Friday, February 27, 2015

What we're reading: Mystery series

After reading The Lock Artist--Steve Hamilton's terrific stand-alone novel about a mute teenager with an affinity for drawing cartoons and opening safes--with the high school book club a few years back, I admit I had high expectations of anything else from him. That book won an Alex award (which signifies that it's adult fiction that will appeal to teens), and it was such a great story--I still recommend it regularly to people in search of a good read, and no one to whom I have recommended it has ever done less than rave about it.

When I started his series featuring Alex McKnight, who lives in a town ironically named Paradise, up in the frigid climes by Lake Superior on the Canadian border, I have to admit I was a bit underwhelmed. At first I didn't appreciate the pacing, or the low-key, somewhat bleak personality of Alex. But Hamilton has a gift for writing interesting characters and situations, so I decided to keep going and give the series a chance. Sometimes authors burst upon the scene with a dynamite first book and then the series wanes; sometimes they maintain their high quality throughout (to everyone's delight); and sometimes they start slow and build into something with which you decide you want an ongoing relationship. The Alex McKnight books fall (for me) into that third category.

I have now read books 1, 3, 5, 6 and 7. I missed numbers 2 and 4 because they were checked out of the library when I was ready for them, and after taking the risk of reading one out of sequence, I discovered that although they did have some continuity one to the next, Hamilton does a good enough job of summarizing at the beginning of each that you can skip one without too much disconnect.

The basic cast of characters--Alex, his best friend Vinnie (an Ojibwa who lives off the nearby reservation as Alex's neighbor), Leon the wannabe private eye who sells snowmobiles to make his wife happy, and Jackie, who runs the Glasgow Inn where Alex seems to take most of his meals--remains the same (with various levels of involvement in each volume), while each book introduces new characters with whom they all interact.

These are not traditional whodunnits, with a detective who purposefully sets out to solve a mystery; rather, Alex seems to attract an extraordinary amount of trouble into what should be a small and peaceful life. In his previous existence he was a police officer in a troubled neighborhood of Detroit, but after his partner lost his life and Alex was shot, he retired to Paradise to fix up and rent out a string of cabins his father built and left to him. Somehow, the mundane nature of his daily routine never seems to last for long before he is again embroiled in high drama.

My favorite so far of the ones I have read is Blood is the Sky. I'll let you know as I continue if another book in the series ousts that one. People who have enjoyed Craig Johnson's books about Walt Longmire, or like the Nevada Barr books, might find these books appealing as well.


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