Written by Tami Hoag — The Bitter Season is Hoag’s latest crime thriller featuring the Minneapolis, Minnesota-based team of police detectives Sam Kovac and Nikki Liska. This time, the pair is split up, because Liska has opted to join a new cold case unit, hoping for more regular working hours and evenings she can spend with her teenage sons.
The first case she’s assigned is the 25-year-old murder of a fellow detective, Ted Duffy, a star in the department’s sex crimes division, who was shot to death in his back yard. She finds the man’s family less than enthusiastic about dredging up the details of the crime again. Repeated investigations over the years have ploughed the same unpromising ground, unearthing nothing more than painful memories. Her skepticism that anything new can be learned seems well founded, but she’s determined to give it her best, and you’ll definitely be rooting for her.
Meanwhile, Kovac has a new partner, newbie Michael Taylor, who is not only easy to look at, but actually knows a few useful things. An adolescence spent watching martial arts movies comes in handy when Kovac and Taylor are assigned to a brutal new murder case. Lucien Chamberlain, a University of Minnesota faculty member in the running for the chair of the East Asia studies department and his wealthy wife Sondra have been viciously murdered in their home. They were slashed and stabbed with a samurai sword and beaten with nunchaku. It appears these items came from the professor’s carefully curated collection of martial arts paraphernalia – a collection that is, the medical examiner’s investigator says, “a homicidal maniac’s wet dream.”
Out of the woodwork come a parade of victims. Or are they suspects?
In Liska’s case, they include the murdered detective’s wife Barbie and her second husband, Tom Duffy – the dead man’s twin brother. Oh, and there are the two teenage foster daughters Barbie used for housework and babysitting, who were dispatched back to agency care after the murder. And the un-neighbourly man next door, Donald Nilsen, simmering with resentment.
In Kovac’s case, he meets the Chamberlains’ unhappy pair of adopted children, now young adults. You soon learn that the Chamberlains weren’t a supportive, happy family and the children – daughter Diana especially – have been subjected to decades of psychological abuse. At work, Chamberlain wasn’t liked and had a strong rival for the department chairmanship, a Japanese man skilled in martial arts who was secretly involved with Diana. Chamberlain also alienated the handyman service working on the house, a service that employs some shady characters.
Despite working on separate cases, Kovac and Liska interact fairly often, and you’ll enjoy the lively banter between them and the other detectives. They’re experts at bringing in a spot of erudition, too. “Shakespeare would have had a freaking field day with these people,” Kovac says, and another detective responds, “Thou hast spoken right, ’tis true. The wheel is come full circle…”
Through fast-moving chapters written from alternating perspectives you see these skilled detectives work their way through to the core of their respective cases, culminating in a surprising confrontation that demonstrates how skillfully Hoag has laid out her clues. It comes as no surprise that Liska’s cold case and Kovac’s murder are somehow linked.
If you enjoyed William Kent Krueger’s award-winning Ordinary Grace for its picture of small-town Minnesota culture, or Jeffrey B Burton’s novella The Lynchpin, in which a murder victim washes up on Minnesota’s Lake Superior shore, here’s an engaging police procedural set in the state’s largest city. Weatherwise, it has a lot of the oppressive grey snowbound aura of Nordic noir as winter, the bitter season, approaches.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars