Book: Winter of the Wolf Moon

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Winter of the Wolf Moon: An Alex McKnight Mystery

Author: Steve Hamilton
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books

Ex-cop and sometime-P.I. Alex McKnight endures the bitter winter of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in his log cabin with warm fires and cold Molsons. When Dorothy Parrish, a young Ojibwa woman asks him for shelter from her violent boyfriend, McKnight agrees. But after secreting her in one of his cabins, he finds her gone the next morning. McKnight suspects vicious, hockey-playing Lonnie Bruckman of abducting the woman, but his search for her brings on more suspects, bruising encounters, and a thinkening web of crime, all obscured by the relentless whiplash of brutal snowstorms. From the secret world of the Ojibwa reservation to the Canadian border and deep into the silent woods, someone is out to kill—and McKnight is driving right into the line of fire…


Snow doesn’t just fall on cedars on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula: it coats everything, mobile and inanimate, in a treacherously quick, dangerously thick blanket of white. As Alex McKnight observes, gazing out the window of his cabin in Paradise, “It looked like about six inches of new snow. Around here, that qualifies as scattered flurries.” Given this climate, the urge to hibernate is perfectly understandable—batten down the hatches, throw another log on the fire, and wait until the spring thaw. For Alex, the denning impulse is as much psychological as it is physical. Haunted by memories of his deadly failures as a cop, a private investigator, and a lover, Alex wants nothing more than to plow his driveway, be cordial to the snowmobilers who rent his cabins, and lower his core emotional temperature to the forgetting point. Unfortunately, he’s got friends who get in the way of his seasonal plans.

When Vinnie LeBlanc, an Ojibwa Indian, convinces Alex to fill in as goalie for his hockey team, slap shots and hard checks are soon the least of his worries. Instead, he becomes embroiled in a tangle of conflicting allegiances; one of his opponents, Lonnie Bruckman, a bigot and a psychotic, is terrorizing the Ojibwa reservation in ways both personal and professional: he abuses his girlfriend, Dorothy Parrish, and sells “wild cat,” a methamphetamine derivative, to members of the reservation. Dorothy—desperate to escape her Ojibwa heritage but reluctantly acknowledging its force—turns up on Alex’s front door with a mysterious canvas bag and a plea for shelter: “’The wolf moon means it’s time to protect the people around you because there are wolves outside your door.’” But the next day, she’s gone.

As Alex, devastated by his inability to protect Dorothy, tries to find her, he must confront Bruckman—for whom a snowmobile is less a recreational vehicle than an instrument of torture; a mysterious Russian named Molinov; the combined forces of the local police and the DEA; and, it seems, even those he has always considered friends. Luckily for Alex, Leon Prudell, “a two-hundred-forty-pound whirlwind of flannel and snowboots,” who really, really wants to be a private investigator, is right there to lend a hand. Leon adds a welcome note of comic relief to the novel (as does, to be sure, Alex’s own dryly sardonic wit), but the book’s tone is largely elegiac: “It was the middle of the day, but with the sun hidden behind the clouds and the weight of snow in the air, there was an oddly muted light, dim yet persistent, as each snowflake seemed to glow with its own energy. I stopped for a moment…hypnotized by the sight of it and by the sound of my own breathing.” Surviving winter takes many kinds of courage, and the reader will be enthralled by Alex’s efforts to disprove Molinov’s ominous warning, “’Once you freeze all the way through to your soul, you will never feel warm again. You’ll see.’”

Steve Hamilton won the 1999 Edgar Award for his first Alex McKnight mystery, A Cold Day in Paradise, and Winter of the Wolf Moon will reassure readers that neither beginner’s luck nor sophomore jinx troubles this author. —Kelly Flynn

Barnes and Noble

Winter of the Wolf Moon is Steve Hamilton’s satisfying follow-up to last year’s triumph, A Cold Day In Paradise, his highly praised, Edgar Award-winning debut. Return to Michigan’s arctic Upper Peninsula as reluctant private investigator Alex McKnight desperately searches for a missing Native American woman, a suitcase loaded with something that’s valuable to someone, and a hockey-playing goon who may (or may not) hold the key to the bloody trail that seems to be inching closer and closer to McKnight and his “partner” Purdell. This is gripping, clever, beautifully rendered entertainment. McKnight is, in this editor’s opinion, one of the coolest American P. I.’s (probably because he doesn’t want to be one at all) since Parker’s Spenser started cracking clues back in the early ‘70s. Simply a joy to read. —Andrew LeCount

