Death in Cold Water, the third in the Dave Cubiak mystery series, is as haunting as the onset of winter in its setting, Door County, WI. Fittingly, the book begins and ends on the water. In the first scene, Dave fishes alone along Green Bay shore, finding not fish but a sack full of kittens. In the last scene, Dave and his beloved Cate take a last trip out on the boat Parlando celebrating a case closed and a relationship salvaged. In between, Dave uncovers a mystery buried deep under frigid water, a mystery implicating both kidnappers and kidnapped.
Philanthropist Gerald Sneider goes missing during a Packers game he’s attending with his son, Andrew. When he first reports the disappearance to Dave, he, Andrew is as much a suspect as Madison area terrorists federal agents think might be to blame. But Dave follows his hunch that the kittens he rescues are somehow a clue. He identifies the rope used to cinch their satchel closed as the same Leeland Ross uses on his boat. While the federal agents assigned to help Dave on the case track the terrorists, Cubiak investigates the Ross family and employees of Sneider’s. Through interviews with workers at Sneider’s boys’ camp, Cubiak links the Ross’ and Sneider in a heinous crime that has been secret until now.
Skalka poignantly uses water to convey how the “arrogance of the proud… will lay low,” the quote from Isaiah with which she begins the novel. Not only does the haughty Sneider get his come-uppance in water, but Cubiak also drowns his own proud envy. He’s jealous both of the federal agents, who nearly take over his case, and of Cate’s ex-husband who shows up unannounced and ties up her attention. As more than just kittens emerge from the depths of the bay, Cubiak wins the respect of the feds and Cate’s devotion. Water serves as a metaphor for the fluidity of justice Skalka explores. “Cubiak realized that Ross’s desire for justice, twisted as it was, originated in a deeply buried shred of decency.”
Through water Skalka also plays with themes of science and faith. Despite the bad taste left in his mouth from a Catholic education, Cubiak prays throughout the novel. The feds tell him, “it’s how we do things, Sheriff. Data analysis and good police work following the leads. Science puts us ahead of the game. We’ve got technology working for us and that’s where I put my faith.” Dave has faith in science and logic as well, but his sixth sense brings him to the truth, connecting dots in a way the data alone cannot. Dave finds his clues on the bay’s floor, disconnected from any of the other clues Sneider’s kidnappers leave, and disconnected from their demands. “At sea, the dead were dropped overboard and consigned to the depths. And here they were doing the opposite, lifting the dead out of the water and setting them down on the vessel.” The crime scene hidden under water is hoisted up, bone by fragile bone, the frigid water having preserved them until it was time the truth came out.
I have not read the other two Cubiak mysteries. If they’re as dark as this one, it might be a while before I’m ready to submerge myself in them. This third mystery is written well enough that I lived in it while reading it – not a comforting dip in a shallow, heated pool, but more like the shock of cold Dave feels jumping in after a squirming, mewling sack of kittens. Be ready for a solid freeze as well as a soothing thaw from Skalka. She’ll both bring you to the brink of terror as well as back to a satisfying case-closed ending.