THE NEWS STORIES practically wrote themselves. Everyone from Publishers Weekly to Entertainment Weekly was abuzz last August when St. Martin’s Press, which had published award-winning novelist Steve Hamilton for nearly two decades, announced just weeks from his planned publication date that it was cancelling his new novel, The Second Life of Nick Mason.
The publisher said that it had parted ways with Hamilton, ending a relationship that had stretched back to 1999, when Hamilton won the St Martin’s Press/Private Eye Writers of America award for Best First P. I. Novel by an unpublished writer. Hamilton went on to win many, many awards and publish 11 books in his Alex McKnight series with St. Martin’s Minotaur Books, as well as other work. When the news broke in August that his new series with Minotaur had been cancelled, presumably as books were being stacked into boxes for distribution, the plot thickened.
Hamilton and his agent, Shane Salerno, got the word out that the decision to cancel the publication of the new book was Hamilton’s alone. The new novel had been receiving solid buzz, including praise from Lee Child, Don Winslow, and Michael Connelly, as well as a starred review in Publishers Weekly. What the book hadn’t received, according to Hamilton and his agent, was good enough support from his longtime publisher.
As the story continued to develop for the next week, it was reported that Salerno paid nearly a quarter-million dollars to free Hamilton from his St. Martin’s contract. The move seems to have worked out — just a few days later, Hamilton landed with Putnam, a part of Penguin Random House. The movie rights have already been acquired by Lionsgate, according to Deadline Hollywood; Variety reports that Nina Jacobson, the franchise producer for the Hunger Games films, is attached to the Nick Mason movie. The second life of Steve Hamilton is off to a roaring start.
Hamilton’s new protagonist is the sort of antihero loved by readers and moviegoers. He has his own code and, though he has made some bad choices, he goes to prison in part for a noble reason — to protect his best friend. Nick Mason once moved through Chicago as a car thief, safe cracker, and armed bad guy. After some close calls with the local police, he settles into domestic life (wife, daughter, house) and is given an ultimatum from his new bride: leave the criminal life behind or I’m leaving. Unfortunately, when his friend brings him back in for the “one last job” so many prison sentences and movie plots are built on, Nick ends up in prison.
Five years into Nick’s 25-year sentence, Darius Cole, a kingpin running his Chicago empire from a prison cell, offers him a chance at early release: if he agrees to take on whatever job Cole assigns him, whenever Cole assigns it, he can see his daughter and his ex-wife again. Nick takes Cole’s deal and finds himself released back into Chicago, ostensibly a free man. Nick is told that what he has been granted is not freedom, but “mobility.” He soon learns the difference and finds himself caught in a deal with the devil, one he sees no way of escaping and can’t fully understand: “Mason thought about the twenty-year ‘contract’ he had signed with Cole and how Cole was the only many who really knew what was written in it.” What Nick knows is this: He can see his daughter again. For the moment, that is enough.
Though the reader is never presented a comprehensive, ordered list of Nick’s rules, it becomes clear that he has used a numbered list to navigate his life. His trouble has come when he has broken those rules, when he has worked with untrustworthy people or spoken to the cops.
But Nick is willing to deviate from his own rules, a flexibility that keeps his story interesting. As he is walking out of prison, a black Escalade is waiting for him. “Out five minutes, Mason said to himself, and I’m already about to break my rules. Rule number one: Never work with strangers. Strangers put you in prison or they put you in the ground.” The man in the car, Quintero, is Nick’s handler, one of Cole’s many operatives outside the prison. Working with him also breaks Nick’s ninth rule — to never work with gang members. A few paragraphs later, he breaks his third: “When in doubt, keep your mouth shut.”
With Quintero passing along orders from Cole, Nick ends up breaking all of his rules, the rules that have kept him alive, if not free. Ironically, it is Nick’s bygone adherence to these rules that drew Cole to him in the first place — it’s what separated Nick from the other prisoners, according to Cole. “A daimyo is the master. A daimyo is the boss. If a samurai don’t have a daimyo to serve, he’s just a ronin. Like a homeless man,” Cole tells him. “You could be a samurai, Nick. That’s what I’m saying. I look at you, I don’t see another inmate. I see a samurai.”
