The Hunting Wind

by Steve Hamilton

Published by Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Minotaur

320 pages, 2001

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Cold Case

Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce


Two years ago, as Steve Hamilton's first novel, A Cold Day in Paradise, was busily picking up both Shamus and Edgar awards, the Michigan-reared author joked that "it will be interesting to see how many private-eye books I can write with a main character who has absolutely no interest in being a private eye!" Well, with the publication of his beguiling new work, The Hunting Wind, he's now up to three and there seems no reason for him to stop yet.

Part of Hamilton's success can certainly be attributed to his series protagonist, Alex McKnight. A once-promising catcher who never quite made the crucial leap into major-league baseball, McKnight went on to join the Detroit Police Department, only to retire from that force after a shootout left his partner dead and McKnight with a bullet embedded "less than a centimeter from my heart" -- too near his most vital organ to be safely removed. But that was a decade and a half ago. Since then, he has moved north to Michigan's forest-covered Upper Peninsula (UP) and into one of six log cabins his father built in the don't-blink-or-you'll-miss-it town of Paradise during the 1960s and 70s ("one per summer until he got too sick to build them anymore"). The divorced and private McKnight figured he could make a quiet living in that frozen country by renting out his cabins to snowmobilers and other travelers, leaving him enough time to play hockey in a 30-and-over league and maybe tip back a few Canadian brews at the nearby Glasgow Inn. However, friends and acquaintances in trouble keep interrupting his peace, forcing him to exercise the investigative tools he learned as a big-city cop. Beginning in A Cold Day in Paradise (1998) and moving on through Winter of the Wolf Moon (2000), McKnight has become the UP's least willing but most able gumshoe. He's even got a partner, the annoyingly persistent and tech-savvy Leon Prudell, and a Web site, the existence of which he barely acknowledges ("I don't even have a computer," McKnight grouses in The Hunting Wind).

But detective novels don't flourish or fail solely on the basis of their complex characters. They also need taut, multilayered and logically constructed plots, with twists -- plenty of them. And Hamilton knows how to deliver those, too. The Hunting Wind provides as fine an example as any of his three books. It opens with the surprise appearance in Paradise of Randy Wilkins, a left-handed pitcher who played with McKnight in the minor leagues before moving on to throw a single memorable, if disastrous game with the Detroit Tigers. Of course, that was 30 years ago, long enough for friends to forget one another. Wilkins hasn't forgotten Alex McKnight, though. He's flown all the way out from California to ask for his old teammate's help in finding a woman named Maria Valeska, the comely daughter of a fortune teller, who he met as a 19-year-old girl during his brief stint with the Tigers. Wilkins' own recent efforts to locate the mysterious Maria haven't turned up squat. He hopes that McKnight's experience as a cop will improve the odds.

While this premise sounds rather like that of Earl Emerson's enjoyable 1991 novel, Yellow Dog Party (in which four businessmen hire a Seattle private eye to track down the "dream girls" from their youth), where Hamilton takes his plot is entirely his own. Driving down to Detroit, McKnight and Wilkins start poking around in the old neighborhood where the pitcher first met Maria. It proves to be a bittersweet visit for the detective, who finds around every sharp turn some memory of his failed marriage or of his eight years as a cop that ended in tragedy. The recollections start leaking out of McKnight as soon as he shows Wilkins his old stomping grounds:

"Here's where I lived when I was married," I said. "My wife's name was Jean. You know, I can't even remember the last time I said her name out loud. The day we got married, I promised her I'd spend every day with her for the rest of my life. Now I couldn't even tell you what state she lives in."

"I've been married, Alex." It was the first time he had spoken in the last half hour. "I know what it's like to be married."

"Okay," I said. "That one you know." I looked out [of] the window at the house. There was a light on in the living room. There was a family in there, watching television. Maybe one kid was doing homework. Another kid already in bed. They didn't know we were out there, looking at the house. They didn't know that this was once my house.

"We lived in that house for nine years," I said. "I was a police officer in Detroit for most of that time. We were going to have kids, and I was going to take them up to Paradise in the summers, show them the cabins their grandfather was building."

"So what happened?"

"She was pregnant once," I said. "She had a miscarriage. I was on duty at the time. A night shift. She drove to the hospital herself. She could have called me. I would have come and gotten [her] in the squad car. But she didn't. She drove there by herself, bleeding the whole way."

"It wasn't your fault," he said.

"I know that," I said. "Just like my mother dying, right? It wasn't my fault."

"Yes, Alex. That wasn't your fault, either."

Yet the pains of yesteryear soon give way to the even more severe pains of today, as Maria's relatives greet McKnight and Wilkins with unexplained hostility. The pair are beaten up and briefly imprisoned by Maria's brother. Not long after that, Wilkins is hospitalized with shotgun wounds and McKnight -- displaying a softhearted humanity that he would probably deny having, if given a chance -- decides he owes it to the former pitcher to find out what the hell is going on. This resolution sends him north to a tiny resort town, where he discovers both that Maria has good reasons for staying hidden ... and that Randy Wilkins has been far less than forthcoming about his motives in this mystery.

Author Hamilton's skill at character development is most clear from his work with the boyishly charming Wilkins, who captures and keeps the reader's favor, even as his innocence crumbles. However, he manages as well to further expand Alex McKnight's persona, most crucially in a late scene that has the ex-cop on the edge of reliving Wilkins' own amberized fantasies. I only wish Hamilton had been as careful in measuring out the antagonism he directs against his detective in this story. Its early introduction and intensity too quickly give away the fact that this case is more complicated than McKnight had been led to believe. A bit more restraint might have kept him (and readers) guessing longer.

Though most of the action here occurs in Detroit, rather than the ironically named Paradise, Hamilton's skill at capturing his setting doesn't fail him. The Motor City may not be as interminably frigid or reluctantly friendly as McKnight's UP home, but it comes off in The Hunting Wind as no warmer in most respects. It's a wonder that Detroit's alienness -- its proud past colliding with a bleak future -- doesn't attract more crime fiction writers. With any luck, Hamilton may reintroduce us to the place in a subsequent McKnight adventure. And there must surely be more. Three books into this cold-rooted series, you get the distinct feeling that Steve Hamilton is only just warming up. | June 2001


J. Kingston Pierce is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine.