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.