Before Blood is the Sky, the Alex McKnight series had already hit bestseller lists and won awards, but this novel took it to a whole new level. Set in the forests of northern Ontario, a land of savage beauty and sudden danger, Blood Is the Sky shows why Steve Hamilton is one of the most acclaimed crime novelists writing today.
Alex McKnight isn't a man with many friends, but the few he has know they're never alone in a fix. So when Vinnie LeBlanc asks for his help in taking a trip deep into Canada in search of his missing brother, he knows he can count on Alex. His brother had taken a job as a hunting guide for a rough crew of Detroit "businessmen." The group was due back days ago, yet there's been no sign of them, and there's mounting evidence of something odd about their disappearing act. The trackless forests of northern Ontario keep many secrets, but none more shocking than the one that Alex is about to uncover. And the more closely Alex looks for answers, the more questions there become.
About the Author
Steve Hamilton was born and raised in Detroit, and graduated from the University of Michigan where he won the prestigious Hopwood Award for fiction. In 2006, he won the Michigan Author Award for his outstanding body of work. His novels have won numerous awards and media acclaim beginning with the very first in the Alex McKnight series, A Cold Day in Paradise, which won the Private Eye Writers of America/St. Martin's Press Award for Best First Mystery by an Unpublished Writer. Once published, it went on to win the MWA Edgar and the PWA Shamus Awards for Best First Novel, and was short-listed for the Anthony and Barry Awards. His book The Lock Artist is the winner of the 2011 Edgar Award for Best Novel. Hamilton currently works for IBM in upstate New York where he lives with his wife Julia and their two children.
Read an Excerpt
Blood is the Sky
By Steve Hamilton
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2003 Steve Hamilton
All rights reserved.
I saw a lot of fires when I was a cop in Detroit. I was supposed to help secure the scene and then get the hell out of the way, but sometimes I'd stick around and watch the firefighters doing their work. I saw some real battles, but when they were done, the building would always be standing. That was the thing that got to me. The windows would be blown out, and maybe there'd be a big hole in the roof, but the building would still be there.
Years later, I watched a Lake Superior storm taking down a boathouse. When the storm let up, there was nothing left but a concrete slab covered with sand. It wasn't surprising. Anyone who lives up here knows that water is stronger than fire. Water wins that one going away. But at least water cleans up after itself. It does the job all the way. When water destroys, it makes everything look new. It can even be beautiful.
Fire doesn't do that. When a fire is done, what's left is only half destroyed. It is charred and brittle. It is obscene. There is nothing so ugly in all the world as what a fire leaves behind, covered in ashes and smoke and a smell you'll think about every day for the rest of your life.
That's why I had to start rebuilding the cabin. Maybe I was fooling myself, but it was something I had to do. Even though the days were getting shorter. Even though the pine trees were bending in the cold October wind. No man in his right mind would have started rebuilding then. So of course I did.
I had already taken away most of the old wood, those logs that would have lasted another three hundred years if they hadn't burned. I had hauled them away along with the pipes burned black and the bed frames twisted by the heat. There was nothing now but the stone foundation, stripped of the wooden floor, and the chimney, the last thing my father had made with his bare hands before he died. I knew that the snow would come, and it would cover the black stains on the ground, and the chimney would stand alone in the cold silence like a grave marker. I wasn't going to let that happen.
The rebuilding didn't start well. The man who said he'd be there on Monday with my white pine logs rolled up on Wednesday morning, acting like he had nothing to apologize for. He had one of those long flatbeds with a crane on it, with enough lifting power to set every last log down as gently as a teacup. But it took him all morning to clear the truck, and he damn near knocked over the chimney in the process. Then he stood around for a while, trying to tell me about his own cabin down in Traverse City. "The cabins I passed on the way in," he finally said. "You built those?"
"My father did."
"Looks like you had a big one here," he said. He hitched his pants up as he looked around the clearing. "What happened? Did it burn down?"
"Hell of a thing," he said. "You gotta be careful with those wood stoves."
"I can't argue with that."
"Looks like you learned the hard way."
I let a few seconds tick by. "It wasn't a wood stove," I finally said. "Somebody burned it down."
"You're shittin' me."
"This gentleman and I, we had a little disagreement."
It took a moment for that one to sink in. "Are you shittin' me, man? You gotta be shittin' me."
"You don't have to believe it."
"I suppose you're gonna rebuild this all by yourself, too."
"I'm gonna try."
"Seriously, where's all your help at?"
"If I need help, I'll get it."
"It's October," he said. "You're not thinking of starting this now, are you?"
"I'd have to be crazy, you mean."
