William Kent Krueger: Heaven’s Keep

“The mountains became deep blue in the twilight, and the canyons between were like dark, poisoned veins. Though the sun had dropped below the rest of the range, it hadn’t yet set on Heaven’s Keep, which towered above everything else. Its walls burned with the angry red of sunset, and it looked more like the gate to hell than anything to do with Heaven.”

If you’ve been following Cork O’Connor as I have, since the first book in this fine series, it’s almost hard to separate one from the other. In a steady stream since the publication of Iron Lake in 1998, we as readers have been treated to the arc of Cork O’Connor’s life, and by association, the life of his family. In the first book, Cork and his wife Jo are estranged; she’s been having an affair. Painfully and slowly, through the course of the next five or so books, the O’Connors draw back together. With Heaven’s Keep, Krueger brings the circle to a close with Jo’s death.

I’m not giving anything away as this is the opening prologue that sets the story, and it’s on the jacket. And as I finished the book, it made sense in a way. Through the books Jo and Cork’s children have grown—this book ends with Stevie, a scared, kidnapped little boy in the standout Purgatory Ridge—morphing into 13-year-old Stephen, who, with the help of Henry Meloux, has become a man.

While many series books have a type of shorthand that develops over time to more or less “set” the characters, and Krueger in fact has a set of recurring characters, one of the things this novelist is absolutely brilliant at is differentiating the novels, one from another. In a way, they could all be standalones. While of course it’s been more satisfying to me as a reader to have read all of them (in order!) I don’t think it’s necessary. This cannot be said of every mystery series, and it’s truly an achievement.

I think this is because each novel has a theme—with Thunder Bay, the theme was love; with last year’s excellent Red Knife, the theme was violence and its ripple effects; with Heaven’s Keep, most obviously, the theme is grief. The cause of Jo’s death is a small plane accident in the Wyoming Mountains; nothing else is clear. Dealing with a sudden and unexpected death is difficult enough, but not knowing what exactly happened or even where the wreckage might be makes it tougher. There’s no body to bury; no traditional “closure.” Finding Jo is a journey Cork decides to take with Stephen.

Jo had been with a group of representatives from different Native American associations (she’s a lawyer) who were deciding on some type of oversight committee for a new casino. Nothing in the meeting or agreement seems controversial, but Cork, of course, can’t just let Jo go. He and Stephen try their best to find her immediately after the crash, with little success, but as time moves forward there seems to be more to the story, and it’s brought to the fore by the widow of the pilot, who is being sued by the families of the other passengers as it appears he had been drinking.

The effortless (well, it feels effortless to a reader, anyway) way Krueger builds a story, layering suspense and character development, emotional entanglements and meaning with pure adrenaline laced storytelling, is the work of a true master of his craft. All the elements that make this author a standout—character, plot, setting (in this case the Wyoming Mountains especially) and gorgeous prose tie together as a seamless whole. The real masterstroke is that all the books all tie together as a whole. These novels are a real achievement, and Krueger can’t really be compared with other contemporary mystery writers. He’s totally original.