Nightwork, Steve Hamilton, St. Martin's Minotaur, $6.99.
Unfortunately for his Michigan readers, Steve Hamilton is taking a break from his beloved Alex McKnight series set in the UP, but fortunately for any reader who enjoys a good thriller, he has a soft landing in the form of his probation officer character, Joe Trumbull. Hamilton is really expert at two things - in my opinion, anyway - the first is setting a scene cogently and concisely; the second is creating the kind of before and after world that exists across the chasm of grief or tragedy. Alex McKnight hooked readers in part, I think, because he was still reliving the horrible death of his partner; his life is divided sharply into before and after, and as readers we're part of the "after". For Joe Trumbull, it's the same. He used to be engaged; and that all ended when his fiancee Laurel was murdered. We as readers are now a part of the "after". As I mentioned, Hamilton's other expertise is setting the scene - Nightwork's opening chapter has the hapless Joe getting ready for his first date after the death of his fiancee, though the way Hamilton writes about it, it's like he's getting ready for a prizefight, and it sets the tone for the rest of the novel. His light touch and way with dialogue is especially crisp as Joe and the woman, Marlene, get to know each other better over dinner. When I was reading that chapter I said to my husband (who had already read the book), "Oh, this is funny!" He said "I wouldn't call it funny". Of course, he had read the rest of the book.
It's not at all funny when Marlene disappears after a very successful first date, and goes from bad to worse when she's discovered murdered, in an almost identical way to the way Joe's fiancee Laurel was murdered. As the now old pro Hamilton ratchets up the tension, Joe begins to look like a suspect to the police, and the fact that his best friend is a cop turns out to be no help with the rest of the department. Another thing that's very well done here is the feel the reader gets for Joe's job as a probation officer - if you've ever watched an episode of "Judging Amy" you'll have a feel for the kind of juvenile felons Joe is dealing with, though the streets of Kingston, New York, appear to be lots tougher than the streets of Hartford, Connecticut as depicted in "Judging Amy". In any case, you get the feeling that Joe really cares about and tries to help the kids he's dealing with, whether they want to be helped or not.
Joe's job is relevant not only because it helps to establish his character but because as things look blacker and blacker for him the one thing he and his cop friend can think to do to clear his name is to look at Joe's "client" list and see if there is anyone especially disgruntled. The wrap up of the story involves a good number of plot twists - all of which Hamilton has laid the groundwork for - and a creepy, suspenseful action packed ending that would be right at home at the end of a Jeffrey Deaver or Harlan Coben novel. What starts out as sharp character study ends as a non stop reading experience - so it's all good. Sit back and enjoy.
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