The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

November 8, 2010

Phyllis Sessengood, book review: Poker game gone bad fuels colorful mystery

By Phyllis Sessengood
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — 'North of Nowhere’

By Steve Hamilton

(compact disc audiobook)

Alex McKnight is a former minor league baseball player, a retired Detroit cop with a bullet lodged close to his heart and an on-again, off-again private investigator in Paradise, Mich., a small town in the Upper Peninsula. He takes care of several cabins built by his father, renting them out to tourists.

When the novel begins, Alex has given up being a private investigator. He has become almost a hermit and seldom leaves his cabin except to occasionally visit the Glasgow Inn, a tavern owned by his best friend, Jackie Connery.

As his 49th birthday approaches, he broods about his failures as a ballplayer, cop, husband and private detective. Alex is in a real funk.

Worried that his friend is spending too much time by himself, Jackie persuades a reluctant Alex to join him and a few other friends at a poker game at the home of wealthy developer Winston Vargus. Almost as soon as the game begins, Vargus announces that one of the poker regulars who is absent that night is having an affair with his wife and that he has hired a private detective to tail the couple.

The situation turns uglier when three armed and hooded men enter the  home, order the players to the floor and force Vargus to open his safe. They take only the money from the safe Ñ nothing from the rest of the house, and nothing from the other players. Then they proceed to trash Vargus’ prized Indian and marine artifacts.

Vargus is convinced the robbery was an inside job when the next day he labels McKnight as the primary suspect, since Alex was the only stranger present at the game. Alex takes it upon himself to prove his innocence, as well of that of his friends when he discovers that some of them are being framed for the heist as well, with Jackie the first to be arrested.

He calls upon old friend and former P.I. partner, nerdy Leon Prudell, the only private investigator in Paradise. After being fired by Vargus who was his only account, Prudell is quite happy to help his friend Alex investigate what at first seems a simple robbery but soon turns into a mix of kidnapping, secrets, murder, lies and revenge.

Wit and humor frequently characterize the dialogue between Alex, Jackie and Prudell. Hamilton’s vivid descriptions of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula become central to the story and illustrate the author’s love of the natural beauty and his respect for the often harsh environment. The author’s entertaining and suspenseful storyline offers shocking twists and turns.

“North of Nowhere” is the fourth entry in the Alex McKnight mystery series, with seven novels in the series at this time. I happily discovered that this was part of a series when looking for other novels by this author. Released in audiodisc format this year, the mystery was originally published in print and audiocassette formats in 2002.

Dan John Miller reads with an intensity that portrays Alex’s determination to tackle whatever task confronts him; however, he can slow his pace to allow the listener to enjoy the humor woven throughout much of the story. His even delivery and effective characterizations provide the listener with the feeling that Alex is really telling his own story.

Phyllis Seesengood is the technical services librarian at the Joplin Public Library.