Aaron Stander’s latest northern Michigan mystery, once again featuring Sheriff Ray Elkins of Cedar County (a fictional county on the shore of Lake Michigan), may be his best so far. I stopped reading halfway through in order to get a night’s sleep but woke early to pick up where I’d left off and didn’t put the book down again until the last page.
The story unrolls in two sections. In the first quarter of the book we read journal entries, written by a female freshman student, covering a one-week high school camping trip gone bad, a winter wilderness experience in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It is Thanksgiving week, but these students are not going home to family, for various reasons. We then skip ahead twenty-five years, arriving on a Friday before Thanksgiving, when former campers from the ill-fated trip come together again on the grounds of their old private school for a posh reunion arranged by the wealthiest member of the group.
Both the camping trip and the reunion a quarter-century later are marked by severe blizzards. The faculty member leading the group in the wilderness went for help and never returned; the sheriff and detective have to hike in the last couple of miles after going off the road in their SUV.
The U.P. campsite was far from roads, the private school below the Bridge located outside even a small town, and both scenes are further isolated by the severe winter storms indicated in the book’s title.
It is a classic setup, reminiscent of Agatha Christie – a limited cast of characters, trapped together for a period of time, isolated from the outside world. But Stander brings to this classic his own gift for evoking the physical and social landscape of northern Michigan, and he is especially good capturing winter.
Even in the blizzard conditions, they could make out his jagged trail. His path ran down the steep slope toward the lake. ... Their thighs burned as they struggled to move forward through the deep drifts. In places where the wind had blown the snow cover away, they encountered steep walls of sheer ice. The hardened steel rims of their shoes cut into the surface, providing some traction, but not preventing an occasional fall....
Gales of November is the ninth Ray Elkins book from Aaron Stander. “Do you have to read them in order?” people often ask of books in a mystery series. No, of course not. The sheriff’s life and relationships develop over time, as is true of most characters that recur in a series, but each book works fine as a stand-alone reading experience, too.
Starting your Aaron Stander reading with Gales of November is no crime and will not put you in jeopardy. Another of my favorites is Shelf Ice. As I say, Stander does Up North winter very well. But start with any of his books, in any season, and you will not be disappointed -- just hungry for more!