For almost two decades, Steve Hamilton turned out successful novels for St. Martin’s Press. He wrote a dozen novels, 11 featuring protagonist Alex McKnight. He built a loyal following while winning two Edgar Awards—awards that honor the best in mystery fiction. In 2015, however, Hamilton became disenchanted with St. Martin’s publicity campaign (“there wasn’t one,” he says) for his latest book, which featured a new protagonist, Nick Mason. Eight weeks before the book’s release, Hamilton’s agent, Steve Salerno, bought out the contract and shopped the book to other publishers, reaching a deal with Putnam. Armed with extensive marketing and strong reviews, the book sold well, prompting Lionsgate to purchase the film rights and paving the way for Exit Strategy, the second installment in the Nick Mason series.
This article was published i the Houston Chronicle on Sunday, May 21.
Q: Exit Strategy is your second Nick Mason novel, and it was a series that was born amidst much conflict with your publisher.
A: I just wasn’t getting the support from St. Martin’s Press. When I had the chance to get out of my contract, I did, and we had offers from a dozen other publishers within 24 hours. We went with Putnam that day. They are a really solid house, they do things the right way, they were interested in Nick Mason, and they wanted to bring over my Alex McKnight books, too. It’s been a night-and-day difference.
Q: The dustup with your publisher brought a lot of publicity, and the Nick Mason book got a lot of good reviews—and a lot of support from authors. How did the Nick Mason book do relative to the Alex McKnight novels?
A: The Second Life of Nick Mason sold about eight times as many copies as the last Alex McKnight novel.
Q: Tell us about the plot of the second Nick Mason book, Exit Strategy.
A: In the first book, Nick Mason is given the opportunity to get out of a lengthy prison sentence, but there is a price. He owes his freedom to Darius Cole, a notorious convict, and Cole uses Mason to carry out operations in the free world. In Exit Strategy, Mason is looking for a way out. His assignments are more brutal and dangerous, and it is becoming harder for him to keep his humanity. So he’s looking for a way out, as are many of the characters in the novel. Every major character is looking for a way out of their own prison, and there are some big surprises.
Q: What’s the difference between writing about the Upper Peninsula, where you had success writing about Alex McKnight, and writing about Chicago, the setting for the Mason novels?
A: Chicago is a different world, and I wanted it to be a real character, just as the Upper Peninsula is in the McKnight novels. Chicago is a place of its own, unlike any other city. It’s beautiful, and there are all these neighborhoods which are distinct from one another. They are different worlds, and they are balanced across the city. It felt like the right place for Nick to come back to after getting out of prison. But instead of returning to Canaryville (a tough Irish community in Chicago), he is placed in a Lincoln Park townhouse. Same city, different world.
Q: Your Alex McKnight novels are more contemplative. Mason is more of an action-packed type character. Do the settings of the books reflect the differences in the novels’ action and characters?
A: That’s a great analogy, because if you’re from Paradise, Michigan, the summer lasts for a couple of weeks, and you have to drive a long way just to find a traffic light. That’s a lot different than Chicago, which is much more of a dynamic city.
Q: Is there a Nick Mason film in the works?
A: Yes. Lionsgate is doing it, and Nina Jacobson from the Hunger Games is one of the producers. Shane Salerno, my agent, is also a producer.
Q: How many Nick Mason books should we expect?
A: I have at least seven books planned for the series. They are laid out in my head right now, which is unusual for me. There are so many things this guy can do. The fact that he has to answer the phone, do what he’s told, and go where he’s told opens a lot of possibilities. He could go all over the world, and that’s what he’s going to do.
Q: What are you going to do with Alex McKnight?
A: He’s definitely coming back. I have the next book written with him. And at some point I want to have these two guys in the same book.
Q: Michael Connelly has done that with Mickey Haller and Harry Bosch.
A: That’s right, and with the right book—such as Connelly’s The Crossing—you can make something special happen.
Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?
A: Don Winslow is great. Lee Child, Michael Connelly, and Harlan Coben. All these guys write in this genre, and they do great books that I love reading, because I’m a reader first, just like we all are. It’s just a blast to be a part of it, to write crime novels, like I have wanted since I was a little kid.
Q: And you are about to head out on a book tour, which will bring you to Houston. Do you enjoy the day-to-day grind of the book tour?
A: Yes! I’m going to 12-15 or so cities, and one of them is Houston. Murder by the Book is such a great store, and I’ve literally visited it to do a signing for every one of my books. It’s just that good of a book store. It’s one of the best independent book stores in the country.
Mike Yawn is the Director for the Center for Law, Engagement, And Politics at Sam Houston State University.