Unlocking a Crime Novel: The Lock Artist

“. . . in all the things I’ve done in the past years, there’s one particular thing I haven’t done. I haven’t spoken one single word out loud.”

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by Steve Hamilton


MacLeod Andrews


St. Martins Press/Minotaur Books


Crime Fiction, Mystery, Fiction


Lock Picking, Criminals, Teenagers, Safe Cracking, Indentured Servitude, Police, Trauma, Mute, Art, Drawing, Comics, Communication,


Winner of the 2011 Edgar Award for Best Novel


When he was eight, Michael suffered a traumatic event that left him mute and unable to communicate about the experience in any way. By the age of eighteen, Michael discovered two amazing talents: a natural talent for drawing and a honed skill for opening locks with home make lock picks.

“You’re one of us now . . . . You belong to us.”

This later skill helped his “friends” invade the home of a rival high school football quarterback which led to Michael getting caught by the police. Worse, Mr. Marsh — the quarterback’s father — was the wrong kind of man to know about Michael’s lock picking talents. And his daughter was the wrong kind of woman for Michael to be attracted too.

What started out as community service at Mr. Marsh’s home, became a torturous contest of wills as he tried to make Michael rat on his friends who escaped the police.

Then it turns into a life time of servitude as Mr. Marsh introduces Michael to a dangerous man in need of a gifted lock picker who will keep his mouth shut. And Michael will do it . . . because if he doesn’t Amelia Marsh might not live long enough to graduate from college.


For most of this book you’re hopping between three timelines — The present day, where Michael is reaching the end of his jail time, the series of events that led him to learn how to unlock a safe and his brief history as a professional safe cracker . . . before he wound up in jail. The chapter headings give you the location where the scene starts and the year so you have an idea where on the timeline you are.

June 17, 1990. Father’s Day. This is the day that happened then and is still happening. This is the day that lives outside of time.

Steve Hamilton assures us in the Acknowledgements that a real life safe cracker helped him get it “right enough to be convincing, but wrong enough to make sure this book isn’t a training manual.” Still, throughout the story, the lock picking and safe cracking details felt very right. Some of the most riveting scenes were the ones where Michael taught himself to open locks or during his training with the Ghost.

Mike and Amelia have a very interesting relationship — complicated by his complete silence. They learn to use art, specifically the comic book format, as a means of communication. The narrative describes the pictures, the artistic style and the words in the word balloons so that you almost see the illustrations yourself.


The Lock Artist, is a crime novel with a fully realized protagonist who you root for. An author’s writing skills get severely tested when the protagonist is a career criminal but you still need the readers to identify with him.

I don’t know of another story that starts with the life of the criminal protagonist as an innocent but Tom Piccirilli has a couple of crime novels where the criminal protagonist is sympathetic. Chase was raised by his career criminal grandfather who made him into one of the best wheel-men (get away drivers) in the business. He left that life and eventually married a cop. But when she is gunned down by another wheel-man during a robbery, Chase finds it all too easy to fall back into the crime life in pursuit of vengeance. Try The Cold Spot and The Coldest Mile.

A much grittier tale of a loss of innocence can be found in Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door. During the 1950’s two newly orphaned girls are sent to live with their aunt. Unfortunately, their aunt is slowly descending into madness and begins to torture the oldest while holding the lame young girl hostage. Then she invites the neighborhood children — including the protagonist — to join in. Finally, if you enjoy The Lock Artist, you might enjoy Jim Thompson’s The Grifters, about a con artist who has one last chance to drag himself out of the criminal life — if his mother doesn’t drag him back into it.

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