William Kent Krueger is an “author’s author”; he is perhaps better known and read among literary critics and his peers in the trenches than he is among the reading public. While he has amassed a mantel full of awards for many of his novels, he also arguably has not achieved the commercial success that should accompany the sort of favorable critical recognition he has garnered. VERMILION DRIFT, his latest effort, hopefully will change that set of circumstances
Krueger’s beat is Minnesota, and his primary protagonist is troubled but dogged Corcoran “Cork” O’Connor. A resident of Tamarack County, Minnesota, for most of his life, Cork was at one point the county sheriff, a position that his late father, killed in the line of duty, held before him. Cork is now a private investigator, a vocation that sets VERMILION DRIFT upon twin tracks as the book opens. A local iron ore mine known as Vermilion has been shortlisted as a potential site for nuclear waste disposal, a situation that does not sit well with local residents and results in a barrage of protests accompanied by anonymous threats. Given his background in law enforcement, Cork is retained by Max Cavanaugh, the mine’s owner, as a security consultant.
Max also hires him to investigate a more personal matter. His sister Lauren, a mainstay in the local artiste community, has gone missing. Although Lauren is described by her brother as “flamboyant” and prone to vanish on a whim, this disappearance is different, given that she has been missing for an extended period with no credit card or cell phone activity. The issue is quickly resolved with the grisly discovery of several bodies in a long-forgotten tunnel in Vermilion One, which also reopens a cold case that had plagued the elder O’Connor’s career as county sheriff and caused an unfortunate rift between father and son.
A series of disappearances of Indian women in the area became known as “The Vanishings” and included a young Indian girl who was the subject of a serious crush on Cork, who came to feel that his father did not do enough to investigate. For Cork and his successor at the sheriff’s office, there are both old and new reasons for obtaining justice for the victims, not the least of which is that a murderer has apparently returned to Tamarack County after several decades and may well strike again.
VERMILION DRIFT is a significant entry in this long-running series. While much has gone before, Krueger does an excellent job providing newcomers with enough information, when and where it is needed, to get them up to speed. Much is revealed concerning the demons that Cork has been dealing with, so that his past is put paid to in a beautifully written scene that closes one door while potentially opening another. There is also the introduction of a new character whose arrival may herald a change for the better with regard to his personal life.
Longtime fans of Krueger will find their loyalty more than rewarded with VERMILION DRIFT, while readers who are new to the series will find this installment the perfect place to jump on. As for Krueger, it may be necessary for him to interrupt the writing of his next mystery just long enough to make some additional room over his fireplace. I have the feeling he is going to need it.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on June 3, 2011