Thomas King’s Dreadfulwater Mysteries (Books 1 – 3)

Thumps Dreadfulwater. That’s his Indian name. No, wait, that’s his actual name. Which is when you know that you are not, actually, in Chinook, where Thumps Dreadfulwater solves cases. You are in Thomas King country.

Readers of King’s An Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America will not be surprised at the wit and tone of these novels: both King’s fiction and non-fiction can be equal parts gritty and entertaining, painful and hilarious.

The first two volumes in the Dreadfulwater series, originally published in 2002 and 2006, were republished last year in trade paperback volumes, in anticipation of the third volume, Cold Skies, newly published.

The mysteries are not as sharply funny as some of King’s other writing; readers are more likely to issue low-grade chuckles and snorty smirks than to burst out in loud laughter. But, throughout, there is a sense of needing to find another way to look at things – with a less-heavy heart – so that the injustices and disappointments which proliferate in the world do not overwhelm.

In each of the three mysteries, there is a concern which stretches both into the past and into the future, often with a political and/or environmental element to the events which unfold, which will impact key relationships in the community. (It’s unsurprising that The Back of the Turtle was published after the first two Thumps’ mysteries.)

But as with Gamache and Cardinal, what I most enjoy with these stories is the ongoing connection with Thumps and Freeway, his cat. King’s readers will recognize that dogs and their relations have held sway in his writing until now: Freeway holds court in Chinook.

Chinook is like Three Pines, with attitude. “Chinook didn’t have a temperature it didn’t like. Summers could send the mercury well above one hundred, while winter could find it huddled at thirty below.” [Book Two]

There are no lengthy landscape descriptions. In fact, there are no lengthy descriptions. Which is not to say that King doesn’t succinctly summarize. Say, for instance, this meal: “Thumps’s salad had a weary taste to it, as though it had been sitting alone in the dark too long.” That, you can taste. [Book Two]

And the pursuit of a resolution is not fast-paced. Despite being over 400 pages (with generous margins), these read like cozies, thought set in decidedly uncozy territory. Thumps is not a paid investigator; he’s a photographer with a knack for making enquiries. He has an incentive to unravel a mystery, but he’s not punching a clock.

“Thumps turned out of the driveway and pointed the nose of the car due west. Back to Buffalo Mountain Resort. Things were beginning to go in circles. Big circles. Little circles. In most Native cultures, circles were good. But for police work, circles were maddening Culture notwithstanding, Thumps was more than ready to stumble onto a straight line.” [Book one]

He spends a lot of time just musing on the possibilities. “Maybe that’s where the answers lay, not in the present but in the past.”

Thumps himself is struggling a little in the third volume, not only with the resolution of the case, but in a more general way. He has some health concerns; he is being pressured into taking a more active role in law enforcement while the powers-that-be are attending a conference; and, there are rumours that his sometimes-ladyfriend is sometimes seeing someone else.

The local bookshop owner considers the likelihood of Thumps finding success in the online dating world:

“I could sign you up,” said Al. “Successful photographer. Exotic ethnicity. Slightly overweight. Somewhat depressive. Possible health problems. Fixer-upper with potential.”

Then again, life is all about adjusting your expectations:

“Don’t suppose there’s any chance of matching this bullet to the gun we found at the motel?”
“Does this look like CSI: Las Vegas?”

One suspects that there is at least one other Dreadfulwater mystery in the works, as there are more references to the Obsidian Murders in this volume.

Five women, four men, and a child disappeared many summers ago – a group which included Thumps’ lover, Anna Tripp, and her daughter, Callie – and the killings started and stopped so quickly that the “police were left holding nothing but sand and fog”.

I would like to see resolution on this matter for Thumps, but I am also invested in the satisfaction of Freeway, whose life is ruled by belly-rubs and treats, simple pleasures on which I place great importance too.

What mystery series have you been reading lately? If you do not read mysteries, did you ever?



  1. TheLiterary Hoarders September 10, 2018 at 3:19 pm - Reply

    I took my parents and sister out to the Eden Mills Writers Festival on Sunday. Thomas King was reading from Cold Skies and he was one of my parent’s favourites of the day. The section of the book he read from was relatable and approachable to them. He had his crotchety professor way about him too – reading with humour and a twinge of sarcasm. He’s kind of like his character!

    He announced that they have optioned this to be a series and the audience clapped. He was VERY QUICK to point out that NO, he was not happy about it at all. He was not interested in watching the silver screen butcher his character, and then make expectations on him to crank out more and more books should the series be successful. But…he has said that he’s already written the next two in this series, so should he drop dead tomorrow, no worries – there will be more Dreadfulwater to read.

    I loved how you gave some comparison to the Gamache series — I guess I would find Dreadfulwater a lighter read in ways over Louise Penny’s more literary style writing? I read mystery series with Gamache being one of my absolute favourites – those and Elizabeth George’s DI Lynley series. Which reminds me of how exciting it is that a new Gamache is coming out at the end of November – just in time to make a wonderful birthday present!

    • Buried In Print September 10, 2018 at 4:08 pm - Reply

      Oh, I am wishing that I could have gone – especially as the weather was so nice and cool, unlike other years there for that event – but I have heard him read before at least. He is such a delight – humourous and down-to-earth. I can see what you’ve said, that he seems similar to Dreadfulwater: I suspect that’s true. Were their other favourite performers also humourous writers? I tend to remember the grim readings from that event.

      These mysteries are definitely lighter reading than Gamache (although I’ve only read three of hers – I’ve just fallen behind but I do enjoy them a great deal) if only because the chapters are sometimes only three or four pages long, so you really feel a sense of momentum (whereas I feel like I sink into Gamache’s world – not a bad thing, but a different feeling).

      It will make for an entertaining series, I’m sure, and I’ll happily watch. Although I can understand his resistance to the industry and all the complications that will/could ensure, surely it’s a positive thing to have an indigenous hero in a new TV series (let alone the money which would be associated with the options – fortunate overall, I’d say). I wonder who’ll play Freeway, the cat, how rambunctious those auditions could be! Mrrow.

  2. Debbie Rodgers @Exurbanis August 10, 2018 at 2:06 pm - Reply

    No, wait! Dreadfulwater is available in electronic form from Halifax Library. YAY!

    • Buried In Print August 13, 2018 at 4:53 pm - Reply

      I was going to suggest that you try searching under his nom de plume (as they were originally published under another name) but I’m glad you were able to find it after all. Don’t let the page count worry you – the chapters are short and the pace is steady.

  3. Debbie Rodgers @Exurbanis August 10, 2018 at 2:01 pm - Reply

    I’m currently reading the sixth installment in the Bruno, Chief of Police series set in Dordogne France. I do believe it is my favourite mystery series ever.

    HOWEVER, these sound very entertaining. I had no idea that King wrote a mystery series. A search of the entire provincial library system here reveals only “Cold Skies” and “The Red Power Murders”, but not the first volume. 🙁

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