FOUR STARS (****) The Lock Artist is everything they say it is: a rich, funny, entertaining, character-based coming of age crime story filled with believable, interesting characters in a well-paced thriller.
To say that I’m behind in reading the seminal novels in this genre is an understatement. But there’s a good reason why, if you do any search on heist or caper novels, that Steve Hamilton’s 2010 novel “The Lock Artist” comes out at the top of every list of results. A standalone novel separate from his bestselling Edgar-award winning Alex McKnight series and his more recent Nick Mason novels, The Lock Artist (also an Edgar award-winner) is the kind of novel that makes this genre fun: a believable, character-based crime story told by a narrator with an original, distinct voice who is supported by a diverse cast of consistent, real and interesting characters, each of them given a complexity that is often missing in a number of the plot-based stories in this genre.
Our narrator is Michael, the Artist of the title, who is the miracle survivor of an unimaginable childhood trauma who grows up to become a master of intricate locks even though he can never unlock the trauma that has kept him silent all these years. His mastery of locks draws the attention of the wrong people, drawing him deep into a life of crime, where he’s forced into a desperate plan that will allow him to save the life of the only woman he’s ever loved.
The story jumps back and forth between years and cities, but the expert pacing serves the story well, never giving you too much of anything at one time. For example, there are several interesting sections where Michael enthusiastically narrates the moment-by-moment intricacies of the lock he’s mastering. The detail is compelling and Michael’s passion for his special talent is engaging, but too much of it in one spot becomes like reading a textbook. There’s never too much of it, and Hamilton does this with the other parts of the story as well. There’s never too much of the teen romance between Michael and Amelia. There’s never too much of the crime drama plotting. There’s never too much on the true-crime aspect of the trauma Michael faced as a young boy. There’s never too much of the lock-picking information. There’s enough to keep you coming back for more. Far from being stale or boring, I looked forward to these parts of the story when they came around again. As it should be.
Admittedly, I’ve never been a teen-romance reader, but I really enjoyed the authenticity of the relationship between Michael and Amelia. Their relationship wasn’t some hyper-idealized, John Hughes fantasy romance, but dating how it really is during those years. It’s awkwardness, insecurity, families that can’t stand you, and that fire inside to be with someone that makes you do crazy things like sneak into a girl’s house when her father wants to kill you.
It’s easy to see why The Lock Artist has received all the love it’s gotten over the years. It’s a very funny story in places, especially with the colorful supporting cast. The dialogue is never forced and is very credible in a story where the narrator doesn’t speak a word out loud the entire novel. I couldn’t get through it fast enough
On its release, the novel was justifiably acclaimed as a Young Adult (YA) novel, but be forewarned that this is a story about criminals, so there is a healthy supply of F-bombs spread throughout the story if you’re someone to whom F-bombs are a problem, although I suppose if that were the case, you’d likely be reading another genre.
I don’t know if plans for it exist already, but it would be interesting to see Hamilton revisit Michael down the line, seeing The Lock Artist grown into an adult, facing a world (and a life) that, like the locks on safes, has only gotten more complex.
I don’t think I’m stepping on any toes in agreeing with every other book reviewer over the past eight years that The Lock Artist is a terrific book. Sometimes, the hype is justified. This would be one of those times.