Our society makes it dangerous for women to be adventurous, to go out of bounds of home and family. It’s a theme that crops up throughout Dakota, former reporter Gwen Florio’s page-turning follow-up murder mystery to her debut, Montana.
The series’ protagonist, reporter Lola Wicks, continually gets in trouble for going where people think women—especially reporter women—don’t belong. In Montana, we learned that she navigated a hard-bitten world of inner-city crime reporting and then went on to foreign bureaus in Afghanistan, maintaining a steely determination throughout. Lola is a no-nonsense, gun-toting dame, uncomfortable with traditional trappings of femininity but refreshingly practical about hopping into bed with various dudes. As far as her detective work, she calls to mind not so much the calm composure of a Miss Marple, but the reckless enthusiasm (and disregard for head injuries) of a more grownup Nancy Drew.
Montana opened with the murder of Lola’s friend, Mary Alice—a reporter who stuck her neck out too far while investigating political corruption. In Dakota, Lola has taken a gig with the local newspaper in the small fictional town of Magpie, Montana, and is shacking up with the endearing town sheriff. That doesn’t mean her life gets any quieter. Like Montana, Dakota opens with a woman’s death. This time it’s a young Blackfeet woman found frozen to death by the side of the road, a few miles from her home, on a bitter winter morning. “In Montana, the wind slammed snow against earth frozen hard as iron,” Florio writes. The Hi-Line’s brutal weather is a fittingly cruel backdrop for the human cruelty in the story.
The tribal community mourns the girl, and the death reminds Lola of how many other Blackfeet girls have disappeared from the reservation in recent years. The rest of the community dismisses the missing girls as drug addicts and runaways. Lola has other suspicions. “In her experience, men who went walkabout tended to show up eventually, sometimes worse for the wear, but not infrequently better. It was different for women, especially young ones. Predators homed in on them like wild dogs to scraps of raw meat, sniffing out their need and vulnerability.”
Lola’s investigation takes her to the Bakken oilfields of North Dakota. Here, Florio clearly relishes using real-life stories of lawlessness and debauchery as inspiration for the fictional town of Burnt Creek. (I wonder if the name was inspired by the Burnt Creek Bar and Grill in Bismarck.) As anyone who reads a news headline these days knows, real North Dakota boomtowns like Williston are downright “Deadwood”-esque, with the proportions of roughneck male workers, rampant drug use, crime syndicates and exploitation of female sex workers.
With little idea of the scale of all this, Lola heads off to Burnt Creek. As you might expect, she finds a lot more trouble than she bargained for while purportedly working on a story about Blackfeet men who commute to the Bakken for work. Lola uncovers seedy plots, staying in town even after getting attacked by a stranger in the street, that lead her to find out about young women getting abused and used for sex and money.
While Dakota is just as satisfying as Montana when it comes to likable characters and pitch-perfect summations of small-town rural life, I found the mystery itself to be disappointingly obvious. Maybe it’s because I was actively looking for clues this time around, but I do wish the foreshadowing had been a tad subtler. I’m mostly nit-picking, though. The fun of Dakota isn’t so much the mystery itself but following along as Lola extricates herself from trouble, with plenty of help from other strong, self-actualized women. Without giving too much away, I found a moral in the story’s denouement: In a patriarchal world, women can either work against each other for perceived gain, or band together to lend a sister a hand.
I’m especially glad that Florio didn’t go for a tidy, happy ending to all the intrigue. The trouble and strife in the fictional world she’s created continues—just like it does in the real one.
Gwen Florio reads from Dakota at Fact and Fiction Fri., May 2, at 5:30 PM.