Written by Steve Hamilton — Shall we start with the first life of Nick Mason? He was born in Canaryville, an Irish suburb of Chicago. He grew up in difficult circumstances, without a father, and gravitated to crime. From stealing cars he graduated to robbing dealers and then to armed robbery, always with the same crew of childhood friends. A strict set of rules kept him safe and out of jail until he met his wife.
Mason would never have needed a second life if he hadn’t been persuaded to take one last job – yes, it was that mythical big score that would set him and his family up for life. As is so often the case, the score went south, and Mason was sentenced to 25 years for felony homicide.
Mason’s second life begins just five years later, nominally a free man after his conviction was overturned. Freedom is just an illusion though because he is now virtually owned by the man who arranged his release, Chicago crime lord Darius Cole. Cole is also a convict and has no chance of release. Yet he is fabulously wealthy, and as ruthless and ambitious as ever, as he runs Chicago from his prison cell. What he needs is a man on the outside who he controls absolutely and has chosen Mason. In exchange for his early release, Mason must live where Cole says, carry a phone at all times, and do exactly what’s asked of him without question. Mason is smart enough to know what he’s signing up to, and tough enough to say no Cole and face the consequences, but realises this is probably the only chance he will get to see his daughter.
His contact on the outside is a fearsome La Raza gang member called Quintero, and Mason’s first job is to go to a downtown hotel one evening and kill the man inside. It is here that Hamilton makes the first in a series of brave choices. Mason is the story’s protagonist and in part the book’s success will depend on how you respond to him. Perhaps you’ll expect Steve Hamilton to engineer a route out of this for Mason. Maybe the man will be dead before Mason arrives, or will escape during a fight, but no, Mason kills him.
As the book progresses and Mason does push back against Cole, it’s not because of the nature of the jobs he has to do. In fact, Mason finds he can do them without much guilt at all. He seems in charge of himself no matter the deed, and it makes him a less sympathetic character, but one who is more realistic and interesting.
Mason faces two conflicts as the narrative progresses. The first is his escape from Cole. The second is equally difficult. Cole wants Mason to kill a competitor in the drug trade, but this man is protected by bodyguards and the Chicago police department’s special narcotics squad are taking a close interest in him. Mason’s efforts to do the job are complicated further by Detective Sandoval, the officer who put him behind bars the first time and who is disgusted at his early release.
Hamilton made his name with the Alex McKnight series about a retired Michigan policeman turned reluctant private eye. I read them, and liked them, but The Second Life of Nick Mason is a major jump forward. The McKnight novels were competent mainstream crime fiction, but burdened with a flavour of sentimentality that stopped them being essential hardboiled fare. Hamilton has shed that here to produce a lean, mean hardboiled thriller that Richard Stark would have been proud of.
What’s missing is a little complexity of plot, and the resolution of Mason’s conflict with Cole doesn’t quite satisfy. It seems as if the author pulls away from having Mason do what needs to be done, saving it perhaps for a sequel. If that means we get a second book with Mason then maybe I shouldn’t complain.
Read our earlier review of Steve Hamilton’s A Cold Day in Paradise here. The Second Life of Nick Mason is out 17 May.
GP Putnam’s Sons
CFL Rating: 4 Stars