“There is a bullet in my chest, less than a centimeter from my heart. I don’t think about it much anymore. It’s just a part of me now. But every once in a while, on a certain kind of night, I remember the bullet. I can feel the weight of it inside me. I can feel its metallic hardness. And even though that bullet has been warming inside my body for fourteen years, on a night like this when it is dark enough and the wind is blowing, that bullet feels as cold as the night itself.”
This is how Steve Hamilton introduced reluctant ex-cop private investigator Alex McKnight in 1998’s A Cold Day in Paradise, the first book ever to win both the Edgar and Shamus awards for Best First Novel. Over the course of nine books (including Die a Stranger, from Minotaur, in which McKnight tackles illegal smuggling), Hamilton has added layers to his complicated hero, who has retreated from the urban chaos of Detroit to the small community of Paradise (with its “one blinking light in the center of town”) in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, following the shooting that left ordnance inside of him. There, McKnight struggles to find “his way back to the human race” and maintain hope despite encountering disturbing darkness even in his isolated new home. The real-life Paradise, which feels to the author, who grew up in Detroit and spent a lot of time on the UP, “like a country of its own, stuck between the U.S. and Canada,” functions as an unlikely hotspot of crime, a 21st-century analogue to Conan Doyle’s “smiling and beautiful countryside.”
For someone so skilled at conjuring up that darkness, Hamilton spends his days, prosaically, as a “professional e-mail answerer” for IBM in upstate New York. He took the job almost 30 years ago, aware that realizing his dream to be a novelist might not pay the rent. “I do a little technical writing, mostly e-mails, to support high-end systems, but I would have left long ago if the people there hadn’t been so supportive when I finally did break into crime fiction.”
Hamilton “was trying to write a fairly standard PI story with the wise-cracking gumshoe sitting in his office, and I failed at that so spectacularly.... I finally just gave up and started to write something else, and got the sense of this very lonely man, sitting in a cabin on the edge of the world. I knew something had happened to him. I just had to start writing to find out what that was.”
Having created his hero, Hamilton took a unique approach to crafting his antagonists. “I just thought that you could start with a perfectly decent person, and then just take something out of them—some simple elemental piece of their psyche that would normally give them empathy for other people. Without that piece, well, it’s like they become free to think of absolutely nothing else besides themselves. What they want, what they can get away with, no matter what it does to the people around them. I just think of them as broken people with that key piece missing.”
Asked to identify themes in his fiction, Hamilton initially demurs, leaving publicist Hector DeJean and editor Peter Joseph to suggest some. For DeJean, it’s McKnight wrestling with isolation. For Joseph, “it’s the struggle to do more than expected. Part of the conflict McKnight faces is the urge to just stand aside. Alex doesn’t have to get involved in cases, but he does because he feels like it’s the right thing to do, even if it’s against his own best interests. I think that’s something most people deal with. And it’s appealing to see McKnight make difficult decisions rather than just keep his head down and muddle along.”
When pressed on the issue, Hamilton observes, “I’m so close to the books, I don’t see those simple themes that would emerge so clearly to a reader. Being absolutely loyal to your friends, or else just somebody who really needs your help, no matter what, is certainly another theme. Alex is a total sucker for that, and his friend Jackie Connery even calls him on it in one of the earlier books. He tells him that a spaceship will land in Paradise someday, and aliens will get out and tell Alex that they need his help back on their home planet. And of course Alex will go with them. He’ll complain the whole way, but he’ll go. And once again, as always, he’ll get his ass kicked.”
Lenny Picker is a freelance writer in New York City.