In Allen Eskens’ novels, Minnesota is a dark, violent place. His recurring characters routinely wrestle with loss, loneliness and loathing as they work their way through the carefully plotted mayhem imagined by the lawyer turned mystery writer.
Eskens’ third book, “The Heavens May Fall,” is not exactly part of a trilogy, but it does follow a familiar pattern with familiar names. Minneapolis detective Max Rupert, who appeared as a stoic hero in Eskens’ first two offerings, tries to solve a grisly murder in a Kenwood mansion. He continues to grieve guiltily for not protecting his wife, killed in an unsolved hit-and-run four years before. Rupert’s brother, a fellow cop, has also died, and his best friend, lawyer Boady Sanden, has betrayed him by ably defending the prime suspect in the Kenwood case. Lila Nash, a young law student whose life Rupert once saved, is helping Sanden.
Everyone is sort of damaged goods. Rupert drifts toward self-destructive isolation. Sanden has quit practicing law because he screwed up the case of an innocent young man who then was murdered in prison. Lila, featured in Eskens’ first novel, “The Life We Bury,” bears physical scars from a savage beating where she was nearly raped and murdered.
Even surrounded by those who care, members of an Eskens cast seem emotionally numb, as if they have turned the old Minnesota ice cliché on themselves.
Some readers may crave more character development and depth. Eskens’ most fascinating fictive creation, Joe Talbert, the young hero of his first novel, merits only a passing reference here. Now engaged to Lila, Talbert has parlayed a journalism degree from the University of Minnesota into a job with the Associated Press and has taken in his developmentally disabled brother, all while supporting Lila’s dream of becoming an attorney.
Still, Eskens, a graduate of the University of Minnesota, Hamline University law school and the master of fine arts program at Minnesota State University, Mankato, has established himself as a master of show-don’t-tell. Images reveal character. Rupert’s visits to his wife’s grave on the anniversaries of her death are futile forays against silent suffering suffused in alcohol. Sanden’s regrets play out as he swims into the wall of a pool while thinking about his dead client during a workout.
The best part “The Heavens May Fall” is Eskens’ ability for most of the book to keep readers guessing what will come next and, of course, who did it. Those are hallmarks of great mystery writers. His spare prose drives readers through a nicely constructed narrative that twists and turns without much distraction.
The worst part of the novel is its too quick, too tidy and too predictable conclusion. It parrots the endings of Eskens’ first two books.
What seems clear is that Eskens structured “The Heavens May Fall” to offer a path to a fourth novel. For those who enjoy solid mystery writing that leads to happy endings for sad players, this comes as good news.
Jim Spencer is a Washington correspondent for the Star Tribune.
The Heavens May Fall
By: Allen Eskens.
Publisher: Seventh Street Books, 300 pages, $15.95.
Events: Book launch, 6 p.m. Oct. 4, Water Street Inn, Stillwater; book talk, 7 p.m. Oct. 6, Barnes & Noble, Mankato; reading, 7 p.m. Nov. 22, Magers & Quinn, Mpls