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Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Lock Artist, by Steve Hamilton ($14.99)

I didn't get much sleep last night, because The Lock Artist was compulsively fascinating. The premise of a mute teenager who is a genius at cracking locks and safes was too good a story gimmick. Hamilton has a wicked sense of timing and knows how to draw the reader forward, slowly and torturously, towards the solutions to the mysteries he has created.

Mike was traumatized as a young boy, but what happened isn't revealed until towards the end of the book. In the meantime, we learn that he lived with old Uncle Lito after the tragedy, that he managed to get into small-time trouble as a teenager, which led to big-time trouble, and that he is writing his story from prison. Throughout all of this, he has remained mute, a silent witness to human deficiencies and defects. Hamilton teases out these various storylines with excruciating slowness, but it's never annoying -- it only leads to hyperventilation on the part of the reader.

Although Mike is ostracized in school because he doesn't speak and he is haunted by the traumatizing incident in his past, he isn't bitter, just wary. He is alone a lot of the time and lonely, and finds a strange sort of psychic relief in opening padlocks and locked doors. He finally graduates to safes, but it isn't clear how this comes about until much later in the book. One of the attractions of this book is Hamilton's description of the intricate art of lock and safe breaking. Who knew that this esoteric topic could be so hypnotic?

Mike is a sweet and sympathetic character. His girlfriend, Amelia, is sweet and perceptive. The safecracking gimmick is mesmerizing, and Hamilton does a great job drawing the various threads together in the end.

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