Book Review: Steve Hamilton's 'Let It Burn'

Jul 2, 2013

Ex-Detroit cop Alex McKnight is called out of his new home in Michigan's Upper Peninsula to investigate a murder case from his past.

Lansing-based writer Scott Southard chose as his first book review, Let It Burn, by Steve Hamilton. 

I am a book nerd and what that means is I love to get in debates with fellow readers and writers.

These are not the merely “did you or did you not like a book” discussions. No, these can be deeper, getting into the heart and state of our beloved artform today. And one of the points I like to bring up from time to time is the influence of TV on books.

I don’t mean how TV executives go to our library and book shelves to rip away ideas for future series like "True Blood," "Dexter," and "Game of Thrones;" this is the other way around. The flip side. How has TV affected how people actually write books.

Let me give you one example I have, I’ll call it Exhibit A.

Let It Burn is the 10th book in the Alex McKnight crime thriller series by Steve Hamilton. And I’ll be honest with you, it is the first book in the series I have read.

Did I need to read books 1 through 9 to understand this one? No, not from what I can tell. The experience was much like tuning into an old "Law and Order" episode on TNT, it doesn’t matter who is investigating the case and what the crime is, you know the drill in front of you. The beats the story will take.

Alex McKnight is an ex-cop from Detroit, now living on disability after a shooting that killed his partner and left him injured. He lives in the UP but somehow keeps falling into adventures. And in this one it is a murder investigation from his past, bringing him back to his old haunts and a case that he thought was closed.

If there is one thing that Steve Hamilton has done well it is to express the environment and nuances of the culture and backdrop of Detroit in the 80’s to the present day.  A city under great changes, struggling under the weight of its debt.

Alex narrates just like one of those cops from those TV shows and his dry description of street after street in Michigan, captures not only the atmosphere of that bleeding old city but also of him. He is a man on a set path, because that is what he does, no matter how foolish it might be.

Maybe I would understand Alex more, appreciate him more as a character if I had met him over the previous nine tales. But this case doesn’t help his cause as I can feel the pace and rhythm of how the story will turn before it does. The twist… The second twist. The surprise murderer. And don’t get me started on the last line the hero says to the villain. There will be groans echoing throughout the country over that one.

If you enjoy crime fiction, or occasionally watch shows like this, there are really no surprises here for you. Of course, for some that is a place of a comfort, maybe the desirable summer read, and this book coming out at this time is the perfect event. It is not an adventure that will keep you up at night gasping, wondering what will happen next, but it might satisfy that itch. That itch for blood on someone else’s hands.

I think if I was to find one word to sum up the book it would be bleak. From the dark meandering cover image of train track going off into a foreboding unknown to the empty streets filled with empty buildings that Alex finds as he travels, seeking his serial killer and the occasional Canadian beer.

I think what disappointed me the most with this book is that I don’t believe Steve Hamilton really took advantage of what makes a book different from other storytelling mediums like TV. There is no beauty or uniqueness in his prose, no breathtaking insights into characters that only a novel can deliver.

For fans of Steve Hamilton, crime fiction, and Alex McKnight adventures this book might have been just what they were waiting for. For me, a newbie to this literary franchise, Let It Burn was not enough to draw me in for another episode.

Current State contributor Scott Southard is author of the novels  "A Jane Austen Daydream" and “Maximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare." More of his writing can be found at his blog, The Musings and Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard