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Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Second Life of Nick Mason by Steve Hamilton

G.P. Putnam's Sons, 320 pages, $16

“The Lock Artist” by Steve Hamilton was a masterpiece. “The Second Life of Nick Mason” attempts to copy that story in many ways. Hamilton is a great storyteller so it’s not a problem.

Nick Mason is a criminal. He was small-time, but then he was caught when a deal went sideways and a federal agent died. He expected to spend twenty-five years to life in prison, but something unexpected happened. A lifer named Darius Cole still manages to run Chicago’s criminal side from inside, and he wants Nick Mason on the outside doing his bidding. If Nick didn’t have a nine-year-old daughter whom he hasn’t seen in five years, he would have walked away. It is the deal with this particular devil that nominally frees Nick. The catch is that Nick must answer a special cellphone and do whatever the voice on the other end requires. And that voice requires a lot.

Mentally and physically, Nick makes the journey from an Irish Catholic neighborhood on the South Side where he grew up to the luxury of a townhouse on Lincoln Park West when he is freed. Cole has the money and the pull to put Nick there. His roommate is Cole’s girlfriend, Diana Rivelli, who manages one of Cole’s semi-legitimate businesses, a restaurant. Don’t ask, don’t tell seems to be the credo by which Nick and Diana live, as they gingerly live their separate lives. Actually, Nick has many articulated rules by which he lives. It helped to keep him out of sight of the law for quite a while. Rule Number Three seems to be his favorite: “When in doubt, keep your mouth shut.”

How does he get back in contact with his ex-wife and his beloved daughter? How does he avoid doing anything heinous for Cole? Will the dogged detective, Frank Sandoval, who originally sent Nick away, manage to trap Nick and send him back to prison? Can he ever call anything “normal” again?

Hamilton wastes no time getting Nick into the thick of things. At the same time, he presents the big reveal about the night it all blew up for Nick well into the book. In terms of structure, Hamilton knows what he is doing. There are many other significant characters and Hamilton makes them play their parts well: the buddy, the girlfriend, the crooked cop, the dark and mysterious go-between. Even if the language isn’t standard noir, the story is.

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