Review by: KEN KORCZAK
If you’re an avid murder-mystery fan, or love crime novels, drop everything you are doing right now and purchase this book. Don’t even finish reading my review. Get the book now.
THINGS IN DITCHES by Minnesota writer JIMMY OLSEN is simply fantastic entertainment – a novel so well-crafted, so loaded with twists and turns, so darkly funny, but also with moments of serious psychological rigor – that it should have claimed a spot on the New York Times bestseller list.
Well, um, maybe it did, I don’t know: This book was first issued 15 years ago, and then seems to have been reissued again in 2010, Whatever the case, the best books are timeless, and this one still reads as fresh as the June kale in my garden.
It’s the story of the murder of an achingly lovely blonde woman whose strangled body is found in a ditch just outside a small Minnesota town. Olsen has us going right from the start by introducing us to the killer on the very first page. Even so, I doubt that the savviest Sherlock Holmesian murder-mystery solver will be able to guess what is really going on here.
Take it from me — a guy who grew up in a northern Minnesota town of 700 people — Olsen brilliantly captures the cultural texture of that unique fabric which makes up a tiny Minnesota community of just a few hundred folks.
But wait, there’s something even better. Olsen doesn’t settle for mere reality. A true wordsmith understands that writing is art, and so there is just a molecular thin layer of fictional unreality spread over this depiction of small-town life.
This fictional patina adds an almost imperceptible shimmer that makes ordinary semi-rural folks seem just slightly extraordinary – and this in turn makes for a read that is more fun, more dark, more light, more funny, more sad – in a way that gives us just a slightly deeper peek through the veil, so to speak.
At the risk of blathering on with too much literary analysis, I just want to mention one more thing: Genuinely talented novelists understand that there is no such thing as a minor character. I read more than 120 books per year, and I would estimate that 95% of writers don’t understand this – yet it is so critically important.
Most writers think that if a main character goes into a convenience store, the store clerk can be some throw-away cardboard prop — no need to describe, or flesh out a quick character sketch. But that’s an incredible missed opportunity to add an element of richness to a novel.
But look at the way Jimmy Olsen describes a character who appears for just one brief scene in a couple of pages:
“Curtis Rylander had the sloping forehead of an ape. He also had a bad complexion, skin craters ripe with raw zits and pus-laden whiteheads. Curtis wore a stocking cap even, in summer, to hide his head.”
Curtis Rylander is in the narrative for about 10 seconds but he comes instantly alive!
I must also mention a scene where the author enlists another minor character that just happens to be a timber wolf – again, not just an anonymous beast loping through the woods – Olsen brings the animal to life so vividly and skillfully that it reads like a stand-alone short story – and a short story worthy of Jack London himself!
Reading along I kept saying to myself: This is just a brilliant book!
Having said the above, I must now say I came razor close to issuing my “Ken’s Persian Rug of Literature Penalty” to this author for certain transgressions, but first let me explain “Ken’s Persian Rug of Literature Penalty.”
The ancient carpet weavers of the Persian Empire, beginning in the 8th Century, are renowned for creating the most exquisite rugs in the world. But these master artisans always purposefully included an intentional flaw in each rug – sometimes just a single stitch.
The reason they did so was because they believed that creating something too perfect would be an affront to God.
Well, this book contains not one – but two – teeny-tiny flaws worthy of “Ken’s Persian Rug of Literature Penalty” – but I have opted not to issue these citations today because … well, I’ve just read a great book, I have been thoroughly entertained, and I’m in a good mood.
Also, 99.8 percent of all the books I read cannot even hope to approach “Ken’s Persian Rug of Literature Penalty” because, well, all of these books are nowhere near perfection, as this book is It’s a masterful, nearly perfect murder mystery.
Ken Korczak is a former newspaper reporter, government information officer, served as an advocate for homeless people as a VISTA Volunteer, and taught journalism at the University of North Dakota for five years. He is the author of: BIRD BRAIN GENIUS
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