Back on the beat as sheriff of Tamarack County, Cork O'Connor has already seen his beautiful Northwoods jurisdiction through an eventful summer. Now, as the chill of autumn sweeps through the countryside, he's about to face a season of murder, adultery, and deceit that will take him from seedy backwoods bars and humble reservation shanties to the highest and most corrupt echelons of Chicago society.
Lured to the nearby Ojibwe reservation on what appears to be a routine domestic disturbance call, Cork finds himself the target of a sniper's deadly fire. He has little time to worry about his own precarious situation, however. Soon after the shooting, he's called to investigate a mutilated body found perched above the raging waters of Mercy Falls. The victim is Eddie Jacoby, a Chicago businessman involved in negotiating an unpopular contract between his management firm and the local Indian casino.
Now Cork must deal with a high-profile murder contaminated with the blood of the rich and powerful. Sparks fly when the wealthy Jacoby family insists on hiring a beautiful private investigator named Dina Willner to consult on the case. But once Cork discovers an old and passionate tie between one of the Jacoby sons and his own wife, Jo, he begins to suspect that the events in Aurora have a darker, more personal motive than he could ever have imagined.
With his life at stake and the safety of his family in question, Cork must squelch the growing suspicion that another man desperately wants his wife, and at the same time resist the passion heating up between himself and Dina.
Murder, greed, sex, and jealousy all play a part in the maze of danger and intrigue Cork is caught in. But somewhere, hidden beneath the turbulent depths of Mercy Falls, lie the answers, and Cork is determined to find them.
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She woke naked on the bed, in a room she didn't recognize, her mind as clear of memory as the sky outside her window was of clouds. A huge pillow that smelled faintly of lavender cradled her head. She was too warm and drew back the covers so that she lay exposed on the white sheet like a delicacy on a china plate.
She tried to sit up, far too quickly, and the room spun. A minute later, she tried again, this time rising gradually until she could see the whole of the great bedroom. The bed itself was a four-poster with a canopy. The armoire a few feet distant was the color of maple syrup and carved with ornate scrolling. On the walls, in elegant, gilt-edged frames, hung oil paintings of Mediterranean scenes, mostly with boats and angry, blue-black seas. The magnificent red of the Persian rug matched the thick drapes drawn back to let in the morning light. None of this was familiar to her. But there was one detail that struck a welcome chord: an explosion of daisies in a yellow vase on the vanity. Daisies, she remembered, had always been her favorite flowers.
A clean, white terry cloth robe had been neatly laid out at the foot of the bed, but she ignored it. She walked to the daisies and touched one of the blossoms. Something about the fragility of the petals touched her in return and made her sad in a way that felt like grieving.
For whom? she wondered, trying to nudge aside the veil that, at the moment, hung between her perception and all her understanding. Then a thought occurred to her. The birds. Maybe that was it. She was grieving for all the dead birds.
Her eyes lifted to the vanity mirror. In the reflection there, she saw the bruises on her body. One on her left breast above her nipple, another on the inside of her right thigh, oval-shaped, both of them, looking very much like the blue ghosts of tooth marks.
As she reached down and gingerly touched the tender skin, she heard firecrackers go off outside her window, two of them. Only two? she thought. What kind of celebration was that?
She put on the robe, went to the door, and opened it. Stepping out, she found herself in a long hallway with closed doors on either side, her only companions several tall standing plants that were spaced between the rooms like mute guardians. At each end of the hall, leaded windows with beveled glass let in enough daylight to give the emptiness a sense of benign well-being that she somehow knew was false. She crept down the hallway, listening for the slightest sound, feeling the deep nap of the carpet crush under the soles of her bare feet. At last she reached a staircase that wound to the lower level. She followed the lazy spiral unsteadily, her hand holding to the railing for balance, leaving moist fingerprints on the polished wood that vanished a moment after her passing.
She stood at the bottom of the stairway, uncertain which way to turn. To her right, a large room with a baby grand piano at its center, a brick fireplace, a sofa and loveseat of chocolate brown leather. To her left, a dining room with a huge crystal chandelier and a table large enough for a banquet. Sunlight from a long window cleaved the table, and in the bright gleam sat another vase full of daisies. Drawn by the smell of freshly brewed coffee, she moved through the dining room to the opened door of the kitchen beyond.
A carafe of orange juice sat on the counter near the sink, and next to it a glass, poured and waiting. The smell of the coffee came from a French-press coffeemaker that sat on a large butcher-block island. An empty cup and saucer had been placed on the block, as if she were expected. A book lay there, too, opened to a page that began, I couldn't sleep all night; a fog-horn was groaning incessantly in the Sound, and I tossed half-sick between grotesque reality and savage, frightening dreams.
The sliding glass door that overlooked the veranda was drawn back, letting in the morning air, and she walked across the cool black and white kitchen tiles to the doorway. From there, she could see the back of the estate with its pool set into the lawn like a piece of cut turquoise. Beyond was the blue-gray sweep of a great body of water that collided at the horizon with a cornflower sky. Beside the pool stood a man in a yellow windbreaker with the hood pulled up. Although she couldn't see his face, there was something familiar in his stance. She stepped outside, not bothering to slide the door closed behind her.
