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Cork O'Connor Mystery Series by William Kent Krueger

Updated on September 24, 2015
The first Cork O'Connor book, by William Kent Krueger
The first Cork O'Connor book, by William Kent Krueger | Source

Cork O'Connor North Woods Murder Mystery Novels

I don't remember who introduced me to William Kent Krueger's Cork O'Connor crime mystery series, but I remember being captivated from the very beginning of the first book Iron Lake. I've read and enjoyed the rest of his series also.

Corcoran "Cork" O'Connor is the former sheriff of the fictional Tamarack County in the North Woods of Minnesota, and he investigates murders and other crimes. He's of mixed heritage, part Irish and part Ojibwe (Native American), and fits in partially, but not completely, with each community. He's a family man, with two daughters and a son, but in the first book is estranged from his wife. They do get back together, and over the course of the series, we see their relationship become stronger, and we see his children grow up.

The location of many of the books in this series, the North Woods of Minnesota, is important to the story lines throughout the series. Also the different backgrounds of the characters is important. The community has a mixed heritage of Caucasion and Native American people. We're shown elements of life in and around small North Woods communities and of the Ojibwe reservations in that part of the country. We're also introduced to some of the legends of the Ojibwe people.

I grew up in Minnesota, and vacationed and camped regularly in the northern part of the state (part of the North Woods area) and have always felt a strong affinity for that area. What hooked me right away about the Cork O'Connor books was Krueger's lovingly wrought descriptions of the scenic beauty of northern Minnesota. I've continued reading this series because I love the fully-realized character of Cork O'Connor and other main characters, including his family, and I've continued to be captivated by Krueger's well-crafted plots and side-plots.

William Kent Krueger
William Kent Krueger | Source

Author William Kent Krueger

William Kent Krueger is the author of the Corcoran "Cork" O'Connor crime mystery series that take place mostly in northern Minnesota. He's won a number of awards since beginning this series, including the Anthony Award for mystery writers three times -- once for best first novel, and two more times for best novel.

He grew up in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon, but now lives with his wife and children in St. Paul, Minnesota. He loves the area including the northern part of the state, which clearly comes through in his writing. On his blog he says, "When God made the earth, he created two Edens. One is called Minnesota."

Before beginning to write in earnest he had a number of different jobs, including in logging and in construction, and writing occasional magazine articles.

He has been called "The Michael Connelly of the Midwest" -- interesting to me because I only "discovered" crime fiction writer Michael Connelly very recently, while I've been reading William Kent Krueger's series since around 2000. (Incidentally, I also greatly enjoy Connelly's books.)

Iron Lake -- The first "Cork O'Conner" novel

What hooked me right away in this first book of the series was the description in the Prologue of the Minnesota North Woods, in which a 14 year old Cork is hunting with an Ojibwe family friend, a year after the death of Cork's father. The rest of the book continues to be well-detailed about the life and geography in that area.

In this first book, Cork O'Connor and his wife have moved from Chicago back to northern Minnesota, where he had grown up. He had become the sheriff, but lost his job after a bitter disagreement between the local Ojibwes and whites over fishing rights. His wife, a lawyer who represented the Ojibwes, left him at about the same time. In this book, Cork tries to solve the mystery of the death of the local judge, at about the same time that a young Indian boy goes missing.

Boundary Waters -- the second novel

The Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) is a large area, over 1 million acrea, of lakes, rivers, marshes, and woods along the northeast border of Minnesota, with the Canadian counterpart, the Quetico Wilderness north of the Minnesota border into Ontario.

This is a beautiful scenic area for canoeing, camping, and fishing. I've been there on canoe trips a number of times.

In the book Boundary Waters, Cork takes on the case of the missing daughter of an aging country singer. The daughter, also a well-known singer, disappeared a few months earlier into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, and now the brutal northern winter is approaching.

Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

More Books in the Cork O'Connor Series

  • Purgatory Ridge -- An explosion at the lumbar mill kills the traditional leader of the local band of Ojibwe (Chippewa). This is during a period in which the local Native Americans and out-of-town conservationists try to protect an old grove of white pines, called "Our Grandfathers" by the Ojibwe.
  • Blood Hollow -- A beautiful teenage girl goes missing after going for a snowmobile ride following a New Year's Eve party, and her body is found three months later. Her boyfriend is considered to be the most likely killer, but Cork doesn't believe that.
  • Mercy Falls -- Cork O'Connor is the sheriff again, and is trying to solve the mystery of the murder of a Chicago businessman whose body was found at Mercy Falls. Cork himself is being stalked, and his family is in danger.

History was a study in futility. Because people never learned. Century after century, they committed the same atrocities against one another or against the earth, and the only thing that changed was the magnitude of the slaughter... Conscience was a devil that plagued the individual. Collectively, a people squashed it as easily as stepping on a daisy.

