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[2011 Edgar Award nominee for Best Novel.]

Author: Steve Hamilton

2010, Minotaur Books

Filed under: Thriller

The Lock Artist surprised me. I’ve gotten used to the covers of Edgar nominees telling me what to expect about their innards. Based on The Lock Artist‘s fairly dumb cover (bland, and with a key-opened padlock, instead of the combination padlock that features prominently in the story) led me to believe this would be another schlocky bestseller, with cardboard characters and cheesy jokes.

And, OK, 75% of it is cookie-cutter crime writing, and the end is hugely disappointing. But Artist features a few glittering moments that are among the best in all the 2011 Edgar books (an admittedly disappointing field). And it features a lesson about the motor that runs the best mysteries—a lesson that Hamilton himself doesn’t understand, but one that’s educational nonetheless.

The Lock Artist‘s setup can be guessed from its title. A preternaturally gifted safecracker cracks safes. He also falls in love at first sight and, because of a childhood trauma, doesn’t speak. We’re not dealing with nuance here.

The best part comes about halfway through. Mike, the titular lock artist, has been caught breaking into a school rival’s house and gets sentenced, ostensibly by a real court, to perform several hundred hours of free labor for the man whose house he broke into. (Too often the plot of Artist revolves around Mike’s crew sprinting out of a botched job and Mike dumbly freezing until he gets caught.)

The man he works for, Mr. Marsh, has him digging a backyard in-ground pool, by hand. It’s chain-gang labor, only softened by the sight of Marsh’s daughter, whom Mike falls in love with. Mr. Marsh feels violated by Mike, defensive of his daughter, and infuriated that Mike won’t rat out his cohorts. He revels in Mike’s pain and suffering… until one day, when Mr. Marsh sits down next to Mike, offers him a beer, and apologizes for having been so hard on him.

Is Marsh genuine? Surely not, but why not? Does he know about Mike rebreaking into his house to leave notes for his daughter? Is this part of a complicated plot for revenge? Mike knows Marsh can’t be trusted, but he can’t figure out what he’s up to. This is probably the most powerful mystery moment in all the Edgars, for two simple reasons: 1) it’s surprising and unexpected, and 2) the best mysteries root themselves in the motivations of their characters.

It’s not nearly as interesting, for instance, to find out exactly how Mike winds up in jail (he writes the book from his cell). That’s merely a series of events. This thing with Marsh—this righteous staredown between two men trying to puzzle each other out—this is the good stuff.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t last. Marsh’s motives are quickly revealed, and devastatingly cliched. If you need further proof that Hamilton doesn’t understand the power of mysterious motives, look no further than the majority of his plotting, featuring guards who let Mike into buildings for no reason, people who tell their life stories for no reason, and generally a bunch of personality-free, motiveless cogwheels for Hamilton to spin as he needs them.

Then there’s the fact that Mike can’t speak, because of that old childhood trauma. This detail is basically an epiphany in a box that Hamilton can open when he needs to wring out some emotion and show that Mike really loves that girl—it happens in a flagrantly cheesy way. Again, nuance is not Hamilton’s forte.

The final nail in the coffin is the structure and premise of the novel. Hamilton switches back and forth between Mike’s apprenticeship as a boxman, and his later work with a brilliant young crew (the work that will eventually land him in jail). These are vastly different stories that have nothing to do with each other, alternating between them only highlights the deficit of real drama in play. It’s a cheap, Dan Brownian tactic for inflating the suspense.

Hamilton has talent—despite his often cheesy prose, and his penchant for using plot shortcuts, this is a very readable novel. The second act especially flies by, and I stayed up past my bedtime more than once to read an extra chapter. The third act drops off sharply, though, and I’m not convinced that the real drama wasn’t accidental.

I won’t remember this one in a month. Give it a miss.

Similar reads: Caught, by Harlan Coben; The Weight, by Andrew Vachss

Edgar impact: Hamilton has the right idea in spots, but ultimately can’t braid the rope well enough to haul a full load. The plot, especially the ending, is too cliched to win an Edgar.