"Is what I'm saying, yeah. Unless you're just shittin' me some more."
"Well, I appreciate your concern," I said. "And I appreciate you bringing up my logs. You were only two days late. Have a good trip back home."
He was still shaking his head as he drove away. I listened to the distant sound of his truck as he rumbled onto the main road and headed south. When he was gone, there was nothing left to hear but a steady wind coming off the lake.
"Well, Pops," I said to the wind, "let's see if I remember how to do this."
This was the cabin he had built in the summers of 1980 and 1981. I helped him for a few weeks in that second year. I was already out of baseball and working as a police officer in Detroit, and this was my last attempt to make peace with him. The days were hot. I remember that. And as I helped him peel and scribe the logs, it brought back yet another summer, back in 1968, the first time I had ever been up here in Paradise, Michigan. I was only seventeen then, with one more year of school ahead of me before heading off to single-A ball in Sarasota. He wanted me to go to college, but I had my own ideas. Thirteen years later, he finished this cabin, his biggest and best. His masterpiece. Six months after that he was dead.
The cabin may have burned to the ground, but at least we had those summers.
Twenty years later, on a cold October day, I started all over again. I cut the sill logs first, the logs that would run along the bottom of each wall, then secured them to the foundation with j bolts. I cut a groove along the outside edge with the chain saw, just as he had taught me. When it rained, the water would collect in the groove and drip away instead of running down the foundation. Then I cut the grooves for the floor joists. I put rough plywood down for the time being — I'd put the nice hardwood floorboards down when the outside was finished.
That was the first day.
When the light was gone, I went down to the Glasgow Inn for dinner. My friend Jackie owns the place. If you ever find yourself in Paradise, just go to the one blinking light in the center of town, then go north another hundred yards or so. It'll be there on the right. When you step into the place, you won't see a typical American bar — there are no mirrors to stare into while you drink, no smoky dark corners to nurse a bad mood in. The chairs are comfortable, there's a fire going in the hearth every night, regardless of the weather, and there's a man there named Jackie Connery who looks like an old Scottish golf caddie. If you ask him the right way, Jackie will even risk his liquor license and give you a cold Canadian beer.
I take that last part back. Those Canadian beers are just for me.
I felt like hell the next morning. My hands were sore, my arms were sore, my legs were sore, and my back was sore. Aside from that I was fine.
I had my coffee and looked up at the dark clouds. Rain was the last thing I needed, because today was the day I'd start building the walls.
I scribed each log the way my father had done. I did most of the heavy cutting with the chain saw, stopping every half hour to sharpen it. I used an ax to cut the notches, keeping both hands together as I swung it, like a baseball bat. That much he didn't have to teach me. You can't be accurate with your hands apart.
Of course, cutting the scarf just right is the hard part. Or as the old man liked to say, this is where you separated the men from the boys. The idea is to cut it so perfectly that one log will rest on top of the other with no daylight in between. If you do it right, you don't need any chinking. If you don't do it right, then God help you. You've got no business building a cabin in the first place.
The first log I tried cutting that morning, I didn't get right. The second log was worse. The third log you could have put in a carnival and charged people five dollars a head to come laugh at it.
The wind picked up. It looked like rain was coming. I kept working. I was halfway through the fourth log when the hornets attacked me.
The nest was hanging from one of the birch trees. They had already been smoked out the night of the fire, the nest partially caved in by the spray of the fire hoses. They were trying to rebuild, just like I was, but they had run out of time. Now half-crazed by the cold weather, most of them near the end of their natural lives, they saw me moving around below them, rattling around with my chain saw. They decided to go down fighting.
I slapped two off the back of my neck, another off my arm. "Crazy fucking things! Get away from me!" The next one caught me right on the cheek and that was it for me. The day was already going bad enough.
I had my extension ladder there, figuring I'd need it eventually, so I braced it up against the birch tree and climbed up with my ax. I was just about to swing at the branch. I was going to take the whole thing down with one good whack, and then I was going to soak the nest with gasoline and set it on fire. Knowing me, I would have emptied the can, a full two gallons of gasoline, and then I would have thrown a lit match right in the middle of it. All the leaves on the ground would have gone up at once and I'd be running around with my pants on fire and both eyebrows singed right off my face.
I stopped myself just in time.
I took a deep breath and climbed back down the ladder. I dropped the ax.
It wasn't worth it. Watching the nest burn, sending the rest of those hornets to hell. They'd all be dead in another week, anyway.
It was a lesson I had taken most of my life to learn. Sometimes you have to let things go.
The rain came. The dark clouds stayed in the sky. I went back to work.
