Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. As I’ve often mentioned on this blog, a strong sense of place can add a great deal to a story or series. Readers familiar with the setting feel a connection with the story; those who aren’t familiar with the setting can learn more about it. That’s the case for David Housewright’s Rushmore McKenzie series, so let’s take a closer look at it today and turn the spotlight on Unidentified Woman #15, the twelfth entry in that series.
McKenzie is a former police officer for the St. Paul (Minnesota) Police Department. Having come into a great deal of money (see the first novel, A Hard Ticket Home, for the story behind that), he’s done what many people might do, and left his job. Now he works as an occasional private investigator.
One evening, he and his partner Nina Truhler are on a stretch of highway between Minneapolis and St. Paul when a pickup truck cuts in front of them. A man in the truck gets into the truck bed, opens the tailgate, and dumps out the body of a young woman. McKenzie avoids hitting the woman, but in doing so, starts a chain reaction of accidents, leading to a major traffic pileup. By the time everything’s cleared up, the truck is gone.
The woman, though, is still alive. She’s rushed to the hospital where she slowly starts to heal from her injuries. However, she has no memory of the accident, or even of her identity. She has no idea what happened, and can’t be helpful. But it’s obvious that someone wanted her dead, and may still be after her. So McKenzie’s former colleague and long-time friend, St. Paul Police Commander Bobby Dunstan, asks for some help. He wants the young woman to stay with McKenzie and Truhler for a short time, until he can track down the people responsible for what happened to her.
McKenzie agrees and the young woman (they call her Fifteen, since she doesn’t know her name) settles in. All goes well enough for a short time. Then, Fifteen suddenly leaves. Then there’s a murder. And another murder. Now McKenzie and Dunstan have two problems. One is, of course, to find out who committed the murders. The other is to find Fifteen.
One possibility is that the two cases are not connected. But the more likely one is that they are. And if so, either Fifteen is a killer, or someone else is, and could very well be looking for her. But without even knowing her name, it’s going to be difficult to find out the truth. In the end, though, and with a bit of luck, McKenzie and Dunstan, each in a different way, get to the truth about who Fifteen is, why she was targeted, and what’s behind the killings.
This book is set in the St. Paul/Minneapolis area, as well as some parts of rural Minnesota that are north of the Twin Cities. Housewright places the reader there in several ways. There is, of course, geographic description. But there’s also a sense of the local culture. For example, hunting (and therefore, shooting) are important parts of life in that part of the US. As McKenzie starts to trace Fifteen’s whereabouts, he also wants to know whether she could be the killer. To do that, she’d have to be able to shoot. So McKenzie asks a potential witness about it:
‘‘Can she shoot a rifle?’
‘This is northern Minnesota,’… ‘Everyone hunts up here. Everyone can shoot.’’
In other ways, too, both subtle and more obvious, Housewright conveys a sense of life in Minnesota.
As fans of this series know, the stories are told in first person, from McKenzie’s perspective. So we get a sense of his character. He has a genuine streak of compassion. He’s in the sort of financial position that would allow him to do whatever he wanted, really. But he’s still willing to help out when his skills are needed. And in this particular case, he does show compassion for Fifteen.
He’s no paragon of virtue, though; he’s much more pragmatic than that. He doesn’t always remember to mention it when he gets information in ways that aren’t strictly ‘by the book.’ And there are people who would say that the way he got his fortune wasn’t exactly virtuous. Still, he has a sense of integrity, and he works reasonably well, both with his former colleagues in St. Paul, and with the Minneapolis police. In fact, he has respect for them (he was, after all, one of them), and they don’t automatically assume that he’s up to no good. Readers who dislike ‘patch wars’ and constant tension among police departments, and between the police and private investigators, will appreciate that.
There is a wry wit in the novel, as well. For instance, at one point, Fifteen makes a sort of awkward advance on McKenzie (which he firmly but kindly rejects, and for which she is regretful). Here’s the conversation he later has about it with Nina:
‘‘Were you ever going to tell me that Fifteen hit on you?’
‘She didn’t actually hit on me. It was more like she was testing the waters. You can’t blame her – I’m such a fine figure of a man. Besides, if I told you about every attractive woman that tried to pick me up…actually, now that I think about it, it would be a pretty short conversation.’
‘Let’s keep it that way.’’
That said, though, this isn’t what you’d call a light, comic novel. The story behind the murders is not a happy one, and Housewright doesn’t gloss over the fact that people have been killed. There’s violence, too, although it’s not brutal or extended. And there aren’t really ‘heroes’ and ‘villains,’ either. As one characters says:
‘‘We all kept secrets. We all did good things for bad reasons and bad things for good reasons. We all screwed up…There were no good guys in any of this, were there?’’
It’s also worth noting that this is the twelfth novel in the series, so there are ongoing relationships among the characters, and personal history. That said, though, the mystery that’s at the core of the story is self-contained. Readers who don’t mind starting with a later entry in a series will appreciate that.
Unidentified Woman #15 is a quintessentially Minnesota story. It features a sleuth who reflects the context, and a mystery that has its roots in greed and in some of the characters’ history together. But what’s your view? Have you read Unidentified Woman #15? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 18 April/Tuesday, 19 April – The Page Three Murders – Kalpana Swaminathan
Monday, 25 April/Tuesday, 26 April – The Cask – Freeman Wills Crofts
Monday, 2 May/Tuesday, 3 May – Nefarious Doings – Ilsa Evans