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It’s a Mystery: “The only way a man learns the true spirit of a rock is to stub his toe on it”

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Trickster’s Point

By William Kent Krueger
Atria Books, 2012

Die A Stranger

By Steve Hamilton
Minotaur, 2012

The men and women who live harmoniously in the great outdoors bring their understanding of the natural world to their mystery solving. Tony Hillerman’s Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee are tribal police officers who patrol the Four Corners area of the American Southwest where New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado meet. But these detectives work together at an even more significant intersection, the area where Anglo- and Native American cultures converge.

Such cultural intersections present a challenge to the writer of detective novels. The author must control the presentation of information about ethnic culture and practices so that it will be received as knowledge of human society rather than exotic data about curious folk. This brings me to William Kent Krueger, who meets this challenge beautifully in his novels that are set in the North Country of Minnesota. Of this territory, Krueger told an interviewer,

…all I saw was conflict. In the harsh, beautiful landscape. In the weather. In the struggle of different cultures to live together. I realized that if I created a character of mixed heritage in this setting, a man who had a foot in two different cultures, white and Ojibwe, I could mirror the conflict of those cultures in all his thinking and his being. Conflict would be a natural part of who he was.

His protagonist, Corcoran Liam O’Connor, “Cork,” is Ojibwe-Irish. His mother was half Anishinaabe, the true name of the Ojibwe nation. The Ojibwe influence in that part of Minnesota is ubiquitous. Cork grew up in Aurora, Minnesota, a town blessed with uncommon beauty yet plagued by small-town feuds and heated racial tension. He had been a cop in Chicago and returned to the Great Northwoods to raise his family. He’d been the county’s sheriff, but hard things had happened and he’d left official law enforcement to run what he called “a confidential investigation and security consulting business.” In other words, he’s a PI.

Trickster’s Point is the 12th volume in the Cork O’Connor series. An intriguing character since his inception in Iron Lake (1998), Cork is the kind of guy who is so resilient that no matter how far down life pushes him, he always bobs back to the surface. It took a while, but he has finally come to terms with the loss of his beloved wife Jo, who died in Heaven’s Keep from 2009. As this novel opens, Jubal Little has an arrow in his heart. Cork, Little’s best friend, was hunting with him and is now sitting with him in the shadow of a towering monolith known as Trickster’s Point deep in the Minnesota wilderness.  Jubal won’t let Cork leave to get help. It takes three hours. As Krueger puts it, “The dying don’t easily become the dead.”

As Jubal nears the end, the man Cork has known since elementary school reveals some horrific secrets that Cork is left to grapple with—secrets Jubal swore he’d never tell anyone. And, near the very end, in a voice barely above a whisper, he says: “Rhiannon. The worst sin of all.”  The name means nothing to Cork, who becomes the prime suspect in the official investigation of his friend’s death. For one thing, the arrow in Jubal’s heart is one of Cork’s trademark arrows. Plus, his explanation as to why he remained by his friend’s side as he died instead of going for help doesn’t ring true to those colleagues he once worked with in law enforcement. This scepticism extends to the current sheriff, Marsha Dross. She has always had a fine relationship with Cork and is a reluctant participant in the investigation against him. Cork, no stranger to false accusations, must prove his innocence while bearing the weight of his friend’s confidential revelations.

There is also a larger issue connected with Jubal’s untimely demise. He was about to become Minnesota’s first American Indian governor. The road to the statehouse was paved by the Jaegers, his wife Camilla’s enormously wealthy and influential family. Cork feels that some of Jubal’s more controversial political positions that did not sit well with many back on the reservation may be a factor in his death. And there was, perhaps, an even more compelling complication: Jubal’s long-standing affair with Winona Crane. Is she connected to the mysterious Rhiannon?

Cork and Jubal first met Winona and her twin brother Willie when Cork was in the sixth grade and Jubal was in the seventh.  And Cork, in the here and now, knows in his bones she’s a key to Jubal’s death. Winona:

A beautiful young woman with a wild streak that stood out in neon…. She played the guitar and made up her own songs…Her hair was long and black and, in sunlight, shone like obsidian. She had eyes like shiny chips of wet flint that, if she wanted, could cut you with a glance…

She gazed at people as if she saw their souls and understood everything, good and bad, about them….The truth was that [Jubal had] known Winona Crane all his life, and he had never not been in love with her, just a little.