I had come back up here in 1987. My marriage was over and I was off the police force, with a dead partner in the ground and a bullet in my chest. I came up here intending to sell off the land and the six cabins my father had built, but I didn't do it. Somehow the Upper Peninsula was just what I needed. It was cold and unforgiving, even in the heart of summer. There was a terrible beauty to the place, and I could be alone up here in a part of the world where being alone was the rule and not the exception. I moved into the first cabin, the cabin I had helped him build myself, back when I was seventeen years old. I stayed up here and lived day to day and never thought I'd have to face my past again.
That didn't work. It never does.
Hours after I called it a day, I could still feel the buzz of the chain saw in my hands. There was a deep ache in my shoulder, right where they had taken the other two bullets out.
"What was it this time?" Jackie said. He slid a cold Canadian my way.
He was talking about my face, of course. There was a nice little swollen knot under my eye. Whenever something goes wrong, I end up wearing it on my face.
"Hornets," I said.
"How's the cabin going?"
"It's a little slow."
He nodded his head. He didn't say a word about how late it was in the season or how much of a fool I was. Jackie understood why I needed to do this.
"You know who could help you," he said.
I knew. I took a long pull off the bottle and then set it back down on the bar. "I've got to get some sleep," I said. Then I left.
I was just as sore the next morning, but somehow everything felt different. It was all coming back to me, the way you let the chain saw and the ax do the work, the way you work with the grain of the log instead of fighting against it. The logs started fitting together the way they were supposed to. I had the walls two logs high by lunchtime. Of course, that meant it was getting harder and harder to wrestle the logs into position. I'd have to start using the ramps soon, and eventually I'd have to set up some kind of skyline. That would slow me down.
Hell, maybe Jackie was right. There was one man who could really help me.
But I'd be damned if I was going to go ask him.
My father had bought all the land on both sides of this old logging road, nearly a hundred acres in all. He built the six cabins and lived in each one of them off and on over the years, renting out the others to tourists in the summer, hunters in the fall, and snowmobilers in the winter. When I came up here and moved into the first cabin, I kept renting out the rest of them. It was a good way to stay busy without having to go anywhere.
A few years after I moved in, somebody bought the couple of acres between my father's land and the main road. I was a little worried about what the new owner might do to that land. I had visions of a triple-decker summer home, with every tree knocked down so they could maybe get a view of the lake. But it didn't happen that way. It was one man, and I watched him build his own cabin by hand. If my father had been around to see it, he would have approved of this man's work.
I got to know him eventually. You don't live on the same road up here with one other person without running into each other. I'd plow the road for him. He'd give me some of the venison from his hunts. He didn't drink, so we never did that together, but we did share an adventure or two. I even played in goal one night for his hockey team. The fact that he was an Ojibwa Indian never got in the way of our friendship.
Until one day he had to make a choice.
I didn't hear his truck pull up. With the chain saw roaring away, I wouldn't have heard a tank battalion. I happened to glance at the road and saw his truck parked there. Vinnie Red Sky LeBlanc was standing next to it, watching me. He was wearing his denim jacket with the fur around the collar. I had no idea how long he'd been there.
I shut the chain saw down and wiped my forehead with my sleeve.
"You're gonna go deaf," he said. "Where's your ear protection?"
"I left them around here someplace. Just can't find them."
He shook his head at that, then walked right past me to the stacks of logs. Like many Bay Mills Ojibwa, you had to look twice to see the Indian in him. There was a little extra width to his high cheekbones, and a certain calmness in his eyes when he looked at you. You always got the feeling he was thinking carefully about what to say before he said it.
"White pine," he said.
"Where'd it come from?"
"Place down near Traverse City."
"I thought I saw a truck going by," he said. "That was what, Wednesday?"
"He was supposed to be here Monday."
"Couple of these logs I wouldn't use on a doghouse," he said. "Like this one right here."
"I know. I was gonna put that one aside."
He slipped his hands under the log and lifted it. He was maybe three inches shorter than me, and thirty pounds lighter, but I wouldn't have wanted to fight the man, on the ice or off. He carried the log a few steps and tossed it in the brush.
"That'll be your waste pile," he said. "I see another one right down here."
"You don't have to do that, Vinnie. I know which ones are bad."
He went over to the cabin, knelt down, and ran his hand along one of the logs. "You know which ones are bad," he said, "and yet this one right here seems to be part of your wall already."
"When did you become the county inspector?" I said. "I didn't see it in the newspaper."
He let that one go. "Can I ask why you're doing this by yourself?"
"My father did it by himself."
"Did he start building in October?"
"I know I'm not going to finish it," I said. "I just had to start. I couldn't wait until spring."
