Book Review: The Nail Knot by John Galligan

The Nail Knot is the first book in author John Galligan’s Fly Fishing Mystery Series. It was originally published in 2003, but I just recently found out about it. The series currently has three books with a fourth, The Wind Knot, due out in March 2011. Some of you may have some trepidation, based on the premise; a Fly Fishing Mystery. I know that I was a little concerned, “Would this be cheesy?”, I wondered. Let me start off by saying that no – it is definitely not cheesy. In fact, quite the opposite, it is well executed and enjoyable.

The Nail Knot is set in the trout stream rich driftless region of Wisconsin, in and around the village of Black Earth and on the banks of Black Earth Creek. Black Earth is a real stream and a real village, but based on a comment in the Acknowledgments, I assume that it has been fictionalized quite a bit; “…thanks to the Village of Black Earth, for its beautiful name, and for the beautiful creek that runs through it, about which I have lied like a fisherman, giving away no true secrets.”

The protagonist and reluctant sleuth of the story is Ned “Dog” Oglivie. When we meet him, the Dog has gone feral and is on the run from his past, traveling around in his ailing Cruise Master RV. We don’t know the details but he has cut ties with his past and he’s on a fly fishing bender, trying to drown his sorrows in vodka-tang cocktails and trout streams. The fly fisherman in me can’t help but be a little jealous. It seems like a dream come true, doing nothing but traveling from trout stream to trout stream, camping and fly fishing, with no strings and no responsibilities. But Dog doesn’t seem exactly happy, and as the story unfolds we find out about his past and we come to understand his pain. In the beginning I didn’t like Ned Oglivie all that much but he grew on me. That’s important to me – as a reader I want to like the protagonist of the book I’m reading. I know that a likeable protagonist is not necessary for a good book – but it’s important to me.

The story of The Nail Knot, kicks off when the Dog finds a body of a drowned fly fisherman, Jake Jacobs. Jake is a newcomer to Black Earth. He’s an fly fisherman activist interested in protecting the creek and therefore a meddler and a trouble maker in the eyes of most long-time residents. The list of murder suspects is long and filled with many colorful characters. I know most authors probably hate comparisons, but I can’t help comparing Galligan’s Black Earth and its denizens to Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon and its residents; the characters share a sort of quirkiness. The comparison is meant as a complement. Like Keillor, Galligan has a knack for creating interesting characters with believable backgrounds and motivations. The characters are sort of absurd and real all at once. I know that the fictitious Lake Wobegon is in Minnesota and Black Earth is in Wisconsin, and that the differences are probably striking and innumerable to the folks that live there, but to an easterner like myself, the regions in that part of the country are all filed in the same part of my brain – so please forgive me.

What about the fly fishing? There is plenty of fly fishing woven into the mystery – and though it is a sort of conceit – it is done well. The arcana of fly fishing is slipped into the story in a natural way, I think, though being a fly fisher, it’s hard to say for sure. Also, the the fly fishing references are not simply unnecessary accoutrements but are central to the plot; the timing of the Yellow Sally hatch and the tying of various fishing knots are both important to the murder mystery. On a side-note, being from Pennsylvania I loved a shout-out to the LeTort (and to Iron City beer).

In The Nail Knot, Mr. Galligan crafts a well written, humorous, and engaging mystery. And like any story worth the paper it’s written on, The Nail Knot provides insights and glimpses of truths underneath the surface action. In a smart, subtle and natural way John Galligan brings together a murder mystery, fly fishing, personal relationships, brokenness, environmental issues and great characters. In short, I enjoyed this book and I’m already digging into the others.

Find out more about John Galligan here: http://www.johngalligan.com/

Disclosure: This book was provided to me by the author

what say you?