Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Corker of a Series

William Kent Krueger had turned 40 by the time his first novel was published in 1998. That book, Iron Lake, took the mystery world by storm, winning several major awards including an Anthony. Iron Lake also set the stage for a whole subsequent series (eight novels so far and all of them prizewinners, with more Anthony nominations and wins) featuring his lead character, Cork O'Connor, a sometime-sheriff of fictional Tamarack County and a devoted family man whose lawyer wife Jo and three spirited children are always figuring importantly in the novels too.

Cork is part-Irish and part-Ojibwe, and his Native American blood/spirit connections are a major force in each novel, situated as all are in the far Northwoods lakes region of Minnesota, near Lake Superior and the Boundary Waters wilderness area, with Ojibwe people (Anishinaabe in their language) always a part of the story, whether encountered on the Iron Lake Reservation or in Cork's town of Aurora.

Krueger is one splendid writer. His sturdy hero (both words seems particularly apt) is a decent, canny guy filled with love for the region and stubborn compassion for its people good or bad. The supporting characters all resonate. The plots are brilliant, with suitable twists and turns and agony as Krueger mixes upstate Minnesota humor, dogged detective work, and sudden terrible violence. He also exhibits a poet's touch in his descriptions of the natural beauty, the changing weather, the play of human emotions, and much more. (He has stated his own perceived indebtedness to Hemingway, Hillerman, and James Lee Burke.)

The review blurbs quoted on each book just keep getting better and better too as Krueger fine-tunes his unformulaic, evolving "formula"; and a reader who works through the novels in order can detect small, graceful improvements in his style. The later books, for example, seem to flow effortlessly through changing points of view whenever required, and the author's showing signs of a subtle, unexpected playfulness too.

His 2008 novel Red Knife, for example, has a heart-rending plot that draws on the AIM movement of the Eighties, rival gangs and drug wars along our borders, racial tension between Native Americans and whites, the hellacious school shootings in Colorado, Minnesota, and elsewhere, as well as Krueger's ongoing examination of honorable behaviour and the complexities of love in all its forms. Yet there are small moments of grace offsetting the violence and hatred, including scene-ending passages like these...

(Sheriff) Dross looked toward the lights on the far side of the empty field. "When you had the job, Cork, did you ever wonder if you were doing the right thing?"
"When didn't I?"
"Yeah." She smiled, but even in the dim light, Cork could see how weary the gesture was.
They separated, heading in different directions, both stumbling in the dark.

* * *
He thought it must be hard having a father like Buck, a man unloving and unlovable in so many ways. Yet Cork had the feeling that love was the one thing Dave Reinhardt desperately wanted from his old man. Hell, didn't every son?

* * *
After the others left, Cork stood a moment in the gathering dark. It was quiet on the long straight stretch of empty highway that burrowed through the pines. He wished he believed the quiet would last.

Or this domestic moment in the O'Connors' kitchen:

"I'm going back to the Kingbirds' this evening with George LeDuc."
"Whatever for?"
"There's something we need to talk to Will about."
"What would that be?"
"It's between Will and LeDuc and me."
"Now who's keeping secrets?"
Cork slipped the spatula under one of the sandwiches and lifted it off the heat.
"I think the grilling is done," he said.

After the book's tragic climax, Krueger even takes the structural step of projecting some characters' lives years into the future. Of Cork's daughter:

Annie O'Connor didn't go to Madison to play softball for the University of Wisconsin. The shootings altered her course and directed her down a different path....
She would grieve, yes--in a way, never stop grieving--but Annie understood that for her there was a way through grief, through sadness, through hate and anger and all the anguish and confusion of the world. It was a path that in a strange way led through the hurting hearts of others, a path that she believed always led to God. And throughout her life Sister Anne would follow it.

Rather a subtle way to announce her religious decision! The novel soon ends with a beautifully bittersweet passage:

(Stevie) ran past Cork, his arms pumping hard, his small strong legs carrying him away. Cork slowed and, as he watched his son, his beloved son, racing way from him, he was struck with an overwhelming and inexplicable sadness. In only a moment, Stevie had sprinted out of the sunlight, entered the shadow of the deep forest ahead, and disappeared from his father's sight.

(I think one might add F. Scott Fitzgerald to Krueger's preferred list of writers. Think of the rhythms and movement as Gatsby ends.)

In a few months, the ninth O'Connor novel will be published. The trade paperback of Red Knife includes the Prologue to forthcoming book Heaven's Keep, and it's a grim, shattering preview that promises much. More hard terrain and harder, life-altering events--more terrible tragedy--await Cork and his family, his Iron Lake and Aurora friends.

I've ordered mine.