I do a weird thing with my books.
Rereading Purgatory Ridge has made me look at the issue of story arc and how I construct a narrative, and I’m honestly surprised. I see that I have often done something without really being aware of it. Simply this: At a certain point in the story, I shift direction dramatically. A story that has had a very specific drive suddenly changes and what’s at the heart of the drama shifts.
Here’s how it works with Purgatory Ridge. After the prologue, the story opens with a bomb blast at a lumber mill, an enterprise that’s at the center of a controversy over the cutting of pine trees sacred to the Anishinaabeg. The blast kills a man, a well-respected Ojibwe elder. The first part of the book is a pretty straightforward whodunit. Cork O’Connor, like every good protagonist in the genre from Miss Marple to Dave Robicheaux, goes about the business of trying to get to the bottom of the crime. Midway through the story, however, everything changes. Cork’s wife and son are kidnapped and the stakes instantly skyrocket. The book becomes a thriller as well as a mystery.
I write my books in my head first. When I conceived Purgatory Ridge, I had a very specific purpose in mind. I’d written two books. One, Iron Lake, was a book with relationship at its heart. The second, Boundary Waters, was all about suspense. With third, I wanted to create a story that was a satisfying marriage of suspense and relationship. I recall that I came up with the second part of the book first, the kidnapping and the idea of Jo O’Connor in jeopardy. I constructed the first part of the book in order to set up the kidnapping and the misdirection. One critic commented that the initial storyline would have been just fine; readers didn’t need the kidnapping. I beg to differ. If Purgatory Ridge had been just a book about a bombing that leaves a man dead, it would have be an acceptable mystery, but it wouldn’t be a thriller. Putting someone in jeopardy ramps up the intrigue and the emotional investment in the outcome. And not just any someone, but someone the readers—and Cork—care about very much. In an earlier blog, I talked about creating suspense in many different ways. The threat of harm to characters we care about is one of the most profound.
This switch of direction well into the book keeps the reader guessing. I did it in The Devil’s Bed, my only stand alone. I did it in Blood Hollow and in Thunder Bay and in the book that will be released this coming September, Heaven’s Keep. But I did it first in Purgatory Ridge, and I still appreciate the fresh energy that the technique delivers to the story.
At the end of Purgatory Ridge, all the answers have been delivered to the reader. The mystery of the bombing has been solved. The dark heart at the center of the all the misdeeds has been revealed. And the mortal threat to Cork and those he loves has been resolved. The book is a harrowing journey with one of the most emotional resolutions in the whole series. On rereading, I think it stands up extremely well. Another book I’m quite proud to have my name on.