"The Lock Artist" by Steve Hamilton
Minotaur/Thomas Dunne, 304 pp., $24.99
Reviewed by David Marshall James
The suspense winds up, time and again, in Edgar- and Shamus-Award-winning author Steve Hamilton's portrait of a seventeen-year-old safecracker and lock picker.
Add "talented artist" to that list. One may ponder why the youthful Michael of Milford, Michigan (a bedroom town for Detroit commuters) doesn't apply himself in the direction of art school, while supporting himself as a locksmith.
First strike against that scenario: He survived a gruesome family trauma at age eight, an event that left him inexplicably (at least in the minds of experts and specialists) speechless.
Thus immersed in a brave new, private world, Michael has naturally submerged himself in introspection, in "alone" pursuits in further isolating, dreary environs, fiddling around with old locks being one of those.
Hamilton doesn't unveil the details of Michael's life-altering trauma until late in the story, which goes back and forth (not unlike the numbers of the combination to a safe) as Michael recalls his past.
The author's disclosure of those horrific particulars further explains the teenaged protagonist's passions and obsessions.
MIchael is taken in by a well-meaning though parentally inadequate uncle who runs a liquor store, with a Spartan dwelling behind it, on the seedy fringe of downtown Milford.
The boy is passed from one special-ed experiment to another, until he lands hard in the local public high school, which nearly swallows him whole, until he stumbles upon a drawing class and its resultant group indentification (however low on the totem pole-- at least he's on the totem pole, the author notes).
At the close of his junior year, however, Michael is led astray (aided by a swig of "sucker punch") into a seemingly harmless prank that sprouts consequences that dramatically redirect his life's course.
The suspense mounts repeatedly as Michael tests his breaking-and-entering, his "boxman" (safecracker) skills at locales on both the East and West coasts, as he receives assignments from a Detroit crime lord.
Michael rises spectacularly within that milieu during the span of a year, gunning across the country on his Yamaha (later, his Harley) motorcycle.
The author enhances the novel's depth and stylistics with various connotations of the symbolism of fish, water, and fish out of water. He offers the irony of a walled-off boy seeking release through that which is supposedly as sealed off from others as he is. The author underlines the theme that no one is safe or protected, that something will eventually crash and trash the fragility of an individual's presumedly "foolproof" world.
Hamilton's novel also stands in that "boy against bitter familial circumstances" league, alongside the works of John Hart.
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