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Michigan Mysteries

The Lock Artist, Steve Hamilton, Minotaur Books, $24.99.

The Lock Artist by ASteve Hamilton

There are a lot of suspense novels out there, and I read a fair number. I've been trying to figure out the difference between a perfectly acceptable—yet ho-hum—suspense novel, and one that feels like it was written by someone at the top of their game, like Steve Hamilton. One element is prose: Hamilton's sparkles.

Another element is specificity. In this novel, the interesting specific detail is lock picking, and it's a great plot element. After reading this book you almost feel like you could pick a lock yourself. Much like Michael Connelly's Void Moon, which was more or less a primer on robbing a Vegas casino, this book is a primer on picking locks. It turns out that to be really good at picking locks, along with specialized knowledge, you also need a special touch, an ability to "feel" the lock, especially if it's the combination to a safe.

Another element would be a good hook, and Hamilton has a great one. The narrator, Mike, is as well known for his lock picking skills as for the fact that he doesn't speak. It's traced back to a childhood trauma, referred to throughout the book, but never fully explained until the end. This showcases another great Hamilton element, his mastery of narrative and suspense. None of these elements stand apart from one another, because the end result is seamless.

The speeding train that is this novel's narrative begins with Mike in a jail cell, going back to the beginning of his life, explaining how he got there. As he jumps back and forth a bit in time, foreshadowing relationships and events, as a reader you are helpless in the grip of the narrative. I don't think any of this would work if Mike weren't such an interesting and shaded character.

However he got there, Mike begins his story more or less living with his Uncle Lito, who owns a liquor store in sleepy Milford, Michigan. Hamilton sure doesn't sugarcoat Milford, and since he grew up there, I guess he knows what he's talking about. The only thing Mike has, besides his ability to pick locks (which is acquired later) is an ability to draw. Both things lead him ultimately to his eventual girlfriend, Amelia. Many parts of this story are unexpected, and the way more or less good boy Mike meets Amelia is not only interesting, it also explains both his character and his later more criminal path through life. While Amelia is not a straight up good girl, she's far more of an innocent than Mike, despite her pose of sophistication. One thing they share is artistic talent.

In a way this is a typical Hamilton novel: concise, flashes of humor, terrific plot, great detail and setting. But to say there's anything typical about this kind of skill would be a stretch. This isn't the straight up P.I.novel he's been delivering, it's a little different, but it's still, to any Hamilton aficionado, familiar. Hamilton catapults himself into the upper echelon of suspense writers with this novel, which is where he's belonged all along.

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