He smiled at me as he stood up. "Patience was never your strong suit."
"Vinnie, you always loved this cabin. You told me once you'd buy it off me for a million dollars. You remember?"
"I do," he said. "This was the best cabin I've ever seen."
"Put yourself in my place," I said. "If somebody burned this down, what would you do?"
"First of all, I'd kill whoever did it." He thought about it for a moment. "Did you kill him?"
"No," I said.
"But he's dead."
"Okay, then. The next thing I'd do is rebuild the thing, as close as I could to the original."
"But I wouldn't do it alone," he said. "Not with a friend down the road who knows twice as much about building cabins as I do."
"Excuse me, twice as much? Since when?"
"Make that three times as much. I was trying to be kind."
"Yeah, well, if you'll excuse me, I've got work to do."
"You'll never even get to the roof," he said. "You want the snow to pile up in here all winter?"
"What are you saying? You really want to help me?"
"Your father's spirit sent me," he said. "He knows what this thing would look like if you did it yourself."
"Ah, Indian humor," I said. "I've really been missing that."
"Let me go get my stuff," he said. "I'll see if I have an extra pair of earmuffs, too."
"Yeah, get me those earmuffs," I said. "I have a feeling I'll be needing them now."
That's how I got my help. That's how we started being friends again.
We worked until the sun went down. I offered to buy him dinner at the Glasgow, but he took a pass. He said he was going over to the reservation to see his mother. The next morning, he was on the site before I was. He was spot-peeling logs with his drawknife.
"Let me ask you something," I said when I pulled up. "Aren't you supposed to be out in the woods this month?" Vinnie's regular job was dealing blackjack over at the Bay Mills Casino, but every fall he'd make extra money working as a guide for hunters.
"I'd rather be doing this," he said.
"And your day job?" I said. "You're still dealing, right?"
"I asked for some time off."
"Vinnie, you don't have to do this."
"I needed a break anyway, Alex. Okay? Don't worry about it. Just help me peel these things."
"Those are already peeled, Vinnie."
"By what, a machine? Here, let me show you the right way to do it."
Excerpted from Blood is the Sky by Steve Hamilton. Copyright © 2003 Steve Hamilton. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I have been waiting for the next John Sandford novel, picked up some novels at the library and found this one which was a pleasant surprise - a good read and well written!
Blood Is The Sky - Steve Hamilton This was my first Alex McKnight novel and it blew me away. Alex McKnight, former Detroit police detective, beings to rebuild his previously destroyed (the last book maybe) log cabin in Paradise, Michigan, when a friend appears with bad news. Vinnie has lost his brother and needs Alex's help to find him. The two set off on a trail which takes them into the mountains and lakes of deepest Canada. Switched identities, fearsome bears, moose with bad road sense and a deep, dark conspiracy test Alex and Vinnie's resilience and relationship to the limit. At once sad and funny, Hamilton has a great way of describing his surroundings, in what is obviously a well researched or well loved locality. You can feel the cold clammy weather under your shirt and you can imagine the miles and miles of unbroken forestland ahead of you. The camaraderie between Alex and Vinnie is excellent and all the other characters are carefully drawn. In summary; great characters and an excellent plot, with a few twists to keep you on your feet, make this a sure fire award winner in the thriller genre. Highly recommended. Andrew Poole email@example.com
Though it is October and winter is establishing its frozen grip on Michigan¿s Upper Peninsula, Alex McKnight begins rebuilding his devastated cabin. The ex everything (minor-league catcher, cop, and private investigator, et al) feels he must complete this job now as his humble abode, wrecked by a nut case, once belonged to his dad. His stoic best friend Vinnie ¿Red Sky¿ LeBlanc reluctantly helps though he thinks Alex should add asylum time to his resume. Works stops when Vinnie learns that his brother Tom, a professional guide currently escorting a group in the Canadian woods, is lost. This seems out of character for a skilled expert like Tom, which worries Vinnie as much as his concern that his sibling¿s parole officer might learn about the parole violation of crossing the border. Vinnie heads north while Alex follows his friend. Neither realizes that the biting cold is not the nightmare on this journey. Edgar and Shamus Award winner, Steve Hamilton has written his best mystery to date, which seems impossible, as the McKnight series is one of the best of the last few years. The story line twists and turns keeping the reader guessing as to what the heroes will find behind the next corner yet keeps a fast albeit cold pace without losing the prime plot. In spite of the frozen tundra, Alex seems warmer yet not mellower than he has previously appeared and the support cast provides the depth to a grand slam tale. Harriet Klausner
It is October in Paradise, Michigan, and Alex McKnight is rebuilding one of his cabins with help from his neighbour Vinnie LeBlanc. They're interrupted when Vinnie is called away to deal with a family emergency: his brother, Tom, has not returned from a hunting trip to Canada. He is already four days overdue.
