North Dakota Noir

It’s a good time for Harold Adams, whose novels about itinerent sign painter ex-cop Carl Wilcox had been languishing, garnering critical raves but little in the way of sales. Walker & Company, a publishing house becoming known for literate, sometimes off-beat mysteries, has released four books so far in trade paperback and published new ones in hardback. This is a series well worth investigating.

Wilcox reminds me of every boy’s favorite uncle, the one who’s a black sheep to the women of the family for not settling down, who stops by when he needs a bed and a few square meals, bringing with him a whiff of sin and a few great stories. He travels the small towns of the Dakotas and Minnesota during the Depression, taking on sign-painting jobs for grocery stores and law offices when they’re available, and camping by the side of the road in his modified Model T. When the jobs are few on the ground, he’ll take on a murder investigation.

In “A Way with Widows,” his sister asks him to come to Red Ford, North Dakota, to help clear a neighbor of killing her husband, who was found on the stairs of another woman’s house. In “No Badge, No Gun,” a minister who has heard of Wilcox’s reputation as an investigator asks him to solve the murder of his niece, found dead in the basement of a church. Wilcox’s investigating style consists of wandering around town, talking to people, gathering threads of facts and weaving them into a plausible story. He’s suspicious, but not cynical. Told about the perfect character of a churchgoing man, he observes, “Nothing in this world raises more doubts in my mind than apparently perfect young men.”

Yet Wilcox is also a flawed man. He makes mistakes and is perfectly capable of being turned by a pretty widow with something to hide. His attempts at seduction sometimes succeed, but more often fail, which makes sense at a time when a woman’s reputation could be affected by who she’s seen with.

One hopes for better things for Adams and Wilcox, but if it doesn’t happen, it won’t be the fault of the publisher. Like most of Walker’s books, these are beautiful to look at — details from Edward Hopper’s paintings appear on most of them, which is a nice change from the usual blood and skulls that passes for art on most mystery covers — and the $8.95 price tag is more than reasonable for these absorbing tales of small-town crimes of passion.