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Why Minnesota produces so many mystery writers, settings

State's remoteness, coldness create suspenseful setting for books

By Chris Hewitt, Star Tribune
Published: January 27, 2024, 5:59am

MINNEAPOLIS — If you read mysteries, you might think most Minnesotans are either murder victims or suspects.

The Land o’ Lakes also is the Land o’ Mystery Authors, with dozens of Minnesota-set or -written titles annually: the macabre capers of P.J. Tracy, the rural mysteries of Marcie Rendon, John Gaspard’s crime novel for young people, Jess Lourey’s creepy thrillers, John Sandford’s procedurals, Brian Freeman’s Jason Bourne adventures and William Kent Krueger’s Up North books.

The Edgar Awards, the Oscars of mystery writing, have had at least six Minnesota recipients (including Ellen Hart, who was named a Grand Master, and the mystery-focused store Once Upon a Crime). The Mystery Writers of America boasts more than a dozen local members, and searching “Minnesota mystery writers” online returns an (incomplete) list of 51 scribes.

When it comes to figuring out why Minnesota has so many crime writers, the question is less whodunit than whohasn’tdunit? So we asked writers if they think there’s something especially mysterious about the state that they like to litter with corpses. Their ideas start with the temperature.

“We’ve had really popular mysteries in Florida, with Carl Hiaasen and Edna Buchanan and great writers in Southern California like Raymond Chandler,” said former Star Tribune writer Steve Berg, who recently published his first mystery, “Lost Colony: The Hennepin Island Murders.” “But if you think about where mystery writing flourishes now — England, Ireland, Scandinavia — it’s cold places. They seem to encourage people to take time to sit down to write and read.”

Mary Logue, whose “The Big Sugar” came out last year and who is working on two new books, said she does her best writing in winter, with no warm breezes or lake walks to lure her from her computer.

Weather factors heavily in her books, including “Frozen Stiff,” which begins in bright sun but shifts to a snow-covered corpse, something Logue couldn’t pull off in Phoenix.

The deep freeze is at least part of the appeal, too, for Allen Eskens, whose “Saving Emma,” published last fall, is his eighth Minnesota puzzler.

“If I have a character I need caught in a blizzard, I can’t do that in Arkansas. Also, here I have the ability to do a story about a metropolitan area but also a chase scene in the Boundary Waters or farm country,” Eskens said. “We have a lot of settings and a lot of atmosphere you don’t find in other places.”

A perception that there’s a living to be made in genre fiction, as opposed to loftier genres, may also come into play — as does Minnesota’s reputation as a literary haven. Logue recalls being asked to teach a romance/mystery/western class at the Loft Literary Center, one of the country’s largest writer- and reader-focused organizations.

“I said, ‘I can’t do that, but I could teach a class called Suspense, with espionage, cozies, thrillers and mysteries under one umbrella.’ So I taught it for, I want to say, 10 years. William Kent Krueger was one of my students, Pete Hautman was one of my students (between them, they’ve written 50 books) and (“Everything You Want Me to Be” author) Mindy Mejia was one at Hamline. So, it’s pretty much due to me, is what I’m trying to tell you,” Logue said.

Eskens believes the state’s reputation for good education creates strong readers and strong writers — writers who follow the time-honored dictum to “write what you know.”

“When I was an attorney, I spent a lot of time in St. Peter, representing patients there at the security hospital,” said Eskens, a lawyer in Mankato for 20 years before publishing his first bestseller, the Edgar-nominated “The Life We Bury,” in 2014. “But when I sat down to write about it, I realized I hadn’t been there for a while. I knew how to get in to see my clients, but I (needed to) tour the facility to get an understanding of how the hospital functions, how large it is.”

That research was readily available for Eskens, who lives in Cleveland, Minn. Same for Marcie Rendon, whose third Cash Blackbear mystery, “Sinister Graves,” came out in 2022. She is at work on a fourth installment and has a stand-alone thriller, “Where They Last Saw Her,” coming in August. Rendon knows she can draw on a whole state’s worth of material.

“People have said the land is almost as much a character as the people in my books, and I think that’s because I’m actually writing with places in my mind,” said the enrolled member of the White Earth Nation. “I’ve lived my entire life in Minnesota. It would be silly for me to set a book in Paris.”

Rendon thinks remote areas are more mysterious and surprising than cities.

“I grew up in northern Minnesota. It’s rural and isolated, and all kinds of things can happen. Because of the isolation, you can get away with things you might not get away with if you had a neighbor right next door,” Rendon said.

That remoteness can create a suspenseful atmosphere, Berg believes: “You wonder what’s lurking beneath Minnesota Nice. The Coen brothers have done a great job of turning that around and finding the sinister side of us.”

Gaspard notes that Minnesota Nice complicates writing a mystery series, however, because a suspect who turns out to be a nice person in one book can’t be a suspect again in the next.

Like the other writers, Rendon is reluctant to say Minnesota is more larceny-prone than elsewhere. But she does believe land can be haunted by its past, a theme emphasized by echoes of genocide in her first mystery, “Murder on the Red River.”

“I think there are places where the land carries memory. And there are places where that memory isn’t good,” said Rendon, when asked about historical trauma that lingers in lands stolen from Native people.

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“There is a place to exercise in Minneapolis, and every once in a while I think, ‘Oh, it’s close to me,’ but every time I walk into that building, I turn around and walk back out,” Rendon said. “I have no idea what the history of the building is, but there’s something there. Another one is a restaurant — a popular one, but it creeps me out.”

Her detective, Blackbear, uses those kinds of inklings to solve cases, often rooted in Minnesota history. Rendon, Logue and Gaspard all say they frequently hear from local fans who love to read about their (imaginary) neighbors being bumped off by (imaginary) Minnesotans.