateful day he cheated death. WIth the right treatment, the right coacing, the right amount of understanding and encouragement ... that doctor or speech therapist or counselor or psychologist would find the magic key to unlock my wounded psyche, and I'd end up bawling in their arms while they stroked my hair and told me that everything was finally going to be all right.

That's what they all wanted from me. Each and every one. Believe me, they weren't going to get it.
As Michael soon admits, "For whatever reason, I had simply decided to stop talking."

Yet his gifts and talents lead him simultaneously toward teen love and toward a terrible captivity within a life of crime, where his ability to listen extends beyond sound, to the movement within locks and safe mechanisms. And from there -- well, the people who want to use him and his skills are nearly merciless. Knowing he won't talk back confirms their power over him. So does the ultimate leverage that gets applied against him.

The further I read, the more silent I became, and the more reluctant I was to put this book down. Aching with loss and the cost of freedom, it never steps wrong, never loses the tension and suspense. There are few criminals who can earn this sympathy, and who can evoke this anguish.

This is one of the two masterpieces of noir that are must-reads on my 2010 list; the other is Stuart Neville's THE GHOSTS OF BELFAST, which has been reviewed so often and so well that I won't go into it here. But each of these confirms what a really good work of noir can do: make you heart-wrenchingly grateful for the small, precious things that still go right in life. 

And for the chance to read a book like this one.

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