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In Cold Blood

How did Minnesota become a hotbed for mystery writers?

In Cold Blood
Photo by Todd Buchanan

(page 1 of 2)

Julie Kramer quiets the crowd of middle-aged women nibbling cookies. “Thanks so much for coming,” the author says, as a hush falls over the group. It’s a Tuesday night, and the ladies have gathered at Once Upon a Crime, a mystery bookstore in Minneapolis, to hear Kramer talk about her second novel, Missing Mark. Surrounding her are lurid posters, bright with bloody illustrations, and shelves lined with books bearing titles like Dating Dead Men.

A tall woman with shoulder-length brown hair, Kramer comes across more like a sweet aunt than the author of hard-boiled crime fiction or, for that matter, the head of WCCO-TV’s investigative unit, which she once was. Yet Kramer is the newest member of a distinguished club of Minnesota writers making it big in a genre derided by some and revered by many: thrillers, mysteries, whodunits, crime fiction—books that make up a huge slice of the publishing industry’s billion-dollar pie.

Kramer, who won a Minnesota Book Award in 2009 for her debut novel, Stalking Susan, calls herself a mere rookie compared to the locals who rake in serious money and bestseller status with their crime capers. There’s John Sandford, the pseudonym of John Camp, a former Pulitzer Prize–winning Pioneer Press reporter who cranks out two detective novels a year from his home on the St. Croix River, collecting multi-million-dollar advances for each one. There’s Vince Flynn, whose Power series looks at current events through a right-leaning lens. There’s Pete Hautman, who won the National Book Award for the young-adult thriller Godless.

Elizabeth Gunn, the author of numerous mysteries featuring the detective Jake Hines, says it seemed like a “strikingly original idea” to set her books in Minnesota when she began writing them in the late 1990s. “Who else but me would set a mystery in such a peaceful place?” she once told a forum of local mystery writers. “Shows you what I know.” Now there are so many mystery writers here that when Once Upon a Crime recently hosted a meet-and-greet for them, invitations were sent to 95 authors.

Some states have more, of course: Florida, with some 250 members in the state chapter of the Mystery Writers of America, qualifies as the genre’s tropical clubhouse—a place for writers to work in chummy proximity to the retirees who devour their books. New York has many dozens of authors, as well. But both of those states are nearly four times as populous as Minnesota. As a percentage of the whole, Minnesota’s writers are doing well for themselves: Last year, three local writers were nominated for Barry Awards, among the genre’s most notable prizes.

Word of Minnesota’s exceptional community of mystery writers is getting out, says William Kent Krueger, who has won four Minnesota Book Awards for his crime fiction and was among the Barry Award nominees. “It isn’t the perception only of Minnesotans that we have an extraordinary number of fine crime writers here,” he says. “Astute readers all over the country seem to agree. And they, like us, wonder at the phenomenon.” Is it some heady combination of long winters and cheap pencils? A plethora of highly trained investigative reporters wriggling free from the harness of fact? Or is it because Minnesotans simply love books, as was recently noted when Minneapolis was ranked the most-
literate city in the country?

Even the spokesperson for the national Mystery Writers of America is at a loss, suggesting only that “in crime fiction, cold climates are attractive for dead bodies.”

Tucked somewhat secretively in the garden level of an apartment building in south Minneapolis, Once Upon a Crime has become a salon of sorts for mystery writers since its founding in 1987. The place is bustling—even as other independent bookstores are closing or struggling. In fact, the Twin Cities sustain not just one but two mystery-focused bookstores (the other is Uncle Edgar’s, also in Minneapolis). By comparison, New York has a handful and Seattle—which has often flip-flopped with Minneapolis for the title of “most literate city”—has three, while most cities get by with one or none. Wherever they live, mystery readers are especially compulsive—it’s not uncommon for the most dedicated to be reading as many as a dozen books at a time. Many make regular trips to Once Upon a Crime—and linger. “It’s like a barbershop,” says co-owner Gary Schulze. “People come in to shop, and then just hang out for a while.”

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