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October 9, 2010 / C.T. Henry


My favorite books this summer were Steve Hamilton’s The Lock Artist and Craig McDonald’s Head Games.  Although Craig McDonald’s writing was new to me, Steve Hamilton has long been one of my favorite writers.

The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton (2010)

Marked by tragedy, traumatized at the age of eight, Michael, now eighteen, is no ordinary young man. Besides not uttering a single word in ten years, he discovers the one thing he can somehow do better than anyone else. Whether it’s a locked door without a key, a padlock with no combination, or even an eight-hundred pound safe … he can open them all.

It’s an unforgivable talent. A talent that will make young Michael a hot commodity with the wrong people and, whether he likes it or not, push him ever close to a life of crime. Until he finally sees his chance to escape, and with one desperate gamble risks everything to come back home to the only person he ever loved, and to unlock the secret that has kept him silent for so long.

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You know those books that you go through with break-neck speed because it’s so thrilling?  Well, this isn’t that book!   I loved The Lock Artist because it was so different from everything else I’ve been reading.  I also quickly identified with Michael, finding his mutism quite intriguing.  At first, I wasn’t sure about the switching from the present to the past each chapter, but it really works as Michael’s past is subtly revealed throughout the book.  You have to give Hamilton credit: He really knows how to write fascinating characters.

I’ve always loved Hamilton’s writing and character, and my criticism of his body of work, so far, is that he has trouble with endings.  But no more.  The Lock Artist has a perfect ending.  Everything fits. I have never been so enthralled with a book.  It is my new, favorite crime novel.

The Lock Artist is a book to be savored.  I really didn’t want it to end.  Just a warning: after you finish the book, you might feel the urge to break into something or play around with locks.

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Head Games by Craig McDonald (2007)

A wistful ballad of lost America rooted in borderland history and mythology. Hector Lassiter has Pancho Villa’s long lost skull. He’s also got people on his trail. Competing fraternities, Mexican bandits, and US Secret Service are after him. But Lassiter is larger than life. He bedded Dietrich and boxed Hemingway, this can’t be too bad. Can it?

“Hector, do you deliberately make a mess of your life just to keep yourself interested?”
I chuckled and shook my head.  “Kid,” I said, “you’re the first person in this screwed up excuse for a world to really get my act.  Well, the first who isn’t a woman to get it.”

In the great, hard-boiled tradition of Jim Thompson and James Crumley, Craig McDonald has written an outstanding first novel.  Set in the 1950s, McDonald introduces the character of Hector Lassiter, who is a crime fiction writer in the same vein that Indiana Jones is an archaeologist.  He doesn’t spend most of his time writing; he spends most of his time living life to the fullest and as hard as he can.  Drinking, smoking, and being shot at happen far too frequently in Head Games.  A good, but estranged friend of Ernest Hemingway, Hector comes out of the same tradition of writer/adventurers.  Along for the ride is his sidekick Bud Fiske, who is profiling Hector for a magazine article.

Their adventures start when the decapitated head of Pancho Villa lands at their feet, and they realize that many American fraternities, particularly Preston Bush’s Skull and Bones society, are after the head and willing to pay or kill to get it.  Nevertheless, there’s someone even more vicious hunting for Villa’s head, who knows that the head contains the secret to Pancho Villa’s lost treasure.

Head Games is exciting and extremely well written.  It offers an escape to a now-forgotten time of ruffians and cut-throats.  My only criticism is that the book should’ve been about 40 pages shorter.  McDonald had an excellent ending, and then he included an unnecessary epilogue.

My favorite line: “But talking about your plans [Hector], is the surest way to hear God laugh.”

I can’t wait to read the next Hector Lassiter novel, Toros and Torsos.

One Comment

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  1. Naomi Johnson / Oct 9 2010 6:00 pm

    After Head Games, you think you know what to expect from McDonald, but the first book will not prepare you for the second. T&T is just brilliant.

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