Alex McKnight is rebuilding the cabin his father built, destroyed by fire, when his neighbor Vinnie, an Ojibwa Indian, lends a hand. As the fall season wanes and winter threatens to halt construction Alex becomes aware of the disappearance of Vinnie's younger brother Tom. Together they set out in search of Tom, and the Detroit businessmen he was guiding for, in northern Ontario's forests only to discover they're following a cold trail. If things weren't already complicated, Vinnie explains that Tom is using Vinnie's identity as parolees aren't allowed to leave the country. The party of five have already departed the lodge, according to the owners but things are already not adding up. Vinnie argues there should have been six men in total, the five businessmen and his brother the guide. Hank Gannon, part lodge owner and pilot, assures them they have their own guide and there were only the five businessmen, who insisted they needed no guide and left the cabin in shambles before departing a few days earlier.Traveling back home, Vinnie becomes involved in a bar fight and Alex, ever one to stand with a friend, gets his own licks in. Morning rousts the two from their hotel room with a call from the local constabulary in the form of Natalie Reynaud and her soon to retire partner, Claude DeMers. Alex and Vinnie are asked to explain their voice mail on the cell of one of the declared missing persons, followed by a lengthy explanation as to the case of mistaken identity between Vinnie and his brother Tom.Things get even more tangled from this point onward as Alex is convinced there is a lot more going on and even more secrets that aren't being disclosed. He ignores the advice of DeMers and rather than heading home, continues on with his own investigation. When he and Vinnie discover the abandoned suburban used by the hunting party, they are once more encouraged to go home and forget about the case, letting the police handle the investigation.Once again the two men ignore the advice and soon find themselves in a nightmarish situation and a fight for their lives, not only against an unknown enemy but mother nature as well. Pieces start falling together, the fate of the hunters is discovered, and still there is something missing.Steve Hamilton's fifth book in the Alex McKnight series will leave you guessing until the last chapters. Filled with friendships, loss, and personal growth, I found myself thoroughly involved in the story and the characters lives, while still surprised at the ending. Alex understands that healing is an ongoing process and by reaching out to others it allows us to heal ourselves a little. If your a fan of mystery, this is a series not to be missed.
Alex McKnight of this series is a hard-luck guy! His promising baseball career is brought to an end by an injury. He joins the Detroit police but this part of his life ends tragically when he gets shot up and his partner is killed. Wouldn't you know it, his wife leaves him! He ends up in the wilds of Michigan where his father has left him some land with a few cabins which he rents out during hunting and snowmobiling seasons. Hamiliton's subtle humor and magnificent descriptions of the land and people held my interest and made the story worth reading.
An 'escape' read and an impulse selection, this crime mystery brings a former cop and his Ojibwa neighbor together in trailing a missing brother into Canada moose hunting country. Okay read but series will probably not join Jance and Barr in my "have to read sector." (lj)
I am a fan of this series. Hamilton is a good story teller. His descriptions of the UP are accurate and his chatacters are interesting and believable.
Excellent read highly recommended the cream of the top
What are friends for? Well, Alex McKnight demonstrates just that in this novel which takes him and his erstwhile friend, Vinnie Le Blanc, on a stormy adventure way up in the wilds of northern Canada. It starts when Vinnie, with whom Alex has been at odds since an event in the previous novel in the series, asks Alex to help him find his brother, who is days overdue returning home after accompanying a hunting party as their scout at a Canadian lodge. To complicate matters, Vinnie’s brother Tom is on parole and is forbidden to leave the country. So he and Vinnie trade identities. Alex and his friend drive for hours until they reach the lodge, and there is no sign of Tom or the hunting party. But something seems “off,” and they begin to scout the area where the group was housed at a lake further north. And thereby hangs a gruesome tale. The author, known for his vivid descriptions of the Upper Michigan peninsula, shows an equal facility for the vast untamed wilderness of northern Canada. He has written a taut tale filled with danger and violence. And at the end, lays the seeds of Alex’s further adventures yet to come. Recommended.
Great Book. I began the series at the beginning and each book gets better and better.
This has been the best in the series so far. Great read!
I love this McKnight series. Lots of fast-paced action and great locales. I can't read them fast enough. I am waiting for the next one.
Outstanding. If you follow Alex you know he will do anything for his friend Vinnie. The story captures your interest from the first nail hammered in rebuilding the burned cabin.