And Winona has never not been in love with Jubal. As for Camilla, she is painfully aware

…that all her graces and all her money would never have been enough to make up for the one thing she could not be: an Ojibwe woman named Winona Crane.

For Cork, only one person can help him sort it all out: Henry Meloux. From the beginning, he has been a pivotal force in Cork’s life as well as the lives of countless others.

The footpath to Henry’s cabin was worn over the years by the feet of many who, like Cork, sought out the old man for advice and healing. Henry Meloux was a Mide, a member of the Grand Medicine Society. Although in his nineties, he was a tough old bird full of wisdom, compassion, humor, and honesty:

Cork had been along the footpath hundreds of times in his life, and it was always a journey he made with a great deal of expectation. Meloux knew things. He understood the complexities and conundrums of the human heart. He had his finger on the pulse of all that occurred on the rez. He knew about the natural world, what healed and what harmed. And he was in touch with the realm that could not be seen with the eye, the realm of the Manidoog, or spirits that dwelled in the vast forests of the great Northwoods.

Reflecting on his current situation, Cork thinks it ironic that this fall season is when his father and, much later, his wife had been lost to him, both taken through violence. Now in this same season, Jubal was gone, also violently. As his son Stephen, age 16, said upon learning of Jubal’s fate, “I just don’t understand why death seems to circle this family like some sort of, I don’t know vulture.”

As for his 25-year-old daughter Jenny, she wants him to lawyer up since he’s clearly being framed. She has put her journalism career on hold to care for her adopted son, Waaboo, whom she rescued in extraordinary circumstances that involved the brutal death of the child’s Indian mother (Northwest Angle, 2011).  To Cork and his family, Waaboo is “a wonder of a child.”

Weighing in as well is his middle daughter Anne via Skype with one word, “worried.” She is in New Mexico working at a mission school, a path intended to lead her eventually to the altar as a Bride of Christ. Cork tells her everything is fine!

Cork doesn’t really know what he hopes to get from Meloux on this visit. He just knows that whatever this wise old man offered would turn out to be pretty much what he needed. He also needed the company of Rainy Bisonette. She is Meloux’s great-niece who had come to him a year earlier to help care for him during a mysterious illness. Now she was a fixture in Meloux’s life and Cork’s:

Rainy, in her intelligence, her compassion, her humor, her enjoyment of life, was pretty much everything a man could ask for, and a great deal more. He thought himself lucky to have found her.

It comes as no surprise to Cork that they both already know of Jubal’s death and his travails as a consequence—“The rez telegraph.” As he unburdens himself to them, he realizes that he is no longer certain he made the right choice. As Meloux cautions:

“And that is something you can never know either, Corcoran O’Connor…. There is no way to know what the outcome might have been if you had made a different choice. Shake hands with your decision and move on.”

Personal choice is what this novel is all about. It sheds light for the first time on the events of Cork’s youth and how they shaped the man. Krueger deftly shows us how love, trust, revenge and redemption all played a part in the Byzantine relationship between Cork and Jubal.

As always, there is suspense laced with wit, rich character studies and a powerful rewarding finale. Every one of the Cork O’Connor novels is a treat to be savored.

An Ojibwa tribal member, Vinnie LeBlanc, is a central player in Steve Hamilton’s Alex McKnight novels. Hamilton introduced McKnight in A Cold Day in Paradise (1998), the award-winning novel that has just been reissued as a trade paperback. This coincides with the ninth entry in the McKnight series, Die a Stranger.

Once a promising minor-league baseball catcher, McKnight was never quite able to step up to the major leagues. Instead, he joined the Detroit Police Department, from which he retired eight years later after a shootout that left his partner dead and McKnight with a bullet lodged “less than a centimeter from my heart” too close to that vital organ to be safely extracted.

Your partner’s life is your greatest responsibility as a cop. If he ends up dead, you failed. Simple as that.

