Thursday, January 6, 2011

Henry Kisor

Henry Kisor is the retired book editor of the Chicago Sun-Times. He writes of a series of mystery novels set in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan: Season's Revenge (2003), A Venture into Murder (2005) and Cache of Corpses (2007). See his web site at

I write with a Pentax digital camera as well as a Mac laptop, toting both in my backpack into the wilderness of the western Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where my novels are set.

They are regional whodunits, a genre in which setting is as important as plot and character. With that in mind, I've taken photographs of places in the U.P. for years, later calling them up on the computer for careful study while writing a new book.

These photos stir my memory. They help furnish my plots with sharply recalled images that might otherwise fade with time from my mind. it's as if I'm there again with total recall.

They also inspire my imagination. Some years ago, driving west of the town of Ontonagon on Lake Superior, I happened upon what appeared to be an abandoned brick mansion, and snapped a photo of it. Investigation revealed that the place was the ruin of the old Ontonagon County Poor Farm, where scores of indigents had worked for their meager keep early in the 20th century.

In the farthest reaches of the building, I later discovered, lay a lonely, chilly chamber called the Dying Room.  It warehoused the terminally ill so that other inmates could not hear their death cries. 

What better place for Deputy Sheriff Steve Martinez to encounter a mysteriously mutilated cadaver decades after the Poor Farm closed? The Dying Room furnished the opening scene for my most recent novel, Cache of Corpses.

The Ontonagon County Poor Farm. The odd legend on its wall was scrawled by a struggling cattle farmer who later owned the place.

In my first novel, Season's Revenge, and the forthcoming Hang Fire, the Finnish outdoor sauna is an important setting that advances both plot and character. In the former Steve falls head over heels for a gorgeous (and quite naked) local historian. In the latter the deputy reaches back to his Native American roots, imagining that he's in a Lakota sweat lodge preparing to ride into battle.

The Finnish log sauna hard by the shore of Lake Superior that has inspired scenes in two novels so far.
In Cache of Corpses I needed a wilderness setting that would serve as a picturesque murder scene. Scrolling through a file of photographs yielded one of a waterfall on the Presque Isle River in the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. I combined the falls with a beautiful glen known only to the locals and had one bad guy eliminate another there, juxtaposing natural beauty and human malice.

Manabezho Falls on the Presque Isle River. It became "Page Falls" on the imaginary Agate River, where "spray from the falls wreathes the place in mist, and through it the setting sun on a summer's evening intensifies and saturates the colors of the forest, turning Page Falls into what we consider the nearest thing to heaven on Earth."
I've got lots of photos of derelict farmsteads abandoned to the elements, their stories -- and their secrets -- long forgotten, and will be consulting them for future novels.

Ruin of an old Finnish farm on U.S. 45 near Bruce Crossing, Michigan. What forgotten crimes happened here? Is their memory fading in the cold-case files?
Another familiar sight in Ontonagon I plan to mine for a future book: the several-times-a-year visits of the lake freighter John B. Munson with loads of coal for the local (and now shuttered) paper mill. Every time it comes in I imagine a shootout on the bridge, perhaps with terrorists who had stowed away at a Canadian port.

The John G. Munson stands in to Ontonagon Harbor past the old lighthouse, already a scene in Cache of Corpses. Law enforcement greets the laker every time it arrives, to make sure miscreants aren't bringing ashore contraband.
And sometimes, when blocked, I can just call up a photo of a glorious Lake Superior sunset and gaze at it, letting my imagination swim wherever it might take me.

Sundown on the Big Lake at the "Writer's Lair," a log cabin six miles west of Ontonagon, Michigan.
These photographs also help me pitch my novels in bookstores and at libraries. Because I am totally deaf and have "deaf speech" that is hard for some folks to understand, I take along a digital projector and screen and show my spiel in the form of a Keynote (the Mac version of PowerPoint) presentation. The background pictures enliven what might otherwise be dull slides of text.

They also add visual interest to my two blogs, and, helping keep my byline afloat between books.

--Henry Kisor


  1. Henry, what a fascinating and beautiful post. I knew of the Upper Penninsula, but had no notion of how stunning and intriguing it is. Thanks.

  2. Great photos Henry! It is fascinating to hear of these stories - keep it up.