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An unexpected comfort read from Minnesota

The Life We Bury is the first book by a veteran defense attorney from Mankato, Minnesota – certainly not the place to call home if you’re blistering to set the publishing world on fire, and middle age is not an ideal time to work your way into the awards category.

Allen Eskens is one of those guys trapped in somebody else’s life: a lawyer in a small town by day, a laptop recluse after dinner and on weekends, and a writing workshop acolyte over furtive summer absences. He’s the perfect type for self-publishing a novel or two, much to the consternation of his wife and kids who trapped him in the breadwinner life and complain that they never see him. He was destined to give talks to his kid’s homeroom class and at the Owatonna Book Club down state Highway 14 not far past the Waseca airport.

That’s what should have happened to Allen Eskens, Esq. of Blue Earth County, Minnesota. But Eskens got lucky. He submitted The Life We Bury to a literary agent on a dislocated jut of land in San Francisco Bay just as far away from the publishing throb as he is, who bicycled home on her retro three-speed with his typescript one Friday afternoon and was on the phone Monday morning to a publisher of carefully filtered crime fiction in another offbeat town, at Seventh Street Books in Amherst, New York. And contrary to what should have happened, we have good the pleasure to read a good, solid mystery with the nourishment of good-old Midwestern fare by a good-old boy who always wanted to write a good book.

I guess there’s no ambiguity about how I feel about The Life We Bury. It is a comfort read, perfect for a long weekend of miserable weather and no errands to run or chores to do. It would be a big surprise if it didn’t top some lists this fall, so here is an opportunity to say this winter that you read Eskens just after he fell out of the nest.

The Life We Bury is an unassuming story of young Joe Talbert, who has an assignment for his college English class to interview and write a brief biography of a stranger. Like all college students and writers, Talbert puts it off nearly to deadline and in a dither goes to a nursing home to locate a willing subject. In the depository holding captive, lonely people with nothing to do, certainly one of them will be willing to rehash the past in a few hundred words or less.

Talbert didn’t plan on the prison-guard hostility of the supervisors and was about to be turned away as a Nosy Parker when one of the nurses spitefully suggested a resident who was placed there by the state penitentiary to live out his terminal illness. Carl Iverson, a broken and dying man, had been convicted some decades earlier of a particularly heinous rape and murder.

Carl doesn’t talk or care much after all those years in stir, but it slips out that he didn’t do the deed, and Talbert believes him. It’s now no longer a writing assignment, but a mystery racing a death sentence. Read it and thank me.

Jeff@jeffMannix.com. Jeff Mannix is a local journalist and author.

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