Before Leif Enger hit the big leagues with his runaway bestseller, “Peace Like a River,” and before his brother, Lin, wrote his first serious work of fiction, “Undiscovered Country,” the Minnesota brothers were living undercover as creators of a murder-mystery series.
Their five-book series, written under the pen name L.L. Enger and published by Pocket Books during the late 1980s and early ‘90s, features Gun Pederson, a widowed former slugger for the Detroit Tigers. A Minnesota tough guy, he prefers the company of no one and hangs out in his ice-fishing shack, rolling Prince Albert cigarettes and toying with an elusive 20-pound northern. But trouble intrudes, and Pederson is time and again forced out of hiding and into the role of detective to solve various brutal killings, defend his father against murder charges, identify an Indian corpse and halt a shady real-estate dealer in his tracks.
It was fun while it lasted, but the Enger brothers eventually grew out of the (not very lucrative) series and headed into their separate corners to do the work that needed to be done as serious writers.
“I tried to sell out, but I couldn’t,” said Lin, who was at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop while crafting mysteries on the sly.
No harm done. They had great fun collaborating, both said in a recent interview. And what remains of that time is a deeply empathic awareness of the other’s writerly struggles and a playful, unbroken connection - like two boys forever tossing a baseball back and forth.
The Enger brothers grew up in Osakis, Minn., the youngest of four siblings. Their father, Don, was a school band director, and their mother, Wilma, an elementary schoolteacher. There were five years between the brothers, but that was no barrier to friendship.
“We were close . . . despite the age difference, playing baseball, shooting .22 rifles in the woods, making up various weird games during the long winters,” said Lin, the elder. “(Leif) put up with my knocking him around a little, I guess, toughening him up, but I never had the feeling I didn’t want him around. We tended, and still do, to see things through the same ironic lens.”
Besides an enthusiasm for the outdoors, which radiates from their fiction, the brothers also shared a love of books. Both remember a plentiful stash of Junior Library editions filled with cowboys, Indians and pioneers. Best of all, there was Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island,” which their mother read aloud to them at bedtime, permanently implanting a sense of adventure.
Leif said he was so young when he first heard the tale of buccaneers and buried gold that he thought “Captain Flint was a person who could only say, ‘Pieces of eight.’ I didn’t know he was a parrot.”
Their mother, who grew up in a southeastern North Dakota town of only 50 people, “had a narrative for every family who lived in the town,” Leif said. “I know that we have borrowed from those narratives.”
Their father, too, had an inborn gift for holding their attention.
“It wasn’t like, ‘Sit down, kids - I’m going to tell you a story,’” Leif said. “At night, when we were going to bed, I remember Dad sitting on the side of the bed and just telling about one of his hunting trips . . . the time he shot into a crowd of ducks and hit an albino pheasant by accident, not knowing it was there.
“Dad’s stories were always full of the unexpected, and they always had a beginning, middle and an end. It was so natural for him. That made it possible for us to think about our lives in terms of story, and to want to tell things in an entertaining way.”
Loving stories was one thing, becoming a writer quite another.
Lin remembers that Leif started early on, in second grade, when a poem he wrote about gerbils was published in Wee Wisdom magazine. But Leif remembers being inspired by his older brother after he went away to college and began writing stories.
“I thought, wow, a living guy actually writing stories,” Leif said. “I guess this is something living people could do. So then I had to try it myself, because I had to try everything (Lin) tried.”
While toiling away at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Lin found a welcome (and secret) escape in the works of Robert Parker, Elmore Leonard and Lawrence Block. The novels were fun if somewhat formulaic, he thought. How hard could it be to imitate one? (A lot harder than it looks, both now admit.) That’s when Lin wrote to Leif, who at the time was working as a reporter for Minnesota Public Radio in Bemidji.
“I was 116 pages into a book that I was just starting to understand was absolutely terrible,” Leif said. “So I cheerfully threw it away and signed onto the mysteries.”
They’d plot out the novels on note cards and mail chapters back and forth, constantly trying to one-up what the other had done and arguing over who got to craft the fight scenes - “because they were the most fun.”
In 1994, the Enger brothers, anticipating the release of the first hard-cover edition in the Gun Pederson series, went to the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention in Seattle to sign books and secure their fame. But when they arrived, they found that the books had not and that fans were not exactly lined up and waiting.
Nobody knew who we were, even though this was our fifth title, Leif said.
Over a cup of morning coffee, the brothers decided to ditch the conference and visit Mount Rainier with their wives. It also seemed like a good time to end the series and pick up the threads of their own work.
Leif was the first to come off the bench - with “Peace Like a River,” a story narrated by a severely asthmatic boy whose family is uprooted when his older brother escapes from jail. The book’s release was eclipsed by the events of Sept. 11, 2001, but it made a steady recovery and became a bestseller. There now are more than 1 million copies in print, and movie rights have been sold to Warner Bros. Leif followed up in April with a well-received second novel, “So Brave, Young, and Handsome,” a rip-roaring tale of outlaws, fugitives and the Wild West that starts in Minnesota and makes its way to California.
Meanwhile, Lin wrestled with his debut novel, “Undiscovered Country,” a tension-packed retelling of “Hamlet” in northern Minnesota, which Little, Brown released July 3. It tells the story of a boy who becomes convinced that his uncle has killed his father. A review in Publisher’s Weekly praises the novel for its “flashes of prose as crisp and haunting as the frozen Minnesota setting.”
Through this process - with its dry spells, frustrating stops and starts and exciting breakthroughs - the brothers were no longer exchanging chapters in the mail. But they were offering much-needed moral support.
“Lin helped me a lot . . . when I was coming to grips with the fear that every sophomore novelist has: that people are going to be disappointed in the work,” Leif said. “I could hear that encouragement from Lin, whereas I couldn’t from other people in my life, because Lin and I have been in the trenches together.”
Likewise, said Lin, who thanks Leif in his acknowledgments for “raising the bar.”
“He’d been down the road,” Lin said. “He had the success with his first book, so there were a lot of things he could tell me that I needed to hear. I do think to myself, ‘I want to write something that Leif will find entertaining.’ Because we did it for so long, I feel like I’m writing up to somebody who has obviously tremendous talent, but also has a kind of sympathetic view of what I’m trying to do.”
Maybe they’ll collaborate again someday on another book.
Said Lin: “That wouldn’t surprise me at all.”
Said Leif: “That would be fun.”