Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton

The Lock Artist (the book was an Edgar award winner for Best Novel of the Year) is Michael who writes down his story. He's been mute since a tragic and horrific event in his childhood. He's not deaf; he simply cannot talk no matter the provocation, positive or negative. As a late teen, he discovers he has a talent for opening locks, all kinds of locks. Tumbler locks, padlocks, combination locks. He falls in with evil companions and complications ensue.

The novel's time organization is fairly complicated. Michael begins telling his story contemporaneously; he's in prison and decided to tell his story. Chapter Two then jumps back to September 1999. Chapter Three jumps to 1991; Chapter Four and it's 1999 again, but later. This alternating between chapters showing how Michael became a lock artist and what happened once he had the skill to open anything locked can sound confusing but Hamilton identifies each chapter with a place and a date and keeps Michael in one place and time per chapter and I had no trouble following the continuity.

Writing the novel as what amounts to a series of flashbacks enables Hamilton to maintain the tension and keep the reader's (this reader's) attention. Why can't Michael speak? How did he learn to crack safes? Who are these bad guys and what's going to happen? By starting his story several years after the crucial events, we know Michael survived, but it was a near thing.

Also structuring the novel the way he has enables Hamilton to portray Michael as more sinned against than sinner. True, he participates in crimes (that's why he's pulling a 10-to-25-year bid), but they weren't his idea. So he's a criminal, but he's also sympathetic.

He's also more than a mute safecracker. He's an artist who could have been—and may be when he gets released—a successful graphic novel illustrator. He's a teenager who will go along with a bad idea because he wants to show he can be one of the guys. And he's a young man who falls in love with a girl he cannot help but disappoint.

It's an interesting book. Michael is an interesting character. The bad guys (most of them) are not pure evil. And the situations in which Michael finds himself are—given who he is and what he can do—believable. What else do you want from a book?

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