North of Nowhere

by Steve Hamilton

Published by Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Minotaur

288 pages, 2002









Summer of Secrets

Reviewed by Anthony Rainone


Paradise is a small town in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, near Lake Superior. Its remoteness is reflected in the town sign, which reads, "Welcome to Paradise! We're glad you made it!" In the winter, residents measure daily snowfall in feet, not inches, and the nights are cold and lonely. Paradise is also home to Alex McKnight, an ex-Detroit cop with a bullet lodged centimeters from his heart -- a keepsake from a shootout almost two decades ago that took his partner's life. First introduced to readers in the Edgar and Shamus award-winning A Cold Day in Paradise (1998), McKnight is a man who prefers the isolation of the countryside. He spends his time renting out a series of cabins his father built to hunters in the fall (they're OK), snowmobilers in the winter (they're not OK) and families in the summer who are looking for "something a little different." McKnight is also an on-again, off-again private investigator who doesn't actively look for cases -- or for the trouble that inevitably goes along with his P.I. work.

In North of Nowhere, the fourth book in Steve Hamilton's series (after The Hunting Wind), it's July in Paradise. The snow is long gone, replaced by hot days, big mosquitoes and beautiful sunsets. McKnight is turning 49 and he's become even more of a recluse, staying in his cabin and mainly reading, but also coming to terms with his life. His past misadventures as a backwoods gumshoe have taken their collective toll on him, and his flirtation with private investigation seems finally at an end:

I was spending a lot of time alone that summer. It's what I had to do. There was a time when a certain lawyer had talked me into becoming a private investigator. I tried it and got my ass kicked. Then I met a young Ojibwa woman and tried to help her out of a jam, and got my ass kicked even worse. I got my ass kicked in ways that nobody's ass has ever been kicked before. Then an old friend from my baseball days came back, thirty years after I had last seen him, and asked me to help him find somebody. I agreed to help him. You'd think I would have known what was about to happen. Although this time I got my head kicked along with my ass.

Enough of this, I said to myself. This I do not need. Ever again.

Yet McKnight has a way of becoming entangled in sordid matters not of his own making, events that force him back into the detective game. That pattern continues in North of Nowhere. Jackie Connery, who runs the Scottish-accented Glasgow Inn (Alex's favorite local hangout), is worried that his friend McKnight is spending too much time by himself, so invites him to a poker game with some guys he knows. The proposition seems harmless enough, though fans of this series might recall what happened after the last time McKnight played poker, in Cold Day. In fact, taking part in games in general results in trouble for Alex McKnight. Whether he recognizes this fact or not, it doesn't matter; he usually doesn't listen to his inner voices, anyway.

The poker game is held at the home of Winston "Win" Vargas. The owner of a custom hardware store, Vargas imports finer items such as marble sinks from Italy and Viking gas stoves. He has carved himself a lucrative niche by catering to the area's growing population of yuppie homeowners. His nickname fits Vargas' mental approach to life -- he likes to succeed. He's flashy and has a big mouth, and McKnight dislikes him and his ostentatious house. McKnight is also offended by Vargas' bigger game plan: to bring as many yuppies into the Upper Peninsula as possible through housing deals, which will only enrich Vargas further. McKnight sees in this plan an end to the beauty of Paradise:

"We're beyond nowhere," he said. "We're way north of nowhere. But it doesn't matter. They'll come eventually. You can't keep this place a secret forever."

During the course of the card playing, Vargas receives a phone call that sours his mood. It seems a P.I. he hired to follow his wife has trailed her to a hotel, where she is cheating on Vargas with a local lawyer, Douglas Swanson. Vargas then becomes vaguely hostile, suspecting that several of the men at this game already knew of his cuckoldry, but never tipped him off. The tension takes a still more sinister turn when a trio of armed, masked men suddenly kick in the doors of Vargas' house. While two of the robbers hold McKnight and the other players at gunpoint, the third forces Vargas to open his bedroom safe and takes the money from inside. After the armed men finally retreat, everybody breathes a sigh of relief over their shared trauma.

But by the next day, Vargas' suspicious nature and ill feelings from the night before have turned his thinking really ugly. He's convinced the hold-up was an inside job, and McKnight is his primary suspect.

Besides Jackie Connery, several other familiar faces are seen in North of Nowhere, including McKnight's nemesis, police chief Roy Maven, who insists that -- under orders from his doctor -- he has replaced his black-bile nature with measured control. Returning as well is that indefatigable private eye with the orange hair, Leon Prudell. Prudell is now the Upper Peninsula's sole P.I., ever since McKnight quit (again) and disbanded his partnership with Leon. Prudell is a good guy and likes McKnight ("Alex ...You know that you'll always be my friend"), but he is initially aligned as an opponent to McKnight: Prudell has been working for Vargas. It's Prudell who called Vargas to tell him his spouse was being unfaithful, and it's also Prudell who provides Chief Maven with videotape evidence that incriminates Connery and his friends from the poker game, Bennett O'Dell and Gill LaMarche. Of course, they're being framed, but Vargas is proved right on one score: someone did set him up for the robbery. What's more, as well as incredible, is that this same individual intends to cheat his partners in crime out of their share of the Vargas take, and leave McKnight & Co. to take the fall for all of it.

