'Exit Strategy'

University of Michigan alumnus pens a second thriller featuring ‘Nick Mason’

By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

For New York Times best-selling author Steve Hamilton, he doesn’t have to choose between his series characters Alex McKnight and Nick Mason; he has the best of both worlds.

“The good thing is I don’t have to choose because I can still write about both of them,” said Hamilton, 56, of upstate New York, a University of Michigan alumnus.

He recently turned in his 11th McKnight novel and is currently halfway through his third Mason novel.

Hamilton promoted his latest novel “Exit Strategy” (Putnam $26), his second Mason novel, at 15 different stops in his native Michigan last month, before heading to Texas, Missouri, New York, and Chicago – the latter being where the Mason novels occur.

“Exit Strategy” is a sequel to last year’s “The Second Life of Nick Mason,” which was a runaway hit, eliciting critical praise from many, including renowned horror author Stephen King.

When readers first meet Mason in his debut novel, he’s serving five years of a 25-year sentence. However, he’s released from prison due to the machinations of fellow inmate Darius Cole, a criminal mastermind who runs his empire from his prison cell. Once outside, Cole sets him up with a condo in northern Chicago worth $5 million, a new car, and $10,000 in cash every month. He takes the deal because he wants to see his daughter and ex-wife.

However, there’s a caveat: Whenever the cell phone Cole gave him rings, Mason must always answer it and follow Cole’s orders to the letter. He is forced to be whatever Cole needs him to be – thief, bodyguard, hijacker, or assassin.

“It’s a fascinating idea that someone would still have this much power while in prison,” said Hamilton. “Mason realizes he was too hasty agreeing to Cole’s deal and wants out.”

Hamilton came up with the idea for Mason after penning 10 McKnight books.

“(Alex is) the character who’s been with me from the beginning, but you never want it to get too easy. If you let it get too easy, you’re not doing it right. It was really time to challenge myself with something else – that’s where Nick Mason comes in,” explained Hamilton. “Even though he’s a criminal, he has a very strict set of rules of what he’ll do and what he won’t do. He violates those rules and goes to prison. You see this deal he’s offered to get out. He gets out so he can see his family, which is really the first moment, I hope, you can relate to him, even though you may not like the fact that he’s a criminal.”

He continued: “It’s something I may not have tried when I was just starting out as a writer because you always want the reader to be rooting for your main character. That was a bit of a challenge. I’ve been overwhelmed by the response to this character and the circumstances he’s in: having to do whatever he’s told whenever that phone rings. There’s a little bit of wish fulfillment in this series. He gets out of prison and lives in this townhouse with a beautiful car and beautiful roommate (Diana), and money every month – that’s the wish fulfillment part. The other part is a real nightmare – what the cost is, the price he has to pay for this new life.”

In “Exit Strategy,” Mason must infiltrate WITSEC, the top-secret witness-protection program which has never been compromised, and locate the three men who put Cole in prison for life. His objective is to kill them, so they won’t be able to testify at Cole’s new trial.

“After that first book when you first meet him and see all the things he has to go through in this new life, ‘Exit Strategy’ goes farther and deeper and raises the stakes because the missions he undertakes are getting more and more brutal and dangerous. He realizes he has to find a way out – he just has to. He’s turning into something he doesn’t recognize and he’s losing his humanity, turning into this machine. Never mind the physical danger, there’s a moral danger as well. He has to get out – that’s the running theme of this book. Mason has to get out,” explained Hamilton.

Hunting Mason are Det. Frank Sandoval of the Chicago Police Dept. and U.S. Attorney Rachel Greenwood.

“In my research, I learned about what U.S. Attorneys do. I worked with one who works in Chicago – it’s just an amazing job… U.S. Attorneys are the driving force behind any federal crime that ever gets prosecuted,” said Hamilton. “You have to call them before you even charge somebody with a federal crime. You have to get them onboard from the beginning, and they really drive the whole process at the federal level. There’s offices in every state and they represent the federal justice system… I bring that out in this book. Rachel Greenwood is a representative of that, all the things she has to contend with, such as Cole’s retrial – she’s the one who has to keep him in prison and she’s losing her witnesses.”
By the end of the book, Hamilton drastically alters Mason’s status quo.

“Everything is turned upside-down at the end. There was some temptation (not to change anything). It felt like it was important after two books to get him out but in a way he never really anticipated. There had to be a price for it – a big price – obviously,” said Hamilton. “He does have to leave and go somewhere else, but it happens in a way that opens up a whole new world for him. I love that moment in any kind of story where the main character gets to the end of the road and finds themselves in a new world they never could’ve imagined. There’s why this series needed to go – to really open up into something else.”

Hamilton has seven books in the Mason series plotted. He does plan for Mason and McKnight to meet but it won’t be in the next installment.

“Someday,” he said. “I have about seven books laid out in this series, which is very unlike the way I did McKnight, where every book is a discovery of what happens next. This time it was time to write a series from the beginning where I had an idea where each book would feed into one part of a bigger story.”

According to Hamilton, the first Mason novel has been optioned for a movie adaptation by Lion’s Gate. He could not get into detail, but stated to expect an announcement about the movie deal soon.

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