A copper mine is on the verge of opening near Ely. Protestors and mining supporters line up on opposite sides of the street, chanting familiar refrains of jobs vs. environment. Then an explosion rocks the mine site, killing two workers. Sabotage by eco-terrorists? Or criminal negligence by the mining company?
"Boomtown" is the latest novel by Duluth-area writer Mark Munger, who is also a District Court judge in St. Louis County. This is his 10th book, his seventh novel and his fourth to feature Sheriff Deb Slater, the fictional head cop of Cook County.
Slater is involved here as a member of a task force trying to keep peace between the opposing factions. Her efforts to uncover to the truth are hampered by the corrupt St. Louis County attorney and the Republican governor who got elected with the help of donations from the mining company.
The lead suspect among the environmentalists is Cyrus Oliphant, an aging activist who anonymously writes a threatening letter to the governor and stockpiles fertilizer. On the mining side the culprit may be Neal Yost, the safety director whose competence is in doubt.
Also on the case is Dee Dee Hernesman, an Ely lawyer. She's out for justice but the judge forces her to be co-counsel with a slick Iron Range lawyer, Kat Carpenter, who's in it for the money. For help Hernesman relies on her former mentor turned alcoholic loser, Danny Aitkins.
Meanwhile Slater is newly widowed and her daughter, on a scholarship at Cornell, turns up pregnant. Hernesman is a proud lesbian who just got dumped by her longtime partner and she sets her eyes on an exotic young folksinger. And will Aitkins drink himself to death?
At his best Munger, like John Grisham, makes the nuts and bolts of law both entertaining and sneakily educational. The details on mining are also well-researched and fascinating.
Still, I hesitate to call the book a thriller. There's one action scene, in which Slater has a shootout with a creepy backwoods denizen, but it has nothing to do with the mine. Character development, local color and subplots can enhance a story, but here it becomes cluttered, distracting and a drag on the momentum.
The book opens with a teen girl in a hunting stand. We learn all about her background and that of her family, so we expect she'll be a major character. She hears the explosion (all too efficiently described as "Boom!") from a distance. Later she shows up briefly to tell the police what she heard, then drops from the story entirely.
Many, many other characters similarly pop up and disappear all the way through the last chapter, adding little other than a confusing cavalcade of names. If Dorothy Gale landed in Ely instead of Oz she would have the same reaction: "My! People come and go so quickly here!"
Slater, Hernesman and Aitkins all appeared in Munger's earlier books. He's creating a universe spread over multiple volumes, touring the lives of Northlanders. Those familiar with his oeuvre won't mind, but the uninitiated may find the diversions frustrating.
"Whether 'Boomtown' is the end of my efforts to become an established author or a new beginning remains an unanswered question," Munger wrote in a Duluth News Tribune op-ed piece last March. I doubt he'll give up; one does not simply become unbitten by the writing bug. I'm intrigued enough to pick up more of his work, but I'm hoping for more focused storytelling.
“Boomtown” is available at the Bookstore at Fitger’s and at cloquetriverpress.com. A book launch will take place 7 p.m. on Sept. 22 at Spirit of the North Theater in Fitger’s.