Hamilton combines clear, crisp writing, wily, colorful characters and an offbeat locale (Michigan's Upper Peninsula) in an impressive debut. Alex McKnight is a retired Detroit cop living in Paradise, Mich., on disability with a bullet next to his heart. He rents cabins to hunters and has recently taken out a private-detective license at the suggestion of Lane Uttley, a local lawyer. The book begins fast, with a lot of background deftly woven into the narrative. At a local bar, the lawyer's former investigator accuses Alex of stealing his business. Later, Edwin Fulton, the scion of a wealthy Detroit family and a compulsive gambler, calls Alex from a nearby motel where he has found the murdered body of his bookie. After Edwin's strong-willed mother hires Alex to protect the family, another local bookie is murdered and Edwin disappears, prompting Alex and the lawyer to start a search of their own. Meanwhile, Alex receives letters and calls that appear to be from the Detroit man who shot him and whom the then-cop had helped send to prison for life without parole 14 years ago. Hamilton cleverly joins the plots, leaving but one disappointment: how long it takes Alex to learn to place his trust in others with care. (Sept.) FYI: This book won the Private Eye Writers of America/St. Martin's Press Award for Best First Private Eye Novel of 1997.