“The Second Life of Nick Mason” by Steve Hamilton

The Second Life of Nick MasonSteve Hamilton has been one of my favorite authors for many years now, thanks to his Alex McKnight series (about a Detroit cop-turned-Upper Peninsula P.I.) and stand-alones like his Edgar-winning The Lock Artist. As one of only two authors to have won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel and Best Novel, Hamilton can hardly be called unappreciated. But he has never been a household name on par with other acclaimed mystery/thriller authors like Harlan Coben, Michael Connelly or Lee Child.

When The Second Life of Nick Mason came out last week, it was greeted by a chorus of rave reviews, making it clear that Hamilton is now playing in the big leagues. (Not to mention the fact that all three authors I named above—Coben, Connelly and Child—blurbed the book, along with Stephen King and Don Winslow.) As a longtime fan, I have to admit I was a wee bit skeptical. “If The Second Life of Nick Mason faces any peril, it’s that of not living up to its megahype,” Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times.

For about the first quarter of the book, my skepticism didn’t wane. Mason is an all-out antihero, the sort of literary figure I’ve grown weary of in recent years. Released from prison by a powerful fixer, Mason is back on the streets of his hometown, Chicago, but he is by no means a free man. He is given a cell phone, and when it rings, no matter where he is or what he’s doing, he must answer—and do whatever he’s told. If his instructions are to kill a guy, that’s what he has to do, unless he wants to wind up back in prison, or dead himself.

Why would anybody agree to such a bargain? A career criminal who had tried to live a straight life after marrying and having a child, Mason was talked into doing the proverbial last big job for the promise of a huge, life-changing score. But that score changed his life in all the worst ways, sending him to prison and resulting in a divorce from his beloved wife and a seemingly permanent separation from his now-nine-year-old daughter. Mason wants to see his girl grow up, even if it means watching her surreptitiously while she plays soccer (her new stepdad’s the team coach).

As the book went on, though, I’ll admit I became hooked, and finished it a lot faster than I’d meant to. (It’s hard to sit back and savor a thriller when you can’t stop turning the pages to find out what will happen next.) Mason isn’t as sympathetic a character as McKnight, but he does have a moral code and by the end of the book, it’s impossible not to have some admiration for him, even if you don’t necessarily agree with all of his actions.

Best of all, when I reached the end, I didn’t have that sugar-rush hangover I feel when I finish a lot of thrillers—the feeling that you’ve just read a book that’s the literary equivalent of eating an entire package of Oreos in one sitting. Hamilton’s writerly palette includes a lot of shades of gray, not just black & white, and of course, he’s an extremely fine writer. But if newbies find their way to Nick Mason, I hope they’ll dive into his back catalog; his previous works may not have gotten as much attention as this book, but he’s been deserving of this level of success for a long, long time now.

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