Steve Hamilton is yet another author who has been a solid wordsmith, producing journeyman's work in the grammar mine from the beginning of his career, and suddenly has taken a quantum leap forward over the course of his last couple of books. THE LOCK ARTIST, his previous effort, was a very different work for him, winning him some overdue critical and commercial acclaim. With MISERY BAY, Hamilton returns to the world of Alex McKnight with a new invigoration that results in what is arguably not only his best work to date, but also one of the best books of the year.
With MISERY BAY, Hamilton returns to the world of Alex McKnight with a new invigoration that results in what is arguably not only his best work to date, but also one of the best books of the year.
McKnight is an ex-Detroit policeman who now subsists on a work-related disability pension and income derived from cabin rentals in the cold and bleak region of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. He also has a private investigator's license that is current, though hardly active. But he finds cause to dust it off when he is solicited for help by the last person in the world he would expect to come to him: Sault Ste Marie police chief Roy Maven. McKnight and Maven have crossed swords on numerous occasions in the past, to the extent that there is a very thin line between extreme dislike and outright hatred between the two men. McKnight, though, feels compelled to help Maven, in great part because of the nature of the assistance requested.
Maven has an old friend and police partner named Charles Razniewski, whose son inexplicably appears to have committed suicide, a death by hanging that took place in a cold and desolate area appropriately named Misery Bay. "Raz," as he is known to his friends, simply wants some sort of explanation, if one is to be had. McKnight conducts an informal investigation, but before he can relay his report, Raz is murdered.
When a number of eerily similar but apparently unrelated incidents occur --- the children of law enforcement officers commit suicide, followed by the violent deaths of their parents --- McKnight and Maven begin searching for a common thread among the dead officers. McKnight seemingly solves the case, but then Hamilton takes the story in a somewhat different direction. The result is a story that succeeds not only as a mystery but also as a compelling character and relationship study of two men who gradually and grudgingly develop a mutual respect and something close to friendship.
Set against the frigid, bleak and depressing backdrop of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, McKnight does what is seemingly impossible here, which is to take what would be an unattractive landscape to most "normal" people and make it, on some unnameable level, an appealing one. I have added some of the sites noted in MISERY BAY to my bucket list of places to visit. Add a couple of characters named as a nod to in-the-know mystery readers, and you have an entertaining read with a challenging puzzle that should be on the short list for this year's Best Novel awards.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on June 27, 2011