Dead in Dakota: The Mysteries of MK Coker

I read myself to sleep every night. Ideally, my bedtime reading is a mystery that lifts my mind away from the subjects of my own writing and eases me into rest.

For some reason I no longer remember, because I am not trying to break any speed records, I write down the title of each book I read, many of them mysteries. My records show, for example, that I read 367 books in 2011.

Classics like the Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey series by Dorothy L. Sayers, Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford series, and whodunits by John Creasey, Elizabeth Lemarchand, Margery Allingham, Gwendoline Butler, Georgette Heyer, and Michael Innes have helped me to rest for years. The Brother Cadfael series written by Ellis Peters (Elizabeth Pargeter) have made me laugh and taught me about history on the Welsh border between 1135 and 1145. The names flow past: Ngaio Marsh. Arthur W. Upfield. Reginald Hill (Dalziel and Pascoe.) Martha Grimes (Richard Jury). Jonathan Gash (Lovejoy, a British antiques dealer with flexible morals). In 2012, I read 345 books, but only 344 in 2013.

Among more modern writers I like both Laurie King’s Mary Russell and her Kate Martinelli series. Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher allows me to picture myself driving her Hispano Suiza at unwise speeds through the curves of the Black Hills, and the Corinna Chapman books, centering on a bread baking heroine of real human proportions, always makes me hungry. Sharyn McCrumb’s Elizabeth MacPherson series are hard to find, as are her unusual novels set in the Appalachian South, but I persist. I only buy books I’ve read and enjoyed once and am sure I will re-read, so I just bought all of Jane Langton’s Homer Kelly series. I own most of both Ann Perry’s William Monk and her Thomas and Charlotte Pitt series. Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody books are on one shelf and Louise Penny’s Three Pines books will soon occupy another. Elly Griffiths has given me an acquaintance with Ruth Galloway, a slightly overweight archaeologist, whose humanity keeps me coming back. The historical density of the sixteenth century settings of Cora Harrison’s series featuring a female judge in Ireland keeps me turning pages, though their weight and detail may be why I read only 260 books in 2014.

If you recognize any of those names, you know I read writers who love language, and who use scholarship and humor at least as much as criminal activity to entertain their readers. While plot and characters are important, eloquence can keep me reading even if I lose track of the action. Conversely, spelling and grammatical errors cause me to startle the dogs by hurling the book across the room. (To my friends at various libraries: if the book belongs to a library, I write a sticky note pointing out the error, tuck it in the book and place the book gently on the floor.)

When the discards that I own pile up in the corner of my bedroom, I toss them down the stairs into the box that I’ll take to the secondhand bookstore to trade in on better books.

Now that I have established the seriousness of my interest in mysteries, here’s the punchline: I’ll never sell my copies of the South Dakota mysteries by MK Coker.

MKCokerBookGroup

SPOILER ALERT — though the comments below do not reveal any critical information about whodunnit, they do mention a few plot and character developments in each book that may spoil your speculations about the future. Proceed at your own risk.


 

In Dead White, the first in the series, we met Detective Marek Okerlund as he drove through a Dakota blizzard with his pickup door open far enough so he could see the interstate’s center line. I’ve driven in storms like that, so I was hooked by the accuracy of the description. By page two, the reader has been ushered into the town of Reunion and the presence of Sheriff Karen Mehaffey, whose experience as a police dispatcher has spurred her to hire Okerlund, a more qualified detective. Already the reader is wrapped in the storm and the intertwined relationships typical of a small Dakota town like that where the author grew up. I live in the western half of the state, but I went to school in the part where these books are set, so I was ready to pounce on any wrong note, in spite of the fact that the book was autographed to me by the author.

By page 3, as the blizzard howls, the story had captured me as completely as the dying man who had been chained to the barbed-wire fence. Hired by Sheriff Karen because he has the experience she lacks, Detective Marek Okerlund had arrived with a silent daughter and a shadowy past. As Coker began to populate the mystery with a cast of characters that are varied but believable, I found myself slowing my reading, both to keep the players straight and savor the writing. As is clearly indicated by the number of books I read each year, I can finish some light mysteries in an evening. The Dakota books take longer, but they are worth it.

In each book, several small stories play out against the broader backdrop of the mystery, but all fit into a portrait of a small town woven together with generations of interaction, with loves, hates, disagreements and blood. Still, the writing is tight and always pointed toward the outcome, even while the story appears to ramble all over the landscape. Everyone in town fulfills several roles; the town drunk may also be the town comedian or a news reporter; the minister may coach the basketball team. I know Coker was not on the playground where I learned how to make my place in the rural heartland after moving there from a city—but the writing touches on my memories because the author knows what went on there.

