Death Warmed Over

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

As he struggled to finish a first novel, though, Krueger also happened upon Hillerman's series of mysteries set in the Four Corners area of the desert Southwest, which chronicle the exploits of an American Indian tribal police force. "The thing about Hillerman's books is that they combined wonderful cultural observations with pretty good mystery stories," Krueger says. "They had this really profound sense of place. And I thought, well, shoot, here's a guy who's first and foremost a fine writer, who also does a pretty good job with the mystery genre. I thought, 'Maybe I'll give that a shot. Maybe Iron Lake will be a mystery.'

"The other thing was that I wanted badly to break into big print. I'd written some short stories and magazine articles, but I couldn't break into that market. I had a friend who swore to me that he knew everything about the publishing industry. He said, 'Write a mystery. In that genre, they'll publish anything.'"


Tony Nelson

Ten years and three books later, Hillerman's influence is still evident in Krueger's work--particularly in his use of Indian mythology and culture as a narrative fulcrum. In Purgatory Ridge, as in the previous Aurora mysteries, the story is precipitated by a schism between the town's Anishinabe and white communities. In this case, an ecoterrorist bombs a timber mill that is threatening a sacred stand of white pines. Racism, the cause of as much unspoken tension in Krueger's Aurora as on the real Iron Range, breaks through the town's placid facade.

Aside from lending new meaning to the term "pulp fiction," Krueger explains that salient Native issues like timber and fishing rights give his work a patina of realism. Indeed, a number of the novel's developments, including a deadly standoff over Native spearfishing, mirror recent events. "When I knew I was going to set the books up north," he explains, "I realized I couldn't do it without getting into Indian culture. Then I embraced that, and the idea of incorporating another culture became really exciting. I'm still terribly aware that I'm writing outside of my culture, but I try to get it right."

The central tension of Krueger's fictional Aurora--between Indian and white interests--is embodied in his hero, a half-Irish, half-Anishinabe former sheriff named Cork O'Connor. Krueger explains that, while he based the character on himself (like the author, O'Connor is married to an attorney), he also uses the hero's mixed heritage to develop the series' overarching themes. O'Connor is neither the existential anti-hero familiar from Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler novels, nor the cop hero of police procedural potboilers. In spirit, he is closer to a figure from Hollywood westerns--the lone good man who fights the forces of social chaos in the name of law and order.

But because O'Connor operates at the border of Aurora's often-opposed communities, he has a perspective on the historical tension between the two. Krueger, in turn, uses O'Connor's experience to give his mysteries a moral undertow. "History was a study in futility," the lawman muses in Purgatory Ridge. "Because people never learned. Century after century, they committed the same atrocities against one another or against the earth, and the only thing that changed was the magnitude of the slaughter... Conscience was a devil that plagued the individual. Collectively, a people squashed it as easily as stepping on a daisy."

Philosophical leanings aside, the pleasures of Krueger's mysteries are more immediate. He has, over the years, developed a rigorous formula for writing in the genre, with a few simple but instructive rules. To begin, someone must die--preferably in a nasty manner--in the first few pages. (In Purgatory Ridge, said demise takes place on the proverbial dark and stormy night.) Second, a protagonist with whom the reader empathizes must be forced into a precarious position, generally when a family member is threatened. ("It's like the old movie cliché," Krueger chuckles: "'This time, it's personal.'") And, above all, the denouement must reward the reader's involvement. The formula is almost primal in its appeal: The villains die; good triumphs; and the mystery, after any number of bait-and-switch detours, snaps together like a puzzle box. The mystery writer forges an implicit contract with the mystery reader: suspension of disbelief in exchange for an emotionally gratifying resolution.

"There's something about the mystery genre that's appealing to mainstream authors," Krueger considers, pointing to forays into the genre by literary lights such as Joyce Carol Oates and Tim O'Brien. "It's my feeling that if you scratch the surface of an academic, you'll find someone who has a paperback mystery shoved between the covers of Lady Chatterley's Lover."

While Krueger imagines that he might someday return to more rarefied literary material--his youthful manuscript, about "grace, redemption, and belief in God," is gathering dust in a drawer--the guilty pleasures (and hearty profits) of genre fiction are too great to resist. And, in some paradoxical way, the stiff framework of the genre has freed him from the dull prison of "literature with a capital 'L.'" Already, Krueger is at work on a new Cork O'Connor mystery, as well as a political thriller about "the First Lady of the United States and the Secret Service agent who loves her." (He can't help grinning as he says this.)

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