In Cold Blood

How did Minnesota become a hotbed for mystery writers?

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.”
 

 

Schulze is tall and soft-spoken, with wire-rimmed spectacles and a salt-and-pepper beard. He wears a gold ring in his left ear, and his sweet demeanor belies a deep and abiding passion for the genre of crime fiction. Schulze was a patron of the store when he first met his wife, Pat Frovarp, an employee. Eventually, he found himself timing his book-buying sprees to coincide with Frovarp’s hours; they fell in love, and Frovarp suggested they buy the store together. In 2007, five years after they purchased the shop, they were married in a tiny wedding among the shelves, exchanging vows just steps from the cash register.

Schulze and Frovarp have not only brought the writing community closer, but have also ended up with a few more books on their shelves as a result. Stanley Trollip, now half of the writing team known as Michael Stanley, shared his book idea with Schulze when the concept was still in infancy. Schulze connected him with a few local author groups and, eventually, Trollip returned to the store with not just a finished manuscript, but also a contract with a major publisher.

The respect of local writers for Schulze was never more evident than when he was in the hospital recently with leukemia. A crew of writers pulled together 24 stories for a fundraising anthology, which Schulze humbly calls “a tribute to the store.” Pete Hautman even schlepped a manuscript to the hospital to show Schulze, as did thriller writer Philip Donlay. “All these authors bringing in books,” Schulze recalls. “That impressed the hell out of the nurses.”

With so many local writers vying for readers’ attention, one might expect to find a competitive streak running through the scene. Instead, there is
collaboration and camaraderie. John Sandford has often mentored fellow former reporters cutting their teeth on crime fiction. Krueger is one of several local mystery authors who hold readings together as the Minnesota Crime Wave—almost as if such writers were serious about the hard-boiled trope of keeping your friends close and your enemies closer.

Krueger believes that the state’s genre writers are simply a subset of a larger community of writers in Minnesota who have garnered acclaim and from whom they draw inspiration, such as Garrison Keillor and Louise Erdrich. But he isn’t discounting the notion that the cold plays a role in building audiences as well as a writing community. “Spending a long wintry night consuming a good mystery,” he muses, “somebody’s got to feed that appetite, right?”

Local writers have managed to feed that appetite not only by building each other up but also by distinguishing themselves. Laura Childs writes “cozies”—books that feature hobbyist sleuths with innocuous daytime gigs and a taste for murder. In addition to writing a bestselling novel, The Kitchen Boy, under the pen name R. D. Zimmerman, Robert Alexander has devoted himself to mysteries about a gay television reporter.

The preternatural curiosity of the area’s many reporters turned authors also seems to have helped generate original plots for their books. For Stalking Susan, Kramer drew upon a couple of old cold cases she’d covered as a reporter many years ago. For Missing Mark, the story idea came from a classified ad for an unworn wedding dress.

Schulze enjoys nothing more than finding an audience for each of these various conceits, and it doesn’t hurt that he’s convinced of the mystery genre’s merits. Walking through his store, he pulls a novel off the shelf by the late James Crumley and excitedly points to the first page. “This,” he says, “is credited as being the best opening sentence of all time.” It reads, “When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.” Fireball Roberts, the alcoholic bulldog. Not bad.

“There are a lot of books just like this,” Schulze enthuses, eyes gleaming, “and I want to find every one of them.”

J. D. Nordell teaches poetry and creative writing in New York City.

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