This mystery/suspense novel set in Minnesota was my book club’s pick for February, and I was excited to read a debut that had won or been a finalist for several mystery awards and was penned by a criminal defense attorney. However, my overall reaction was, “Meh.”
On paper, there was a lot to like about this book and its narrator/hero. Joe Talbert is a slightly older than average college student, who has transferred up to the University of Minnesota from Austin, Minnesota (home both to Hormel, the company who makes Spam and the Gear Daddies, one of my favorite college bands!). He has left but not really left behind an abusive and addicted mother and a younger brother with autism. He struggles with the expectations of his professors, the financing of college, but also with guilt at leaving his brother in the care of his mother.
To complete a writing assignment for his English class, Joe has to interview an older person and write a biography of his life. [As a college writing instructor, I’m a bit skeptical about this assignment but hey, I’ve long since given up on finding realistic portrayals of writing teaching at any level in books or movies.] Joe heads to a suburban nursing home and ends up meeting Carl Iverson, a dying Vietnam vet and a convicted murder, who has been released to the nursing home to live out his last few months. As he gets to know Carl, Joe begins to suspect that his “subject” is innocent and Joe decides to try to clear his name and find out who really killed a young teenage girl in the 1970’s. However, since Carl is dying, Joe doesn’t have much time.
As is often the case in novels like this, Joe solicits the help of an attractive neighbor, Lila, but his investigation is hampered by having to take over the care of his autistic brother, when his mother simply leaves town. There are twists and turns, and of course, by investigating this case, Joe stirs up trouble that soon comes looking for him.
Again, on paper, this is a solidly plotted mystery novel with complex characters, but even though I wanted to, I never stopped feeling like I was reading a novel. The characters and the story never came alive for me in the way that most mysteries do—sucking me into the story so that I don’t notice any awkward prose or telling instead of showing moments. That said, this was a first novel and the elements that did work here were enough that I would give his second and third books a chance.