On the Mad River

A Gunnar Staalesen crime pick

Lucrecia Gurerrero

Images courtesy of Lucrecia Guerrero
On the Mad River is the third published work by Midwest author and partner in fictional crime and life with Crime Corner’s Nordic noir critic, Jerry Holt. Guerrero and Holt spent a rainy fall and winter in Bergen, Norway, where the Nordic noir champion Gunnar Staalesen became both a friend and a fan.

Brought to you by Jerry Holt

What is the celebrated Norwegian crime writer Gunnar Staalesen reading? We know what he has just completed, and that is the American novel On the Mad River by Lucrecia Guerrero.

The Norwegian author says: “I have really enjoyed reading such a beautifully written and impressive book. I was caught from the very first page, and I followed the destiny of the main characters all the way to the end. This is truly a first-class novel.”

Staalesen, well-known to mystery fans, is the creator of P.I. Varg Veum of print and television series fame. Guerrero is a Hispanic-American writer who actually spent a lovely fall and winter in Bergen in 2017, when her husband was on a teaching Fulbright there. I know all this because Guerrero is also my wife, and I, too, am extremely impressed with On the Mad River. In fact, our relationship aside, it is the best novel I have read in a long time.

The book will not disappoint any reader who opens its cover. It is a fast-paced, sometimes very dark tale of a young runaway, Rosa Linda del Rio, who gets on a Greyhound Bus, has a near-deadly encounter with Enon, a menacing fellow traveler, and then winds up in Mad River, Ohio, where she meets and comes to admire one Donnie Ray Camper, a sort of throwback to more heroic days who could come in handy against Enon, who is in deadly pursuit. Rosa Linda has taken to hitchhiking during her journey and has definitely picked the wrong ride in Enon, a Christ-crazed drifter. Rosa Linda has essentially bamboozled her way out of Enon’s grasp, and she is well aware that Enon isn’t going to give up his cross-country quest to find her again. He is angry, and she might not be so lucky in her next encounter with him.

Each of these characters has a compelling background, as do the rainbow of secondary figures who populate Hillbilly Holler, where Rosa Linda lands, a depressed slum whose minions actually call it by that name and display a touching loyalty to each other. Donnie Ray, in particular, is haunted by the death of his brother, a tragedy for which he claims responsibility. To bring order to his life, he operates by a code that is his own but which is clearly derived from an American West whose days gone by.

Guerrero evokes this place and these characters with what Staalesen calls “love and anxiety.” The Holler itself is a haven that those who live there under “a banner of defiant pride. Mostly from the hills and hollows of Kentucky and Tennessee, that had traveled to Mad River for once plentiful factory jobs that had slowly bled from the area with the companies’ never-ending search from cheaper labor.”

In short, Rosa Linda has come to Rust Belt America, or, as Donnie Ray refers to this economic state, “the cancer that had taken hold of his neighborhood.” But against that backdrop the Indigenous have made community, and they stay together, proudly. As Donnie Ray observes: “… the residents didn’t want to be told what they needed. They wanted jobs that paid. They wanted to be left alone to live their lives as they chose, just as they had in the hollows of Tennessee and Kentucky.”

Particularly strong are the women in this book, several of whom center on a cafe named Melba’s. At once a dive and a hub—as dives often can be—it is presided over by—yes—Melva, a Salem-puffing, gravel-voiced matron who shoots “dragon smoke out of her nostrils.”

Donnie Ray is displaying admiration when he observes that “that old girl didn’t take any shit.” Along with the cook Loretta, Melva provides the safest haven that Rosa Linda has ever known.

But it is Rosa Linda herself who shines as the beating heart of On the Mad River. She is a character some might call the least of us, without resources an outcast even from the borderlands, who proves that inner strength comes from resolve, and in finding what we share with others, so that we might survive through the bonds of friendship—and love.

Though Mad River, Ohio, is not a disguised Bergen, Norway’s second largest city did provide at least indirect inspiration for Guerroro’s novel—in a third-story apartment in Wessels Gate.

I remember the disorientation Lucrecia and I felt about being strangers in a strange land where we had no car, and thus walked, often in the rain because after all it was Bergen, on our errands and appointments. Along the way we saw business people, college students, beggars, and all the myriad of types that make up a city like Bergen.

I can see now what I did not at the time: the fact that her own sense of remoteness was allowing Lucrecia to create the character of Rosa Linda, indeed a stranger in a strange land who comes to depend upon the quirky community around her.

“….(Bergen) is definitely conducive to creative writing,” Guerrero told me. “I love noir crime films and books, and Bergen with all its rain and winding streets brought to mind the darkly wet and mysterious streets so prevalent in film noir. And with all the street cafes it’s a wonderful place for people watching, one of my favorite pastimes. I could sit and sip my coffee, observe passersby, the expressions, gestures, and gait and imagine what story which person might be able to tell me.”

“The mountains beyond Bergen always piqued my interest as a writer,” Lucrecia told me. “They surround the town and work as a superb metaphor for an area that is shut off from the greater beyond. My writing often deals with a neighborhood, an enclave of people, who may be on the outlying reaches of society. In On the Mad River, most of the action takes place in a working-class neighborhood of an American Midwest city, itself enclosed from the larger populace just as the mountains enclose Bergen.

“Yes, living there did increase my sense of isolation, of not quite fitting in,” says Lucrecia. “And, in turn, that sense of being a misfit is very strong in my novel.”

Indeed sometimes it is distance that creates the artistic tension to write well about another place.

In Lucrecia’s words: “It’s sometimes easier to write about a place when you have some distance and can observe with more objectivity. So being physically far from the setting helped me see it more from the perspective of an outsider, noticing details I might not have otherwise paid attention to.”

Gunnar Staalesen agrees: “What impressed me most,” says Staalesen, “was [Guerrero’s] capacity to recreate a landscape, a place, a character so clearly that we see them for our inner eyes. It is a curious mixture between hardboiled writing and romance, with very fascinating characters, so well described that we see them as in a movie, clear and present.”

On the Mad River is Lucrecia Guerrero’s third published work, after Chasing Shadows, a collection of linked short stories, and Tree of Sighs, which won the coveted Premio Aztlán award for Best Historical Novel of 2019. The new novel is available at Riverwalk Books.

 

This article originally appeared in the June 2024 issue of The Norwegian American.

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Jerry Holt

Jerry Holt is a novelist, playwright, teacher, and public speaker. He is professor emeritus of English at Purdue University Northwest and a recipient of Purdue's 2015 Dreamer Award, recognized for work as that has "embodied Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision of service to others.” Holt has written four major plays, one novel, and nine short plays. His acclaimed novel, The Killing of Strangers, focuses on several mysteries surrounding the Kent State University shootings on May 4, 1970.