University of Minnesota Alumni Association


The Weather Did It

A bone-chilling number of mystery and crime writers come from Minnesota, and the U.

Illustration by Blayne Fox

If you've ever wondered, while perusing your local bookstore, why so many mystery and crime writers hail from Minnesota, best-selling author Matt Goldman (B.A. ’86) has handily summarized the answer for you in the acknowledgments of his first book, Gone to Dust (Forge/Macmillan).

“Boredom, coffee, and bad weather, I couldn’t have done it without you,” he wrote. “Minnesota, I hope this book reads as a love letter because that’s what it is.”

Goldman, a former writer for Seinfeld, Ellen, and other television shows, honed his comedy chops while a student at the University of Minnesota. He took up mystery writing quite recently, but already has published two books set in his home state—in the second, Broken Ice, the action takes place at the Minnesota state hockey tournament.

Minnesota offers much to inspire a certain type of cold-blooded imagination—from deep lakes and isolated patches of woods where a body may never be found to cities and fairs from which a person might disappear virtually unnoticed to treacherously icy roads and snow that may or may not reveal the foot tracks of an evildoer.

In using the varied countryside, cities, and extreme weather of Minnesota in story settings, Goldman is far from alone. There is a macabre mob of Gopher mystery writers—both current and former Minnesotans—for whom subzero temps and lakes from Harriet to Superior serve almost as characters in their books.

Three of these writers—Carl Brookins (B.A. ’57), Ellen Hart, and William Kent Krueger—have dubbed themselves the Minnesota Crime Wave. They tour together, have established a Facebook page, and once ran a cable news program featuring mystery authors. Each has written dozens of books, many of them bestsellers. Each has a significant U connection: Brookins is a liberal arts graduate, Krueger worked in the U registrar’s office and a research laboratory for 20 years, and Hart spent a decade cooking for the sorority sisters of Delta Gamma.

"I love a college setting. Something about all those old buildings and young people interested in ideas."
Ellen Hart

Indeed, Hart’s first mystery—written 30 years ago—was set in a sorority very like Delta Gamma. Nearly all of her subsequent books have taken place in the Twin Cities, where her heroine, Jane Lawless, owns a restaurant overlooking Lake Harriet. Hart’s latest novel, A Whisper of Bones (St. Martin’s), unfolds mostly in the neighborhood surrounding the St. Paul campus. She plans to set her next book at a college. “I love a college setting,” she says. “Something about all those old buildings and young people interested in ideas.”

Hart is often asked why Minnesota has so many mystery writers, and she offers two answers: the state’s large number of readers and the fact that long winters leave “nothing else to do but sit inside and think up murders.”

Adds Krueger, “We’re simply a subset of all the artists who make Minnesota their home. The people of our state support the arts in a tremendous way.”

Star Tribune books editor Laurie Hertzel credits the Loft Literary Center, local M.F.A. programs like the one at the U, the community Twin Cities Sisters in Crime, and the encouragement of established writers like John Sandford (John Camp), Chuck Logan, Mary Logue (B.A. ’75), and Krueger. Local bookstore Once Upon a Crime, she says, is also part of it. The 30-year-old South Minneapolis store “has been very supportive of local mystery writers, holding book launches, readings, hand-selling their books, even publishing anthologies of their work.”

Once Upon a Crime manager Devin Abraham cites the state’s malevolent weather when asked why Minnesota creates such a glut of crime fiction. “When you’re stuck with long winters, you tend to write about darker things,” she says. “Look at the Scandinavian writers.” High-profile authors like Jo Nesbo and Stieg Larsson, purveyors of “Nordic noir,” have made an art of weaving dastardly plots from darkness and ice. 

Although Abraham has only managed the store for two years, she is already well versed in state mystery writers. Three of the four new Minnesota authors she recommends are U graduates: Mindy Mejia (B.A. ’00), Goldman, and Allen Eskens (B.A. ’89).

Mejia’s new book, Leave No Trace (Atria), is a Kirkus starred-reviewed thriller set in the Boundary Waters. Eskens’s latest mystery, The Shadows We Hide (Mulholland), unfolds in southern Minnesota, but his first book, The Life We Bury (Prometheus), largely takes place in Minneapolis, where protagonist Joe Talbert is a U journalism student, as Eskens once was.

Eskens’s college trajectory might be familiar to undergraduates of the ’80s, many of whom took a while to graduate. “I had to put myself through college,” he says, “so every couple years I quit school to earn more money. It took me seven years to finish. I never goofed off or partied. I went to classes and worked full time as a baggage handler for Northwest Airlines.”

Eskens was never a journalist, going straight on to law school and then practicing law in Mankato while studying creative writing. Many years later, he published The Life We Bury, a finalist for Edgar, Anthony, and Minnesota Book Awards, with a film version in development.

His U years, though distant now, had a big impact on Eskens. A reporting assignment to interview a stranger led him to meet a man in a nursing home, which is exactly how his first novel opens. Another scene in that book is set in the Wilson Library archives, a room that has lingered in Eskens’s memory.

As for crime writer Erin Hart (M.A. ’95)—no relation to Ellen—it was a short story she wrote in a U class, which won a Glimmer Train award, that launched her writing career. She credits instructors Paulette Bates Alden, Carol Bly, and Madelon Sprengnether as important influences and sources of encouragement as she learned her craft. Her four mysteries are set in Ireland and St. Paul, with important action in at least one book centered along the Mississippi.

In the end, it may be Minnesota’s geographic and meteorological offerings that do the most to spark this dark writing. “Minnesota is rich with settings,” says Eskens. “Not only do you have farmlands, cities, lakes, and woods, and the privacy of the far north, you also have the weather—from very hot to very cold. It’s nice having all those things to play with.”

Lynette Lamb (M.A. ’84) is a longtime mystery reader with the book bills to prove it. She works in Minneapolis as a freelance writer and editor.

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