Book Review: The Blood Knot by John Galligan

“Dog, This is not a fishing trip.” That is the message that Harvey Digman (the Dog’s tax man) has written on the back of a postcard that he included with Dog’s latest installment of cash. On the front of the postcard is Rene Magritte’s famous painting La trahison des images or The Treachery of Images. The painting is the simple image of a pipe with the phrase “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”) written below it.

This is a fitting image to begin The Blood Knot, John Galligan’s second book in his Fly Fishing Mystery Series. In the first book of the series, The Nail Knot, (see my review here), we were introduced to fly fisher Ned “Dog” Oglivie and his never-ending fishing trip. Ironically, Ned’s years-long fishing odyssey is not the fulfillment of a life-long dream, but is rather a head-long flight into oblivion born of personal tragedy, this is not a fishing trip

At the beginning of the book, Dog is awakened by the sound of gunshots. He assumes that these are coming from the gun of a helpful local who is hunting down a potentially rabid beaver that bit him. However, he soon finds out that he is mistaken.

I could see the Barn lady. Her plump little body rolled and tossed at the tail of the bridge pool. Her thin gray hair trailed away in the current, and the push of the creek ballooned her overalls. Her left arm bent grotesquely above her head, wobbling like a trout. A final shot slammed past me – Bang! – and jolted the lady.

“There,” said the Avalanche Kid.
He coughed words down at me.
“I shot her”

It appears simple at first – the kid, Deuce Kussmaul, had shot and killed the lady that painted barns, the Barn lady. But of course, things are not that simple and things are not as they seem. Ceci n’est pas une pipe (this is not a pipe)…and it is definitely not just a fishing trip. Eve Kussmaul, a shunned Amish woman, and Deuce’s mother, is convinced that her son is innocent. With the help of a felled oak across the campground exit (blocking the Dog in), she convinces Dog to stay and help unravel the mystery. And just like that Ned Oglivie is again drawn into a murder mystery.

As with The Nail Knot, this story is set in the trout-rich, Driftless region of Wisconsin – but this time in the Kickapoo River valley. The characters of the story include some of the Amish residents of the valley as well as the treacherous and menacing men of the Kussmaul family. The Kussmaul men are known by their barns; Half-Tim, Beechnut, King-Midas, Roundy, Lighting-Rod. Their nick-names come from some notable feature of their barns. When she was alive, the Kussmauls did not get on well with the Barn Lady, the late Annie Adams. She made a living form painting their historic barns. As the Kussmaul men saw it she was stealing from them, and trespassing (she used the riparian access rights of the waterways to gain access to paint their barns). They believed that Annie owed them a cut of her profits and she did not agree. Any of the Kussmauls might have killed Annie and set-up the young boy, Deuce, to take the blame.

That is the backdrop for the mystery in The Blood Knot. I’ll say that I enjoyed this book. But maybe not quite as much as the first one in the series. The previous book, The Nail Knot, was a bit more lighthearted, a bit more comic sort of murder mystery. The Blood Knot has funny moments, but I always felt a little ill-at-ease. To be fair, the main problem is that I was expecting more of the same. Not that there is a drastic departure – but there is a shift. In a way though, this shift in tone and color may be necessary for a satisfying story-arc of the protagonist. Ned is indeed fleeing from demons in his past, of which we learn a little more in this book. And if his story is going to turn a corner and head toward some conclusion, then he is going to have to face these demons – and that could hardly be a lighthearted affair.

Not to get too analytical but…It seems to me that in this book John Galligan is reaching a little more deeply than in the previous one, and exploring some themes a little more richly. I don’t want to give too much of the story away so I can’t say too much here – but one theme that jumps out at me is the idea that a man can not exist in isolation. And also that it is very difficult to break down those barriers that keep us isolated; social, political, religious, gender-related, etc. The image of Magritte’s painting springs to mind again – this is not a pipe. This image itself seems to speak to the idea that even when presented with a simple fact, we will view it differently and communicate our ideas about it ineffectively. So even at a most basic level barriers are bound to spring up.

Along the way Galligan, gives us a good mystery to unravel, along with some fly-fishing (the blood knot and the Trico mayfly figure into the mystery). We also get a glimpse into the friction that occurs when the Amish world bumps up against ours. Environmental and stewardship themes such as riparian access and the question of “who owns the view?” pop up too. The Blood Knot is an engaging mystery with enough fly-fishing to keep the angler’s attention, but also with enough meat on the bones to keep it from being trivial. All in all, a very satisfying read and though it could be read as stand-alone book, the reader will definitely take more away when it is read in sequence with The Nail Knot.

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Disclosure: This book was provided to me by the author

what say you?