By Mary Houlihan
Chicago Sun-Times
Getting the details right is the No. 1 job of a journalist. Chicago Sun-Times literary editor Henry Kisor has taken this skill down another avenue with his latest book, Season’s Revenge (Forge; $19.95). Creating a detail-laden and precise mystery, set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, turned the author himself into a detective of sorts.

”The tools of a mystery writer are very much like those of a journalist, except that journalists of course can’t invent things, while mystery writers must,” said Kisor, who was recently inducted into the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame.

 Kisor’s engrossing, witty tale is written in a smart, accessible style that captures all the required ingredients of a contemporary mystery novel. There’s a cool, unassuming mystery-solver, Porcupine County deputy Steve Martinez; a green-eyed red-headed love interest, county historian Ginny Fitzgerald; numerous ancillary characters with plenty of quirks; and an intriguing, complicated murder mystery that involves a very unusual murder weapon.

The plot revolves around Porcupine County’s leading citizen, Paul Passoja, an old hand at deep-woods camping and expert at avoiding rampant wildlife, who is found at a remote campsite, apparently the victim of a bear attack. But all is not as it seems as Martinez steadfastly peels away the layers of deceit and past history to uncover a sad scheme of revenge.

Kisor, the author of three works of non-fiction—What’s That Pig Outdoors: A Memoir of Deafness, Zephyr: Tracking a Dream Across America and Flight of the Gin Fizz: Midlife at 4,500 Feet—admits that writing is “absolute drudgery.”

All the fun lies in the preliminary legwork, which consisted of digging around in libraries and on the Internet, driving and flying his plane around the Upper Peninsula and talking to the people who live there.

”I felt quite at home pottering about libraries looking up things about bears, guns, Finns and Alzheimer’s disease, as well as asking questions of people who live in the UP,” said Kisor, who has spent many vacations at a family home in the area.

”People like to talk about what they do for a living. Finding out what they did and how they did it came naturally to me as a journalist.”

But instead of a traditional mystery, this writing venture began life as a non-fiction book about the Upper Peninsula, said Kisor, who thought that the UP might offer up a great true-crime story, a compelling peg on which to hang a book.

”But I couldn’t find that story,” he admitted. “It must be out there somewhere, but it hasn’t turned up yet.”

By 1999, Kisor had amassed a huge pile of material—research, notes, interviews, jottings—but he didn’t have a clue how to use all the information. Relaxing with mystery novels was a favorite pastime and at some point the “eureka!” moment arrived.

”In that pile of assorted facts and folks, I suddenly realized a good mystery novel might be lurking,” Kisor recalled. “But creating believable characters and imagining believable events is vital, and I often found myself blocked trying to think of what to have my hero do next. It got easier as time went on, though, and by the end of the novel I was on a roll.”

Kisor has created a memorable and complicated detective just itching for a long series of mysteries to call home. (Yes, he’s already at work on a second Martinez novel.)

In Season’s Revenge, Steve Martinez, a Native American of Lakota Sioux descent, grew up the adopted son of white missionaries. He exists in an interesting duality, never at home in either world. Throughout his life, he’s never paid much attention to his roots and, as Season’s Revenge unfolds, is only beginning to understand his true heritage.

It’s often said that first novels are autobiographical. Kisor felt the reality of this statement as he created his detective.

”I wanted to explore some of the events in my life and the contradictory feelings I have had as a speaking and lip-reading deaf person in a hearing world that considers all deaf people the same—that we all use sign language and socialize only among ourselves,” said Kisor, who has been deaf since the age of 3. “I’ve often felt caught between two stools, and I thought that notion might add some tension when applied to a mystery hero.”

But Kisor thought a deaf person as a gun-toting sheriff’s deputy in the remote north was too unrealistic. Then he remembered one of his eldest son’s friends who had been adopted from the Pine Ridge Reservation by white parents.

”He once told me he didn’t know much about being Indian,” said Kisor. “Some Native Americans adopted by whites have feelings of rootlessness because they think white but look Indian, and I’ve often thought to myself, ‘Boy, that could have been me.’ “

Woven throughout the novel are little-known bits of Finnish history tied to the Upper Peninsula, as well as nicely honed descriptions of life in the area and the unspoiled beauty of the north woods. Facts on bears provide a primer of what and what not to do in their presence.

Ontonagon County, upon which the fictional Porcupine County is based, is full of rugged people who take care of each other despite struggles with unemployment and a dwindling population, Kisor said. “They’re the true survivors. I grew to admire them immensely.”

These people were the inspiration for the many outlying characters that colorfully fill in the corners of Season’s Revenge.

As the Sun-Times book editor, Kisor reads and reads and and reads and reads. When asked, he’ll gladly count off his list of favorite mystery writers—Tony Hillerman, Dick Francis, Michael Connelly, Sara Paretsky, Barbara D’Amato and P.D. James. Considered by the literary world to be mere entertainers, Kisor feels they are often far better stylists and craftsmen than many “serious” novelists.

”A good story well told, that’s the thing,” said Kisor, as he prepares to humbly join their ranks.

Copyright 2003 Chicago Sun-Times

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