Most of Housewright’s books take place in Minnesota, in “the real world,” where the legal system has its limits, the police are overworked and underpaid, and “justice” is extremely elusive. His depiction of the Twin Cities isn’t exaggerated or distorted. Virtually all of the settings in his books exist in real life. McKenzie eats at Mancini’s before going to Minnesota Wild hockey games. He grouses about traffic on I-94. He lives in Falcon Heights. Bodies get dumped at places like Theodore Wirth Park’s Quaking Bog. And, for locals who know the inside references, McKenzie’s observations (the books are written in the first person) can range from amusing to hilarious. In one Curse of the Jade Lily scene, as McKenzie is waiting for a money drop in Loring Park, he muses, “In the distance I heard a flute—there’s always a white guy playing a flute, always.” He goes on to gripe about the aggressiveness of the squirrels and to warn readers about the dangers of navigating the park at night. “You do not confront people in Loring Park, and if you witness a confrontation between others, you do not intervene.”
For Housewright, getting the details right isn’t just about writerly accuracy, it’s about providing a satisfying experience for the reader. “I’m a big believer in setting. I think a lot of people read books, even crime novels, to travel to places they’ve never been before. The setting also greatly influences the characters who live there, so all of my books take place in a specific place.”
When his characters are traveling around the Twin Cities, getting into and out of trouble, he feels no need to embellish, he says, because, “The Twin Cities is a very rich place for crime. There’s such great diversity, not just in people, but in the neighborhoods and sociological differences as well. There’s so much to work with here, so many themes that come out of this community.”
Ironically, the exception to Housewright’s rule of unembellished realism is the second book of his that’s up for a Minnesota Book Award, The Devil and the Diva, written in collaboration with his wife, Renee Valois. The reason for this is that Valois wrote the initial manuscript shortly after she finished graduate school, and it sat in a drawer for many years while Valois pursued a career as an advertising executive and freelance writer. Valois didn’t want him to read it, but Housewright insisted. When he was done, he thought, “If we throw a couple of dead bodies on the floor, this could be fun. Let me make some notes.” She reluctantly agreed.
The result, though set in the Twin Cities and Duluth in winter, is a gothic romance that delights in stretching the boundaries of improbability. “When I first read it, the story already had all those gothic elements—ghosts, the man in the mask, the Haitian voodoo guy, the woman with the candelabra. I added a couple of chase scenes, including one through the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and gave it more of a sense of humor.”
If only one of these books can win an award, though, Housewright hopes it’s the latter. “I really want her to win this,” he says. “If I win, I’ll be disappointed. She deserves it. She’s put up with a lot of crap from me and she supported my career every step of the way.” It may sound strange, but that’s Housewright’s strategy: Stay positive and hope he loses. But whichever way the voting goes, one thing is for certain: you can add two fine books to your reading list.