Sunday, November 28, 2010

Some notes on Steve Hamilton's The Lock Artist

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.

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