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."

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.'"

 

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.)

"One of the things I like about the mystery genre is that when you gather with other mystery writers you realize that most of us come to this with gray already in our hair. I'm not quite sure quite why that is." Krueger settles into the vinyl booth that has become his creative sanctum. "You know," he says thoughtfully, "the smartest thing I ever did was to stop trying to write the Great American Novel."

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