When Michael was eight he managed to escape a murderous rampage by his father. Ten years later, he has never spoken since, and is adept at only two things, drawing and picking locks. It’s that latter skill which leads him into a life of crime, and which makes The Lock Artist such a compelling read.

Steve Hamilton switched gears after writing seven novels about Alex McKnight, set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The thriller Night Work, about a probation officer in upstate New York, had some similarities to his series novels, particularly in the cold loneliness that seems to pervade his characters, but it went in different directions. He’s moved in another direction with this one, and in one sense he’s put together a caper novel with a series of robberies whose executions and malfunctions would do Donald Westlake proud. The detail of lock picking and safe-cracking is fascinating and convincing, and the sense of anonymity around professional thieves fits perfectly with his character’s needs.

Almost too perfectly, because The Lock Artist is another book in which Hamilton puts the alone in stand-alone. Michael is literally closed off from the world around, and the real question in the book is not whether or not he gets caught, or gets killed, or even gets the girl. It’s whether anyone, including himself, will be able to pick the lock on his silence, and free the boy who’s underneath. This is not a rhetorical question, and the way Hamilton has structured the book, which is told through multiple flashbacks and being narrated from a prison cell is challenging, because it closes off some story options while keeping many of Michael’s options open. And much as I am inclined to like characters named Michael who come from Milfords (this one’s in Michigan, not Connecticut, but still) Hamilton never gets too soft or sentimental, although there is the sense, in the budding comic strip relationship he has with his girl, that he is indeed a different character from the one whose survival instincts seem pretty well honed.

The Lock Artist works as a thriller, and it works as an interesting character study in which Hamilton plays against the type for a cool technician of thievery. The novel seemed to slip between the cracks when it was published here in June; it deserves more attention, and I recommend you read it and see why.

Michael Carlson

Published by Orion

NOTE: THIS REVIEW FIRST APPEARED AT IRRESISTIBLE TARGETS (http://irresistibletargets.blogspot.com)

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