by Steve Hamilton
Minotaur Books / Thomas Dunne
Summary: Author Steve Hamilton’s Alex McKnight is back in another strong novel. Though Misery Bay isn’t fine literature, it is great entertainment for those seeking a diversion.
Review: I’ve read all of the books in Steve Hamilton’s Alex McKnight series. By now I’ve realized that I always fall into the same pattern with these books: I read them and (obviously) enjoy them, but I can’t resist picking them to pieces. So, for better or worse, this review reflects the habit into which I’ve fallen.
The Alex McKnight series began in 1998 with the publication of A Cold Day in Paradise, which won author Steve Hamilton an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Hamilton’s hero, McKnight, is a former Detroit cop who left the force with a disability pension after a gun battle in which McKnight’s partner died. The death of his partner haunts McKnight.
In the novels, McKnight lives in the town of Paradise in Michigan’s remote upper peninsula (the UP). In addition to his police pension, McKnight makes money by renting cabins to tourists. It has been a while since I read Cold Day, but I remember it as by far the best book in the series. I think that my criticism of the later books is based on the expectations that I set based on Cold Day.
Misery Bay – The Story
In previous novels, one of Alex’s nemeses has always been Roy Maven, chief of police in nearby Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. At the beginning of Misery Bay, in a sharp departure, Maven comes to Alex and asks for a favor. One of Maven’s colleagues has suffered a personal tragedy; the colleague’s son – a college student at Michigan Technological University – has committed suicide. Maven wants Alex to look into the death in order to give Maven’s colleague some peace of mind. As one can probably guess, Alex finds that there is more to the suicide than meets the eye.
One persistent weakness in the series is on display in the plot – Alex never seeks out the dramas into which he falls. He just wants to rent his cabins, collect his pension, and be left alone. After reading a few of these books, the reader starts to wonder how one person can unwillingly fall into investigating so many crimes – especially in a remote, relatively-safe place such as the UP.
Perhaps Hamilton’s greatest strength as a writer is his sense of place. He has chosen a remote, exotic setting and he has a real talent for bringing it alive. This provides a point of difference between the McKnight series and the dozens of other mystery novels on the market.
Misery Bay also has fantastic settings. At one point, McKnight finds himself in the dark, searching for a suspect’s car along the shores of several remote lakes. Hamilton does a great job of evoking the setting and creating a sense of foreboding. However, I do think that Hamilton throws in too many settings in Misery Bay; the novel careens all across Michigan and – inevitably – sometimes the action moves so fast that there is little time for Hamilton to develop a sense of place.
If setting is Hamilton’s strength, plotting is often a weakness. Misery Bay has a decent, action-filled plot that – for the most part – sustains reader interest. Hamilton deserves credit for keeping the book moving. The negative, though, is that – in order to maintain the pace – he falls back on an old mystery writer’s trick by throwing in a new corpse every time things start to slow. Once the reader recognizes this gimmick, the additional murders become predictable and start to lose their impact.
Fortunately, Hamilton regains the reader’s interest by throwing a “curveball” into the plot. Specifically he gives the reader the impression that he is wrapping the story up early, but he then adds a twist that keeps the story going. The reader isn’t fooled by the first “conclusion” because there are so many pages left (about seventy) that it is obvious that the end is not in sight. Nevertheless, Hamilton’s plotting and prose are both strong in the final, “twist” section of the book and the reader feels satisfied at the book’s end.
With Misery Bay, the wise reader will avoid my approach and take the book strictly as an entertainment. If you expect a diversion, you’ll enjoy it. With summer coming, I suggest it as a perfect “beach book.”
And, yes, for all of my nitpicking, I’ll be sure to read the next McKnight novel.