Cover of The Big Thaw

The Big Thaw
Donald Harstad
356 pages
published in 2001

As you can see from the books I've logged here, I'm not much of a fan of modern crime novels. I tend to prefer the classic "cozy detectives". Nor do police procedurals take up much space on my bookshelves. The Big Thaw is both a modern crime novel as well as a police procedural and so not something I'd normally read. It was only because Sandra had left this behind when she went back home a while ago that led me to read it. I just felt like something gritty and this was available.

I believe The Big Thaw is the second book in a series depicting the adventures of Carl Houseman, a deputy sherrif in a small town police district in Iowa. One night he's called out of bed to assist in a car chase. When he manages to apprehend the suspect, it turns out to be an old acquaintance, one Fred "goober" Groothler. Fred immediately confesses he was partly responsible for a string of burglaries of empty farm houses. He has a good reason to do so: two days ago he dropped his cousins, with whom he did this, off at one farm house and they haven't returned since. Carl is skeptical about Fred's fears that something has happened to them, but decides to check his story out anyway, if only to have some real evidence of Fred's alleged burglaries. Do I need to say that Carl ends up finding Fred's cousins, shot dead execution style?

To the DCI agent assigned to the case, who used to be a cop in Carl's own police department, the case is open and shut: Fred and his cousins had a falling out and he killed them and is now remorseful. Carl is skeptical about this. Why would Fred have acted the way he did if he was his cousins' killer? There must be more going on then first is apperent. Certainly the farm's owner, Cletus Borglan, is acting strange. There's no way he could be the killer though, as he and his family where vacationing in Florida... Besides, his hostility might be explained by his rightwing paranoia about the government...

As the investigation proceeds, it becomes clear that there's more going on and solving the murders doesn't mean the case is closed. The second part of the story, after it more or less becomes clear what had happened goes into thriller teritory as Nations county's police force prepares to prevent a major criminal plan. This part was a bit weaker than the first part, somewhat cliched, especially in the villain's motivations.

According to the short biography at the front of the book, Donald Harstad is an ex-cop, coming from the sort of small town police department in which the story takes place. His background keeps the book firmly grounded in reality, noticable by the way all the minor details of police work ring true. Not that I have any experience with police work, but I can usually tell the difference between those who write about things they have actual experience off and those who have to rely on their research. Harstad just oozes an easy familiarity with how a murder investigation works and is not afraid to go into detail, without becoming tedious or too technical. This is especially noticable during the autopsy scenes as well as the initial murder scene investigation.

Not only that, he is also a pretty good writer. The story takes place in the midst of winter in Iowa, where winters can be quite nippy and despite the fact that I was reading it in shorts and t-shirt, he really made me feel the cold. Again, it's the small details with which he manages to convey a winter atmosphere. The way Carl dresses before going out on patrol, for example.

In all, even though this sort of book is supposedly not a genre I'm a great fan off, this was surprisingly readable. I'll be looking forward to Harstad's other books.

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Webpage created 27-08-2003, last updated 01-01-2005
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