This is Steve Hamilton’s eighth novel about former Detroit cop Alex McKnight (another is scheduled for this year – Die a Stranger). Here we find McKnight in the cosy Glasgow Inn, Paradise, Michigan, on the frozen shore of Lake Superior, where he is trying to lead a quiet life, when he is approached by police chief Roy Maven, probably his least favourite person in town after many run-ins.
The chief needs a favour, asking McKnight to help a friend of his that he used to work with in the state police. The guy’s son has committed suicide at isolated Misery Bay, hanging himself from a tree. Could McKnight talk to the youngster’s friends to ferret out some explanation for his father about why he did it?
McKnight draws a blank after meeting the teenager’s friends, but when the victim’s father is murdered at Maven’s house, a frightening pattern suggests itself to the hero. Is somebody murdering law enforcement officers after faking the suicides of their children to torment them?
This is a theory that McKnight and Maven cannot get the FBI, including an attractive agent called Janet Long, to take seriously. However, further murders prove McKnight and Maven correct and the FBI belatedly join the hunt for a serial killer before he can strike again.
Steve Hamilton, who last year enjoyed great success with his well-crafted standalone novel The Lock Artist, has created a wonderful protagonist in McKnight, who had to leave the police after stopping three bullets in a shootout that claimed his partner. McKnight narrates the novel with bone-dry humour, and his descriptions of the frozen Michigan setting (10 below in April!) evoke a hostile but bewitching environment. It’s just so enjoyable sitting by the fire at the Glasgow listening to the guy, or watching him trying to get along with the abrasive Maven.
The plot gets a little snowbound (there are many long drives along the way), and at one point we are led up the garden path to think it is one character committing the crimes, only to discover it is someone entirely different who we have not encountered yet. The problem with stories in which serial killers have elaborate MOs is that the plot often unravels in elaborate, belief-stretching ways, and that is the case here.
But the magic of Misery Bay is the characters and the bleak winter setting. As in many series novels, the plot is just an excuse to spend time with great characters, and on that count Misery Bay is highly enjoyable.