The result was McKnight’s “retirement” to Paradise, Michigan, a little town in the Upper Peninsula, on the shores of Lake Superior, across Whitefish Bay from Sault Ste. Marie, or “the Soo,” as the locals call it. He lives in one of the half dozen cabins his late father built during the 1960’s and ‘70’s—“one per summer until he got too sick to build them anymore.” His plan was to live quietly, renting out the cabins to summer visitors and winter snowmobilers. But plans like that have a way of going awry. McKnight becomes a reluctant private investigator, extricating friends, acquaintances and even adversaries from serious trouble.

In Die a Stranger, Vinnie LeBlanc is the catalyst that sends Alex McKnight into action. Vinnie is McKnight’s best friend and neighbor. He is half a generation younger than the 50-something McKnight and he has, as they say, Alex’s back:

Even though the friendship had once all but ended, and we’d gone weeks without speaking to each other. He was always there for me, if I really needed him. He’d saved my life more than once.

Vinnie was a veteran blackjack dealer who couldn’t wait to move off the reservation. He bought the one free lot on the road owned by McKnight’s father and built himself a cabin there. His living off the rez did not sit well with his friends and relatives. To Mcknight it made perfect sense:

You live here on the rez, everybody is family…it’s earsplitting pandemonium…. To be surrounded twenty-four hours a day by so many people who care about you, who gladly lay down their lives for you, I’d last one week. Maybe two. Then I’d lose my mind. I’d have to get the hell out of there, go somewhere far away where I be by myself for a while. To hear myself think again.

The novel begins with a funeral, in Ojibwa parlance a celebration of the long and happy life of one Hazel Nika LeBlanc:

She had been like a mother to the whole reservation, that much was certain. But she was the literal birth mother to four children. Three of them were still alive to mourn her this day. One of them was Vinnie Red Sky LeBlanc.

As for Vinnie’s father, all McKnight knows is that Vinnie hasn’t seen him since he was six. Years after he left, on the other side of the country, he got drunk and ran over four people. Three of them died and he went to jail. That is all Vinnie ever revealed.

His father’s history explains why Vinnie didn’t drink—at least, he didn’t until a few days after the funeral when McKnight catches up with him at their favorite haunt, The Glasgow Inn.  Jackie Connery, friend and owner, is agitated because Vinnie is by the fire getting drunk. He’s got an old picture of his mother and father and he’s the spitting image of his old man who, it turns out, spent a lot more jail time than Vinnie originally let on. According to rez gossip, and there’s more gossip on the rez than any sorority, he served time for a burglary, receiving stolen goods. He went up again for the DWI and vehicular manslaughter just about the time Vinnie moved off the reservation.

Vinnie is good and drunk by the time McKnight gets him home. Before McKnight can catch up with him again, there is an accident on a remote airstrip, forty miles southwest in Eastern Michigan, that changes everything. A single engine Cessna, loaded down with high-grade marijuana from Canada, lands there in the dead of night. The next morning five corpses are found on the tarmac. In the aftermath, Vinnie goes missing along with his somewhat reprehensible cousin, Buck Carrick. McKnight wants to believe that their disappearance is not linked to the smuggling disaster. Hopefully, Vinnie has gone into seclusion to mourn the loss of his mother, rather than fleeing a murder scene.

Yet his gut tells him something is seriously wrong—especially if Buck is involved. Drugs are fast becoming a big business in border areas such as the Upper Peninsula. Vinnie might have tried to prevent Buck from getting involved in an illegal action and put them both in harm’s way. When the local sheriff suddenly receives a phone call asking him to pass along word that he and Buck are O.K., his concerns go into overdrive. And it doesn’t help matters that the sheriff tells him to butt out. Of course he won’t. Loyalty to his friends, helping them out no matter what, that’s what Alex McKnight is all about.

He soldiers on with some unexpected help. Vinnie’s estranged father jets in from Las Vegas after hearing from one of the Ojibwa “old-timers” that his son is missing. They’re an odd couple and they don’t always see eye to eye. Sometimes they take different paths as they crisscross the state in search of Vinnie and Buck. But they always converge. When it all comes together, the ending is bittersweet. Lives have been lost, souls have been damaged, and the stakes remain high.

Hamilton keeps us on edge to the very end. His writing is sharp, his characters have dimension, and his settings are richly authentic. Die a Stranger is, quite simply, a terrific yarn.

Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.