There is no getting around it.  William Kent Krueger’s 2013 novel Ordinary Grace has been a huge bestseller for a decade.

Not only that, but it’s been honored as a great mystery novel, winning the Edgar Award for Best Novel of the Year from the Mystery Writers of America — who should know.

So, why didn’t I enjoy reading it?

First things first:  I didn’t hate the book.  The story, set in 1961, flowed easily for me from one chapter to another, from one event to the next. 

It was interesting that the central character — and narrator (from a distance of forty years) — is Frank Drum, the 13-year-old son of a Methodist minister who, like his mother and siblings, works in the family business.  Interesting, too, how Krueger portrays the interactions of Drums with other people in the town and vicinity of New Breman, Minnesota, both the member of the three churches they serve and non-members.

The Drums, in and out of their house, do a bit of God talk, but they don’t come across to the people around them as thinking they’re holier-than-thou.  In fact, despite their faith, their lives are far from tranquil, and, then, as the tale evolves, they are forced to face great pain.

“Three more yet to come”

That might be a starting point for talking about my reaction to the book.

I’ve read a lot of mysteries in my life, and I still do.  Most mysteries are centered on the puzzle of who did it, whatever “it” is.  Given its Edgar Award, I approached Ordinary Grace as a mystery.

And, it seemed to me, I was encouraged by Frank Drum to think in this manner when, fairly early in the book, after one apparently accidental death and one apparently natural death, he spots his sister sneaking out in the middle of the night to what must certainly be a rendezvous, and he says:

There’d been two deaths already that summer, and although I didn’t have a clue, there were three more yet to come.

This primes the reader — me, in this case — to see the story in the context of these five deaths.  And, so, for the next nearly 150 pages, I kept looking for who was going to die and, given the expectations of the genre, who the killer would be.

Like generations of mystery writers before him Krueger trots out a number of suspects who, the reader is supposed to guess, may end up being the killer.  I won’t go into details, but there are characters who are surly or creepy or alien or rich or violent who come in and out of the story, suggesting to the reader that one might be “the bad guy.”

The ending, though — again I won’t go into details — is both more complicated and less complicated than what I’d been led to expect from what the grown-up Frank Drum tells about his younger self standing at the window not knowing about three more deaths to come.

Suspected the solution

Here’s the thing:  From my perspective, Krueger didn’t create a very good mystery because, right after the third death takes place, I’d figured out who had done it and why. 

I’m not bragging here.  Usually, I’m in a total cloud until the end.  But, since I’d seen what I suspected was the solution — and what turned out to actually be the solution — the last hundred-plus pages weren’t very interesting.

As the pages and story went along, I could see how Krueger was trying to ratchet up the suspense and tantalize the reader with questions of who might have done what, but the more he did that, the more I was sure than my idea of what had happened was what had happened.

A novel about faith?

When I was done, I gave some thought to the idea that maybe Ordinary Grace shouldn’t be thought of as a mystery.

Perhaps Krueger had been aiming to write a novel about faith, even a literary novel, something more ambitious than the run-of-the-mill genre book.  He certainly writes at times with a kind of avid flair: 

Night was the dark of the soul and being up at an hour when the rest of the world was dead with sleep gave me a sinful thrill.

As it happens, I’ve read a lot of novels and non-fiction books about everyday doubt and faith, and that thread in Ordinary Grace seemed somewhat thin and superficial.  The questions about belief seemed to boil down in the novel to a difference of opinion between Frank’s mother and father.

There was, without question, a general understatedness to Frank’s telling of the story that summer in 1961, and it’s possible that Krueger was writing more subtly about faith than I realized. 


A literary novel, befitting its ambitions, is always aiming in some way at getting at the meaning of things — why do people act the way they do, why do good and bad things happen, what is the best way to respond to tragedy and to success.  Questions like that.

Ordinary Grace skits those tough questions.  Krueger aims to entertain, and he has done a successful enough job that his book is very popular.

Just not with me.

Patrick T. Reardon


Written by : Patrick T. Reardon

For more than three decades Patrick T. Reardon was an urban affairs writer, a feature writer, a columnist, and an editor for the Chicago Tribune. In 2000 he was one of a team of 50 staff members who won a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting. Now a freelance writer and poet, he has contributed chapters to several books and is the author of Faith Stripped to Its Essence. His website is

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