Sunday, March 9, 2008

Death and Geocaching in the Upper Peninsula

I never had the chance to work for Henry Kisor during the 28 years he was book editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, but I heard enough about him from friends like Gary Dretzka and David Montgomery to make me wish I had. Luckily for us all, his retirement has turned into a fiction feast set in a part of the world I knew nothing about -- Michigan's Upper Peninsula, where Steve Martinez is deputy sheriff of a place called Porcupine City.

A Lakota Sioux orphan raised by white Methodists in upstate New York, Martinez drifted into Porcupine City after the first Gulf War, the one some misbegotten soul named Desert Storm, and felt immediately at home. He likes the Yoopers (residents of the Upper Peninsula) and especially the Porkies, the Porcupine City folk whose welfare and protection is largely his job -- now that the entrenched sheriff, Eli Garrow, has decided to spend less and less of his time in the office except on payday. Garrow has also appointed his wife as jail matron and taken the police department's new snowmobile as a personal plaything. But, as Steve tells us, "Those peccadilloes have been long forgotten... while such niggardly nest feathering could cost a politician an election, it's not worth an indictment."

That's why Martinez has decided to run for sheriff himself, driving his boss crazy. A shy man ("I still retain an Indian tendency to hide my light under a bushel," Martinez says), he nevertheless feels that Porkies deserve a better lawman. And despite the fact that a couple of his recent cases have made headlines (Season's Revenge and A Venture into Murder tell those stories), Steve's election is no sure thing. For one thing, there is his obviously Native American face: most locals can't tell the difference between him and the Ojibwes whose casinos and benefits are a source of irritation.

CACHE OF CORPSES begins with the discovery in what was known as the Dying Room of the local Poor Farm (by two young police officers looking for a place to have sex) of a headless, handless human body sealed in a plastic bag marked with an incomprehensible bar code. With his best friend and campaign manager, State Trooper Alex Kolehmainen, Martinez tries to solve the case before it becomes cold. Then, a smart, cocky 12-year-old Ojibwe boy being fostered by Steve's almost-too-good-to-be true lady friend (secretly wealthy, beautiful, mature, adept at research) takes one look at the bar code and decides that they should try it backwards.

The story becomes more complicated when a popular Internet sport called geocaching makes an appearance. "Geocaching is the outdoor sport in which people hide treasures, mark their locations with GPS receivers, then post the coordinates on the Internet — and other players read the postings and hunt the treasures with their own GPSes," says Kisor on his blog. "TeamObbie1, a husband-and-wife pair in Northern Virginia, stashed a copy of Cache of Corpses at the geographic location N 39 02.700 W 077 30.115, which happens to be a public library in Loudoun County. It was an 'event cache,' a meeting of the Northern Virginia Geocaching Organization, at which TeamObbie1 'released' the book into the wild. At the event another cacher found the book and took it home, then posted his discovery on When he’s finished reading it, he’ll take the book to another event cache for someone else to read and pass on, posting the coordinates of the event. The new reader in turn will pass the book on and post new coordinates."

Where else can you learn about this stuff -- or find out what an "Open Wedding" is? (See page 47 for details.) Kisor, who lives in Evanston, must get up to Michigan often enough in his own light plane to soak himself in its unique environment and habits. And did I mention that he also knows how to tell a great mystery story with style and grace?

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