There are three things about Hamilton's novel- for me, quite likely the year's best crime novel- that are worth mentioning: 1) The subject matter- lock picking. One learns a lot about the skill of picking locks, though I'm not sure I understood it all. Still, it seemed convincing, which is what counts. But then I'm partial to crime novels in which you actually learn something, though here it could be that you learn less about the craft of lock picking than the psyche of a particular person who picks locks. Nevertheless, Hamilton doesn't skimp on details, while making the subject matter every bit as interesting as the protagonist. 2) The protagonist himself. Michael, who, in the novel, goes from child to adolescent to young adult, though not necessarily in that order, has been unable to speak- diagnosed as more psychological than physical- since suffering a violent trauma when he was some eight years old, and this has led to an existential dread that has affected him ever since. In this way The Lock Artist recalls, but is different from, Charles Willeford's Cockfighter. The latter, with its silent protagonist, was more a critique of the culture's obsession with competition, winning at any cost- even if it means a self-imposed silence until one's goal is achieved- as well as the ramifications of dealing with that condition. But Hamilton's protagonist has actually been scarred into silence, and can only communicate on paper, either by writing or by drawing. Just as Michael's art becomes his sole means of communication, his lock picking becomes a means of revenge and holds, if circuitously, the possibility that one day someone will be able to locate the key that will unlock his silence. Though he could have easily done so, Hamilton refuses to sentimentalize his character, even if, at the end, there exists a small ray of light enters his noirish existence. 3) The organization of the novel. Hamilton has taken the narrative and chopped it up into set pieces seemingly without regard to chronology, but with an eye to narrative tension and dramatic effect. I'm probably wrong, but off the top of my head I can't think of many other crime novels organized in this way, or, at any rate, deploys it so effectively. Yet the various narrative strands in Hamilton's make perfect sense, as well as serving to intensify the relationship between organization, protagonist and subject matter. Which makes unlocking Hamilton's novel an interesting procedure.
I didn't expect to like Gruber's novel as much as I did. It had the appearance of an airport thriller, like something out of the Robert Ludlum school of fiction. Nor was I all that impressed with a pedestrian first chapter mostly comprised of back-story. However, the subject, the politics, and the energy of the novel quickly won me over, as did the various characters. The plot, which takes place in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Langley, Virginia, is prescient enough to read like something that might be taking place at this very moment, and perhaps something like it is. Theo, a Pakistani with a background in jihad and explosives comes to the United States, learns English, studies American customs and becomes a soldier in his adopted country, trained to kill, and pass for a native in tribal regions overseas. Meanwhile, Sonia his mother (traveling in Pakistan despite a fatwa against her) is kidnapped. Theo attempts to get her out. Sonia, a Muslim as well as a Catholic, is an author, psychologist, traveler- and, oh yes, former circus performer. She and her colleagues are about to be executed, but, through Jungian analysis and her knoweldge of the Qur'an, she is able to manipulate her captors, interpreting their dreams, and subverting the system from within. Preposterous? Perhaps, but Gruber makes it work, mainly because of the research he puts into the book, and the way everyone's viewpoint is treated seriously. Moreover, Gruber's depiction of life in Pakistan and Afghanistan feels like it comes from a first-hand knowledge of that region of the world. I found the arguments regarding religion fascinating, though others might find they slow down the pace of the plot. Nevertheless, Sonia's moral ambiguities, combined with Theo's understanding of tribal culture and American greed, make for an unpredictable climax, one in which it's difficult to say who is right and who is wrong. As with the war itself, no one wins, while the only losers are the people themselves.
London-based journalist and author of Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War; Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction; and Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood.