PAST CRIMES‘Past Crimes’ by Glen Erik Hamilton is another fine crime novel in which the police forces don’t take centre stage investigating and solving a crime. You could call it a new trend, were it not for the fact that ‘amateur’ sleuths were very much the protagonists in the earliest days of modern crime fiction, from Conan Doyle to Agatha Christie, from S. S. Van Dine to Rex Stout and Erle Stanley Gardner. Donovan (Van) Shaw, the leading character in this, the first novel by Glen Erik Hamilton, is actually as far removed as possible from the amateur sleuth of classic crime fiction, yet he’s no less engaging a character.

A US Army Ranger with front-line combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, Van Shaw was orphaned of his single mother in early childhood and grew up with his namesake grandfather Dono(van), a professional thief. Who was initially not so successful, so that young Van had to live with a series of foster parents when Grandad was spending time in the care of the Federal penal system.

Van fell out with Dono at age eighteen, and found the Army was just what he needed to get a crook’s life out of his system. But now Dono has pleaded with him to return home, to his native Seattle. A tough ex-con and presumably still a criminal, Dono had never pleaded to Van before and the latter decides that this means serious trouble is looming on the horizon. Family is family – one of the many strong themes Glen Erik Hamilton has cleverly woven into his narrative – and Van duly flies back to Seattle on furlough. Upon arriving at Dono’s home, he finds his grandfather lying in the kitchen with a bullet in his head.

Right from the start, Van Shaw is a spanner in the Seattle police’s works. He remembers a lot, we soon find out, about Dono’s past criminal activities and his unsavoury – though mostly loyal – friends, and isn’t keen to let the good cops in on his grandfather’s secrets. Besides, he was the first man on the scene at Dono’s and later at another murder that could be connected to Dono’s shooting. To the Seattle cops, he’s not just a nuisance, he’s a suspect.

Glen Erik Hamilton does a great job of making Van walk a potentially deadly tightrope between the pursuing cops and the criminal or criminals who shot Dono. As Van gradually meets up with Dono’s crooked old friends, and his own old friends, impulsive Davey Tolan and his brother Mike foremost among them, the plot takes on new, unexpected layers, and Van is caught up in a lethal scramble as the motive behind Dono’s shooting begins to emerge. Or so it seems, because Hamilton cleverly conceals it, giving investigators, and the reader, several credible possibilities to choose from.

Van Shaw is a tough guy, a professional combat soldier with a whole bag of underworld tricks up his sleeve, which we learn in brief flashbacks how he came to accrue. But his great appeal, and one of the novel’s most successful features, is that he remains at heart quite an ordinary guy. He truly used to love his Grandad, after his own fashion, and was gruffly loved in return. He had mates and adventures in his youth much like any other ordinary bloke. Underneath his tough exterior, Van hides, despite and perhaps because of his harsh youth, a yearning for the normality of family life. Which is the reason why he heeds Dono’s plea in the first place and why, even when he has to fight and shoot his way out of several tight corners, he clearly does so without the relish for or the indifference to violence which other fictional tough guys display.

This balance between a tight, gripping plot, with headlong narrative pace and plenty of surprise twists, and characters that are very much life-size, though highly original, is one of the most remarkable features of ‘Past Crimes’. Glen Erik Hamilton has avoided the temptation of turning Van Shaw into an avenging Rambo who wins all fights. He wins some and he loses some, getting fairly battered in the process, and though never keen to help the law, he’s also a man with a clear idea of justice. He has his own personal views about it, of course, but on the whole he bats for the right team.

The cast of characters around him is genuinely interesting and skilfully portrayed. Perhaps the leading police investigators are rather low-key, and Dono’s old friends, still engaged in some racket or another, occasionally look more like genial middle-class folks than hardened criminals. But the characterisation is sharp, and so is the dialogue, and the pace and narrative timing are excellent: ‘Past Crimes’ is a very good first novel, that works well on all levels.  An attractive start to Glen Erik Hamilton’s crime fiction career, and hopefully to Van Shaw’s too.