We live in a world where most folks have 100 channels of cable, an iPad with twenty apps and a room-full of DVDs.
It’s hard out there for a book.
But novels like Jenny Milchman’s "Cover of Snow" prove that there’s still no better way to pass an afternoon than lying on your couch, elbows-deep in a good mystery story.
The book opens on the suicide of Nora Hamilton’s police officer husband, Brandon. The first few pages make your heart pound and your mind race. Right off the bat, Milchman hooks you with a good old-fashioned mystery. The reader is caught up in the confusion of the tragedy, immediately sympathizing with the protagonist as she struggles to grasp the enormity of this loss.
Because – as is the case with all good mysteries – something’s not quite right.
The police force and Brandon’s colleagues are keeping their distance from Nora and her grief, except in the case of Chief Weathers, who is a little too concerned about the new widow and her activities. She is also confronted with strange, puzzling remarks about her husband’s past being whispered on the streets of Wedeskyull, the clannish upstate New York town where Brandon’s family has lived for generations.
And then there’s the secret room in the basement of Nora’s bristly mother-in-law, Eileen, who has never been the same after burying her baby son – Brandon’s brother – 25 years ago.
Milchman occasionally lapses into cliches and introduces red herrings that are, perhaps, a bit too transparent, expecting us to be surprised by developments we could see a mile away. The final plot twist requires some minor suspension of disbelief. But Milchman can be forgiven for these details - the strong points of this intriguing novel far outweigh the weaknesses.
Nora is a great character that the reader can readily sympathize with and willingly accompany on a harrowing journey. Especially effective is a passage in which the recent widow observes with shock and wistfulness the new relationship of her younger sister. There’s an underlying grief that drives her actions, and though Milchman wisely does not bombard the reader with her protagonist’s sorrow, she reminds us in all the right places that Nora’s quest for answers is a function of her incalculable loss.
I would argue, though, that the town of Wedeskyull is the most interesting character in the whole book. The population and geography is so adroitly described and lends itself so perfectly to Nora’s desperation as she tries to unravel a web of small-town dynasties. And what a great foreboding, Dickensian name (pronounced "Weeds-kill").
They say writing comedy is hard. I disagree - I think mystery has to be the most difficult genre of all. Here’s a genre that lives and dies on creating and maintaining – over the course of 300 or more pages – enough suspense and intrigue to keep you away from your remote control – or from just flipping to the last page to see who lives, who dies and if the butler really did it after all.
Literary fiction, in order to hook a reader, has to have a certain sophistication that will satisfy the demographic. Mystery fiction can be the literary equivalent of boxed wine – the whole point is getting drunk on the plot. And in "Cover of Snow," get drunk you do. With its short chapters, quick action and non-stop twists, It’s a page-turner, in the purest interpretation of the word.
Jenny Milchman will appear at Mystery One Bookstore, 2109 N. Prospect Ave., on Tuesday, March 5 at 7 p.m.
Colleen Jurkiewicz is a Milwaukee native with a degree in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and she loves having a job where she learns something new about the Cream City every day. Her previous incarnations have included stints as a waitress, a barista, a writing tutor, a medical transcriptionist, a freelance journalist, and now this lovely gig at the best online magazine in Milwaukee.