Paradise is a word often used in the same sentence as Door County, Wisconsin, by the natives as well as about two million yearly visitors. Author Patricia Skalka chose the beautiful Door Peninsula, serenely located between Green Bay and Lake Michigan, as the setting for her first mystery novel, Death Stalks Door County.
In Skalka’s fictional world, the beginning of the tourist season—the major support of a healthy Door County economy—is marred by six bizarre deaths. The victims die in quite different ways. The initial inclination to think of them as a series of unusual but unconnected accidents gradually shifts to the feeling that a dangerous killer is at work. Dave Cubiak, a Chicago homicide detective who has just taken a position as a park ranger to help him work through his grief and feelings of personal guilt for the accidental deaths of his wife and daughter, is asked to investigate. Even though he believes foul play is probably involved, he has faced too much death recently and refuses the assignment. However, as the biggest festival of the season approaches and the possible danger to more people increases, Cubiak agrees to help the local police.
As he searches for clues, with the encouragement and help of important Door County leaders, it becomes difficult to know who can be trusted and who should be considered a suspect. The travel brochure landscape that is Door County conceals a tangled web of greed, betrayal, bitter rivalries, and lost love.
Patricia Skalka captures the spirit and feeling of the area and its residents, and her descriptions of the atmosphere of the villages and spectacular scenery will resonate with readers who have spent time on the Door Peninsula. One of the reasons for this is that, although she lives in Chicago, Skalka has a vacation home in Door County and so has accumulated personal knowledge of her crime scenes. Another reason is that she is an experienced writer, having developed her skills through years as a freelance writer for Reader’s Digest and as a magazine editor, ghost writer, and writing instructor.
Although Skalka’s settings are well wrought, some of the plotting is not so neatly written. [Spoiler Alert!] It’s difficult not to wonder if the eventually unmasked killer could have committed all the murders alone. One of them was extra hard to believe. However, the author explains it all in a seemingly logical way. The surprising ending also fit the character of the killer as well as the setting for the story.
Death Stalks Door County is a good first novel and an interesting beginning for what we are told is the first in the Dave Cubiak mystery series. Skalka says she has already outlined four more books in the collection, published by the University of Wisconsin Press’s new imprint, Terrace Books. It’s also interesting to speculate about the reactions of the author’s vacation neighbors to the book’s alarming threats to their beloved Door County tourist industry. (Hey! It’s only make-believe—they’ll get used to it.) Patricia Skalka plans to continue disturbing the peace in Door County for quite a while, which should be a good thing for readers.
May 2014, Terrace Books/University of Wisconsin Press
$26.95, hardcover, 256 pages
—Reviewed by Betty Nicholas