Monday, March 2, 2015

PAST CRIMES :: Glen Erik Hamilton

Army Ranger Van Shaw has been on desk duty in Germany for two months recovering from a shrapnel wound when he receives a letter from his estranged grandfather, Donovan. Dono's message is short, written in Irish Gaelic translating as "Come home, if you can." Interpreting his grandfather's letter as an out-of-character plea rather than a command, Van becomes concerned:

"If you can" scared me a little, coming from that immovable son of a bitch. 
Van requests leave and goes "home" to Seattle after ten years away, not having returned or spoken to his grandfather since enlisting in the Army at eighteen. Arriving in the early morning to find the door to the house wide open and Dono on the floor with a gunshot wound to the head, Van is determined to figure out who shot his grandfather and why, all before his leave is up in ten days. 

Complicating matters, and perhaps widening the suspect pool, is the fact that Dono Shaw is a thief with a considerable record and a bevy of old cohorts around town. Van is also at a disadvantage having been out of touch with Dono for so long, with no idea what he's been up to. Raised by Dono from a young age, Van was Dono's ward and his student, learning the crime trade and ultimately becoming an accomplice to the old man until their ultimate falling out. 

Dono Shaw was a thief. He'd been a career criminal since his teens. Robberies mostly, wild cowboy shit. After that approach had earned him the sorry record that Guerin had shared with me, Dono smartened up and changed his methods. And he had taught me. About stealing cars and forgery and security alarms. And money. How to find it, how to take it, how to hide it. At twelve I could use a thermite mini-lance well enough to beat the relocking safety on most commercial safes. By fifteen I probably knew more about police interrogation tricks than Kanellis did now. I had been hot shit. I doubted that Dono had changed in the ten years I'd been gone. Either my grandfather had made a score recently or he was planning one soon.  He didn't take vacations.

What Van does know is that Dono was careful to the point of paranoia, especially after a stint in prison left Van in foster care for over a year. It's almost unfathomable to Van that Dono has ended up in grave condition in the hospital, and he leaves Dono's bedside determined to find out what Dono was up to and what went wrong.  

Past Crimes is Glen Erik Hamilton's debut novel and I was quite impressed, there's a lot to like here. Van is a smart protagonist who is easy to root for, particularly since he takes chances during his investigation but isn't foolhardy. I wasn't left rolling my eyes at his decisions, which can easily be the result when a non-professional (or sometimes even a professional) takes up an investigation. 

Hamilton did take advantage of the talents Van learned from Dono, but not to the extent Van came off as a criminal mastermind. This element of Van's character was used sparingly and smartly, since Van has been out of the crime trade for almost two decades. I was truly impressed with how Hamilton drew Van's character and the restraint that made him all the more real and relatable. 

The plot was both interesting and realistic, with Van coming to conclusions and finding clues in ways that didn't strain credibility or take me out of the story. I also appreciated the hell out of Hamilton outright rejecting a trope that drives me crazy: stupid or inept law enforcement personnel. Early on, Van points out that the cops and crime scene folks know what they're doing, and his relationship with the investigating detectives feels genuine rather than a plot tool. 

My one minor disappointment with the novel may turn out to be a positive in a continuing series. Past Crimes is chock full of supporting characters who are pure gold just waiting to be mined. There's Addy Proctor, Dono's knitting and baking neighbor, his attorney, Ephraim Ganz, and his partners in previous crimes - smuggler Hollis Brent, tech genius Jimmy Corcoran, and sometime-driver, full-time muscle (but not dumb muscle, thank you) Willard. I anticipated a full-on caper involving Van teaming up with the old guard.

I didn't get exactly that, although each character has a role to play in Past Crimes. Hamilton did a great job of letting me know enough about the secondary characters that I'm anxious to meet them again and will definitely pick up the next in the series to see if their roles expand. I certainly hope they do, this gang has the makings of a great series with plenty of background material and talents to lend the plot.

STREET SENSE: I was impressed with this debut and many of the decisions made by the author. Van Shaw is a multi-faceted protagonist I'll be interested to revisit in the hopes that the supporting cast is even more involved in his life.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  I'd call you lucky, Dono. But that luck just kicked trouble down the road a little way.

COVER NERD SAYS:  I'm a sucker for the San Juan Islands and surrounding area, so this picture spoke to my innards in a strong way. The color also spoke to my blue mind, so I was attracted to the book right away. My only quibble is the title font sitting over the island image, which leaves a bright yellow color hanging on the lower portions of the "RIME" in "CRIMES." I found this a little distracting, as that overlap changes the color of the image and that yellow isn't to be found anywhere else. As I said, a very small quibble. Overall, this cover would definitely get me to pick up the book if I saw it on a shelf or bookstore display table.

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About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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