In the first novel of what is, to date, a series of four books, State Trooper Nathan Active has been assigned to the (fictional) small town of Chukchi, in north-western Alaska. Although he was born in the town and is an Inupiat (Eskimo) himself he was raised in Anchorage by his white adoptive parents and as the book opens Active is counting the days until he can leave the small town again and head back to the comforts of the big city. He can only speak a few words of his native language, doesn’t hunt or engage in any of the other activities the Inupiat people traditionally love and is a bit sick of having all the single women in the vicinity foisted upon him. However when a young man is found dead and everyone else assumes it is just another in the long line of suicides of indigenous men Active is the one who thinks there might be something more sinister afoot. He observes a few discrepancies about the crime scene and starts looking into the man’s recent history, particularly his employment at the local copper mine. Even when a second death occurs Active has to fight his own organisation’s hierarchy and the entrenched beliefs of some of the indigenous people about their own futures to ensure a proper investigation is undertaken.
Given my only ‘knowledge’ of Alaskan culture comes from a love of early 90’s TV show Northern Exposure I can’t claim to know if this book has depicted its setting realistically but it certainly has a very credible feel to it. The physical setting, including the beauty, isolation and potential danger of the location, all feel very authentic to me. And I can at least attest to the fact that the way cultural issues, particularly the tensions and complex relationships between the traditional Inupiat culture and that of the white man, ring true as they are similar to issues evident in contemporary Australia. One of the toughest issues explored in the damage inflicted by alcohol to the Inupiat people; it is partially blamed for the high number of suicides and generates such strong arguments for and against that there is a campaign to have the town become an alcohol free (or dry) town. What I really loved about the book was that it explored this and other cultural issues with sensitivity and intelligence without succumbing to the temptation for overt sentimentality or simplistic explanations for the state of affairs. Once again fiction proves far more adept at examining complex social issues than the bulk of what passes for media commentary these days.
As a balance to these issues there is also a lot of humour and warmth in the novel, some of which comes from Active’s status as not quite considered white or Inupiat. The locals like nothing more than to poke fun at Nathan for not knowing about some aspect of their beliefs or practices that he would have been well aware of if he’d grown up in the town but they’re not cruel about it. There’s also a lot of gentle humour in some of the depictions of the minor characters in the town, like the elderly bingo player who throws her grand daughter at Nathan (almost literally) because she thinks he needs a woman. She likes to be driven to bingo in Nathan’s trooper car with the lights flashing.
To top it all off there’s a cracker of a crime story here which doesn’t tread a predictable path at all. Nathan is quite a young man to be responsible for such a major investigation but Jones does a good job of contextualising this. And in many ways Active’s youth offers a refreshing perspective. He makes mistakes because he’s relatively inexperienced but he’s also tenacious and proves himself the kind of crime solver I will be happy to re-visit in future novels. The resolution to the mystery element of the book is both satisfying and in keeping with the rest of the novel which is an increasingly rare thing in this era of Hollywood-style endings.
White Sky, Black Ice wraps many of the things I really love about crime fiction into a tidy 201 pages. There’s a terrific sense of place and people, a thoughtful exploration of complicated issues which don’t always have an answer let alone an easy one, and a solidly entertaining whodunnit. What more could a reader want?
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Stan Jones has lived in Alaska on and off for most of his life and has participated in many of the activities depicted in the novel (such as being what we’d call a bush pilot here in Oz). As an investigative journalist he won awards for his coverage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. He modelled his fictional town of Chukchi on the town of Kotzebue where he lived for many years.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My rating 4.5/5
Author website http://www.sjbooks.com/index.html
Publisher Soho 
Length 201 pages
Format eBook (ePub)
Book Series #1 in Nathan Active series
Source I bought it