Michael Carlson
 

Carlson's American Eye
 
Each month, Michael Carlson, Britain's hardest-boiled American critic, brings to Shots a distinctive look at the detective genre, with an eye toward those aspects of it which reflect its development (and his!) on the other side of the pond.....the overlooked, the out of print, and of course, the best of the new....
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Steve Hamilton interview by Michael Carlson

The first part of this interview was conducted following Crime Scene 2001, over the course of a long afternoon spent walking with Steve and his wife Julie across Hampstead Heath, and recuperating from said walking at the Spaniards and the Bear.
It got lost for three years at a magazine, and then I did a follow-up, which missed the publication of Ice Run and sat for another three years. With sincere apologies to Steve, I reclaimed the piece for my own column, and offer it now in the light of his excellent 2007 stand-alone NIGHT WORK.



Part One (2001)


HIS HEAD FRAMED BY A SOFT HALO OF GYRO GEARLOOSE CURLS, STEVE LOOKS LIKE AN INVENTOR, AND IN FACT HE STILL WORKS FOR IBM AS A SOFTWARE DESIGNER. BUT HIS ENTRY INTO THE CRIME WRITING FIELD CAME ABOUT IN AN UNUSUAL MANNER:

His head framed in a halo of Gyro Gearloose curls, Steve Hamilton looks like an inventor, and in fact he still works for IBM, as a software designer. But heís also one of the best new crime writers to come out of America, and his entry into the field came about in an unusual manner.

I was born and raised in Detroit, went to the University of Michigan, it was all very midwestern. Iíd won a writing award at Michigan, and when I moved to New York to work for IBM I said ĎIíll keep writing in my own time.í Iím sure lots of people make that promise, they tell themselves theyíll keep up the dream, and like most I just didnít do it. Ten or twelve years went by and I just hadnít kept that promise to myself. But someone at work was in a writerís group, they met in a cold basementÖ

SORT OF LIKE AA MEETINGS?

Yeah, it had a strange feeling to it, but all sorts of people, and I began bringing stuff there because the others expected it. I was writing Ďliteraryí short stories, but I also published a mystery short in a small mag called Pirate Writings, they paid a penny a word, $44, and I thought, Ďhey, big bucks! Iím a pro!í That felt more exciting, the fulfilment of a dream Iíd had since I was 12 years old. I fell in love with Agatha Christie then, the Poirots were the first mysteries I really loved, and I didnít start on the hardboileds until later.

I wanted to write a novel, I felt maybe I could do this, but it seemed like youíd have to have been 50 and lived a hard life to write hardboiled. Then I read Dennis Lehane and Harlan Coben, and I was blown away.
St Martinís Press had this competition for a first private eye novel, a great idea, no agent, just a cover letter, sample and synopsis, and then the judges narrow it down to six. I figured I knew how to do it, it had to be straightforward, right? Chapter One, the eye at his desk, gun, bottle, beautiful blonde, wisecracks. I figured you had to honour the formula.

Well, I had 16 days off, with nothing to do, and after those 16 days Iíd written two words: Chapter and One. I felt like Iíd failed. I went home on a Monday night, it was January, there was no football, and I thought, ĎIíll write about someone in as bad a mood as I am, why heís in such a bad mood, heís in a cabin in the woods.í I didnít know how to deal with it, but I made him a cop and an athlete, a baseball player, got an image of a catcher, with a bullet inside him, and I just followed that. Heís from Detroit, but he has to leave the city, get away. He gets manipulated, and he has to face his past. The writing just flowed.

THE RESULT WAS A COLD DAY IN PARADISE?

Right. Bob Randisi called to tell me Iíd won, Iíd get the prize at Bouchercon in Monterey, and it was overwhelming. Then the Edgar Award (ed. Note: for Best First Novel), and Iíve been lucky ever since. St Martinís launched the new Minotaur imprint, the Edgar came and they redesigned the covers, itís been amazingÖ

BUT YOU KEPT YOUR DAY JOB?

IBM, and my boss, have been very accommodating. I couldíve quit a BAD day job, in fact Julie quit HER bad day job, but I stay partly because the benefits are nice.

 YOU MENTIONED REDESIGNED COVERS. THEYíRE SO IMPORTANT BECAUSE THE SETTING, MICHIGANíS UPPER PENINSULA, WHERE MC KNIGHT HAS RUN AWAY TO, IS LIKE A CHARACTER ITSELFÖ

Thatís rightÖthough you should see the cover they used in Italy: a doctor with a surgeonís mask, a scalpel in one hand and a gun in the other! Thereís not even a surgeon in the book!
But when youíre in the UP it feels like youíve left the country, youíre not in Canada, but youíre not in Michigan any more. Itís a different world, so remoteÖall pine trees, cabins, Indian casinos and little else. And itís dominated by the Lake. They should call Lake Superior a sea, itís huge and dark, and so cold you canít swim in it even in August, there are hundreds of ships and thousands of men lying at the bottom. But for a couple of months itís so beautiful. Itís so natural, but itís unforgiving.

