Sulfur Springs: A Novel (Cork O'Connor Mystery Series)

Image of Sulfur Springs: A Novel (16) (Cork O'Connor Mystery Series)
Release Date: 
August 21, 2017
Atria Books
Reviewed by: 

When Cork O’Connor’s new wife Rainy Bisonette receives a garbled phone message from her son in which he seems to confess to murdering someone named Rodriguez, she and Cork rush down from Minnesota to Coronado County in southern Arizona to unlock the mystery of Peter Bisonette’s disappearance. Their inquiries immediately plunge them into a turbulent border war involving drug smuggling cartels, human trafficking activities, and betrayal that puts their lives and their new marriage at risk.

Sulfur Springs is the 16th novel published by William Kent Krueger featuring Cork O’Connor, the former sheriff of Tamarack County, Minnesota. Readers familiar with the series have enjoyed Krueger’s explorations of the northern United States border with Canada and his mixture of homicide investigation and Ojibwe traditionalism.

In this novel, however, Cork is taken completely out of his comfort zone in terms of geography and climate, local culture, and the issues facing the southern border, which are radically different than those he has dealt with in the north. He finds himself butting heads with the U.S. Border Patrol and DEA agents, vigilante groups, and foot soldiers in the employ of his wife’s ex-husband, Peter’s father, whose family members are fierce and bitter rivals of the deadly Rodriguez cartel responsible for much of the drug smuggling in the area.

After 15 novels in a different climate along a different border, is Krueger also out of his comfort zone? He spent a summer in southern Arizona researching this book, interviewing agents of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Service, members of humanitarian assistance groups working with refugees, and local residents of the area. His research has paid off with an atmosphere in Sulfur Springs that is realistic and believable.

In political terms, the timing of Krueger’s take on the subject of illegal border crossings is perhaps a little unfortunate, given the current tide of public pressure against them. However, he does a good job of depicting the turmoil experienced along the border, and his explorations of the themes of humanitarianism, border security, and human trafficking ring true.

The problem with Krueger’s story lies more in its repetitiveness and the slowness with which momentum builds. As Cork himself complains two-thirds of the way in, “I was getting sick of playing at this guessing game. There were too many sides in this struggle, too many unanswered questions, too many threatening possibilities.”

Cork employs his Northwoods deer hunting experience in his desert searches for Peter’s tracks, “moving in a careful spiral outward . . . looking for signs,” but as the story continues to shuttle back and forth between the border towns and the desert without success, chapter after chapter, the reader begins to feel as though Krueger himself is engaged in an exercise in search of his plotline. Will Peter remain missing throughout? Will Cork ever make any progress, or will he continue to barge around in a spiral, stirring up trouble for everyone around him? Where is this all going?

Cork O’Connor is a worthy protagonist, and his stories are welcome in our living rooms, on our bookshelves, and on our night stands. Rainy Bisonette and Henry Meloux are good secondary characters, and additions for this particular edition such as Jocko and Sylvester are interesting enough to hold our attention.

Patience is required, though, as the reader waits for Krueger to find the trail that leads us to the end of the story. Carrying our trusty binoculars, hydration pack, and jerky bars, we must trust that Krueger will guide us through it all to a satisfactory conclusion.