Death Warmed Over

Novelist William Kent Krueger's fictional northwoods town is a hotbed of racial tension and cold-blooded murder

Before William Kent Krueger arrived, the residents of Aurora, Minnesota (pop. 3,752), were safe. There were no stabbings or throttlings. There were no kidnappings and no unexplained disappearances. Frozen corpses almost never beached on the shores of nearby Lake Superior. Since Krueger appeared, all of the above--along with a generous sprinkling of beatings, shootings, and blowings-up--have increased alarmingly in both number and frequency. Krueger's tenure correlates with a spike in the homicide rate that would rank this sleepy Iron Range hamlet somewhere between Baltimore and Beirut. The circumstances, it hardly need be said, are always suspicious. And Krueger freely--even happily--admits sole responsibility for disrupting Aurora's civic repose: For years he has directed a program of murder and mayhem from the front booth at the St. Clair Broiler, in St. Paul's Groveland-Macalester neighborhood.

Every morning for the past 15 years, in fact, Krueger has arrived at the Broiler shortly after 6:30 a.m., taken the same seat, and, crouched over a spiral-bound notebook, set about recording in cramped longhand the macabre goings-on in Aurora. During the first few years, no one took much notice of him. (The Broiler is the sort of neighborhood institution where, to become a regular, one needs to put in at least a decade's worth of appearances.) Later, when it became clear that Krueger wasn't going anywhere, the wait staff began referring to him as "the writer guy" and bringing pots of coffee, the only thing Krueger ever orders, free of charge. Later still, when the Broiler's owner, Jim Theros, discovered that Krueger had just sold his first mystery, Iron Lake, he threw a book-release party at the diner. Theros even ordered T-shirts for his staff that read, in reference to the novel's sordid small-town setting: "A nice place to visit. A great place to die." The tradition continues: On March 18, the Broiler is hosting, in conjunction with nearby Ruminator Books, a celebratory reading of Krueger's third and latest Aurora-set mystery, Purgatory Ridge.

These days, Krueger is as much a part of the Broiler's texture as the vinyl seats and the hiss of bacon on the griddle. On a typical morning, as watery light struggles to penetrate the iron-gray February sky outside, he is comfortably ensconced in his booth, a man in perfect harmony with his surroundings. At 50 years of age, with a neatly trimmed, graying beard, square spectacles, and an amiable, open face, Krueger blends easily with both the Broiler's neighborhood regulars and academics from next-door Macalester College. He certainly doesn't look like the sort of man who would leave a trail of broken bodies in his wake. As the morning regulars trickle in, Krueger trades greetings and notes on the eggs Benedict.

Tony Nelson

"When I was a young man, I knew I wanted to be a writer," he explains while emptying thimbles of non-dairy creamer into his coffee. "Like a lot of young male authors, I wanted to be Hemingway. I read everything by him and about his writing process. One thing that impressed me was that he got up with first light to do his writing. Early on, that's a discipline I tried to develop.

"When I came to the Twin Cities, I had a family and a job and I was still trying to be a writer somehow. That early-morning time was perfect for me. I found that if I did an hour and a half of work in the morning, I could give the world what I needed to give to it in order to put food on the table and keep my wife in law school and all those things. I was living a block away from here at the time, and the Broiler opened at 6:00 a.m., so I could come over here, write for an hour, and still make it to work. That's how the Broiler and I first came into contact."

Though Krueger is no longer a disciple of Papa, he has earned some measure of literary renown on his own terms: His second novel, Boundary Waters, was optioned by a Hollywood studio, and he is occasionally compared to genre giants like Michael Connelly and Tony Hillerman. Pat Frovarp, a clerk at Minneapolis's Once Upon a Crime bookstore and a local mystery aficionado, explains the elementary appeal of Krueger's crime-and-punishment stories: "Mystery readers want to escape into a book, and become one with the protagonist. Most of all, we want the bad guys to get their just rewards--unlike in real life. Kent's so good at that that you just don't want his books to end."

Krueger began his crime-writing spree, he explains, after years of wrestling futilely with the Great American Novel. He grew up all over the Midwest and the West Coast, he says, and got kicked out of Stanford in his sophomore year for taking part in a Vietnam-protest occupation of the campus. Working on logging and construction crews, and, later, in a child-development research lab at the University of Minnesota, Krueger continued to pine for literary glory. It didn't occur to him to scale back his aspirations. "My father was an English teacher," he explains, "so we were raised on literature with a capital 'L.' I always looked on the mystery genre as sort of a poor stepchild to literature. If you read mysteries you certainly didn't admit to it."

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