Regional flavors from mystery novels add taste and depth to suspenseful plots and colorful characters. From Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles to Edna Buchanan’s Miami, Tony Hillerman’s Southwest and Gerry Boyle’s Northeast, a sense of place can be powerful.
Besides L.L. Enger (COMEBACK, STRIKE) or Steve Thayer (THE WEATHERMAN), however, few writers have successfully achieved realistic and riveting local color with Minnesota. William Kent Krueger’s first novel does so—along with presenting a credible and fascinating yarn.
The small, northern-Minnesota town of Aurora during the holiday season is hit by a blizzard and a flurry of fatal problems. A judge has died violently and a Boy Scout newspaper carrier has vanished mysteriously. The paperboy’s mom needs help and turns to Cork O’Connor, a former county sheriff and, years ago, Chicago cop, whose heritage is both Native American and Irish American. Now, he’s running a burger joint, in season.
Soon, O’Connor crosses paths with a casino operated by his people, the Ojibwa, with a paramilitary outfit, and with the strangest dread: the Windigo. The Windigo is a legendary spirit, an evil flesheater who calls out victims’ names before murdering them. A creature with a heart of ice, the old stories go, the Windigo can only be killed if the intended victim lets his own heart turn to ice—and becomes the Windigo.
Besides the supernatural—done without the jarring genre clash one might fear—more mundane menaces include corruption, greed, and blackmail, all made more believable in contrast to the Windigo.
Other characters enrich the mix: the politically ambitious son of the late judge, a priest with profound wounds from a stay in Central America, a near hermit with killer dogs, a tribal elder— Wanda Manydeeds—and local newspaper editor Helmuth Hanover.
By the book’s end, readers will eagerly follow the circuitous trail that meanders by these people, and will nicely regret finishing the trip through a place presented so vividly.