Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to walk out of prison twenty years early? Right? Even if the chance comes with a vague sort-of contract, an unwritten bargain? Even if the deal is struck with a notorious fellow prisoner, a crime lord named Darius Cole, a.k.a. “Mr. Cole.”
Nick Mason takes the deal. And walks out of prison. A “free” man. Um, well.
A black Escalade is idling near the sidewalk. Inside is a guy named Quintero, who is Cole’s eyes and ears on the outside. Mason gets taken to fancy digs in a part of Chicago that is a long way from the poor neighborhoods where he grew up. He gets to drink cold Goose Islands and savor a long shower. It may feel good, but Nick Mason has put himself smack back into another kind of incarceration. Yes, Nick Mason is “outside.” Yes, he encounters some luxuries and favors. But Nick has made a deal with a devil. And that guy, who is called “Mr. Cole” even by the prison guards, has some nasty business in mind for Nick Mason to carry out his end of the bargain.
The Second Life of Nick Mason is one delicious set-up. And the rest is just as tasty.
Hamilton steadily ramps up the pressure on Mason. We see him interact with his ex-wife and daughter. He’s got heart. He meets a woman and we root for things to go well. A cop snoops, unconvinced by Mason’s early exit from prison. Hamilton braids in the backstories effortlessly—the betrayal that led to Mason’s arrest and his old relationships with his ex and his old crew, too. While written for steady forward momentum, not poetry, Hamilton gives solid character development all around. The plot chugs hard and Hamilton nails the Chicago hardscape.
“Mason left Elmhurst and gunned the Mustang down North Avenue, driving like a man with no family to live for. He blew through every yellow light, made one turn and then another, with no idea where he was going. Finally, he stopped at a bar on a street he didn’t know. In a part of the West Side he’d never seen before. It was a building made of concrete with glass blocks rounding-off the corners. No sign. No name anonymous place for the local daily drinkers who all the knew the bartender and one another.”
Mason isn’t free. He does what he’s told, steps over a certain line. The cop, Detective Frank Sandoval, draws closer. Hamilton flips back and forth between Mason and Sandoval and soon we realize there are a variety of ways to have your options severely limited, whether as cop or pseudo, sort-of ex-con.
Mason wonders if that’s it, but knows better. He waits for the phone to ring. He’s always waiting for the phone to ring. The Chicago chase scenes are epic, the fights are gritty, the plot takes a nice big sweeping turn and Nick Mason discovers a way to manage his own path to redemption.
The Second Life of Nick Mason is a terrific companion to Michael Harvey’s Brighton, another great piece of situational crime fiction released earlier this year. Ironically, Harvey has written mostly about Chicago but moved to the Boston area for his new novel. I hope Harvey doesn’t mind Hamilton big-shouldering his way into the mean streets of Chicago. Seems like there is plenty of room—and crime—for both.