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October 8, 2010

Mean Streets

Filed under: 150 Best Minnesota Books — Pat Coleman @ 8:44 am

I know you know that I have been avoiding discussing genre fiction but …

…down these mean streets a man must go.

The Chuckling FingersThe Chuckling Fingers, Reprint

First of all I am not the biggest fan of mysteries and secondly we seem to be drowning in a sea of these forgettable novels. Does every Minnesota writer take a class at The Loft on mystery writing? I am not ready or willing to declare any recent book in this category a “best Minnesota book” but I look forward to being educated by readers of this blog on the joy and significance of Minnesota “whodunits.” I can say with some confidence that there are two older outstanding mysteries that are worthy of our list. They are …

Mabel Seeley. The Chuckling Fingers. Garden City N.Y.: Published for the Crime Club by Doubleday, Doran, 1941.

Thomas Gifford. The Wind Chill Factor. New York: Putnam, 1975.

Mabel Seeley, from Herman, Minnesota, was a major figure in the development of the female detective story according to Howard Haycraft, reviewer for The New York Herald. There is a sub-genre of mystery writing called the “had-I-but-known” school and Seeley mastered this. The Chuckling Fingers is introduced by the heroine with this great opening line: “Other people may think they’d like to live their lives over, but not me – not if this last week is going to be in it.” It takes place at a private estate on the North Shore of Lake Superior and Seeley nails the local color of the Arrowhead region in the mid-twentieth century. The book has been reprinted by Afton Historical Society Press with a beautiful dust jacket image by Paul Kramer, but disappointingly without any new introductory or biographical material.

There is a story I love of Mabel’s epiphany. She was almost hit by a car as she crossed the street in front of the Capitol one day. Her one thought in that millisecond was: “My, God, I’m going to die and I have not written any books.”

The Wind Chill FactorGifford’s novel is set in a fictional Taylors Falls, Minnesota and although there are dead librarians and Nazis [is there a “Fourth Reich” sub-genre of mysteries?] the most memorable character may be the cold weather. Cars don’t start, ball point pens don’t write, ears are “whipped cherry red”, wind chews away at bare branches, and snow squeaks underneath your feet. WCF, Gifford’s first book, is a very well told tale and was very well reviewed and received, selling 40,000 hard cover and 750,000 paperback copies. It brought some popular literary recognition to Minnesota. Tell me if I’m wrong but I believe this book jump-started the writing of so many local mysteries like John Camp’s “Prey” series.

Gifford’s book, The Assassini, [a decades pre-Dan Brown look at a secret society of Vatican killers] brought him the most recognition but my personal favorite is Gifford’s second book, The Cavanaugh Quest, which was nominated for the Edgar Award in 1977. WCF is clearly his most locally iconic work and thus makes our list of best books.

Thomas Gifford died too young at the age of 62.

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2 Responses to “Mean Streets”

  1. KNess Says:

    I recommend Thomas Gifford’s “The Wind Chill Factor” whenever I get a chance, it’s intriguing and a good story plus it really gives you the true feeling of a Minnesota winter- that’s why it’s so fun to read it in the summer!

  2. faye herold Says:

    Thank you for adding Mabel Seeley to your list. After June Engle, Librarian par excellence of North St. Paul (now deceased), recommended Seeley, I read all of her books, two of which are psychological novels, not mysteries. I always look for her mysteries in second-hand bookstores.

    And, being from Taylors Falls, I will probably never get around to reading “The Wind Chill Factor.”

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