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Alex McKnight returns to Detroit in 'Burn'

| Saturday, July 27, 2013, 6:29 p.m.

Our memories of a place often are colored by its effect on us and the kind of person we were at the time. During the next several days, Alex McKnight will remember the Detroit of more than 20 years when he was a young cop, sworn to serve and protect in “Let It Burn.”

“To serve and protect” will become more than a phrase from the past as Alex's return to Detroit allows the now quasi-private detective to come to terms with what drove him to retreat to Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Along the way, Alex will get the opportunity to settle a possible wrong in which he may have had a minor role.

Edgar-winner Hamilton continues to put an original spin on the private detective novel as the author also makes these novels about a loner trying to rebuild his life and come to terms with who he is and how he fits in the world.

“Let It Burn” works well as a private-eye tale, a police procedural and a character study. Actions have consequences; Alex has always known this, but this visit reinforces that and forces Alex to confront an uncomfortable situation.

Alex left Detroit and the force after his partner was killed during a routine call. Alex still has a bullet lodged in his chest because of that shooting. But a few weeks before that tragedy, Alex was on a career high after he found the teenage suspect who had murdered a woman in a train depot. Alex's former police sergeant calls to let him know that Darryl King, the man convicted of the murder, is now getting out of prison after some 20 years there. Darryl's release prompts Alex to revisit Detroit and see his old colleagues. But it's an uneasy visit, because the more he talks with detectives who handled the case, the more he suspects that the case against Darryl may not have been flawless.

The story of a detective trying to prove an unjust conviction is a well-used plot. But Hamilton makes this story seem fresh as he connects “Let It Burn” to human frailties and emotions. In this 10th novel in the series, Hamilton is still uncovering nuances about Alex, showing that he is more than a near-hermit who rents out cabins to snowmobilers on his little parcel of land in Paradise, Mich.

“Let It Burn” also is an evocative look at Detroit, as Alex looks at the city not as a tourist or a former resident but as a cop. Each neighborhood he visits is tinged with his memories while on the force. Yet for every abandoned building, neglected street or pile of rubble, Alex sees strength in residents who will not give up on their homes.

Oline H. Cogdill is a staff writer for the Sun Sentinel.

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