I just finished reading Iron Lake by William Kent Krueger. He’s a celebrated writer, but that’s not why I bought his book. I bought it because I met him at Magna cum Murder and he impressed me. When I listened to him on panels, he gave serious, thoughtful ideas and answers, but he didn’t seem to take himself too seriously. And he writes mysteries. I like mysteries.
Iron Lake isn’t the usual type of book I read. The hero, Cork O’Connor, is flawed with plenty of baggage. He was the town’s sheriff until he panicked and shot a man not once, which was necessary, but six times because he couldn’t quit pulling the trigger. His career would have survived that, because he was good at what he did. But he was a Democrat in a Republican area, and the crooked Republican judge wanted him out, so did the crooked Republican editor of the local newspaper. Politics can get ugly. For Cork, it meant he went from being a sheriff to flipping burgers. On top of that, a year later, his wife asked him to move out of the house he’d grown up in. Okay, enough said. The man had had a few rough years with no fairy godmother coming to his rescue. I usually avoid books like that. I’m glad I read this one.
Indian lore adds a strong flavor to the story. Cork is part Irish, part Anishinaabe Indian, and Aurora, Minnesota is home to enough Anishinaabe to let them open their own casino. The story takes place in December, and the reader never forgets that Minnesota is REALLY cold in winter. As a matter of fact, the frozen ground and the frozen lake become almost a character in the book. So does the Windigo–an Indian legend that calls to its chosen victim when the winds howl and the weather goes crazy.
The Indian mystiques and freezing weather wrap the entire story in their embrace to set an eerie undertone. So does the understated writing. Sparse, but telling dialogue. Things left unsaid. Blatant lies that flow like honey. The antagonists and villains are exceptionally well done. But every part of the story is flavored by the snow and ice and cold. It fits the grim deaths and greed, the cold-hearted characters who drive the plot.
If cozies are usually set in small towns to add warmth and familiarity, suspense does well with hostile environments–big cities, dark alleys, brooding skies. Or secluded small towns like Aurora, where the winds whip across the frozen lake and Windigos stalk you in the snowy thickets.
There were times that I wondered why Cork made some of the choices he did, but he was always trying to do the right thing. And I admired him for that. All in all, I not only enjoyed Iron Lake, but Krueger’s skillful writing often caught my attention and made me think of how I could make my own writing better. It’s a good book to study for style. And it’s a great book to read for setting.