One of the things crime novels excel at is investigating morality. The most common investigation in a more or less classic mystery involves absolute right and wrong. A noir novel tends to investigate the trickier edges of morality, as Steve Hamilton does brilliantly in his new novel, The Second Life of Nick Mason. The book opens with Nick walking out of prison, always a good start to any book.
Then the story backtracks – how did Nick get out? How did he get in? This is a true noir novel – Nick is in no way an innocent though he seems to have some inner core of decency, and he certainly has formulated a set of rules that help him get through each prison day. It’s this formulation that snags the attention of Darius Cole, who has a virtual office set up in his cell, along with a couple body guards and a couple prison guards who serve as his lackeys.
Spending time with Nick, Mr. Cole tells him that prison is just “geography” – he may be in Terra Haute, Indiana, behind bars, but in his mind he’s back home in Chicago, where Nick comes from and where he helped commit the crime that landed him in prison. Mr. Cole has the power to get Nick out, set him up in a fancy north side townhouse, and all Nick has to do is answer the phone when it rings and do what he’s told. He won’t be free, he’ll just be mobile.
Creating this kind of constrained character set up is also something crime novels excel at, and this is a great set up. Hamilton is one of the most effortless and clear voiced of storytellers, and his books move with a true undeniable energy.
And to be honest I was equating Nick somewhat with Hamilton’s other creation, reluctant PI Alex McKnight, but when Nick goes off the rails his resemblance to Alex ends. And yet, despite the very horrible things Nick does, I was still on his side to a degree. A scene with his daughter even brought me to tears. I’m not sure what alchemy is at work here, but I ended the novel both horrified by his actions and feeling some affection for him as a person.
That’s a pretty difficult juggling act, and Hamilton nails it. Hamilton sets this one up for a sequel, and leaves many threads hanging. I was fascinated and compelled enough by Nick to want to keep reading, and to want to know more. Time spent reading a novel by Steve Hamilton is always worthwhile, from his first one, A Cold Day in Paradise, to this one. The thing that maybe sets the two books apart is that now Hamilton has the undeniable true voice of an author who knows where he’s going and what he wants to accomplish. In other words, a writer at his peak. I’d advise getting out of his way and enjoying the ride.