Thursday, June 2, 2011

NEW STUFF: The Lock Artist - Steve Hamilton

A combination of the coming of age story and the crime novel is not exactly the kind of book I am immediately drawn to. I thought I had my fill of teen angst novels (I've certainly had my fill of teen angst in the movies and TV) but this award winning book quickly proved me wrong. 

Mike has suffered a traumatic incident when he was nine years old.  He is nebulous in talking about it, but the reader knows he survived a violent episode that left him an orphan. He is raised by Uncle Lito, a liquor store owner, who has no real parenting skills but does his best to give Mike a life of stability and safety. Though Mike survived the terror of his past he has not spoken since. His silence remains a mystery to the various psychologists, neurologists and other doctors who examined him for years but can find no real medical reason. Typically, they slap a variety of clinical and unhelpful diagnoses on him and send him back to his uncle. It is his silence that will draw him into two different very private worlds.

The title has a double meaning. For not only is Mike skillful with a set of picks and tension bars but he is also a talent with pen and a drawing pad. His drawing pad becomes a refuge from his silent interactions and the attendant mocking and ostracism that follow him throughout his school days. He will meet one fellow teen artist, Griffin, who will become his best friend and gain at least one adult ally in his seemingly cynical art teacher. Mike thinks he will follow in the steps of Griffin by attending art school after graduating high school.  His other talent, however, much to his surprise will prove to be his Fate as he is coerced, or even forced, by nearly everyone he meets to reveal the secret awesome power of opening locks without a key.

Like many new crime novels The Lock Artist has a dual story line told in alternating chapters.  The Sherlockian which I read last fall had a similar alternating structure and the time difference between the two parts was two centuries. Hamilton's book alternates between the mere span of one year - 1999 and 2000 - but the differences in Mike's life from one year to the next are almost analogous between boyhood and manhood.  He undergoes so much in a relatively short period of time.

One half of the book is mostly made up of capers that take place in 2000, the year Mike became a career criminal.  The other (to me, the more interesting half of the book) is Mike's coming of age and the slow reveal of how he went from being a kid who knew how to pick locks to an artist with a magic touch under the tutelage of the mysterious master safecracker known only as "The Ghost."  While there are action scenes galore in the caper portions of the book it all seemed familiar to me.  But the story of Mike committing his first break-in, his punishment at the home of Mr. Marsh, and the very intriguing relationship that develops between Mike and Marsh's artist daughter Amelia all surpass the action of the various lock picking and safecracking escapades.  The connection he finds with Amelia, another one talented in drawing, in their secret illustrated communications makes for one of the more fascinating sequences in the story.  In fact at one point I was so caught up in the artwork exchange between Mike and Amelia that I read only those chapters in quick succession until I came across three characters who I did not recognize.  I had to go back and then read the odd numbered chapters until I got to the point where they were introduced.  By that time I realized that even though the structure was alternating the book was carefully meshed together and that each odd numbered chapter was subtly commenting on the following even numbered chapter.  That'll teach me to cheat while reading a book with this type of structure.

That says something about Hamilton's admirable skill in creating a literally page turning story.  I had to know what happened next.  I found myself furiously flipping pages and skipping huge chunks of the book.  By the time I was midway finished I was keeping one finger of my right hand at the start of every other chapter to make for the smoothest possible transition between the even only chapters and the odd only chapters.  Try that with an eBook all you Nook and Kindle addicts. Bet it's not so easy.

The Lock Artist recently won the Edgar Award for Best Novel of 2010.  I haven't read any of the other nominees, but I can't imagine anything more entertaining, surprisingly poignant or stunningly original than this crime novel.  I sure would've voted for it.  You ought to read it and find out exactly why it won the prize.

1 comment:

  1. A terrific book. Great review, John. I read this a while back and was so happy for Steve when he won the Edgar. He's been at this writing gig for a while now and it's about time people began to sit up and take notice.

    I am fond of Steve's Alex McKnight series and was trhilled to read that he has a new McKnight book coming out this year.

    If you're not familiar with Alex McKnight, I recommend reading BLOOD IS THE SKY which, to my mind, is even better than THE LOCK ARTIST and should have won an Edgar way back when.