Kent Krueger may have one of the longer streaks in series history. Book after book, his series remains fresh, thoughtful, and beautifully written, his newest novel, Red Knife, being no exception. I’d thought after last year’s beautiful Thunder Bay that he wouldn’t be able to top himself — but if that book’s theme was love, the theme of Red Knife is violence, and the destructive path it invariably, and irrevocably, takes. As the series has progressed the Ojibwe elements of the stories have grown; in this one, I think the theme is the most tied into the Native culture of any of the novels so far.
The book opens with a powerful scene of an Ojibwe war party 200 years ago. As Krueger tells his story, the elements of violence in the opening scene remain unchanged and are unhappily mirrored throughout the novel. The novel quickly fast forwards to the present and the life of Cork O’Connor, former sheriff of Tamarack County, Minnesota, and Cork’s new role as a P.I. for hire. Cork gets a note with a retainer and an invitation to meet with Alexander Kingbird, the leader of an Ojibwe gang known as the Red Boyz. Cork is reluctant but willing to meet Kingbird merely to see what he wants.
Cork is sure Kingbird’s desire for a meeting has to do with the recent death of Kristi Reinhardt, a drug related death her parents and many others in the community blame on the missing Lonnie Thunder, one of the Red Boyz. Alex wants Cork to set a meeting with Kristi’s father, Buck, in order for Buck to “have justice.” Cork reluctantly agrees, but finding Buck proves more difficult than he had anticipated. Before his hunt for Buck can truly get underway, the violence begins, and the community of Aurora begins to spin out of control.
Cork has never felt like more an outsider to me than he does in this novel. Of course the outsider is a classic mystery trope, and Krueger uses every inch of Cork’s betwixt and between position for emotional, and thematic, leverage. I think in writing terms this might be called taking no prisoners. Cork of course is the former sheriff, and though the department is friendly to him, he’s still not privy to every detail of their investigations. While white, he’s also half Ojibwe, the reason both the Natives and the Sheriff are willing to trust him to investigate things on the rez. And his wife, Jo, wants him to leave the whole thing to the police. But as Cork says to her:
“Jo, can’t you feel it? It’s like we’re standing on an ocean shore watching a tidal wave come at us. Something big and awful is taking shape and it’s going to hit this county and everyone in it. I can’t just stand by and let that happen.”
Of course the most classic of mystery tropes is the white knight, but Krueger has a thoughtful, compassionate and realistic point of view to apply to the white knight’s quest; no one comes through this story unscathed, and nor does this particular writer especially want you to. I think he wants us to truly consider the effects of all kinds of violence, whether it’s for a “good reason”, or part of a war, or merely out of the more traditional motives of revenge, lust and greed.
The measure of a truly good writer, however, is not that he makes you consider these themes as you’re reading the novel — as you’re reading the novel, you’re completely caught up in the story and the characters. But a truly good writer also doesn’t leave you alone after you close the book; he gives you something to think about and go back to. As one of the characters says “Life is war.” Krueger wants you to think about that statement as you read this book.