Thomas King returns to the world of crime fiction with Cold Skies, the third book in the Thumps DreadfulWater mystery series. And this time, King’s own name is on the cover rather than the pseudonym Hartley GoodWeather, proving that it is now acceptable for literary writers to publicly dabble in crime fiction.
In Cold Skies, ex-cop turned photographer Thumps DreadfulWater is still in the town of Chinook, Montana, still taking photos and asking life’s important questions, such as should he buy that six-burner stove in the window of the local appliance store? But then he’s given an unusual opportunity: to become acting sheriff for Chinook while the real sheriff heads out on vacation. The sheriff even bribes DreadfulWater with that coveted gas stove if he takes up the challenge.
Unfortunately for Thumps, bodies start to appear. One at the airport, two on the neighbouring reservation, a fourth at a motel. All are connected to Orion Technologies, a company working on a new mechanism to map aquifers.
Cold Skies is a typical small-village cozy and King fills it with typical clues, red herrings, and quirky townspeople who seem completely unconcerned that four murders have occurred in their small town in less than a week. The overall puzzle is decent, and the book is peppered with classic Thomas King banter.
Of course, no matter how King tries to spin it, it makes no sense that the sheriff would ask a local photographer – ex-cop or not – to take his place, especially as more bodies start appearing. Not to mention – and King conveniently doesn’t – it’s the FBI’s responsibility to investigate murders that occur on U.S. reservations. A simple fact that any competent aficionado of crime fiction would know.
But the main difficulty with Cold Skies is its protagonist. Thumps thinks he’s funny, but he’s not. He is so laconic he comes off as indifferent, more of an observer than an active participant. The only time he expresses an emotion is when his girlfriend, Claire, is diagnosed with breast cancer. Giving a girlfriend/wife a life-threatening disease as a male protagonist’s character-development moment – a.k.a. fridging – is such a cheap plot device that there should be a moratorium on it for all time.
Thumps has no real emotional or physical stake in solving the murders and shows little empathy for the victims; thus, neither does the reader. Moreover, Thumps doesn’t solve anything: when the killer is revealed, the solution just falls into his lap. The whole event feels remote and anticlimactic.
Cold Skies is a featherweight mystery that lacks humour and has not much in the way of emotional heft. One gets the impression that King is still only dabbling in crime fiction rather than taking it seriously.