Once released from prison, Nick answers Cole’s calls for “samurai” work while avoiding Detective Frank Sandoval, one of the investigating officers on Nick’s original crime, who suspects — rightly, of course — that his release was bogus, and that he’s up to no good. A couple days after his first job for Cole, Nick is confronted by Sandoval at a restaurant and questioned about a murder, but he does his best to stonewall: “Mason picked up the glass of beer, but he didn’t drink. Never talk to cops, he told himself.” Soon, Detective Sandoval himself is trying to keep his mouth shut around cops, this time having been called in by Sergeant Bloome, a special agent taking over some of Sandoval’s Cole investigations. During the conversation with Bloome, Sandoval begins to realize that there is more to the case than he thought, more to the suspects, perhaps a connection. Faced with more intrusion by Sergeant Bloome, Detective Sandoval becomes more like Nick, looking around the edges for answers to Cole’s power and keeping his mouth shut around cops.
The story alternates between Nick and Sandoval, the two men connected by Cole. Nick is attempting to distance himself from Cole, while Sandoval is working to get closer to whatever connection Bloome and Cole might have. The similarity between Nick and Sandoval becomes more and more pronounced, both men looking for justice, following a personal code above all else, in a similar quest for answers. It’s a classic literary device, the antihero and hero shown in the same light — think Sherlock Holmes and James Moriarty, Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling, Harry Potter and Voldemort.
Each man is forced into situations that offer no easy solutions and no clear paths to victory. Nick and Sandoval must reexamine their own rules to determine which ones are worth breaking, considerations that become especially murky for Nick as people he cares for come under threat.
The plotting is crisp, and the story moves smoothly, slipping easily between timelines — from Nick walking out of prison, to the crime that landed him in prison, to prison walks with Darius Cole, to Nick’s ex-wife and his daughter, to the good cop chasing Nick, and the dirty cops chasing Nick. Nick is a very mobile character juggling different sides of his identity. One day, he’s slitting the throat of a man in a public restroom, and another he’s shopping for a puppy. That Hamilton is able to imbue both of these scenes with sharp tension is a testament to his skills as a writer. And as expected from a writer with Hamilton’s award-winning, best-selling track record, all the novel’s threads tie up in a powerful, violent resolution.
The prose itself is solid and any problems are merely because of the high bar the book sets for itself. For example, when the reader is introduced to Darius Cole, he is described as black: “Black as a mood, black as an Ali left jab or a Muddy Waters riff coming from the Checkerboard Lounge on a hot summer’s night.” Before the reader can wonder why Ali and not Frazier, why Waters and not Johnson, Hamilton describes the man’s voice: “a smooth, quiet voice,” which is a fine, if unexciting line. And then he goes in for the knockout: “Anywhere else, it would have been the voice of a peaceful man.” In that final sentence, the reader can feel the conflict, the tension in the man, the pressure between Cole and his surroundings, the stress that will strain the relationship with Mason for the next few hundred pages. Hamilton is at his best in these descriptions, not the easy similes that litter best-selling thrillers already, but the powerful descriptions that provide the reader a clear understanding of the characters, richly layered as they are.
Hamilton also delivers on creating believable neighborhoods through Chicago, getting the geography just real enough that someone will be able to complain that the color of the door at a strip club is red, not blue. Even the humor is local: “What’s the difference between Bridgeport and Canaryville? People in Bridgeport take the dishes out of the sink before they piss in it.” As Nick races his sports car through the neighborhoods of Chicago, it’s easy to believe you could follow the same route yourself, Hamilton’s prose is as accurate a guide as any online map.
With Mason, Sandoval, Bloome, Cole, and Quintero, Hamilton has created a handful of clear, purposeful, active male characters. One hopes that future installments of the series will have similar roles for strong female characters.
As this book has been promoted — now on a national tour, on a national broadcast campaign, on radio interviews, on a print campaign — as the first in a gripping, new Nick Mason series, it should come as no surprise that getting out of his contract has proven much more difficult for Nick Mason than it did even for author Steve Hamilton. And, for all of that, readers will be thankful.