Murder, mayhem and maniac cops

If you enjoy tales of tiny, twisted towns with thoroughly bizarre police departments, I think I’ve got just the supermarket paperback for you.

“Dead of Winter” by P.J. Parrish (2001, Kensington Publishing Corp., New York, N.Y., $6.99, 415 Pages) has everything but Charlie Manson and Freddy Krueger playing dominoes down at the bait shop.

An obvious candidate for Best Supermarket Psychotic Police Procedural Paperback of 2001, “Dead of Winter” follows the increasingly violent misadventures of Louis Kincaid, an out-of-work police officer who naively takes a job in the outwardly peaceful Michigan resort community of Loon Lake.

At first glance, it looks like a quiet little town to the young black police officer, a place where ruddy-faced children slide down snow banks on cafeteria trays and golden retrievers romp amid the neat frame houses.

There are, however, a few problems. One of them is a shotgun-wielding maniac who seems determined to decimate the police department, shooting luckless lawmen wherever he finds them. It doesn’t matter if they’re on duty or off duty, at home or on the street. The killer even guns down a police retiree while the former officer is working on a crossword puzzle in his ice-fishing shack.

The mysterious killer always leaves a playing card behind, but nobody knows exactly why.

The other problem is the fact that most, if not all, of the town’s police officers are a few sandwiches short of a picnic. These are really, really strange cops.

The chain-smoking chief fancies samurai swords, incessantly quotes Baudelaire and Winston Churchill and rambles on about chess gambits, Marshall swindles and Lucena positions.

Then there’s Kincaid’s first partner, officer Jesse Harrison – radio call number Loon-13. Jesse’s a nice guy when he’s not in the middle of a red-eyed rage brought on by disrespectful pickup truck drivers, Vietnam veterans, prison parolees or juvenile delinquents.

Officer Harrison, it should be noted, has been known on at least one occasion to administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation to a decapitated plastic reindeer.

And he isn’t a racist – he just talks like one…

Also on the job is officer Ollie Wickshaw. He gobbles Valium, dabbles in astrology and tries to protect fellow officers with crystals and obsidian. Ollie eats soy burgers and compares driving through falling snow to traveling at warp speed in the Starship Enterprise – enough said.

But the somewhat deranged police department is only one element of this multi-faceted tale of murder, betrayal and widespread mental illness in upstate Michigan.

Like all the best supermarket paperbacks, “Dead of Winter” has everything. There’s a mysterious jogger with multiple identities, a vengeful prison parolee, a heavily armed encampment of less-than-jolly Vietnam veterans, lots of Yoopers and Eggers (in-bred Michigan natives and wealthy vacationers) and a no-nonsense sheriff named Bjork (pronounced “Bjork.”).

So which of them is shotgunning Loon Lake lawmen?

The answer’s waiting for you about three aisles over from the pickled herring and processed cheese. Tell the checkout clerk I sent you…

Originally published March 4, 2001