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An antihero dominates the new thriller ‘The Second Life of Nick Mason’

One of the big New York publishing stories last year involved two-time Edgar winner Steve Hamilton, who bolted from St. Martin’s Press after saying that the company wasn’t planning enough marketing or publicity for his new book, “The Second Life of Nick Mason.”

His departure came after 17 years with the company, and it caused a hubbub in the publishing industry because it highlighted a longstanding feeling among some established authors that their books were slowly being given less and less attention.

Hamilton’s new thriller about a convict has recently landed in bookstores. And it looks like the new publisher, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, has a winner on its hands.

The convict is named Nick Mason, and he’s a deeply flawed antihero. In flashbacks, we find out that he skipped most of high school to join a ring of car thieves, then moved up to the more risky business of robbing drug dealers and other high-end targets.

Eventually, Mason tries to settle down as a family man with his wife, Gina, and his daughter, Adrianna. He’s staying out of the robbery business and doing manual labor, construction and other blue-collar jobs. But an old friend, Finn, comes back to town and has what he calls one last lucrative job for Mason.

As you might suspect, the “one last job” is a disaster, and it leads to Mason being sentenced to 25 years to life in an Indiana prison. While there, he meets a crime kingpin, Darius Cole, who’s serving two life sentences and never expects to see the outside again. But Cole still runs a crime syndicate from his cell, and he recognizes that Mason could be a big help to him on the outside. So he and Mason reach a deal: Cole will pull some strings and get an early release for Mason — but only if Mason agrees to take his calls and do what he’s asked for the next 20 years.

Some of this might sound like boilerplate thriller material. And in some ways, the initial details are far from original.

But Hamilton keeps the fast-paced plot boiling, quickly putting a very reluctant Mason into a motel room where he’s supposed to make his first kill for Cole — and the target is a crooked cop.

Before Mason can make the kill, however, the cop spots his shadow through the window, and a big fight ensues, with Mason eventually pinned on the motel room’s floor.

“The man was on top of him. Mason could smell the faint trace of alcohol on the man’s breath, mixing with sweat and fear. … It was all going dark. And when the man hit him square in the throat, he took what would surely be his last breath. … Then he felt the hard metal of the gun butt just under the bed. He pulled it out and brought the barrel to the man’s chest. He fired, the kick of the gun twisting it painfully in his hand, the body muffling the shot for everyone in the city except Nick Mason. It rang in his ears. And the ringing said to him, This is the first man you’ve ever killed.”

Having main characters who kill cops — even crooked ones — is a risky strategy. That might be one of the reasons that Hamilton’s first publisher started balking about the novel’s prospects. Whatever the case, the thriller works.

Hamilton is drawing a very dark character who’s in an awful situation — his ex-wife has remarried, he hasn’t talked to his daughter in years and he fears for their safety if he doesn’t go along with the deal with Cole. What’s more, there’s a vindictive cop who can’t believe Mason got out of prison early, and he’s watching Mason’s moves quite closely.

Not everything’s bad for Mason, however. Cole has put him up in a million-dollar apartment, and he’s driving a snazzy vintage car. And he meets an interesting young woman who works in a pet shop, where he adopts a dog.

Still, the phone calls from Cole’s minions continue, and the hits begin to grow, along with the dread about what’ll happen next.

The peculiar thrills of “The Second Life of Nick Mason” include a burgeoning scandal involving the cops — and Mason’s eventual acquisition of a hard drive that will take down an entire squad of the Chicago Police Department.

Mason comes up with a plan to help expose the cops and defy Cole. But it seems highly unlikely that it’ll make any difference in the long run, in part because that would take away the need for yet another Nick Mason thriller.

You can expect many more in the coming years. Nick Mason is here to stay.

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