A Cold Day in Paradise by Steve Hamilton

As a native Michigander (despite living in Ohio currently) I have always been interested in stories centered in that fine state (Elmore Leonard’s Mr. Paradise and Henry Kisor’s Season’s Revenge are two recent examples). Following up on this theme, I recently picked up a copy of Steve Hamilton’s award winning (1999 Edgar Award) debut novel A Cold Day in Paradise. Mystery fans might already be familiar with the Alex McKnight Mystery series that followed. Oddly enough, I bought the book at a bargain book store unaware of the series but lucked out in getting the author’s debut.

Like Season’s Revenge, this book involves the murder of a wealthy figure in a small town in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan but the similarities are only superficial. Cold Day in Paradise is more a hardboiled detective story where Season’s Revenge is procedural and sociological. Where Season’s Revenge has a sense of romance and an almost thoughtful tone, Cold Day in Paradise is cynical and foreboding. While I found the characters less than sympathetic, the story line was intriguing and the plot twists kept me in suspense right until the end. McKnight as a lead character didn’t grab me but the mystery was very well done.

The basic plot involves Alex McKnight, a retired Detroit cop living in Chippewa County Michigan – a small town near Sault St. Marie in the Upper Peninsula. McKnight was forced into retirement after a mental disturbed man shot him and his partner with an Uzi. McKnight lived but with a bullet lodged near his heart. His partner didn’t make it. McKnight finds himself living in a cabin his dad built near a logging road and working as a private investigator for a local lawyer. Things turn dangerous when a couple of bookies connected to his friend Edwin J. Fulton the Third – a wealthy heir to a Detroit family fortune – wind up dead. The murders take a turn for the bizarre when they seem to be connected to the lunatic who murdered McKnight’s partner despite the fact that he is supposed to be serving a life term in Jackson state prison. McKnight is finding himself in deeper and deeper and his relationship with the chief of police is rocky at best. McKnight’s life and psyche seem to becoming unraveled as events spiral out of control.

Hamilton keeps the pace moving as the tension builds and he throws in enough plot twists to keep the reader interested and in suspense. The truth isn’t really revealed until the very end. If you like murder mysterys where the reader is kept in the dark like the protagonist then you will enjoy Cold Day in Paradise. My problem was more with the characters. McKnight himself is a odd one. Hamilton tries to portray him as a sort of gruff and prickly ex-cop but one who is straight forward and loyal to his friends. McKnight is also a deeply wounded character. His inability to save his partner’s life – in the horrific events that ended with a bullet permanently lodged near his heart – haunt him and eat away at him. But even with this background I found him largely unsympathetic. He seems stubborn and bull-headed. He constantly picks fight with the chief of police and insists on doing things his own way. He has an affair with his friends wife and, despite breaking it off, can’t seem to deal with the resulting emotions. I just had a hard time seeing what was likable about him.

The same is true of the other characters, although they are barely developed. The chief of police is an arrogant control freak who seems out to get McKnight for no particular reason. McKnight’s friend Edwin is portrayed as a weak – if gentle – wealthy gambler who ignores his beautiful wife. Edwin’s wife seems like a bitter and emotionally unstable person after her affair with McKnight turned sour. Edwin’s mother is manipulative and controlling. Edwin’s lawyer, and McKnight’s boss, is set up as the good guy. Now how can a lawyer be the good guy?!

McKnight’s soul searching and angst just got old for me. Perhaps I am old fashioned and like my protagonists to be strong and confident not cantankerous and full of self-doubt. Perhaps, if Hamilton had given McKnight a stronger sense of humor or a little more personality it would have offset the dark and gloomy tone. The title is a Cold Day in Paradise but the paradise of Chippewa County is never revealed. Instead the focus is on the cold hard November weather and the ugly murders. McKnight’s temperament matches the weather. Even the ending is less a happy resolution as a promise of revenge.

As I said above, the plot is interesting and the author holds the suspense very well. The twists and turns of the story are done well and the pace is good. But overall, I wanted deeper and more sympathetic characters. Maybe I am a romantic at heart, but I want someone to root for; someone whose fate I care about. If you like suspense, a dark tone, and a hardboiled detective, however, you would probably like A Cold Day in Paradise.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).