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Book Review: Night Work 

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Night Work
Steve Hamilton
St. Martin’s Press, september 2007, $23.95

It’s about time somebody wrote a book with a juvenile probation officer as the hero. The good ones are truly heroic, and Hamilton’s Joe Trumbull is definitely one of the good ones. He’s buried himself in the job ever since his fiancée was brutally murdered.

We meet Trumbull as he’s embarking on his first date since that tragedy, nervous as a feral cat and hopeful as a child. We sit with him and his date as they stumble awkwardly through the minefield of his past, ending up in a tryst at her apartment. We experience his huge emotional wrench—and the even bigger one as she, too, is brutally murdered.

This is, to the best of my knowledge, the first murder mystery ever set in Kingston, NY. For local readers, this familiar landscape will add huge dollops of pleasure. Hamilton’s Kingston is the same historic, messy, downtrodden, half-corrupt and half-miraculous city we know, love, and loathe, and from the Stockade to the Rondout, he knows the terrain and the cast of characters.

To have the first woman one dates after one’s fiancée’s murder also be murdered might be just an exceptionally cruel twist of fate, and that’s how the local police (one of whom is Trumbull’s best friend) read it at first. But when a third woman with whom he’s had contact—this one simply an acquaintance, a domestic violence victim he’s trying to save—ends up dead too, Trumbull and everyone around him realize there must be a connection. Probation officers, by definition, aggravate a lot of people—which of them might have become unhinged? The search sends Trumbull from one end of Ulster County to the other, from slum to McMansion, offering a brilliantly rendered peek at the long-term outcomes of the juvenile justice system.

Meanwhile, a couple of overzealous Bureau of Criminal Investigation guys from Albany have begun to focus their suspicions exclusively on Trumbull himself. This, of course, heightens the surreal aspect of the entire experience, and hampers him in his search for the actual killer—who, it becomes obvious, is deliberately implicating Trumbull.

Ulster County Noir is serious fun for any lover of the genre, and Hamilton pulls it off with enormous panache. The author of seven suspense novels set on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, he’s put us on a very special map. But Night Work’s gathering confusion and tension, its inexplicable events, would be riveting even if they were set in East Oshkosh. Trumbull is a lovable and flawed hero, a man who believes deeply in his chosen profession and sees the system he serves—and its clients—with a clear, ironic eye:

“The kids were in school where they belonged. I knew that for some of them, it would be a brief refuge from everything that was waiting for them when they got home....My knuckleheads. I walk these hallways, looking after them. I chase them down the streets. I go to their houses in the morning and drag them out of their beds. When I have no other choice, I allow them to be locked in a cell for a while, hoping that this might be the one last thing that will save them.”

Please, Mr. Hamilton. Make this a series.

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