Everybody loves a good origin story, right? If you’re fans of S.D. Sykes’ Somershill Manor or William Kent Krueger’s Cork O’Connor mysteries, then you’re in for a treat. Both authors—after years of adventures with their respective sleuths—have turned back the pages of time to present their characters’ earliest adventures.
In Sykes’ The Good Death, set primarily in 1349, a teenage Brother Oswald de Lacy, who will one day become Lord Somershill, embarks on his first foray into detection after he discovers a petrified and abused young woman, Agnes Wheeler, in a forest. Agnes flees from him, and is subsequently swept away by a nearby river’s rapids and drowns. Upon returning her body to her own village, Oswald learns that she is but one of several young women who have gone inexplicably missing.
Oswald is in the process of becoming a monk at Kintham Abbey when Agnes’ death seemingly shatters his faith. Determined to learn who assaulted Agnes and what may have happened to the other women, Oswald embarks on his own investigation, much to the chagrin of both his own family and those in the brotherhood. After learning that Agnes may be his own brother's daughter, Oswald’s already tenuous devotion to the cloth is tested even further. With clues pointing to another monk at the monastery, Oswald grows increasingly unsure about who he can trust.
With the Black Death roiling through the countryside and forcing communities into isolation for fear of spreading the deadly disease, Oswald’s investigation becomes increasingly more difficult. Thankfully, especially for readers who want to avoid being reminded of the COVID-19 pandemic, the plague is only depicted on the fringes of events and is not a main element of the action. Instead, Sykes firmly plants readers in Oswald’s perspective throughout the story, easily evoking sympathy for his confusion, as well as his determination to discover the truth. Occasional chapters set 21 years later find Oswald revealing the sordid story to his mother on her deathbed, showcasing a deep connection between mother and son and their devotion to family, secrets and all.
In Lightning Strike, Krueger entices his legions of fans with a trip back to 1963, showing how Cork O’Connor developed his nose for the truth. At just 12 years old, Cork’s idyllic, carefree lifestyle in Aurora, Minnesota, is shattered when he discovers his mentor, Big John Manydeeds, hanging by a rope from a tree at the titular location, a cabin on the shores of nearby Iron Lake that was destroyed by lightning. The Indigenous Ojibwe people believe the destruction of the cabin was a sign from the spirits that the surrounding forest is sacred and shouldn’t be touched.
Cork’s father, Liam O’Connor, is sheriff of Tamarack County and seems convinced by the evidence at hand that Big John took his own life. A cache of empty beer bottles is found at Big John’s residence and his blood alcohol content is well over the legal limit, pointing to the inevitable conclusion that the man, who was recovering from alcoholism, must have fallen off the wagon again.
Cork, whose mother was Ojibwe and Irish American, isn’t so sure. For one thing, a shadowy sense of Big John’s spirit has begun to haunt him and several other Ojibwe people. For another, Big John had been sober for several years. Liam does little to discourage Cork’s questions about the death, perhaps because he has his own doubts about the circumstances surrounding it and perhaps because he sees something in Cork of the man he will become. He allows Cork to follow the breadcrumbs and let the facts lead him, pieces of advice that fans of the series will be thrilled to recognize as ones that follow Cork into manhood when he becomes sheriff.
But neither Cork nor his father, it seems, is quite prepared for the rising tensions between those on the Ojibwe Iron Lake Reservation, who knew Big John best, and the white community around them. Krueger deepens the mystery at every turn, ratcheting up both the plot reveals and pace of the story relentlessly before the stunning conclusion.
While longtime Krueger fans may long for another mystery featuring a grown-up Cork, they will quickly be won over by and embrace this excursion into Cork’s formative years. Krueger expertly blends his trademark mystery skills with a coming-of-age story that examines family, place and race.