The Edgar Awards Revisited: The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton (Best Novel, 2011)
By Angie BarryFebruary 7, 2020
In a genre teeming with cynical gumshoes, highly-trained marksmen, and grizzled antiheroes, it’s refreshing to see a story carried by a young protagonist who’s both soft and broken.
You may remember me. Think back. The summer of 1990. I know that’s a while ago, but the wire services picked up the story and I was in every newspaper in the country…
I stayed in the news for two or three days, but even when the cameras and the reporters moved on to something else, mine was the kind of story that stuck with you. You felt bad for me. How could you not? If you had young kids of your own back then, you held them a little tighter. If you were a kid yourself, you didn’t sleep right for a week.
In the end, all you could do was wish me well. You hoped that I had found a new life somewhere. That I’d be able to get over it, maybe even put the whole thing behind me. It’s what you hoped, anyway…
So hang on, because this is my story if you’re ready for it. I was the Miracle Boy, once upon a time. Later on, the Milford Mute. The Golden Boy. The Young Ghost. The Kid. The Boxman. The Lock Artist. That was all me.
But you can call me Mike.
Talk about an opening hook, huh?
Steve Hamilton wastes no time, pulling us directly into the tangled web of his titular hero’s tragic life. Rendered mute by a horrific experience when he was eight years old, possessing an almost preternatural gift for unlocking safes and padlocks and doors, in some ways it’s inevitable that Mike, the Lock Artist, would one day find himself locked in a cell.
But wait. Slow down a bit.
Our first introduction tells us Mike’s in prison, but the hows and whys are far more complex than you might expect.
Through a dual narrative of shifting timelines, we follow Mike through his unhappy boyhood and early teens years. We watch him discover a deep love of art, a medium that allows him to truly communicate, and the love of his life, Amelia. We also see him—innocently enough—find his uncanny knack for locks:
I sometimes wonder how my life would have gone if not for that one old lock on that one back door. If it hadn’t gotten stuck so much, or if Uncle Lito had been too lazy to replace it… Would I have ever found that moment? Those metal pieces, which are so hard and unforgiving, so carefully designed not to move… Yet somehow with just the right touch it all lines up and God, that one second when it opens. That smooth, sudden, metallic release. The sound of it turning, and the way it feels in your hands. The way it feels when something is locked up so tight in a metal box, with no way to get out.
When you finally open it…
When you finally learn how to unlock that lock…
Can you even imagine how that feels?
At the same time, we follow him into his life of crime. The botched amateur jobs that end with blood and brain matter all over his jacket. Fake IDs and avoiding APBs. Jobs coming through on color-coded pagers. Professionals who pull off elaborate schemes to rob rich men blind, who value his nimble fingers as much as his unending silence.
How the two lifetimes connect proves that Mike is a young man who has always had the odds stacked against him. Despite his gift, in one way or another, he’s spent his entire life locked into awful places he never wanted to be.
The Lock Artist is a poignant story of fate and inevitability, of how someone decent and generally innocent can be forced into bloody situations because he’s never had free will. There have always been bigger, stronger, more powerful forces controlling the teenager’s life: adults, police, a flawed justice system, violent mobsters.
Hamilton shows that when someone has very little to lose, that doesn’t necessarily make them dashing or brave. Sometimes, they’ll do anything to hold onto what little they have. It’s both ironic and fitting that the one time Mike finally makes a choice of his own, it leads to his imprisonment—but also, in a strange way, his freedom, too.
(If you want to understand that contradictory dichotomy, you’ll just have to read the book yourself.)
First-person narratives can be tricky things to pull off. If your narrator isn’t likable, if their voice doesn’t ring true, the story loses all authenticity and power. And in a lesser author’s hands, The Lock Artist would have failed.
But Hamilton does a superb job with Mike, whose youth and vulnerability and loneliness permeate each page.
By telling the story via flashback as Mike composes his unusual memoir, Hamilton has the license to imbue everything with perspective and deeper meaning. A meaning we, the audience, can’t fully appreciate until we’ve seen all of Mike’s life. This is a novel that becomes more impressive with a second read, as we pick out all of the allusions and parallels layered throughout.
And while we know how this particular story ends from the very first page, and though the following narrative is heavy with longing and trauma, The Lock Artist is kind enough to leave us with a beautiful thread of hope. Mike is a young man who has suffered greatly, but that suffering is almost over.
Finally—finally—he’s approaching the day when all of the doors will be unlocked.
The Edgars voters made a wise choice with The Lock Artist. There are several meaty mysteries here—What happened when Mike was eight to steal his voice? How did he fall into a life of crime? Just what brought him to prison?—and a deep dive into the mysterious art of safecracking.
There are shadowy criminal organizations headed by terrifying figures and bumbling amateurs who are only good for cannon fodder and hard lessons, and time spent dwelling on the psychology of trauma-induced muteness and the healing power of art.
But beyond the nitty-gritty details and colorful tropes of the genre, Hamilton crafted a powerful, emotional story of a young man yearning for escape, “all told in the haunting voice of [someone] who has no voice,” as The Globe and Mail said upon the book’s release.
Mike is both victim and hero; someone to root for from beginning to end. In a genre teeming with cynical gumshoes, highly-trained marksmen, and grizzled antiheroes, it’s refreshing to see a story carried by a young protagonist who’s both soft and broken.
There’s plenty here that’s hardboiled, but not the narrator. While we pity Mike, he’s never truly pitiful, and he has a true survivor’s inner strength and resilience. And by the last chapter, Hamilton has made it clear: no matter how terrible the trauma, a survivor can still have a happy ending.
Notes from the 2011 Edgar Awards:
- Hamilton beat out Harlan Coben (Caught), Tana French (Faithful Place), Laura Lippman (I’d Know You Anywhere), Timothy Hallinan (The Queen of Patpong), and Tom Franklin (Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter) for the Best Novel Edgar.
- Bruce DeSilva took home the Best First Novel for his Rogue Island.
- Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and this Rendezvous with American History by Yunte Huang netted the Best Biography.
- Best Short Story went to Doug Allyn for “The Scent of Lilacs,” beating out Jeffrey Deaver’s “The Plot” and Edmund White’s “The Creative Writing Murders.”
- Charlie Price won Best Young Adult for The Interrogation of Gabriel James.
- Scoreboard, Baby: A Story of College Football, Crime and Complicity by Ken Armstrong and Nick Perry earned the Best Fact Crime honor.
- Sara Paretsky was the Grand Master, and the Raven Award was split between two bookstores: Centuries & Sleuths and Once Upon A Crime.
We’ll see everyone back here next week as Gabino Iglesias returns to review Gone by Mo Hayder, the 2012 Edgar Award winner of Best Novel. See you then!
A special thanks goes out to The Mysterious Bookshop for donating many of the review copies of the award-winning books. For the latest on all new releases, as well as classic books for your collections, make sure to sign up for their newsletter.