Donald Harstad: The Big Thaw

The Big ThawAs I noted, Harstad’s Eleven Days was excellent, but The Big Thaw blew me away. I was reading out of order again, rushing to beat a library deadline, and there were some references to a previous book, but nothing I couldn’t follow. Plenty of spoilers for the missed book, though. Oh, well. My bad. I like Harstad’s world. It’s a world in which forensics are costly and labs are backed up. You know: reality. Not like CSI Las Vegas or Miami or Whereverthehell, where you work in a glass-walled lab and have more high-tech equipment than NASA. And where the lab techs are all deputized to interrogate prisoners and take an active part in the investigations. Pu-leeze.

But I digress. This novel didn’t have the gore of Eleven Days and felt a bit more action-oriented. Not like Bruce Willis action-oriented, but you get the gist. This time out, Harstad’s crew was up against the FBI and a team of home grown terrorists. Good character development and good procedural. Did I mention I really like this author? OK. I’ll stop gushing.

Eleven Days – Donald Harstad

Eleven Days by Donald HarstadEleven Days is my first Donald Harstad, which is fitting since it is also Donald Harstad’s first novel. Reading this one, I tend to think the man is either a genius or he has a couple dozen more novels squirreled away he hasn’t admitted to yet. Either way, he reads like a seasoned author, one who has learned to trust his characters and the intelligence of his readers. Harstad draws on his 26 years of service as a deputy sheriff in northeastern Iowa and he never stumbles. Most of the murders he details are particularly gruesome, but I get no sense that he has embellished anything just for the sake of gore. In fact, I get the distinct impression that he is deliberately down-playing the scenes, trying to avoid too realistic a presentation of the violence and that is in itself most unsettling. I own a copy of Practical Homicide Investigation and some of the pictures (even though, thankfully, in black and white) will make you hurl at first glance. I get the sense that it is that type of reaction Harstad is protecting us from. Still, the story reads with such reality that I read with a knot in my stomach, cringing at the violence we do in this world, and hoping for the safety of Harstad’s characters.

It is, appropriately, the characters who drive the drama. I like that in a novel. There is nothing hokey here, no “gosh-blame-it” Opie hicks in sight. These read like real people with real concerns and hurts and good humor. Despite the violence, Harstad’s small town Iowa sounds like a place I’d love to live. A place where the sheriff’s department is just a phone call away and where I’ll find someone who cares on the other end of the line. I’ll be visiting Nation County again. I already have the rest of the series lined up on my desk, ready for the weekend.