Review: “Lightning Strike,” by William Kent Krueger

“Lightning Strike,” by William Kent Krueger (Atria Books)

William Kent Krueger wrote a dozen Cork O’Connor mysteries before he turned to stand-alone novels. The second of these, “This Tender Land,” drew rave reviews and was on The New York Times best-seller list for weeks.

Now, in “Lightning Strike,” Krueger uses the lyrical writing of his stand-alone books in a Cork O’Connor prequel that is both a series mystery and an independent book — and, most likely, another best-seller.

In this latest work, Cork is 12, a happy outdoorsy kid who lives with his father, mother and Ojibwe grandmother. His father, Liam, is sheriff of Tamarack County, Minn., where Cork himself will be elected sheriff in 1989.

As Cork and his friend Jorge are on a hiking trip to earn a Boy Scout merit badge, they discover the body of an American Indian, Big John Manydeeds, hanging from a tree. Big John was a friend who taught Cork about the outdoors, and the boy is devastated. He refuses to believe the man killed himself.

Both Liam and the dead man were World War II veterans, traumatized by their memories of war.  Big John turned to drink, but with the help of the Ojibwe Mide, or wise man, he had licked his addiction.  Nonetheless, there are empty whiskey bottles near the feet of the dead man and a case of them at his house.  A toxicology report shows Big John was drunk. All the evidence points to suicide.  Still, like his son, Liam questions whether Big John killed himself. So do the Ojibwe,

Liam first suspects Big John’s brother, Oscar Manydeeds.  Oscar is a drunk who frequently fought with Big John.  He resents the implication.  The Ojibwe do, too. In fact, they claim no Indian was involved with Big John’s death and blame Liam for being racist for looking at Indians instead of white men. Even Liam’s Ojibwe mother-in-law and half-Ojibwe wife question his investigation. When Liam finds out Big John had an affair with the wife of a powerful white man, suspicion falls on the husband.

Meanwhile, the body of a young American Indian woman washes up in a nearby lake.  There are the remains of a rope binding her hands. Liam can’t help but wonder if there is some connection between the two dead people.

With the help of his buddies, Jorge, a Hispanic boy, and Billy, Big John’s nephew, Cork launches his own investigation. The site of the hanging, Lightning Strike, is a sacred Indian place, once occupied by a lumber company. (The Ojibwe believe lightning struck the operation for desecrating the site.) Cork senses the presence of Big John there and believes the man is telling him to find who killed him. Big John’s spirit is restless and can’t yet walk the Path of Souls, an old woman tells him. In his search for the truth, Cork asks for the help of the tribe’s Mide, who tells him to look for crumbs, like Hansel and Gretel.

“Lightning Strike” explores the tender relationship between father and son.  It is written with grace and understanding.  It is a stunning novel that will captivate readers even if they’ve never read a Cork O’Connor mystery.

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