Dead Dreams, the second book in the series, brings a failed actor back to his home farm just in time for the murder of his mother, who has been declining mentally and is surrounded by city sharks who hope to use her land for the disposal of hazardous waste. Coker was able to draw on actual events in the state’s history to lend credibility to the story; South Dakota officials have fallen for the lure of “money and jobs” in several instances, to the detriment of our citizens.

Similarly, every plot is linked to authentic problems that confront Dakotans and other citizens of the plains. These difficulties sometimes center on situations typical of the region and connected to its latitude, like a blizzard or a flood. At the same time, each book features a problem that is associated with a broader view. In each case, the author has researched actual events and skillfully woven them into the story, while creating a foundation of typical Dakota behavior.

Dry Dakota humor is an integral part of the writing in these books and I find it impossible to describe out of context. Dakotans, and some others, will chuckle as they recognize landmarks in local culture. The one finger wave in Dakota is not the same as the one finger wave in some other areas of the country, for example.

Coker interweaves characters and social commentary in a dense forest of writing, but always keeps the underbrush clear so the reader can follow the path of the plot. Each book leads us deeper into the thicket of relationships that typify every small community; everyone is related to everyone, or has a history with everyone else. Except for the Bosnians in the basement. In each book, the author leaves just enough questions to lead us cheerfully onward to the next.

Dead Wrong opens with a dead man who was headed the wrong way at the exit ramp for Reunion, South Dakota, but his death may be accident, suicide or homicide. Complications include a new female pastor who is a widow, an illegal immigrant or two, and someone who pulls the plug on the Sheriff’s husband, who has been in a coma for years. Naturally, the Sheriff falls under suspicion, which complicates her murder investigation, as do the meth addicts. Coker’s plot is enlivened by two women basketball stars known as the Twin Towers. She slips in a good word for grass-fed beef and a dig at a former governor of South Dakota who blew through a stop sign and killed a motorcyclist.

The murder that launches the fourth mystery, Dead Quiet, is announced via horse and buggy, and occurs in the peaceful German Anabaptist community near Reunion. This mystery is so full of tricky situations it opens with a family tree revealing that Sheriff Mehaffey is related to members of the secretive sect; the author admits on her website that she needs a family tree to keep the relationships straight for herself. As always, the plot is decorated with references as varied as Shakespeare and song lyrics; in an earlier book, for example, the Sheriff drives her Chevy to the levee but the levee is dry. The characters are so comfortable with themselves and each other in this book that I found myself having conversations with them when I put the book down to fix lunch.

Here’s the required disclaimer: I first met MK Coker when she came to Windbreak House Retreat with the dream of writing and publishing mysteries. We had a wonderful time analyzing, discussing, dissecting, and comparing our tastes in mysteries. She returned in 2010, and then, after her four long years of hard work and disappointments in the world of publishing, the first book in this series, Dead White, appeared in my mailbox. For more information about her work, look at www.mkcoker.com.

I’m sure it’s an unwritten rule that reviewers must always say something negative about the book; I seldom see a review without a smug adverse remark or two. So, to prove that working with MK has not tainted my reviewer’s detachment, here are my negative remarks.

The paperback books measure 9” by 6” and are 1” thick, so they are heavy, requiring that I hold one in both hands while reading. This means I must be very careful when I can’t put one down even though I’m taking a bath.

But here’s a positive note, which also proves that MK is a dedicated reader of mysteries: the books are numbered on the spine so you can read them in their proper order!

And there’s another solution to that weight problem: the books are available as ebooks on Amazon USA (and worldwide sites), AppleBarnes and Noble, Kobo, and Smashwords. The trade paperback is available at AmazonBarnes and Noble, and independent bookstore Powell’s. It can also be ordered from your local bookstore.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

(c) Linda M. Hasselstrom, 2015

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4 thoughts on “Dead in Dakota: The Mysteries of MK Coker

  1. I’ve never enjoyed mysteries, not even Nancy Drew when all my friends loved her books–and wanted to be like her when they grew up. However, after reading this essay I’m tempted to try again–especially M. K. Coker. Will check to see if they have any of her books at Zandbroz.

    I like a series by Ann B. Ross. Books are not mysteries per se, but each one has a mystery of some kind. (There are maybe fifteen books in the series–and more to come. Characters are delightful, people you really like and care about.)

    Another thoughtful essay, Linda. Thank you for sharing.

  2. And Betsy, please take a copy of this review to Zandbroz with my best wishes to them–and if by some chance they do not have the books, please pass on my suggestion that they get them!
    And I love the Miss Julia novels by Ann B. Ross. Based on that, you might enjoy Cora Harrison’s books–a lot of Irish history and folklore and daily living included.

  3. Pingback: Little Writing Retreat on the Prairie, Part VII: The Road Ahead | A Thousand Finds

  4. Pingback: Deadline Met: Report on a Solitary Writing Retreat | Notes from a Western Life

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