More From Our Editors

Not long after winning the 1999 Edgar Award for his debut novel, A Cold Day in Paradise, Steve Hamilton returns with an assured, compelling second novel that lends some credence to the publisher’s claim that Hamilton will become “the next big thing in Mystery.” The new book, evocatively entitled Winter of the Wolf Moon, is set once again in Paradise, a small town in the arctic Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and marks the return of that world-weary, middle-aged, reluctant private investigator, Alex McKnight.

As Winter of the Wolf Moon opens, Alex, a former minor league baseball player, has foolishly agreed to fill in as goalie for the Red Sky Rangers, a 30-and-over “slow puck” hockey team captained by his close friend Vinnie LeBlanc and composed, largely, of Native American residents of the local Ojibwa reservation. Alex anticipates, quite correctly, that an hour of ice hockey will lead to a morning of bruises, aches, and overextended muscles. Unfortunately, it also leads to his direct involvement in a complex series of crimes concerning a missing Ojibwa woman, a drug-addled hockey player, a pair of overzealous DEA operatives, a Russian crimelord, and a missing suitcase filled with stolen drugs. Some days, nothing goes as planned.

It all begins with Alex’s on-the-ice encounter with Lonnie Bruckman, whose normally combative style of play is exacerbated by the drugs he has obviously ingested. Later, following a postgame confrontation that quickly turns violent, Alex has a very different sort of encounter with Bruckman’s girlfriend, Dorothy Parrish, a young Ojibwa woman who has recently returned to Paradise, her childhood home town. Desperate and obviously frightened, she turns to Alex for sanctuary, for protection from unspecified hazards. Alex, who naturally believes that Lonnie Bruckman is at the root of her troubles, agrees to help and allows her to hide out in an isolated cabin that his father built when Alex was a boy. From this point on, everything that can go wrong does.

The next morning, Dorothy goes missing. The cabin that she slept in has been virtually destroyed. Also missing is a white canvas bag that—as Alex eventually learns—contains a large quantity of a particularly nasty street drug called “wildcat.” The bag has been stolen from an émigré Russian hoodlum named Molinov, and he wants it back. The search for Dorothy, and for the stolen cache of wildcat, dominates the remainder of the novel. As Alex follows Dorothy’s trail—and is followed in turn by a number of interested parties on both sides of the law—Winter of the Wolf Moon grows darker and more violent. By the time the mystery of Dorothy’s disappearance is finally resolved, Alex has been subjected to an extended series of physical and emotional traumas that will leave him subtly, but permanently, altered.

Winter of the Wolf Moon works quite well as a traditional thriller, but its real strengths lie in Hamilton’s highly developed sense of place and in his ability to populate his fictional locale with a credible gallery of characters. Hamilton evokes the harsh, isolated environment of the Upper Peninsula with care and narrative economy. The insular world of Paradise, Michigan—with its bars and casinos, its snowmobiling tourists, its occasionally uneasy mixture of white and Ojibwa cultures—comes to vivid and immediate life. Hamilton does a particularly good job of evoking the omnipresent power of the natural world. Weather, in particular, is a palpable element throughout this novel, a potent force that dominates the story’s background, influencing the lives of the characters and their community at

every turn.

But the real heart of Winter of the Wolf Moon is its stubborn, solitary narrator/hero, the appropriately named Alex McKnight. The McKnight of this novel is 48 years old, an over-the-hill ballplayer and former policeman who has become increasingly disconnected from the human mainstream. His obsessive search for the missing Dorothy Parrish becomes, in effect, a knightly quest, and provides Alex with a sense of purpose that has been missing from his life for too many years. At bottom, Winter of the Wolf Moon is a novel of redemption and spiritual rebirth masquerading as a novel of mystery and suspense. It is engaging, readable, and, in the end, surprisingly affecting, and it reinforces the notion that Steve Hamilton is—or could become—a significant new figure in American popular fiction. —Bill Sheehan

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