The Cold Nowhere by Brian Freeman
As a general proposition let’s assume there’s no such thing as a set formula for each of the genre classifications dreamed up by the marketing departments. No matter what the label, the quality of the book comes down to the virtue of the storytelling. The protagonist has one or more problems which he or she tries to solve as the book progresses. Unfortunately, instead of things getting better, they get worse as tension emerges with other members of the cast and, when he or she is known, the antagonist ratchets up the pressure. As we approach the end, the tensions become more severe and lead to a resolution, often violent in mysteries, thrillers and adventure stories. The Cold Nowhere by Brian Freeman (Quercus, 2013) is the eighth book the marketers have decided is a thriller and the sixth to feature Lieutenant Jonathan Stride. The reality is rather more complex. In practical terms, it’s a police procedural set in Duluth, Minnesota. Because there’s considerable uncertainty as to whether there’s a threat to Catalina “Cat” Mateo, daughter of Michaela Mateo and Marty Gamble, the set-up might be considered the opening scenes of either a thriller or a mystery.
The problem is that sixteen-year-old Cat appears psychologically disturbed, afflicted by nightmares and displaying other symptoms of trauma. This is not surprising. When she was six, she hid under the house when her father stabbed her mother to death and then committed suicide. Given such a disturbing event, time is often not a healer. So it’s possible she’s delusional, or she’s playing a game to get close to our protagonist for some reason. So this is a mystery thriller, with psychological elements, set in a police procedural. But that’s not enough to satisfy the ambition of our author. Jonathan Stride himself was in a happy marriage but his wife died. His second marriage was a disaster but, until fairly recently, he’s had a good relationship with a female police officer called Serena Dial. Unfortunately, Stride is one of the “strong silent types” who bottles difficult emotional issues inside himself and never talks with anyone, including Serena. Although she’s not naive, Serena is equally not prepared to sit and wait for Stride to open up and deal with his problems. She leaves. In a moment of vulnerability, Stride then has a six week fling with Maggie Bei, the partner he works with. As everyone has secrets and no-one likes to be honest, that’s a recipe for considerable difficulty in a smallish city like Duluth — a city famous for low ambient temperatures, the lake and a certain coldness in relationships.
At this point, I might step back and appear to praise the book by saying the characterisation is rich and complex, or I could be disparaging and wonder why all series characters have to come from broken marriages and have an inability to talk about their problems. Now I’m not going to say this book is serious art, that it has a quality of tragedy about it that lifts it out of the ordinary. That would be pretentious. But I am going to note one rather pleasing use of a literary device. In some classic novels and films, there’s a conscious parallelism between the characters and their setting. It may be the inner turmoil of the protagonist is mirrored by the approaching storm and, when the thunder crashes and lightning bolts strike down from the leaden sky, there’s an emotional crisis in the gothic house on the blasted heath. Well here we have a city that has reached an accommodation with the cold. People have adjusted the pace of their lives to the wind chill and snow crunching under foot. Their houses are designed to stay warm — small castles to stand against the storms or small prisons where they can be kept apart from their neighbours. In theory, these people drive more carefully given the risk of black ice. When there are problems, there’s a sense of community. Some will rally round to help each other, banding together in the face of the weather as a common enemy. Others will see political opportunities to take credit when things go well or deflect blame on to the less wary. Yes, politics in Duluth can be cold and dirty, and it represents a serious problem to the progress of any investigation that might involve the city’s elite, e.g. hints of prostitution and corruption must always be handled sensitively.
Put all this together and The Cold Nowhere proves to be a completely engrossing read. There’s both strength and vulnerability from the key characters on display and although I think one aspect of the resolution unlikely, it does produce a socially interesting point at which to leave the characters at the end. Should there be another book in this series, it would be fascinating to see how it all works out. However, the primary appeal of the book lies in the strength of mystery to untangle. This is genuinely well-constructed and it’s beautifully paced through the book to produce an exciting climax. Thematically, even though it’s fairly obvious what the motive is, the precise way in which it’s embedded into the plot is particularly pleasing. Connecting all the dots is a real challenge to the reader but the effort is worth it, making this one of the best mystery-thriller-police-procedural-psychological drama books I’ve read in a long while. You should read it too.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.