There’s something sinister about the Midwest. Whether it’s the endless, parched horizon of Nebraska or the white-out snow of a Minnesota blizzard, this is a region where, in most places, no one can hear you scream. Those of us who live here know resilience; we know independence, and we understand what it means to be alone in the dark. Maybe that’s why the Midwest breeds such top tier crime writers. If you’re new to the genre, or just looking to venture into the Tell-Tale Heartland, here are a few great places to start.
Monkeewrench by P.J. Tracy
The initial book is this international bestselling series by mother/daughter writing team P.J. and Traci Lambrecht is much like the Twin Cities itself, character driven thrills that nod to the clichés with Midwestern humor and a bright, innovative edge. The Monkeewrench software company is caught in the middle of an investigation when someone begins recreating the murders of their newly developed serial killer video game. Long-time fans will be happy to hear that, after P.J’s passing, Tracy is continuing to write the detective procedural series. Her next installment, The Guilty Dead, will be on sale September 11 in the US.
Arrowood by Laura McHugh
The sophomore novel from this award-winning Missouri-based writer pairs the demise of small town America with the decay of our own memories. Arden Arrowood inherits a family mansion on the Mississippi River in southern Iowa, a home haunted as much by water as by the disappearance of her twin sisters two decades ago. A town of faded glory, Keokuk’s prosperity peaked with the riverboat trade and now has a dwindling population and shuttered factories, deep echoing the erosion of rural and agricultural towns across the Midwest. This superbly written psychological suspense brims with quiet intensity as Arden’s narrative of the tragedy slowly unravels to reveal the horrifying truth about what happened to her sisters.
Sulfur Springs by William Kent Krueger
It’s one thing to meet a Midwesterner in the Midwest, but you might not understand the strength and stoicism in their bones until you take them out of the Heartland. Every place is a great place to start with Krueger’s Cork O’Connor series, but last year’s entry is a particularly good introduction. Most mysteries hinge on the idea of an outside force disrupting the accepted order and usually Cork O’Connor is a pillar of that order in the North Woods of Minnesota, but Krueger turns the tables and makes Cork into the outsider, the catalyst who forces a reckoning between a multitude of handily drawn players in the vicious world of border trafficking in the Arizona desert. Cork is a stranger in a strange land here and, for a reader who may feel the same, it’s the perfect way to find affinity with this resilient and spiritual private investigator.
The Round House by Louise Erdrich
It’s impossible to talk about the Midwest without tracing the vast territories of Ojibwe, Lakota, and Dakota into the scattered remains of the tribal lands of today. This National Book Award winner may not be considered crime fiction by most, but Erdrich utilizes every pillar of the genre to tell a heartbreaking coming-of-age story. Joe, the thirteen-year-old son of a tribal judge on a North Dakota reservation, decides to hunt the unidentified man who brutally attacked and raped his mother. Sexual awakening meets sexual violence and murky legal grounds give way to the absolute jurisdiction of Native spirituality in this dark masterpiece.
The Day I Died by Lori Rader-Day
Award-winning author Lori Rader-Day’s third novel follows a reclusive handwriting expert trying to help locate an abducted child while keeping her own past buried. The small towns housing the heroine’s past and present are pitch-perfect examples of Midwestern life, places without pomp or pretense bordered by cornfields and lakes hidden in stands of pines. Even as the protagonist runs from her hometown, she becomes drawn inexorably back to that place in the Heartland so many of us know, where friendliness lives next door to violence and nothing is forgotten.
Every Last Lie by Mary Kubica
The master of suspense consistently sets novels in her native Chicagoland and Every Last Lie is no exception. Meet Nick and Clara, a suburban middle-class couple expecting their second child. Nick is a dentist. Clara helps with her aging parents. They appear to embody every quaint Midwestern stereotype, but Nick’s sudden and suspicious death shatters the illusion. Told by both characters in alternating timelines, Kubica unearths the depths of domestic lies to see how far we are willing to go to preserve the myth of the American dream. Fans of Kubica’s oeuvre can also look forward to her next release, When the Lights Go Out, on sale September.