Blood is the Sky by Steve Hamilton
Review by James R. Winter

I try to read as many P.I. series as I can. Still, I miss a few. Quite a few. One people keep insisting I read is the Alex McKnight series by Steve Hamilton. I hear nothing but praise for Hamilton's stories about a former cop, minor league catcher, and reluctant P.I.. Certainly, it has one of the more original settings for P.I. fiction, Michigan's Upper Peninsula. While recommendations are all well and good, I had no clue just what I'd been missing until I read McKnight's latest adventure, Blood Is the Sky.

What was I missing? Only some of the best damn writing in crime fiction today.

The book begins with McKnight trying to rebuild his late father's cabin, recently destroyed in a fire. His description, and Hamilton's writing, are extremely vivid right from the first scene.

I saw a lot of fires when I was a cop in Detroit. I was supposed to help secure the scene and then get the hell out of the way, but sometimes I'd stick around and watch the firefighters doing their work. I saw some real battles, but when they were done, the building would always still be standing. That was the thing that got to me. The windows would be blown out, and maybe there'd be a big hole in the roof, but the building would still be there.

Years later, I watched a Lake Superior storm taking down a boathouse. When the storm let up, there was nothing left but a concrete slab covered with sand.

It's this passage that leads into McKnight assessing what's left of his father's cabin and how he starts rebuilding. This entire section looks more like closure from a previous story than the beginning of a new one, but it also does a good job of introducing McKnight to new readers. We see him as a fiftyish loner, trying to lead a quiet life on the edge of civilization.

By the end of the second chapter, though, it's clear that McKnight is merely a supporting character in this one. Thought narrated by McKnight, the story really is about Vinnie LeBlanc, McKnight's Ojibway Indian neighbor.

Vinnie sneaks into the story helping McKnight rebuild the cabin, partly to make amends for a falling out the two had. Soon, though, Vinnie's ulterior motive comes to the surface. His brother, Tom, has disappeared on a hunting trip in northern Ontario. He soon enlists McKnight's help since, as McKnight himself puts it, he has a hard time saying no.

Complicating matters is Tom's recent parole from prison. Vinnie let Tom assume his identity as a way to go on the trip and purge a few demons. Tom didn't return from Canada. Vinnie and McKnight make the eight-hour trek from Paradise, Michigan, into the Canadian wilderness. They arrive at a lodge where Tom and his party left by plane for one of Canada's remote moose lakes. The inhabitants behave strangely, and the police are convinced everyone returned to Michigan.

Vinnie is not. McKnight thinks the situation stinks as well. They enlist the aid of a local hunting guide from the nearby Cree reserve. He and his grandfather drop them at the lake where the hunting party stayed. From there, things turn ugly fast, and McKnight soon watches his friend slowly go to hell and back, trying to connect the dots.

This is a neatly written story, with three clear acts. The evolution of both McKnight and Vinnie are finely drawn. Hamilton peppers their dialogue with a little interracial humor that could easily have gotten cutesy or offensive (or both). Instead, it sounds natural, partly because it's not overdone, and partly because Vinnie gets his digs in as much as McKnight.

I followed him around to the back door. There were toys everywhere - a red car, a big plastic yellow house with green shutters, even a wooden fort like something out of the old west. "What do they do in this fort?" I said. "Play cowboys and indians?"

"You're funny," [Vinnie] said. "Are you ready?"

With all your family in there, we're gonna play that game right now. I'll be General Custer."

He shot me a look. "Don't bring any of those jokes inside," he said. "Okay?"

That's about the extent of the witty banter between the races. Hamilton is deft at getting in and out of scenes like that, keeping it from bogging down a story.

Vinnie, even when he's not present, is the star, though, driving everything McKnight does. McKnight himself has to deal with being an outsider to Vinnie's people, even when he is adopted into the LeBlanc family. Later on, when Vinnie takes off on his own to find out the truth behind what happened to Tom, McKnight is basically retracing his steps, telling Vinnie's story after the fact. It's skillful how Hamilton uses first person from a supporting character's POV to tell the central character's story when he's gone for the most of the third act.

Hamilton does a good job bringing the Ojibway to life, showing them living their daily lives. They're quite aware of their noble savage image, even using it to their advantage at times. They come across as flesh-and-blood human beings, however, and not as caricatures. On the reservation, kids run through the same yards you see in every other small town in North America. While Vinnie's mother is an easily recognized portrait of an Indian matriarch, most telling is Vinnie's attitude of "Mom's gonna kill me" when he discusses Tom's disappearance. Well, what mother wouldn't?

The other characters are intriguing. DeMers, a Jekyll-and-Hyde officer with the Ontario Provincial Police, is the most complex character. He's hiding something he really wishes had never happened. Gannon, the bush pilot who was the last to see the hunting party, sounds like a one-note wonder at first, all bluster. Once the fate of Vinnie's brother unfolds, however, we understand him perfectly, even if we don't like him. Maskwa, the ancient Cree pilot, is a likeable sort, a tough old bird who thinks nothing of diving into the fray at the risk of life and limb. In fact, it is Maskwa who helps draw the story to a close.

McKnight's former partner, Leon, appears in the book's final act. He's now a snowmobile salesman, though he misses the PI game. One other support character, Provincial cop Natalie Reynaud, promises to make an interesting addition to McKnight's world. During the course of the story, she learns first-hand what McKnight has known about for years: What losing a partner on the police force is like. Hamilton ends the book with the McKnight and Reynaud discussing her loss.

At 304 for pages, I found the book hard to put down. The pacing is excellent, and Hamilton's prose is vivid. I especially love the descriptions of Michigan's Upper Peninsula and the Canadian wilderness.

We took 17 north, out of the city and up the Lake Superior coastline. The fog was still heavy on the water as we rounded Batchawana Bay. An hour later, we passed through a small town called Montreal River, and then it was another hour to make our way through the Lake Superior Provincial Park. There was nothing but trees and an occasional glimpse of the lake, stretching out beyond the fog.

Kind of makes you want to take a vacation north this summer, doesn't it?

This is a worthy addition to Hamilton's previous work and the best new PI novel I've read all year. Clever, well-paced, and vivid, Blood Is the Sky may be one of the best novels of the year overall.

By Steve Hamilton
Thomas Dunne, 2003
304 Pages
Buy this book

Review submitted by James R. Winter, May 2003.

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