Skip to content

Book Review: The Great Leader

A retiring Michigan police detective tracks down one nasty cult leader

Jim Harrison’s craggy face belongs on some sort of literary Mount Rushmore. The American original staked his claim as a superlative storyteller with his 1979 novella collection Legends of the Fall and has built upon it ever since with novels, short stories, poems and works of nonfiction. Harrison’s 37th book, The Great Leader, is a loose-jointed, light-hearted, marvelously readable novel.

The Great Leader is set mostly in familiar Harrison terrain — Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (U.P.), which he describes in sentences with the unpredictable fluidity of a trout fighting a lure. Take, for example, Harrison’s opening description of the U.P. in winter: “It was below freezing and the surf at the river mouth was high and tormented where Lake Superior collided with the strong outgoing river current.”

Harrison’s hero this time around is the rumpled, ruminating, recently divorced Detective Simon Sunderson of the Michigan State Police, a U.P. cousin to Peter Falk’s seemingly bumbling Lieutenant Columbo.

We first meet Sunderson walking backward on a lakefront beach, trying to temper the effects of a 50-knot northwest wind but unable to keep the blown sand from stinging his face. He is investigating the disappearance of a cult leader who goes by Dwight and six other “discovered aliases.” Dwight has retreated with his followers to a longhouse in the woods near the remote western U.P. village of Ontonagon, and now — after an accusation that Dwight had sex with the 12-year-old daughter of a follower — Sunderson suspects the self-anointed “Great Leader” of having used raccoon blood to fake his own death.

Back home in Marquette, the detective sits down with a drink to compose his customary daily report. “[H]e liked to think that his brain was percolating,” writes Harrison, “a sense that his mind was actually carbonated with the details of a case.”

Five days later, in the wake of Sunderson’s retirement dinner — made memorable by hundreds of oysters, slabs of rib roast, too much booze and a sexual indiscretion that will come back to haunt him — the ex-tec expects to wake up each morning with nothing to do but walk and read. Instead, Sunderson finds his career-capping case irresistible.

And so, aided by a couple of improbable friends, he sets out to track down Dwight. Mona, the 16-year-old goth hacker next door (a sort of backwoods Lisbeth Salander), uses her tech skills to narrow the Great Leader’s hideout to the Chiricahua mountains of southeastern Arizona. Sunderson’s best friend, Marion — a many-years-sober Chippewa-Finn middle-school principal — supplies him with bags of books to help him understand the Great Leader’s use of faux Indian spirituality. Marion and Sunderson also manage to find the time for long talks about life, death, sex and trout fishing.

Complicating matters, Sunderson’s own prodigious appetites hinder his investigation. One attack of gout is brought on by the spicy tripe stew known as menudo; another is triggered by doe’s liver. Hangovers abound (seven double whiskeys irrigate one typical evening). Knowing little of the world outside the U.P., Sunderson feels disoriented by Arizona’s desert landscape. He develops post-concussive syndrome after getting stoned — literally — in an ambush by Dwight and a dozen or so mean girls. He also has an ill-considered fling with a young nurse’s aide he encounters while recuperating in a Nogales hospital, only to learn that her brother heads the local drug cartel. Oops.

When it comes to styles of detection, Sunderson is easily distracted and frequently befuddled — but unfailingly dogged. He backtracks, darts here and there into other messy situations, loops back to the U.P. and then winds up in Nebraska (of all places) for a surprise showdown with the Great Leader, now known as “King David.”

Yet solving the case is merely the bones of the book. More important, The Great Leader showcases Jim Harrison’s superb writerly intelligence. It’s a joy to watch him at work (and at play) once more in this memorable saga.

Jane Ciabattari is a widely published book reviewer.