Every Day Above Ground – Glen Erik Hamilton
‘Every Day Above Ground’ is the third thriller by US author Glen Erik Hamilton featuring Van Shaw as the central character. On the cusp of thirty and already hardened by a tough life, Van Shaw is an unconventional but fascinating hero: an orphan, as a young boy he found safety with his grandfather Dono, who made his living as a thief. Van learned the tricks of Dono’s trade early on, then joined the Army and saw active service as a Ranger in Afghanistan, before returning to his native Seattle, battle-scarred and fighting PTSD.
But Van doesn’t cry on anyone’s shoulder and gets on with his life, coping as best he can, even if it means putting the craft he learned from Dono, and his finely honed fighting skills, to useful service in getting himself out of trouble – as he does in Hamilton’s previous two novels. Never with a criminal intent though: Van is at heart an honourable man with a strong sense of family duty he learned from his Irish grandfather and, out of pride or sheer stubbornness, he will always own up to what he owes to others.
Such is Van Shaw, a complex, appealing fictional creation who, at the start of ‘Every Day Above Ground’, isn’t exactly in the best of places. The house he shared with Dono, before his grandfather was killed at the start of the series’ first novel, has been gutted by arson, he is short of money and his girlfriend has left him. He is juggling menial part-time jobs while he works at rebuilding his house, so it’s no wonder that Van is roped in by an old ‘colleague’ of Dono’s, Mickey O’Hasson, who convinces Van to use his safe-cracking skills to recover a treasure in gold bullion lying ‘forgotten’ in a Seattle building earmarked for demolition.
O’Hasson has just been released after a long prison stretch and is terminally ill with brain cancer. Once Van realises that the man’s motivation in recovering the gold – about which O’Hasson heard from someone in the penitentiary – is to give a decent start in life to his twelve-year-old daughter Cyndra, who’s bouncing from one foster family to another in California, he decides to lay aside his reluctance in getting involved in a heist and to help O’Hasson.
Together they do recover the gold, but only very briefly. Before they can get away with the loot, they are ambushed by hunters unknown, who had been lying in wait and capture O’Hasson, who in resisting them sets off a fire that destroys the building but leaves Van enough time to flee, minus the gold. But Van will not leave a sick man like O’Hasson in the hands of criminals who had been sitting on a pot of four million dollars in gold bars just to lure someone to it: maybe not O’Hasson and Shaw, but the hunters’ agenda could not be benign in any way.
Helped by Dono’s circle of not-so-law-abiding mates, Van sets out to find O’Hasson and the gold, and lands himself, and those close to him, in the midst of a murderous war between drug dealers rooted into killings and double-dealings going back decades. And when Van starts wondering if they shouldn’t just let the criminals butcher themselves and get the hell out of it, in comes Cyndra. Van now has another incentive to keep up the search for O’Hasson. Helping Cyndra, and helping himself, for now that the kid has hooked up with Van, he’s even more likely to be a target for the drug gangs.
In ‘Every Day Above Ground’, Hamilton has built an extraordinarily layered plot, as labyrinthine as it is ingenious, sustained by his now-trademark tight, sharp narrative. He devises a seemingly endless series of twists, but only very distracted readers will lose their bearings, so well-paced and clear is the narrative. Hamilton’s strength in characterisation also shines through, allowing him to breathe abundant life into his intriguing cast of characters.
In my review of Hamilton’s second Van Shaw novel, ‘Hard Cold Winter’, I expressed the hope that the author would continue to develop his highly original hero as a character. Judging from ‘Every Day Above Ground’, Van Shaw is going in the ‘superhero’ direction, with a hefty dose of violence and bloodshed thrown in. Personally, I believe he is more attractive as a slightly flawed ‘normal’ guy. As a man who suffers for his tough, haphazard upbringing and traumatic war experiences but is at heart approachable, if from a safe distance. The kind of guy who is prepared to go the extra mile, including playing merry hell with the law, to help a disadvantaged, threatened kid like Cyndra, rather than a guy who within the same 24 hours is able to knock out a monster MMA fighter, have a one-night stand with a Harley mama and set up an intricate gold-for-hostage trade pitting himself and his cunning but somewhat ragtag team against not one but two gangs of vicious criminals.
My personal preferences notwithstanding, the fact remains that ‘Every Day Above Ground’ is a brilliant, gripping thriller, and Hamilton is clever in eventually not letting his hero lose his sense of proportion. Van Shaw is a man who has been dealt an unforgiving hand by life, and is doing his level best to avoid sinking. Which includes being willing to help people, after his own fashion. He is aware of his own shortcomings though: as he says to the psychiatrist treating him for PTSD, ‘if I could make soup, I’d be in [a] soup kitchen.’
Which would be praiseworthy, but would rob thriller fiction fans of a most original, appealing character, one we hope to see, in whatever guise, in more of Hamilton’s remarkable novels in the future.