Blot Lit Reviews: Residue by Jim Knipfel
Residue, Jim Knipfel
Red Hen Press, 2015
Reviewed by Catherine Vlahos
The holiday season is upon us, and what better way to celebrate than with cults, a double-homicide, and clueless police work?
Jim Knipfel’s murder mystery novel Residue wrenches Leonard Koznowski from his comfortable, low-key life as the sheriff of rural Beaver Rapids, Wisconsin, and blindsides the entire county with a case more grisly and bizarre than anyone can imagine–all in time for deer season, of course.
Knipfel’s straightforward writing and cliffhangers kept me asking the essential question all successful mystery novels strive for, even more so than the classic “whodunit”: What happens next? I will honestly admit that I thought I had it figured out from very early on in the book–it had to be that person, there was no one else–only to be completely surprised at the end.
Residue is, at its core, about the humor in absurdity–when you’re simply so screwed in every way that all you really can do is laugh. It’s a universal feeling we’ve all experienced, which is part of what makes Koznowski such an enduring character. We can only watch as his woefully inadequate partners try their best to help him crack the case. I found myself thinking more than once, “well, I guess I’d probably do that too if I suddenly had to solve a murder.” It’s a refreshing break from the city slicker cop dramas that Koznowski only dreams of being like, and to see police work from a rural perspective is a unique twist on the genre.
As the case gets weirder and weirder, Knipfel’s colorful cast of country characters accomplishes its job of drawing suspicion from the reader, while annoying the daylights out of Koznowski. It’s a fact of the mystery genre that some characters are simply purposed to throw the reader off the main scent of the actual culprit, so it does admittedly feel like Koznowski is the only person that I’m meant to care about in the story at times. However, the county’s high school sports superstar and his crazy pastor mother are a truly unique combination of characters, and their strange relationship lends a darker tone to the novel that complements Knipfel’s cynical sense of humor.
We can’t talk about the characters of Residue without mentioning the setting, which is honestly a character, itself–Kausheenah County is chock full of cheesy fiberglass fast food mascots, and its hidden strangeness gives the story (which was based on a real occurrence in Wisconsin) a distinct charm and hilarity that can’t really be found anywhere else. Koznowski repeatedly claims that crazy, cult-stuff like this only happens in big cities like Milwaukee or Chicago (which earned a chuckle out of me since I live close by and can confirm the fact that weird stuff happens there), but both he and the reader soon learn that maybe Beaver Rapids isn’t as simple as we thought, and that the killer is certainly closer than we think.
One last characteristic of a mystery novel is loose ends, and there are quite a few left undone by the abrupt ending of Residue. I’m still wondering about Koznowski’s vague past that was alluded to throughout the novel, and there may even be some sort of creature lurking in the depths of the icy Wisconsin waters that was never discovered. However, a good mystery can make the reader work for their own ending, and that in itself for me was a funny, bizarre, and ultimately satisfying experience.