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Book review: Sundstol sets tale of suspicion, family amid North Shore vistas

“Only the Dead”

When we last saw Lance Hansen, the crime at the root of “The Land of Dreams” had wrapped — at least procedurally.

A suspect is in custody for the death of a naked Norwegian tourist and life on the North Shore can return to its normal northern Minnesota pace.

A few dangling facts make Hansen, the forest cop who found the body near Baragas Cross, uneasy. He’s got a well-founded hunch that his brother, Andy, was involved with the crime — but he doesn’t plan to do anything about it.

Relations get extra awkward between the brothers in “Only the Dead,” the second book of the Minnesota Trilogy, which will be released by the University of Minnesota Press next week.

It’s deer hunting season, and the Hansen family tradition is coated in a buzzy layer of suspense. Lance believes Andy is a killer. But does Andy know that Lance believes he is the killer? Is Andy really the most suspicious Hansen in the family?

And is this the best way to sort through the mutual suspicion, buck hunting with big rifles?

By the way: Who is in whose crosshairs?

Lance just wants to bag the deer and develop a more distant relationship with his brother, but the fabled deer roaming this mostly quiet bit of woods remains elusive, meaning more passive-aggressive brotherly convos over picnic sandwiches and candy bars.

Interspersed are entries from the perspective of a long-ago relative who, according to lore, had a death-defying hike that led him to settle in northern Minnesota — a journey that Lance, a history buff, believes led Thormond Olson to cross paths with Swamper Caribou, a medicine man who disappeared about the same time.

Could murder run in the bloodlines?

This is a creeping-paced and suspense-filled follow-up that covers a very short period of time. Most of the movement happens in the final third of the novella-length story, when the target shifts and a layer of ice increases the level of difficulty.

“Only the Dead” has Sundstol’s signature descriptions of North Shore vistas.   

There are touches of quiet humor.

Late one night, Lance travels to near the Canadian border to meet with his former father-in-law. Willie, in this rare meeting, has something important to tell him. It’s a long story that turns out to be something akin to folklore about being so singularly focused that it negatively affects relationships.

So, what does this have to do with anything? Lance asks Willie.

“I forget now,” the old man replies.

Sundstol, from Norway, spent two years living in Two Harbors while his wife worked for the U.S. Forest Service. He told the News Tribune in 2013 that he knew he would set a novel here, but didn’t begin until after he had left the area.

“Somewhere along the interstate, there is a place where the lake suddenly appears,” he said. “That did something to me, the sight of that large, grey (lake). I knew immediately I’d have to write something about it.”

The first book of the trilogy won the Riverton Prize for Best Norwegian Crime Fiction. Then, copies in the original Norwegian began circulating in northern Minnesota. University of Minnesota Press picked it up for publication, drawn by the popularity of the Nordic crime genre — and its low body count — and the regional writing, a regional trade editor told the News Tribune in 2013. The translation by Tiina Nunnally got a mention in the New York Times Book Review and Kirkus Review, and Publisher’s Weekly both gave it a starred review.

“The Raven,” the series finale, is scheduled for release in spring 2015.

“Only the Dead”

Author: Vidar Sundstol, translated by Tiina Nunnally

Publisher: University of Minnesota Press

Pages: 152