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  • Title: Obsidian: A DreadfulWater Mystery
  • Author: Thomas King
  • Genre: Mystery
  • Publisher: HarperCollins
  • Pages: 376

Part of the point of series mystery fiction is affording readers a chance to spend some solid hang time with characters they’ve grown attached to. Detective novels, in particular, find their audience in a sort of blind-friend-date initiated by opening that first book. You may find that Dave Robicheaux’s guilt spirals and obsession with the dead aren’t quite offset by the charms of his pet raccoon and his noble obsession with duty, and skip James Lee Burke’s Louisiana-set series. (Which, incidentally, I would wager is an influence on Thomas King’s series). And Travis McGee’s cool boat, his brilliant friend Meyer and his prescient visions of the need for environmental preservation may not do enough to counterbalance his outdated ruminations on relations between men and women, and you’ll say farewell after (or midway through) John D. MacDonald’s opening novel in the series, The Deep Blue Good-by. But in this rich and ever-growing field, you’re going to eventually find a detective who you may want to have a drink with, such as Nick and Nora Charles, or Hap Collins and Leonard Pine. Barring that, you’ll at least find an obsessive weirdo from the Sherlock Holmes mold that you can’t stop being fascinated by.

I like hanging out with Thumps DreadfulWater, the hero of King’s so-far five-volume series, which started back in 2002. He has more than a dash of the obsessive about him, particularly in this latest outing, but there’s a good reason for that. Enjoying Thumps and his friends is crucial to enjoying Obsidian, which finds DreadfulWater coming back home in part to decide if he has any place there, after a brief and destabilizing trip back to Eureka, Calif., where he used to be a cop. Obsidian has a deceptively leisurely pace, and a great part of that leisure is spent in the company of the book’s large cast having many breakfasts and talking – not just to amuse readers, but to amuse each other. Thankfully, unlike most writers, King actually is funny when he intends to be. He also has a sense of what makes people worth talking to, and not just in an interrogation room.

What seems to be a slow reintroduction to the northwestern U.S. town of Chinook and its adjacent Blackfoot reservation masks the tight plot of Obsidian. Each scene of small-town charm, banter and cultural exchange – whether Thumps is exchanging barbs with Leon Ranger, a Black cop who moonlights as a romance novelist, or trying to avoid a lecture on South American literature from local bookstore owner and superb researcher Archie Kousolas – effectively deepens a connection, advances the plot or drops a false (but fair) lead.

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The first bodies, and the most meaningful to Thumps, have fallen long before this fifth volume of the series begins. His girlfriend and her daughter, killed in Eureka, are presumed to have been victims of a serial killer known as “the Obsidian killer,” as he leaves a fragment of that stone in the mouth of each victim. This gothic stone-chip business in an otherwise straight-shooting mystery is a bit of a Hannibal­­-ish touch that King has cleverly undermined and explained by the end of the book. Thumps has been drawn back into this mystery, putting his professional photography on hold and reluctantly playing the cop again, by the death of a true-crime documentary maker who had begun to investigate the case. Poring over his long-dead girlfriend’s past, and discovering that she kept a significant part of her life private when they were together, leaves Thumps feeling even more confused about his current relationships in Chinook. His on-and-off romantic partner, Claire, is heavily invested in having a child, and Thumps isn’t sure he can invest in anything beyond finding out who killed the woman and child he loved as a younger man. When the Obsidian killer shows up in town, leaving shards of stone first and bodies later, Thumps’s personal dilemmas would take a backseat to the plot, if King hadn’t so skillfully twined them together while you thought characters were just arguing about waffles and vintage automobiles.

King has written across genres, from literary novels to his classic non-fiction book, The Inconvenient Indian, and Obsidian is another demonstration that a writer remains the writer they are, no matter what they happen to be writing. Detective fiction is an excellent showcase for both the internal ruminations that one might associate with high literary fiction, and the social realism that defined much 19th-century prose. Reading King means you get a good dose of both. Thumps is better at detection than he is at managing his life crises (and diabetes), but he is a sharp observer of the world around him, a knower of people and politics: It’s a side effect of detection.

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