The Northwest Angle is a fascinating section of Minnesota that has the distinction of being the only area in the continental United States that is north of the 49th parallel. William Kent Krueger uses this territory as a beautiful and dangerous backdrop to his latest Cork O’Connor novel, which is a crucial volume in the series.
"...the beautiful yet dangerous area contains many pitfalls and secrets, and, as is revealed at a few points through several people, not all is as it seems to be."
The catalyst of NORTHWEST ANGLE is a houseboat vacation that Cork, a former sheriff of Tamarack County, Minnesota, has planned as an implicit reunion for his extended family, including his three children and sister- and brother-in-law. Conceived with the best of intentions, the gathering at the remote Lake of the Woods turns into a near-disaster when a derecho strikes the area, leaving devastation in its wake. A derecho is a storm that forms suddenly and brings pitch black clouds and gale force winds with it. We’re not talking about the possibility of the threat of conditions that might lead to high winds. This is one of those giant storms that comes out of nowhere and causes your every action to be ruled by panic.
It catches Cork and his daughter, Jenny, off the radar, boating within a maze of islands. When the two become separated as the result of its fury, Jenny seeks a rough shelter on one of the islands and makes a pair of discoveries that are both grisly and heartbreaking. One is the body of a young woman who has been murdered; the other is an infant --- apparently the son of the murder victim --- who seems to have been concealed from her attacker by his mother. Jenny takes immediately to the child, forming a bond with him in part due to the loss of her own unborn child some years before.
Cork finds Jenny in the storm’s aftermath, but they barely have time to rejoice in their survival or puzzle over the child and his unfortunate mother before a mysterious stranger, apparently bent on covering up the evidence of the murder and finding the baby, comes after Cork and Jenny. While the man is scared off by the timely arrival of a search and rescue party, his presence hovers like a dark shadow throughout the book. The local authorities believe him to be a brooding and somewhat infamous local character named Noah Smalldog.
The dead woman fits the description of Noah’s sister, Lily, a simple soul who has had a life of trouble. The infant is believed to be the result of an incestuous relationship between Lily and Noah. Noah is a dangerous character, and what had begun as a family vacation quickly becomes a rescue operation as Cork and Jenny, who has become increasingly attached to the baby, attempt to rescue him from whatever plan Noah might be cooking up.
But the beautiful yet dangerous area contains many pitfalls and secrets, and, as is revealed at a few points through several people, not all is as it seems to be. By the end of the book, lives are changed --- some for the near term, others forever --- and what began as a beautifully written thriller is transformed into a tale of selfless love, redemption and hope, without losing an iota of the suspense promised at its inception.
Krueger’s writing has become more spiritual with each successive work, though not gratuitously so. He has not so much injected themes dealing with a higher power as woven them into the fabrics of his plots. Here, the discovery of an innocent and defenseless infant by Jenny O’Connor comes at a pivotal point in her life and supports the overall theme of the book that everything happens for a reason, as well as the concept that good can come from evil, and that evil can come from good. Krueger’s talent is that he can examine such subjects while maintaining an excruciatingly high level of suspense and tension, particularly in the first third and near the end of the book. For those who have yet to sample Krueger’s literary wares, NORTHWEST ANGLE is the place to start.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on September 8, 2011