When I think of South Dakota, I think of Little Town on the Prairie. I loved the “Little House” books growing up. I think of the rolling prairie grasses with vast tracts of farmland and small towns dotting the landscape here and there. The modern-day economics of a place like that, though, is something quite different.
Marek Okerlund left Eda County for brighter pastures and found it as a homicide detective in New Mexico. After losing his wife and unborn son to a drunk driver, he’s bringing his surviving child, Becca, back to where he grew up. The county can’t afford a full-time homicide detective, so Marek is supposed to just work part-time.
Karen Mehaffey is the acting county sheriff. Her father, Arne, was the sheriff until a stroke got him. He’s still pretty sharp, but spends most of his days in the house he shares with Karen. She seems to be a shoo-in for the sheriff position until Marek comes to town. Is he coming to take the job from her? To top it off, Marek is Arne’s half-brother and there’s bad blood in the family. No one in town expected Marek to make anything of himself, given who his father was and his past.
Marek hasn’t even moved into the house he’s renting when there’s a homicide. The operations manager at a local meat-packing plant was found chained to a fence and left to freeze in a blizzard. As they investigate the murder, the life of the rural poor and migrant workers who are exploited to keep the food supply cheap are exposed. Can they work together to solve the murder despite the family tension? Can Marek cope with the pressures of returning to his hometown and help his daughter along in her grieving process? Is he really thinking about taking the sheriff’s job?
M.K. Coker has written a great thriller for the beginning of this series. She introduces us to a wide variety of characters that make up the town in such as way that we get the feel for the rhythm of life there. Marek isn’t just concerned with the murder. He has many things going on in his life of which the homicide is only a part. Unlike other detective novels where the protagonist has the luxury of not dealing with their children until it’s convenient, we get Marek constantly feeling the pull of wanting to be there for Becca. He’s not so sure about leaving her under the watchful eyes of Arne on a regular basis, although Becca and Arne seem to being out the best in each other. He’s also dealing with moving into a home and getting things that he needs for it. The murder is there to be solved, but so is fixing his life.
Karen must deal with her own insecurities both as a sheriff and in trying to manage her own life which is filled with difficulties. She knows more than Marek the ins and outs of life in the County, but Marek brings a new insight to things they have accepted as “the way it is.”
Overall, this is an excellent first book. The characters have great depth without giving away everything there is to know about them. Even the supporting characters are interesting and not one-dimensional. Not everybody likes each other and many don’t get along at all. I wasn’t sure what was going on with the murder until the end and it gave me a new perspective of life on the prairie. It touches on socio-economic issues that many of us don’t want to think about if it doesn’t effect us directly. Do you know where your food supply comes from?
Characters are developed in a natural way with a good flow to what’s revealed about them. Small towns are generally where everyone knows everyone and people are related in ways that go back generations but are still remembered. That happens here without being tedious. The twist and turns of the mystery are a good buffer to all of the character development and nothing is revealed that doesn’t have a point of some sort.
I’m happy to see there are nine books in the series as I want more from these characters and to see them grow.