William Kent Krueger seems to be very popular among many bookish folks that I generally respect. I have heard so much praise for his most recent novel, This Tender Land, and his Cork O’Connor series has been fairly positively reviewed. I imagined him to be a bit like Peter Heller, whose writing is strongly impacted by nature. A thriller with a sense of justice, and a more literary bent than, say, your average Grisham.
I’ll pause here to say that there was a time in my life when I really enjoyed John Grisham, and Mary Higgins Clark, and all sorts of less-literary but well-plotted mysteries. As I’ve grown older, my reading tastes have shifted and I really prefer the more literary novels generally – give me more of that flowery prose, please. Or, its opposite, give me writing so spare that you have to imagine meaning in-between the lines.
What I don’t feel up for anymore is the more traditional pot boilers, and I am most especially tired of them if they’re stuffed with men who believe themselves to be heroes and women who are either beautiful and sexy, beautiful and intelligent and brutal, or physically unappealing and therefore to be pitied or tied only to domesticity. None of these categories allows for a shred of the complexity that even the most sidelined of male characters might be afforded.
All this to say – I went into Iron Lake with the hope that this might be a more literary version of the detective novel, and I’m sorry to say it was not that at all. If you’re a fan of detective novels ala Grisham and Higgins-Clark, I can see why you might be tempted by Krueger’s obvious talent with writing. For me, I’m going to leave the rest of this series un-Cork-ed (see, there’s a reason I’m not writing the best-sellers).
Okay, spoiler-filled review to follow:
Iron Lake is the first of a series of Cork O’Connor novels. O’Connor is a reclusive, half Anishinaabe Native American, half Irish man living in Michigan. This novel, set around the end of the year, begins with a flashback to a pivotal moment in O’Connor’s youth – the time he and Sam Winter Moon hunted a bear. This was shortly after the death of Cork’s father, and a moment that cemented Cork’s relationship with Sam as a sort of mentor for him.
In Cork’s present day, he is the former-sheriff of Aurora. Eventually we’ll learn why Cork was voted out of his office, but first, we must have the inciting event. A local judge, not much beloved, appears to have committed suicide – but the matter is complicated, as a young paper boy is missing – and the judge’s home was the last stop on his route. Questions about what he might have seen, and where he might be, drive the plot.
Cork is not just a former sheriff – he is also a nearly-former husband to powerhouse Jo, whose trope is that she’s beautiful and smart. Because she’s so pretty AND so smart, we know she must also be a little cold hearted. We’re not wrong! Cork and Jo have been separated, and even though we discover in the first few chapters that Cork has been sleeping with a local waitress for some time, we are still supposed to feel sympathy for him when he discovers that his wife is cheating on him. Men have needs! Don’t worry, she’ll get what she deserves, sort of.
So, Cork is not yet divorced, but he needs a sexy woman in his life, so he sleeps with Molly, a local waitress. Molly is quick with a joke or to light up your smoke, while maintaining her own health pristinely. Her background, caught in throw-away sentences here and there, consists of her having had a father who was fond of drinking, and thus she was always “a little wild”. But Cork deigns to love her anyway. She’s described as beautiful (her physical traits often enumerated), while he’s described as an out of shape older man with a pot belly and a fondness for smoking before breakfast. A few times he asks her throughout the novel why she chooses him and honestly there’s no answer that she could give that would satisfy.
The Molly storyline is easily the thing that was the most disappointing out of the novel (aside from even the predictability of the plot). This woman has dreams, meaningful routines in her life, and an ability to set boundaries. Half way through the novel, Cork decides he wants to work on his marriage for the sake of his children. And so, he tells Molly he can’t sleep with her anymore. She sort of knew this might happen, so she tells him to leave – but accepts him with open arms when he comes crawling back, because he discovered that Jo had been sleeping with the smarmy politician she works with. Krueger can’t seem to decide what to do with Molly – mostly because Molly is only treated in reference to Cork. Molly is a foil to Cork’s marriage, so she must be pushed aside. Later, Molly is the only thing helping Cork to breathe, and so she must be returned to the story.
In one scene, Cork finally offers to do something for Molly – he begins to cook her breakfast. And even in that moment, Krueger can’t stand to see Molly cared for – she intercepts when Cork cuts his finger and says she will just finish it up, she’s gathered the idea of what he wanted to cook. I doubt that was a choice that was supposed to communicate so much about how fucking little he gave a shit about Molly – but honestly, the interpretation’s right there.
In the end, Molly is murdered. Her wildness was just something that wasn’t going to fit into any part of Cork’s world. Better to have her serve as a memory.
Telling the story of Molly is out of order with the rest of the story. Cork may not be the sheriff, but he’s still deeply involved in solving local crimes. It’s a small town, and he straddles the racial boundary lines between the Anishinaabe community and the white people who live around the reservation. The story incorporates elements of Anishinaabe myth, most especially the fear of the Windigo, and the facetious fears of white people who refuse to cede as much as a photograph negative to the hands of Native Americans.
I’m not much interested in reiterating all the details of the story. We do find out who murdered the judge, and others. Cork O’Connor’s wife Jo is punished for her affair by revealing her affair partner to be the sort of demented, crooked politician who will stop at nothing, including serial murder, in order to cover his illegal tracks on his path to political power.
The other female characters in the novel either have Alzheimer’s, are mildly retarded, or Krueger makes a point to say that they’re unattractive and therefore to be pitied. Jo’s sister Rose is her opposite – and she’s basically tied to their home, making milk and cookies for wayward Cork and his three children. It’s embarrassing how little self-examination there is in a book about a middle-aged man that must make any middle aged female a token troll or have her suffer.
The smarmy politician did it. The militia group was involved, folks trying to make money for their family via casino-earnings stretched too far, and Cork O’Connor remains a steadfast man of the law. His daughter decided to read Robert Frost instead of the Sylvia Plath she’s been digesting, and thus another female falls under his thrall. Cork O’Connor is a man among men. For my part, I’d rather see what the ladies are reading.