— William Kent Krueger, in "Purgatory Ridge"
  • Copper River -- This book takes Cork out of Minnesota and into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where he spends time in hiding while recuperating from a gunshot wound. The husband of the cousin he is staying with may have been shot and killed by the police.
  • Thunder Bay -- Cork, who is now a private investigator, goes north to Thunder Bay, Ontario to locate the son of his friend and spiritual advisor, Henry Meloux (who is an important part of each book). Someone tries to kill Henry, and clues point back toward his son.
  • Red Knife -- PI Cork O'Connor works to mediate tension between the local county's whites and a gang of Ojibwe youth called the Red Boyz. A criminal element from out of state is also trying to extend their drug trade into northern Minnesota.

Northern Minnesota sunset
Northern Minnesota sunset | Source
  • Heaven's Keep -- While this is another excellent book in the series, it is the most upsetting and least favorite for me because his wife dies. Maybe Krueger thought it was necessary for developing Cork's character in a different direction, but in my opinion it was not a good move. This book takes Cork entirely out of the Midwest and into Wyoming to investigate the disappearance of a plane that his wife was on.
  • Vermilion Drift -- When a local iron mine is being considered as a site for storing nuclear waste, Cork is hired to act as a security guard. But within the mine, 6 bodies are found, and the investigation ensues. Five are from 50 years ago, but the 6th is more recent. This book also explores Cork's past, including his relationship with his father.
  • Northwest Angle -- The Northwest Angle in Minnesota is the northernmost part of the contiguous 48 states, and can only be accessed by water or by going through a small section of Manitoba, Canada. In this book, Cork and his older daughter, Jenny, are on vacation with other family members up in this area, but are caught out on the water during a storm. They make it to shore on a remote island, and find a young woman who had been murdered, and her infant son who is still alive.

The character Cork O'Connor is a work in progress. Krueger "conceived a man who was so resilient that no matter how far down life pushed him, he would always bob back to the surface. His name would be Cork."

William Kent Krueger's More Recent Cork O'Connor Novels

Trickster's Point -- Corcoran O'Connor is the primary suspect in the death of Jubal Little, who would probably have become Minnesota's first Native American elected governor. Another man is found dead close by, who was carrying a flyer with Cork's name on it. How are these two deaths related? The book also goes back to visit Cork's and Jubal's youth, how they came to know each other, and what directions their lives took as they grew to adulthood.

Tamarack County -- The car of the wife of a retired judge is found abandoned by the side of the road, and the woman is not found for a long time. Other dark happenings occur, which eventually point back to a murder from 20 years ago. Cork's son is also targeted and nearly killed.

The Most Recent Cork O'Connor Book

Windigo Island

A dead young woman washes up on the shore of a small island, Windigo Island. The Windigo, in Objibwe lore, is an evil mythical beast or spirit that kills. You know that this evil is coming for you when you hear it call your name. The evil uncovered in this book is of the prostitution that runaway Ojibwe girls are bound into if they come together with the wrong people.

Cork works as a private investigator to find the friend of the murdered girl, another young woman who has been missing for months.

Ordinary Grace
Ordinary Grace

Ordinary Grace

Another William Kent Krueger novel

I've also read Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger, but not in the Cork O'Connor series. It takes place in a small town in southern Minnesota during the summer of 1961, where a series of deaths take place that change the community.

At the center of the novel is 13-year-old Frank, and his family, who go through the terrible experience of losing one of their own through murder.

Krueger thinks this book is his best piece of writing, because as he says, "... this one really came much out of my own experience and my own captured my heart, absolutely captured my heart."

And it absolutely captured my heart as well.

See Ordinary Grace: An Intelligent and Lyrical Novel for an overview of the book.

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    • KarenHC profile image

      Karen 4 years ago from U.S.

      @Mickie Gee: I hope you enjoy these books as much as I have!

    • Mickie Gee profile image

      Mickie Goad 4 years ago

      I love regional books. I have never been to MN, but I have read a few books set in this northern state. I have reserved a few books featuring Cork O'Connor at my local library as a result of reading your page. Thanks!

    • KarenHC profile image

      Karen 5 years ago from U.S.

      @anonymous: I'm from the Minneapolis area originally, but loved (and still do) the Boundary Water area. Thanks for the visit and comment, Tipi!

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I have been here before and liked the lens, been a while. Just thought I'd leave a ... howdy! I'm from northern Minnesota, grew up there, anyway. :)

    • KarenHC profile image

      Karen 6 years ago from U.S.

      @anonymous: Yikes, good point! I will re-work this page soon. Thanks for the comment.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Argh. I was looking for information on the series, and appreciate your efforts in that regard. However, I was not expecting you to spoil two huge series plot twists by posting them in your review. You might consider warning future readers that you've got spoilers in your review, so they can then decide whether or not to read on.

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      SofiaMann 6 years ago

      I have not read, but has managed to motivate me. Very good commentary on the book. Thanks.