Chicago is ‘perfect’ setting for Hamilton’s Nick Mason crime novels

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Steve Hamilton’s new novel — the second in his Nick Mason series — is “Exit Strategy.” | PROVIDED PHOTO

Considering crime novelist Steve Hamilton is not a Chicagoan, how did he decide to set his new series of thrillers — beginning with “The Second Life of Nick Mason” and continuing with the just-published “Exit Strategy” — in Our Town?

“I think Chicago was the perfect place,” said the author, phoning the Sun-Times the other day. “When I was thinking of this character, and what he had been through, making him a Chicagoan just seemed right.”

Mason is a career criminal who had moved on from his life of crime when he found domestic tranquility with his wife and young daughter. Then a major mistake: trusting an old pal who offered him one of those jobs he thought he couldn’t pass up. That landed Mason in prison with a 25-years-to-life sentence. Deeply depressed at the prospect of never seeing his family again on the outside, he accepts a deal from Darius Cole, a crime kingpin who runs his criminal enterprise from inside the confines of prison. Cole arranges an early release for Mason, who agrees to do the mob boss’ bidding.

Mason’s assignment in “Exit Strategy”: infiltrate the virtually un-impenetrable Federal Witness Protection Program, identify the three men responsible for Cole’s life sentences and kill them before they can testify against Cole’s parole, guaranteeing he’ll never see the light of day.

“The U.S. marshals are very proud of that program,” said Hamilton. “In more than four decades — dating back to the 1970s — they have protected over 9,000 witnesses. They have a perfect record. It’s an amazing streak. … Since my character of Nick Mason is the first person to break through that, I only hope the U.S. marshals I may have talked to along the way are not too offended that I let Nick break through!”

While the writer had spent a bit of time in Chicago previously, preparing for these Mason novels gave him the opportunity to “get to know the city a lot more,” allowing him to drop all kinds of Chicago-esque details into his novels. That included noting the new award-winning Aqua high-rise, designed by Jeanne Gang, plus details about Columbus Drive and areas of the South Side.

“A lot of my research involved spending time in the world my character Nick lived in. For example I loved going to Canaryville and going into a local tavern and sitting at the end of the bar. You can easily tell people who want to be left alone in a bar — and people who want to talk. I found it frequently was easy to get in a conversation with people who had spent a lot of their lives in a specific neighborhood like Canaryville or Bridgeport. You understand very quickly that Chicago is a city of neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods represent a place for those individuals — their sense of a true home — as opposed to even other nearby neighborhoods in that same city. In Chicago, every neighborhood has its own food, culture and even little expressions.

“As a writer, my best skill is just listening and storing those details away — to use later in my novels.”

Because he specializes in crime writing, Hamilton understands a lot about prison culture, the legal system — and even how to handle weapons and re-enact a specific activity practiced frequently by non-violent criminals: safecracking and picking locks.

“I wrote a book about a safecracker, so I had to learn how to open safes and pick locks. I still do that. I pick locks every day! It’s a great thing — a relaxing thing. I sometimes do yoga for the same reason, but it’s fun to take a break from that and go pick a lock,” Hamilton quipped.

Turning far more serious, Hamilton described his research at maximum security prisons. “Obviously, I was only visiting, and knew that I was going to walk out in an hour or two. I actually believe anybody would benefit from going to a prison — even once. You really have to experience in person what that is like. You have an animal reaction to being in that kind of a place. You pick up the sense of fear and desperation to being in that place. Prison is so different. The light is different. The sounds, the smells are all different. It’s such a foreboding place. Your body rebels against it. … You realize nothing else sounds quite like the sound of a prison door slamming shut.”

A film is in the works from the first book in his Mason series. “Yes, it is going to be filmed in Chicago — either this fall, or perhaps sometime next year. That’s the plan. I’m so happy about the fact it will be made in Chicago. Lionsgate [film studio] is doing the movie and the producers include Nina Jacobson, who did the ‘Hunger Games’ films, plus Shane Salerno, who is currently working on the sequels to ‘Avatar.’ ”

When an attempt was made to get Hamilton spill more scoops about the proposed movie — like who will portray Nick Mason — he cleverly demurred. “I think they would send Nick Mason to kill me if I leaked anything more!”

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