THE THIRD MCKNIGHT BOOK IS ALREADY OUT?

In America, yes, itís called Hunting Wind. It comes out in the UK in November 2001. I tie up some of the loose ends in the third one. I told my agent that and she said if I tied up ALL of them sheíd hunt me down like a dog. But Iíve already turned in the fourth book, whichíll be out next year. Eventually all the fish will end up in the boat.

THE THING I FIND MOST INTERESTING ABOUT THE FIRST TWO BOOKS IS THAT IN BOTH THERE ARE CHARACTERS WHO THINK ALEX IS THEIR BEST FRIEND, BUT HEíS NOT

No, thereís very little reciprocity, because Alex doesnít know exactly how bitter or twisted he is, heís retreated into his shell, Jackyís the one to drag him out, but there is no easy answer, you donít just snap out of it.

IN COLD DAY, ALEX IS RUNNING AWAY, BUT ITíS HIS FRIEND WHO ACTUALLY DOES RUN AWAY

Itís kind of a quintessential noir, everyone else benefits, or manipulates, or at least moves towards their own ends, but Alex is stuck.

THEREíS A MORE COMIC EDGE IN WOLF MOON WHICH SUGGESTS HE MIGHT BE STARTING TO SNAP OUTÖ

Well, I donít know where the storyís going. Itís like driving a car in the fog. Iím still terrified, Iíve pulled it off four times but I have less and less idea of where Iím going. I know people who work from detailed plot outlines, I both hate and envy them! I see other people writing stand alones, Lehane and Michael Connelly, and I admire them. But if you do it for the wrong reasons, youíd fall flat. If another story came to meóit has to make itself felt and refuse to go awayóthen Iíll write a fifth Alex novel. But heís definitely NOT going to Florida or California, he canít live anywhere else but the UP!

Update: Alex most definitely did NOT move away from the UP, but there were signs his character was beginning to lighten up. In the fifth McKnight novel, the excellent Blood Is The Sky, Alex meets Ontario Provincial Police officer Natalie Reynauld. Like Alex, her partner has recently been killed, and in the course of the novel her police career suffers another set back. But Alex comforts her on New Yearís Eve, and it is after that point the story picks up with the latest book in the series, Ice Run. I talked with Steve by phone in August 2004 about where itís going and where itís been, and the novel that was to become NIGHT WORK, which was already in progressÖ..


Part two (2004)



THINGS REALLY TOOK OFF SINCE 2001?

Yes, Blood was a bit of a breakthrough book; it had more going on and was received better. I just signed a contract for the Russian translation today!

BUT DONíT GIVE UP THE DAY JOB?

Well, Iím still hanging in with IBMÖtheyíve continued to be great.

BLOOD IS THE SKY IS REALLY A STORY ABOUT FRIENDSHIP AND LOYALTYÖ

How a friend becomes a brotherÖin fact, the bookís dedicated to my brother.Plus romance is a whole new thing for Alex, to be involved with somebody. Itís funny how readers reacted to it,to Natalie, a lot of women especially didnít like her. I was doing a reading and a little old lady put up her hand and said Ďsheís a bitch!í

SHEíS SORT OF A FEMALE VERSION OF ALEX

But there are abuses, and itís interesting to see that process, of overcoming them, become hyper real

WHATíS YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH ALEX?

I wish I was more like him, and that he could be more like me in some ways!

THEREíS AN ELEMENT OF MASOCHISM ABOUT HIM

He gets beat up. Thereís nothing fun or noble about it, he just canít help himself.

AND A SORT OF ROSS MACDONALD ELEMENT TOO

I loved reading those novels, where the past came out of the ground, and still comes back to find you. Thatís the stuff I love to read. I go to the UP every summer for two weeks, and I drove all over this time, sort of to say, thank you, Michigan. My next book wonít take place thereÖit will be a stand-alone, set it upstate New York. But in Michigan you can drive for so long, you can drive forever, to the loveliest, loneliest little places. Itís just beautiful in summer. I did a small book tour, not like the one that nearly killed me the summer before, and did a few key spots and anywhere in Michigan that wanted me. Iím amazed when Iím on tour, because everyone knows me. Iím not a celebrity in the real world. And the readers in the UP love them, because Iím halfway OK as a Michigan boy, but I donít make fun of the UP, the half-Canadian accent, the slowness--you could perceive it as a backwater. They treat me like Iím one of them, not even a hint of resentment. Not even in Paradise. I spent the whole day there, and probably met half the town in a bookstore while Eddie did his chainshaw sculpture and Pete from Shreveport played country music.

HOW ABOUT THAT NEXT BOOK?

Itís not with Alex, as I said. Heís got to be tired, and heís got to be at least half happy.
He needs a break and I did too. I didnít want to be mailing it in, you know, drag out the same old guys and throw something new in. Dennis Lehane once said Ďno one ever tells you that the twelfth book in your series was the best!í Iím sure Iíll go back to Alex, but after something different. The other big thing is to write it in a different style, in the third person, with a multiple point of view. When I go back to Alex itíll be first person, and heíll have a new problem.

 

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