Minnesota author William Kent Krueger’s acclaimed mysteries have three things in common: location, location and location. Peruse his titles. He’s taken readers to “Manitou Canyon,” “Thunder Bay” and “Copper River,” all situated in the rugged realism of the North Woods, where private investigator Cork O’Connor has faced more than his share of trouble.
Krueger has also given us titles that drop a pin in the heart of the novel’s spiritual metaphor, like “Purgatory Ridge,” “Mercy Falls” and “Heaven’s Keep.” His latest title, “Sulfur Springs,” falls in the latter category: Sulfur Springs stinks of evil.
A small town in Arizona, it’s a scorching, desolate place where “predators” prey on “innocents,” where a “snaking byway” leads through Paradiso toward a “dark ugly scar” of a wall curving along the border with Mexico. Krueger may be mapping new territory in “Sulfur Springs,” but he’s still creating prime literary real estate.
The plot opens in familiar place for Cork — a missing person’s case. When Cork’s new wife, Rainy, gets a terrifying phone call from her son Peter, an ex-Marine and a recovering addict, she and Cork head to Arizona to find him. Cork’s good at tracking the lost and the missing, but in Arizona Cork’s alienation is as palpable as the desert heat. Peter has been keeping secrets from Rainy, and, it turns out, she’s been keeping her own “lethal” secrets from Cork. Less than two days into the search, the investigation explodes in a ball of fire. Secrets can be tinder.
Cork knows Rainy is shielding her past from him, but like the “long thorns or short prickles” of the native vegetation “whose barbed ends … drive you crazy trying to get them out of your skin,” he stands with Rainy and digs deeper until their personal investigation becomes a righteous one.
At first, Cork finds it difficult to navigate in Sulfur Springs, a “feudal system” where no one operates without the blessings of the families at the top, and things get worse when he uncovers Peter’s involvement in a dangerous network of “angels,” vigilantes, drug cartels and rogue Border Patrol agents. As bodies pile up, Cork sets an uneasy course through the violence, until he finally understands that this desert ground between mountain ranges “was not unlike the North Woods of Minnesota,” growing “the kind of life that could thrive in that soil and that climate.”
“Sulfur Springs” is a blistering Wild West mystery about the “weight of history” and how an unforgiving landscape can create ruthless people. But that need not be the case. Sometimes compassion can trump greed, and a “laugh” can be “exactly the sound a heart needs to hear.”
Carole E. Barrowman is a writer and a professor at Alverno College in Milwaukee.