It was a chilly morning. The cold marble of the veranda made her feet ache, but she paid no attention, because something else had caught her eye. A crimson billow staining the blue water. She descended the steps and followed a limestone walk to the apron of the pool.
The body lay on the bottom, except for the arms, which floated free, lifted slightly as if in supplication. The swimming trunks were white, the skin tanned. She couldn't see the wounds, only the blood that leaked from somewhere underneath, gradually tinting the turquoise water a deep rose.
The standing man turned his head slowly, as if it were difficult, painful even, for him to look away from death. The sun was at his back, his face shadowed, a gun in his hand.
She recognized him, and the thought of what he'd just done pulled her heart out of her chest.
"Oh, Cork, no," she whispered.
When he heard his name, his hard, dark eyes grew soft. Corcoran O'Connor stared at his wife, at her clean robe, her bare feet, her hair still mussed from a night she barely remembered.
"Jo," he said, "I came to bring you home."
Copyright © 2005 by William Kent Krueger
Reading Group Guide
Reading Group Guide
By William Kent Krueger
About the Book
Lured to the nearby Ojibwe reservation on what appears to be a routine domestic disturbance call, Tamarack County Sheriff Cork O'Connor finds himself the target of a sniper's deadly fire. Barely escaping with his life, he's soon called to investigate a seemingly unrelated incident: the mutilated body of Eddie Jacoby, a wealthy Chicago businessman who had been negotiating an unpopular casino contract, found perched above the raging waters of Mercy Falls. But once Cork discovers an old and passionate tie between one of the Jacoby sons and his own wife, Jo, he begins to suspect that the events in Aurora have a darker, more personal motive than he could ever have imagined.
1. The prologue opens with Cork's wife, disoriented and woozy, coming upon her husband standing over a recently killed dead body. At this moment, what do you suspect has happened? How much of what you suspected was true in the end?
2. Cork is of both Irish and Native American heritage. What are some of the stereotypical prejudices against those cultures? How does Cork's heritage get used against him? How does it help him? Compare the prejudices Cork faces to other ethnicities' prejudices -- how do they differ and how are they the same?
3. When the body of Eddie Jacoby is discovered, the police find that it has been brutally mutilated -- after he was killed. Was the description of the body difficult to read? What does the mutilation reveal about the killer? How do we know that Eddie has been in trouble before?
4. Cork asks, "Fourteen stab wounds, castration, and drugs. Cigarette butts with lipstick. Could it be we're dealing with a woman?" (p. 74) What do we know about the killer at this point? Did you believe the killer to be a man or a woman at this point in the story?
5. Discuss Cork's reaction when he learns Ben Jacoby is an old flame of his wife Jo's. Is Cork suspicious? Why doesn't Jo ask Eddie if he is related to Ben, a significant man from her past, who had thoroughly broken her heart?
6. Ben presents his reappearance in Jo's life as fate. How much of a coincidence is it really? What are Ben's motives in re-establishing contact with Jo? Is Jo tempted to leave Cork?
7. Dina Willner, an attractive woman with a vast array of deductive and Navy Seal-like skills, joins the investigation. Though Cork remains distrustful of Dina, he is also drawn to her. How do Cork's feelings for Dina affect his actions during the investigation? What do you think Dina and Cork's relationship will be in the future?
8. Though she has little memory of it, Jo is raped. How do Cork and Jo react -- individually and as a couple? We know that Cork and Jo have had marital problems in the past. Do you believe this event will tear them apart? What can couples do to overcome traumatic events together?
9. Though we learn who committed the murders, the novel ends with Cork going "on the lam" to avoid endangering his family. Was Cork's departure the best ending? Why or why not? Does this ending make you look forward to the next Cork O'Connor novel or does it frustrate you? What do you think will happen next?
10. How do Mercy Falls, and other works by William Kent Krueger, reflect "Minnesota culture?" Do you see similarities to the way Minnesota is portrayed in the film Fargo? What are some characteristics that distinguish Minnesotans? How is the landscape unique? How does the landscape impact Mercy Falls? Compare the landscape of northern Minnesota with Evanston, Illinois, where Rose, Jo's sister, lives. Why did the author include these differences?
11. "It can be tough, being in love with a cop," says Frank, Marsha's father. How are relationships (i.e., Cork and Jo, Marsha and Charlie, Ed and his wife) in Mercy Falls affected by this stress? Discuss the keys to success in these relationships.
12. The police officers in Mercy Falls are second-generation cops and completely committed to their profession. Discuss whether or not this reflects real-life trends.
13. Casinos have been blamed for the deterioration of Native American culture, traffic congestion, drugs and mafia infiltrations, political infighting, and for having a negative impact on local economies. However, casinos have also created hundreds of new jobs that pay decent wages and have helped improve community infrastructure, housing, education, and healthcare on reservations. Keeping these issues in mind, are Native American casinos a good or bad? Why are Native Americans allowed to open casinos?
Book Club Tips:
• Mercy Falls references numerous Native American customs. Deepen your discussion of the book by studying some of the myths and rituals of the Northwoods tribes.
• Research nearby Native American associations and invite a local historian to speak or join your book discussion for that evening.
• Serve traditional Native American food. Or prepare "campfire" food to simulate Cork and his companions' experience when they pursue Stone.
• Screen the movie Fargo before your meeting and compare what you notice in the film with what occurs in the book.