Seeing Connery handcuffed and pulled down to the police station is all McKnight needs to get him nosing around in this case. (This is part of Hamilton's usual modus operandi: things have to get personal for McKnight to step into an investigation.) However, the reluctant sleuth quickly becomes more deeply involved. Two of the robbers come back to town, convinced there was more money in Vargas' safe than they were led to believe, and that McKnight -- who else? -- can get that money for them. When Jackie is kidnapped, and then his father's main cabin ("his masterpiece, the best thing he ever built, and the last") goes up in flames, McKnight is not only in for the duration, he vows revenge. Sitting at home after the fire, he receives a phone call from one of the robbers, a man known as Blondie. It was Blondie who'd torched the cabin to put the squeeze on McKnight.

"McKnight," the voice said.

"I'm going to kill you," I said.

"Hold onto those dreams. It'll keep you young."

"I swear to you, Blondie. I'm going to kill you."

McKnight does not finesse his way through an investigation; he is less Remington Steele and more Jim Rockford. McKnight leads with his chin and is often a hothead, and at one point he gets the stuffing kicked out him by an angry Vargas. Yet McKnight is a generally amiable man whose heart is in the right place. His compassion for lawyer Swanson's cheated-upon wife is touching and gallant, and when he takes in an orphaned dog ... well, who can dislike him? For these reasons, the reader is willing to go along when McKnight puts himself in harm's way and then pays the price. He stops the bailed-out Connery and their fellow poker players from trying to kill one of the two robbers, and is nearly killed himself. McKnight does use reason eventually, and he always manages to mentally untie the knots and solve the case. In this instance, figuring out who had masterminded the robbery and frame-up.

Though author Hamilton now lives in upstate New York, he grew up in Michigan and writes with such confidence and clarity about the Upper Peninsula, it seems he is spreading eternal truths. Early in the book, as McKnight and Jackie are driving to the poker game, they notice it's close to sunset and decide to detour to the edge of Lake Superior, just to take in the area's raw beauty:

We both stood there on the edge of the water, looking west toward the setting sun. The clouds were painted a hundred different shades of red and orange, the sky itself a color of teal blue I have never seen anywhere else.

You have to be outside to appreciate it. You have to feel the wind on your face, smell the freshwater scent in the air.

It is the largest lake in the world. It is terrifying, and deadly. ... It is beautiful. God help me, on a summer night when the sun is going down, it is the most beautiful place on earth.

It isn't only the land that Hamilton understands so well, but the people who live on that land, too. His plots are anchored to human frailties and passions, to the relationships between friends and the commitments they make to one another. While the robbery of Win Vargas ultimately involves Canadian organized crime, with strains of loan-sharking and wholesale smuggling thrown into the mix, North of Nowhere is foremost about McKnight trying to help his old buddy Jackie Connery. McKnight learns some lessons here about being a friend. And sometimes those lessons are painful. Alex likes to stay in his cabin and brood, sometimes about his failed marriage, other times about his short-lived minor-league baseball career or the death of his patrol partner back in Detroit. But that aloofness doesn't sit well with Connery, as he tries to explain to McKnight when the detective, still recovering from his fight with Vargas, stops by the Glasgow:

You've been living in your own little world for a long time. ... You'll go weeks at a time, never even stepping foot in this place. Then suddenly you'll drop in again and spend the whole day here. If you say two words to me, it's to either ask me to make you dinner, or get you a beer, or to tell me about your latest problem -- which is almost always just a matter of you losing control of yourself again and getting your ass kicked. And now that I've got my own problem to worry about, the last person in the world I want helping me is you. Because all you'll do is go out and stir up more trouble. From the looks of your face, you already have.

Jackie has been little more than the man behind the bar in Hamilton's previous books, a sketchy individual who provided McKnight with a home away from home when he needed one. In North of Nowhere, though, Jackie takes on greater dimension, being shown as a caring family man who's shaken by all that has happened, and whose buried past is revealed not only to the reader, but to an astonished McKnight.

Other secrets are exposed as this book careers toward its well-choreographed denouement: a confrontation on Lake Superior that includes mobsters, fake FBI agents and the Coast Guard. But the most affecting revelation is one that shatters the bond between two longtime friends.

Hamilton's decisions not to employ a hipster hero and to avoid the sort of bloody finales that so often find their way into contemporary crime fiction make his books refreshing. This isn't to say his works aren't compelling; North of Nowhere unfolds with the convolutions and plot twists worthy of a best-selling mystery. Boasting good, upstanding residents and scenery that takes your breath away, Paradise is worth the visit. And if you get in trouble, be sure to call on Alex McKnight.  | May 2002


Anthony Rainone, a New York City writer, has published short crime fiction at the Web sites HandHeldCrime and Plots With Guns, among others. He is currently finishing a private-eye-driven novel.