Die a Stranger: An Alex McKnight Novel
There are few literary-associated pleasures as beginning a new Steve Hamilton novel. As popular as he has become, it almost seems as if he has yet to be given his rightful due. While certainly acknowledged as a journeyman storyteller, Hamilton is a master wordsmith as well. His prose is not flowery, but is loaded with a quiet descriptive power that is easy to take for granted, so effortlessly does narrative slip across printed page. Hamilton makes it look easy, but I doubt it is.
"DIE A STRANGER is one of Hamilton’s more complex works, one that utilizes the full breadth and width of the Upper Peninsula as an attractive but deadly backdrop.... Hamilton, with over a decade of qualitative and quantitative success behind him, continues to raise his own bar."
DIE A STRANGER is the latest installment in his Alex McKnight series, and it’s an excellent place to start if you are unfamiliar with Hamilton’s work or have been away for a bit. The book opens with a vignette concerning a drug drop gone wrong at a tiny back country air field in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The narrative then quickly makes a right turn into the solemn funeral of Hazel Nika LeBlanc, the mother of Vinnie LeBlanc, McKnight’s best friend. It seems as if the entire Ojibwa nation is in attendance, yet Vinnie cuts a solitary figure, a part of the tribe yet set apart by choice, haunted by the heritage of the father whom he so closely resembles. Hamilton lets us know early on that the two separate stories --- both seemingly resolved before they ever got going --- will dovetail down the road.
For an author to explicitly telegraph what he is going to do is a gutsy move, but Hamilton is more than capable of pulling it off, adding a subtle layer of suspense to the proceedings as Vinnie, a notorious teetotaler, goes on a supervised drinking bender with McKnight after Hazel’s funeral, and then promptly disappears by the following morning. McKnight is initially concerned but not worried. Vinnie’s disappearance coincides with another illicit drug delivery gone very wrong, leaving dead bodies all over the place. None of them are Vinnie’s, but where did he go? While at first relieved that Vinnie is not among the dead, McKnight slowly comes to the conclusion that Vinnie’s disappearance may be related to the increase in drug traffic that is occurring in the Upper Peninsula, to the extent that Vinnie may have walked into the middle of something that he shouldn’t have, or --- worse --- that he is directly involved in the trafficking and must make good on the shipment that went awry.
Determined to locate and, if need be, save the life of his best friend, McKnight forms an uneasy alliance with an unexpected and possibly unreliable ally. Together, they will search one of the country’s most beautiful and deceptively attractive areas, even as Vinnie finds himself in more danger than one could expect or even comprehend.
DIE A STRANGER is one of Hamilton’s more complex works, one that utilizes the full breadth and width of the Upper Peninsula as an attractive but deadly backdrop. It is a tale of friendship, debts, loyalty and redemption. Hamilton, with over a decade of qualitative and quantitative success behind him, continues to raise his own bar.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on July 27, 2012