Thunder Bay by William Kent Krueger

Thunder Bay: A Cork O’Connor Mystery
by William Kent Krueger
Atria, 288 pp.
CLR [rating:4.5]

Windigos, Objibwes and Mystery In Northern Minnesota

I’m a big fan of murder mysteries. I enjoy well-crafted, thought out twists and turns of often cruel fate and the curious machinations of devious minds. Living in Montana and being close to the land has also made me critical of any book that doesn’t make a legitimate effort to establish a strong sense of place. William Kent Krueger has satisfied all of these criteria in his latest Cork O’Connor mystery Thunder Bay and quite a bit more.

The novel is set in the lake country of northern Minnesota and the wilds of bordering Ontario. Former sheriff Cork O’Connor has decided to take life easy with his wife and teenage daughter. He’ll fill in the slack times with a little private investigator action or at least that’s what he thinks. The short-lived halcyon period is broken when Objibwe medicine man Henry Meloux (as in “mellow”) asks Cork to find his son that he fathered more than a half-century ago in the Canadian boreal forest wild lands.

The investigation leads Cork to a reclusive industrialist Henry Wellington living in isolation on Thunder Bay. An attempt is made to murder Meloux, who has helped O’Connor with personal travails in the past. Everything points to Wellington who may be the Indian’s son, But why kill his father. The investigation eventually drifts back to a period in Meloux’s life in Ontario in the 1920s leading to a collision with the past and present.

Krueger does a fine job of writing in both periods of time and the long section on his friend’s adventures in the remote Ontario wilderness eighty years past is excellent. The story could stand on its own and the writing is near mystical in sections as here when Meloux is starving and lost in the forest:

He could smell his enemy, smell the odor of carnage, the stink of rotting flesh. Far from repulsing him, it made him hungrier.

He opened his mouth to spit out a taunt. What came instead was an inhuman roar. It was answered in kind by Wellington, who was no Wellington but a windigo. In the moonlight, they charged at each other, kicking up an explosion of powdered snow as they attacked.

They battled savagely, filling their mouths with blood, tearing out chunks of hair-covered flesh. Hunger drove Henry to a frenzy, and at last he plunged his hand into the other’s chest, grasped its heart in his claws, and ripped it out. The windigo let fly a death cry that was as appetizing to Henry as the heart on which he began to feed. He gobbled up the organ while it still beat.

He stood over the lifeless form of the windigo that had once been Wellington. He lifted his bloody face to the black sky and gave an angry howl. He’d thought eating the man’s heart would fill him, but it didn’t. He was hungrier than ever.

A windigo is a cannibalistic monster or evil entity that is common throughout the myths and tales of North American People. Krueger has captured the essential spirit of the land and the Indian in this section; and it is certainly writing that will not be found in the works of writers like Ellroy, Hammett or MacDonald. This is a refreshing approach to the device of moving back-and-forth through time to develop the story line in the contemporary murder mystery.

And there are several other well-structured sub-plots that include his daughter and a long-time friend, all of this making for a rich, layered narrative that stays true to the story arc all the way to the conclusion.

For the past twenty years Krueger has lived in St. Paul, Minnesota with his wife and two children. He’s written Cork O’Connor novels that include Iron Lake (winner of the 1998 Anthony Award for Best First Novel and the Barry Award), Boundary Waters, Purgatory Ridge, Blood Hollow, (winner of the 2004 Anthony Award for Best Novel), and Mercy Falls (2005 Anthony winner) and a political novel, The Devil’s Bed.

Krueger clearly loves the country he’s chosen to live in, the North Woods, land I’ve spent much time in canoeing and camping so I have a reasonable idea of when writing of the region rings true or not as in this passage:

Now we’re alone on the lake – me, Schanno, and a couple of loons fifty yards to our right diving for breakfast. The sun creeps above the trees. Suddenly everything has color. We breathe in the scent of evergreen and clean water and the faint fish odor from the bottom of Schanno’s boat. Half an hour and we haven’t said a word. The only sounds are the sizzle of line as we cast, the plop of the lures hitting water, and the occasional cry of the loons.

I’m happy to be here on that August morning. Happy to be fishing, although I hold no hope of catching anything. Happy to be sharing the boat and the moment with a man like Schanno.

I’ve spent many mornings with friends just like the one described above. Krueger nailed it with confidence and succinctness that is the mark of a writer. Thunder Bay is right there from the first word all the way through to the conclusion. A solid, enjoyable book.

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