My mother-in-law, being the kind person she is, loves to buy me books and frequently does so on my birthday and other gift giving occasions. This Thanksgiving we visited my in-laws in Northern Minnesota and she insisted that I let her buy me a book; she even allowed me to pick one out at the local book store. I decided to pick a book in keeping with the holiday spirit and the fact that I was visiting the North. The book I found, Season’s Revenge, seemed to fit.
The book, written by Chicago Sun-Times book editor and literary columnist Henry Kisor, centers around a mystery in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The main character, deputy sheriff Steve Martinez, is puzzled why a skilled hunter and camper – the victim, Paul Passoja, is also the wealthy and powerful town patron – would allow himself to be killed by a bear. Particularly puzzling is the bacon grease smeared on his tent. Was this just a random bear attack or something more sinister? Despite these questions the case is soon closed and marked down as a tragic accident. But Steve just can’t help wondering about that bacon. This loose end leads Martinez to pursue his own investigation and in the process discover a great deal about the community he calls home.
What makes this book interesting, however, is not the basic mystery plot; although that is certainly intriguing. What makes the book unique is that it uses the mystery as a device to explore issues more common in a traditional novel. Steve Martinez turns out to be an full blooded Lakota or Sioux Indian (Native American in today’s language) that was adopted and raised “white” by a family in upstate New York. His love interest, Ginny Fitzgerald, is the town historian but she has an interesting past as well, one that that is slowly revealed as the story unfolds. Besides the main characters there are a number of smaller ones that play key roles in the story as well. There is the beautiful, and much younger, wife of the victim. There is Steve’s sexually and socially aloof co-worker who has a soft spot for abused children and a barely controlled rage for those who abuse them. There are barkeeps, odd recluses, and, bear experts. All of these characters come together to present an interesting and effective setting.
The setting of the story, Porcupine County Michigan, is in many ways a character in the story as well. Kisor does a great job of capturing the people and history of this far away (mentally if not geographically) place. He explores the motivations for the people who grew up there, and the newcomers who moved there, with obvious care and fascination. He delves into their history not just their daily lives touching on the complex events that led to this part of the country being populated with so many Finnish immigrants. In many ways these details are not strictly necessary to the plot of the mystery but they make the story richer and deeper. Too often mysteries involve simple characters that are almost caricatures, Kisor creates real people with a history.
So as the mystery continues to play out, the relationships of the characters develop and interconnect. Martinez wrestles with his divided identity and his place in this hard-headed and yet close-nit community as he pursues a relationship with Ginny. As their relationship develops, bits and pieces of information and clues are coming together that point toward a more sinister explanation for the death of Mr. Passoja. To keep the story from getting bogged down, Kisor throws in some twists and turns. These plot twists, despite their often unexpected nature, slowly turn up the heat on the story without seeming gratuitous or ridiculous. Kisor also mixes in some modern issues like race, the drug war, the Soviet oppression, and even sex but it doesn’t feel forced or out of place. Because the characters are real the issues are real. Kisor certainly isn’t preachy or moralizing, but his characters do wrestle with complex social issues.
Take an intriguing mystery, add in well developed characters, and place it in a unique setting and you have the ingredients for a good old fashioned story. And at its basic level that is what is enjoyable about Season’s Revenge. Despite only being a couple of hundred pages, it is a good story with believable and interesting characters and a subtle portrait of a unique part of this country. I know Mr. Kisor is probably a busy man but I am sure his readers are eagerly awaiting his next book. In my opinion, Steve Martinez – and the folks of Porcupine County – would make a fine central character in an ongoing mystery series.