After reading and loving This Tender Land, by William Kent Krueger, I was excited to try out his mystery series featuring Cork O’Connor, since that book had met my expectations for good writing, good character development, and imagination. I wasn’t exactly disappointed by Iron Lake, the first in the series, but I wasn’t bowled over, either.
First of all, when I started reading I felt disoriented when I realized that we had come in halfway through O’Connor’s career, and at a low point. O’Connor had worked in Chicago as a cop while his wife, Jo, went through law school; after she was done, he moved her and the kids back to his home town of Aurora, Minnesota, where he had expectations of a better life for them all. His part-Irish, part-Anishinaabe heritage let him fit in as the town’s sheriff with both the whites and the tribe, whose reservation (and casino) border on the town; but when we enter the story, a catastrophe has resulted in a recall election that has kicked O’Connor out of office, and the aftermath of emotional mood swings (and drinking) has also caused his wife to push him out of the house. His wife is distant, his children live at home with her, and Cork is staying in the living quarters behind a drafty old hamburger stand willed to him by a native friend and mentor, who is also dead.
Despite his no longer being the sheriff, many of the townsfolk (especially those of Anishinaabe blood) still call on him when in need. Darla’s son Paul turns up missing after going out to do his paper route in the midst of a blizzard, and when, at her request, Cork goes to the last house on Paul’s route to see if he made it all the way through, he discovers one of the town’s prominent citizens shot through the head.
At this point, things started to go awry for me. The new sheriff isn’t painted as incompetent, exactly, but he plays by the book and isn’t really interested in above and beyond, so Cork takes it upon himself to keep investigating. While I liked the main character and enjoyed his initiative to a point, I felt that he didn’t have enough legitimate agency, even as the former sheriff, to get away with all that he subsequently does. And I found it decidedly weird how the sheriff kept reminding Cork that he was no longer sheriff…and then either directly solicited his help or let him get away with stuff that would be considered obstruction of justice, pollution of crime scenes, and rank interference. It didn’t seem like it would be consistent for even a lackadaisical sheriff to do this, and this one was not that bad.
I did like the tie-in to the Anishinaabe culture and the pervasive sense of place in Krueger’s writing, and hope that he keeps that up in future books. But I felt the mystery in this one was diffuse and kind of unsatisfying; by the time it gets pinned on the proper villain, so many lesser bad guys and red herrings had been trailed across my path that I almost didn’t care.
I also didn’t appreciate the double standard the author promotes in this book, although I realize it is somewhat a product of its time 20 years past: Cork is portrayed as paunchy and balding, but is still apparently hot stuff to the sexy local waitress, while his wife’s sister, Rose, who has lived with the family for 17 years and essentially kept the household afloat while both the parents worked, is dismissed as ineligible for a relationship because she is “heavy.” This despite being kind, sweet, helpful, and a great cook. C’mon, Krueger, cut it out with the fat-shaming of women. We’re not all perky blondes or voluptuous redheads, but we’re just as worthy of love as you paunchy balding men with hair growing out of your ears.
I didn’t love this book…but I liked it well enough (because of the writing and some of the characters) to try another in the series to see where it goes. Hopefully it will go there without quite so many clichés. I’ll keep you posted.
Fans of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series would probably enjoy this one too; they share in common a maverick leading man, wide open spaces beautifully described, and First Peoples details.