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Michigan Mysteries

Copper River, William Kent Krueger, Atria, $24.00.

Copper River by William Kent Krueger

"You always struggle so hard to do the right thing. Nobody always does the right thing, Cork, not even you."

Kreuger's last book, Mercy Falls, ended with the rape of Cork's wife and the necessity of Cork's leaving town to protect his family. The new book, Copper River, takes up where that story left off and begins with the death of a young girl who has tried in vain to escape her own rapist. Krueger, like Cork O'Connor, then proceeds to set things to rights with the rest of the story. The underlying crimes in the book are all crimes against women, and the underlying strength in the book comes not from the injured Cork, but from the several strong women he portrays in this novel. There are three of them, and they are all memorable. Cork himself is literally "hobbled" (giving the women free rein) - he's been shot in the leg.

The first strong woman is his cousin, Jewell DuBois, a vet who can both hide Cork and tend to his injured leg. Jewell, then, attends to his physical safety. Attending to Cork's physical safety in another way is Dina Willmer, first encountered in Mercy Falls. She's ex-FBI gone private, and her law enforcement and detection skills more than rival Cork's. Since she's not "hobbled" as Cork is, she also serves as protection. The third "woman" is maybe the most interesting - young Charlene or "Charlie" is a friend of Jewell's son, Ren, and a force unto herself. Krueger sets her up by describing her fight with the school athletic department to be accepted on the football team; when it doesn't happen, she shaves her head. She's only in middle school so she's of course also struggling with her emerging sexuality as well as her concurrently emerging strong sense of self. Charlie has had everything thrown at her in life - an absent mother, an alcoholic father who ignores her, and a problem with bolting and running when something goes wrong. Jewell and Ren are a haven for her.

Jewell and Ren live in a group of cabins in the U.P (not unlike Alex McKnight's place over in Paradise) but they are unused, giving the injured Cork and the runaway Charlie a perfect place to hide. Like many of Krueger's other books, there's also a central "natural" metaphor - not just the beautiful writing about the natural world that occurs in every book, but an actual metaphor, much like the Windigo in the first Cork book, Iron Lake. In this book it's an injured cougar whose paw prints and scat have been excitedly discovered by Ren around the cabins - Ren's even made a cast of the print which he carries around with him. Ren, a budding artist, also uses the cougar in his art work (like most young people he wants to draw comic books) and the cougar becomes almost like a not unfriendly ghost that haunts the story.

This author has managed to change each book in the series slightly so, while they're all about Cork, they all have a subtly different feel. In the last book Krueger was working with a Gatsby metaphor, in this book, which is mostly told from the viewpoint of Charlie and Ren, the fierce moral sense that you feel when you're young is front and center. Cork is infected with it too, and it makes him somewhat inflexible. It infects the older women in the story - Jewell and Dina - in a different way. It makes them want to be fiercely protective of the children around them. And in the case of the cougar (a female) you feel like it's her that's literally unearthed some of the more horrible secrets in the novel for Cork to discover and act upon. Of course none of the metaphors or points of view overshadow what is a terrifically fast moving narrative that, while you are reading it, will have you thinking about none of these things. You'll just want to discover, along with Cork, what's going on in the tiny town of Bodine, and hope that Cork can get the death sentence hanging over him - imposed in the last book - lifted. The resolution completes a story arc that really began with Iron Lake in terms of Cork's and Jo's relationship; it'll be fascinating to see where this talented writer takes us next. (Robin)

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