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The North Shore seen through Norwegian eyes

Author Vidar Sundstol in Two Harbors. (Photo by Shea Sundstol, courtesy of the University of Minnesota Press)1 / 4
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The Minnesota Trilogy: Land of Dreams, Only the Dead, The Ravens

By Vidar Sundstol, translated by Tiina Nunnally

University of Minnesota Press

The Minnesota Trilogy is a series of contemporary crime novels set on the North Shore and written by a Norwegian, Vidar Sundstol, who lived in the region for two years. In October it was announced that a TV series based on the books is in development.

The books of the trilogy should be read in order; otherwise you'll enter in the middle of the story. About a third of it takes place in Duluth. The books were first published in Norway 2008-2011, so a it's a bit jarring, or nostalgic, to follow the characters to now-closed locations such as Central High School, the Kozy Bar and Last Chance Liquor.

The protagonist, Lance Hansen, is a middle-aged, third-generation Norwegian American. He has a failed marriage, a young Native American son, 40 pounds of excess weight and a humdrum job as a "forest cop" in Superior National Forest.

His life alters when he checks out a report of a tent pitched outside the designated campsites, only to discover a murder victim and a stunned survivor, both Norwegian, near Father Baraga's Cross in Schroeder.

The way Hansen reads the evidence, the likely culprit is his own younger brother. Even more strangely, the crime links to the disappearance of a revered Native American healer, Swamper Caribou, from the same spot ... in March, 1892. And as Hansen puts the historical evidence together, it appears that the culprit in healer's disappearance was a member of his own family as well. And he starts seeing the healer's ghost.

The inner struggle of a good man, caught between duty to his family and his job, turns into a collision between the scientific pursuit of information and the mystic native pursuit of truth that exists in the land of dreams.

All this happens here in familiar Minnesota, but Norwegian angst settles over the scene like a fine layer of snow that might have found its way through the logs or around the windows of a trapper's shack during a blizzard. It's our home seen through the eyes of a visitor.

Some details seem to exist at slightly oblique angles to reality, like all the crows flying south for the winter. (Some do, but many stay year-round.) We're to believe that our region is so homophobic that a closeted gay man would commit murder to protect his straight image. It's also a stretch that Hansen, who works in the wilderness and is an experienced hunter, would go into the woods without a compass and get totally lost in a thin strip of forest between Highway 61 and Lake Superior.

Hansen marries into a traditional native family from Grand Portage Band of Ojibwe. Given that Sundstol covers in detail the region's history, the absence of any mention of powwows, Hansen's son's living culture, is an odd omission, especially since Grand Portage hosts a large powwow every year.

Nonetheless, Sundstol has broken new ground in the mystery genre. His books are not Agatha Christie or Sherlock Holmes transplanted to Northern Minnesota. They are not even Tony Hillerman, moved north from the land of the Navaho and the Hopi.

His Norwegian mood permeates his North Shore like the bleak music of the Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg. The dark and supernatural world holds real answers that help solve real crimes. Clues and truths from the land of dreams contribute as much as science, logic and detective work.

And beneath the facade we accept as truth is Sundstol's dark reality of unspoken truths so dangerous that they can only be written in a language no one in the community can read, of illicit sex and darkened bars and the scourge of meth. There is ample fuel in that world for explosive rage.

Like all good mysteries, this one is hard to figure out before you reach the end. The first time I read the series I missed many clues because I discounted those from dreams and ghosts and unconsciously followed only the clues my rational and scientific mind allowed. It was only on the second reading that realized that I had to consider the spiritual clues. Perhaps that is the ultimate lesson.