Sunday, 29 January 2012


After his Edgar-winning standalone novel, The Lock Artist, (see my review here) Steve Hamilton returns to the familiar ground of Michigan's Upper Peninsula and Alex McKnight, his reluctant detective. For Hamilton it's not quite the retreat it is for McKnight; most of the series has involved Alex escaping, healing or both in the loneliness of the winter landscape, and Misery Bay is no exception. Still unable to re-enter his own cabin where he's lost his last girlfriend, he's wintering in a ramshackle guest cabin, rebuilding it around him (Hamilton's ability to extend and refresh the metaphor has been remarkable over the eight McKnight books). Then his old adversary, Sault Ste. Marie police chief Maven, comes to him asking for help. Maven's former state police partner has lost his son, a suicide who hanged himself at Misery Bay, and Maven wants Alex to at least answer the father's questions about why he did it, and who he was.

Of course, this turns out to be the first in a series of suicides and murders of former state policemen and their children, which throws Alex into the middle of an unofficial investigation, caught between the FBI on one side, and the notoriously bull-headed Maven on the other.

As serial killer books go, this one is somewhat slim; Hamilton frames the methodology, but the motive is slow to unravel. The killer himself is revealed in a nice twist which seems to justify all those long hours of introspection Alex spend driving his plow-equipped truck along the deserted and ruler-straight roads of Michigan. But interestingly, the victims are the real focus here, and while McKnight and the FBI search frantically for the link that might lead them to the killer, we see any number of lives with little hope or promise—a bleakness that reflects not just the landscape but the dead or abandoned character of the towns themselves. in that sense, and with so many cop characters, it reminded me a bit of Hamilton's first stand-alone, Night Work (link to that review here)

There's some good writing here, and Hamilton is at his best when the personal emptiness and the darkness of the setting coincide. And it seems that northern Michigan is overflowing with ominous place names, so there will never be a shortage of titles! There are moments of hope, however, as if the story itself were an Objibwa sweat tent. If character is indeed action, Hamilton's McKnight is one of the best.

Misery Bay by Steve Hamilton
Orion £12.99 ISBN 9780752897103

This review will appear also at Crime Time (

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