The north woods that rim the Great Lakes make a strangely fitting scene for murder. Foundering Rust Belt industries have left behind a wreckage of human spare parts—people who survive by working in Native American casinos or by serving the needs, both common and carnal, of the big-city rich folk who own lakeside cabins. A note of seedy desperation echoes through the seemingly peaceful pines, rising now and again to produce a crescendo of violence.
This Edgar-winning first novel carries echoes of its own. Like In the Lake of the Woods (1994), by Tim O’Brien, it derives narrative tension from the contrast between the idyllic aura of a sylvan retreat and the haunting mood that arises from an unquenchable passion. Like Anatomy of a Murder (1958), by Robert Traver, it takes place in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and features a jaded, beaten-down protagonist. (In the 1959 film version of Traver’s novel, that figure was memorably played by Jimmy Stewart.) In this instance, the reluctant hero is Alex McKnight, a onetime Detroit cop who carries with him a bulky edition of the standard back story: Several years ago, he watched helplessly as a madman slaughtered his partner; reeling from that trauma, he quit the policy force soon afterward. Nowadays, he has no wish to embroil himself in a murder investigation. But he doesn’t have much choice in the matter when Edwin Fulton, a friend of sorts and the cuckolded husband of his former lover, calls him from a blood-spattered motel room where Fulton’s bookie lies dead. Before long, signs emerge that point to the involvement of the crazed perp who killed his fellow cop, and that’s when McKnight proves his mettle. He puts hundreds of miles of wear-and-tear on his truck, and wears himself out in the process, and eventually he discovers who murdered whom. Hamilton declines to resolve every element in the larger story, however—presumably in order to give readers an incentive to pick up later installments in the McKnight saga.