Steve Hamilton’s latest, Let It Burn, drives series character Alex McKnight off Michigan’s UP (Upper Peninsula) and into Detroit. The city Alex deserted years ago is now half-empty, littered with vacant lots and empty buildings, yet retains a hold on him. The former cop returns there after hearing that Darryl King, a young man he helped imprison, is about to be released.
Though Let It Burn is the latest in a series, one need not have read earlier Alex McKnight tales to gain a full measure of enjoyment from this one. There is more than enough backstory in the opening chapter to make clear why Alex fled Detroit for the UP following the King case.
Darryl’s release should raise no questions but when Alex revisits the crime scene he grows as conscious of matters that remain unsettled as he is of the slug trapped next to his heart. Alternating between present day and that summer years ago, Hamilton lays out why McKnight can’t accept the current close on the case, why he has to dig through it once more.
Something horrible happened here, I thought, and I never really got the time to process it. I never understood or made my peace with it, because just a month later, in that very same summer, something else happened that obliterated my entire life.
So now that I was here again, standing in this very spot where that first thing happened . . . It was like I finally had the chance to make some sense of it, all these years later.
I was feeling that hum again. Louder this time.
Something is not right. That’s the thing that came to me. Something is not adding up for me. Not then. Not now. Not ever.
That internal hum prompts Alex to start digging. What surfaces are clues wrapped in tangled relationships, his own and those of others. From law enforcement officers Alex worked with on Darryl’s case, to current interactions among the Kings and the victim’s family, Hamilton’s characters play out clues, almost hidden or in plain sight. It’s one of the book’s satisfactions: everything a reader needs to unravel the puzzle is presented in a straightforward manner, though one that lets our preconceptions about the characters’ behavior veil the solution.
Hamilton is well-schooled at examining relationships with a copper’s eye—the host of police in his Acknowledgments suggests the depth of his tutoring. It pervades every interaction, providing authenticity to Alex’s exchanges with FBI agent Janet Long, his former PI partner, Leon Prudell, and Bateman, the retired detective who put Darryl King away. (Naming a trooper detective Gruley seems a nice tip of the hat to the fellow Michigan writer who penned Starvation Lake.) Yet talk never overwhelms while the story builds with the deceptiveness of hidden, smoldering embers. And when Alex is led to believe it’s all over, talk won’t help.
I looked across the street one more time, at the vacant lot where Tiger Stadium once stood. It seemed like a fitting farewell, at least for the time being, as I pulled onto the road and made my way to the freeway.
Something wasn’t right. It was that feeling you get, when you leave the house and you know you’ve forgotten something, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
North to the edge of town. Eight Mile Road. That feeling still there.
Though Alex is right about there being unfinished business, it catches him unaware. He falls prey to the killer, trapped in a situation that explodes like a fireball. The conflagration as good as consumes Alex before the reader can catch a breath.
The book’s coda returns Alex to the UP, where he considers his own tangled relationships, one of which is bound to remain uneasy:
Maybe we both lied to each other one time too many, even if it was always for the right reasons.
However that may go, there is no maybe about Let It Burn. It’s a great read, for all the right reasons.
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Kate Lincoln writes crime fiction informed by her years in clinical medicine and as a homeopath and EMT, most of which is set in New Jersey horse country called the Somerset Hills.
See all of Kate Lincoln’s posts for Criminal Element.