Book review: ‘Dead Man Dancing’ by John Galligan


The Bad Axe County Sheriff is Heidi Kick. She has three children and a husband. The husband is less than thrilled about his wife’s more than full-time job. Another point of friction is the husband Harland’s brother Kenny. Kenny constantly challenges Sheriff Kick; the latest is driving his new truck up and down Main Street with a Confederate flag waving in the back. When she takes this to court, the judge dismisses it based on the defense lawyer’s claim that Kenny was unaware of the offensive nature of the Confederate flag.

Bad Axe County was proud of its Norwegian heritage and to celebrate it, they were holding their 51st annual Stende Mai festival. Polka music was proudly featured. Gus Pfaff was the leader and tuba player for the local polka band. Gus, a retired teacher, had also recently become a published author. Like most of the people in the area, he had known a little about the history of the area’s round barns, but he thought there must be more, and his research had proved him right. The man responsible for the barns was Alga Shivers, a black man who was part of a considerable community of Negroes who lived in the valley at one time. According to the advertisement in the paper, Gus’s book would be on sale at the celebration, and the book apparently had a great deal to tell about the area’s history and that of several area families.

A key attraction of the celebration was the parade. The polka band always rode on a wagon playing their favorite polkas. Gus Pfaff was concerned about more than the Sunday parade polkas, though. The newspaper had advertised that his book revealed the histories of several local families. It was quite possible that some families did not want it known that they were relatives to some of the black families that had lived nearby. One way to stop that was to destroy the books before they were out.

The concern had more basis than Gus knew. There was local leadership for the white-supremacy group growing in the area. They intended to take action against the blacks and browns of Bad Axe County. To establish their reputation, they had a considerable number of agitators coming to join them in marching in Sunday’s parade. It was likely that some in that group were not too anxious to have family secrets surface.

In a case of exceptionally bad timing, Neon Shivers was on his way to Bad Axe. While researching his book, Gus had left a draft copy with Neon’s grandmother. Neon was to return the book and learn what he could about relatives who had been in the area. With a white mother and a black father, he was having trouble sorting himself out. This journey was his grandmother’s way of helping him do that. It wasn’t the right time to be in Bad Axe County, however.

Gus’s house and books are burned. Sheriff Kick is faced with arson, a murder, a kidnapping and domestic problems. How does a county sheriff deal with white supremacists in a parade? Some other major characters become involved.

“Dead Man Dancing” is a well-written, complex mystery. It is more interesting because it is set in western Wisconsin. Most people are aware of the round barns nearby.

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