pulp (2006-33)

Something Smells Fishy

Fly-fishing mysteries have stronger current than expected

by Paul Lewis

A friend of mine who works at Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore., and who knows my love of mysteries has been badgering me for months to try a series of mysteries by Madison, Wis., writer John Galligan. During my recent trip to the Book Expo America trade show, this year held in Washington, D.C., she cornered me by Galligan’s publisher’s booth and cajoled me into picking up copies of the first book, The Nail Knot (Bleak House, $14.95) and its sequel, The Blood Knot (Bleak House, $23.95).

According to Bleak House’s website, they publish “mysteries and literary fiction.”  Happily, Galligan’s books are both. The “Knot” series follows a character who only refers to himself as “The Dog,” a man nursing a spate of familial, personal and professional traumas who has withdrawn from the world and moves from town to town and river to river, fly-fishing and drinking a potent combination of vodka-Tang until, well, he’s not quite sure what. All he knows is that, with all his possessions sold and retirement benefits cashed in, he has three years to fly-fish as many streams as possible. We do learn that The Dog had owned a security company in another life, and the knowledge he gleaned from his work is just enough to make him dangerous as he stumbles upon heinous crimes in rural communities where, of course, everyone knows everyone else, and all of them have something to hide.

The Nail Knot is the first and probably more successful of the two titles. While fishing, The Dog stumbles upon the body of a local agitator, an activist who was attempting to clean up the community of Black Earth Creek, Wis. By this turn of events, he earns the ill will of the town’s residents, with one notable exception: Melvina Racheletta “Junior” O’Malley, a farmwoman whose senile father is a key suspect in the murder. This unconventional, brash woman, who also nurses a terrible hurt, becomes a love interest for The Dog, but that story element is never cloying or endearingly sentimental. The Nail Knot is a delightful, quietly rugged, and unique entry in the mystery stacks.

The Blood Knot finds The Dog in Amish Country, Avalanche, Wis., with another dead body. This time it’s Annie Adams, aka “The Barn Lady,” an artist known for painting exactly what you’d expect. She’s managed to stir up the Amish as well as a local English clan, the Kussmauls, whose men are nicknamed after their barns and who feel they’re owed a cut of Annie’s profits. The Dog befriends Eve Kussmaul, a banned Amish meth addict whose son Deuce is found shooting at the dead body, and despite his lack of any motive, becomes the lead suspect after he confesses to the killing. Throw in an Amish girl who doesn’t yet understand how attractive she is, a peeping tom taking scandalous photos, a René Magritte postcard and a possibly rabid beaver attack, and you have a book that is slightly more lurid than the first but no less graceful.

Mysteries often succeed or fail based on the strength of the protagonist, and Ned “The Dog” Ogilvie is not found wanting. Within paragraphs of meeting him you recognize all too well how utterly and completely shattered he is, and that he is simply looking for an excuse to do the right thing. In both books he is externally kept from leaving the community, but readers also understand that he would stay even if his Cruise Master RV were not locked in a campground or blocked by a fallen tree.

The disconnect between how The Dog sees himself versus his actual nature is the most interesting character aspect in the books. Galligan has created a character who elicits our sympathy even if he doesn’t particularly care what anyone thinks about him. Even though some of his ne’er-do-well rural characters can veer slightly into caricature, Galligan also paints true portraits of life in the sticks and treats his characters admirably. Even those eventually found to be responsible for the crimes are sympathetic creations.

Happily, you do not have to be an expert or even an amateur fly fisher to get a kick out of reading Galligan, and as someone about as far removed from fly fishing as one could be, I can testify to that fact. I’m certain there are enough morsels and details embedded to really jazz those who are so inclined to wetting a line, and if you’re not, you still come away with a Zen understanding of days spent strolling in waders and fighting currents.