My ninth stop on a languid virtual journey around the US via its fiction took me to a place about as physically different from my own home as it’s possible to get. Given that my prior knowledge of Alaska is gleaned almost entirely from a love of Northern Exposure and reading a lone Stan Jones book I doubt I’m qualified to judge its authenticity, but A COLD DAY FOR MURDER felt genuine to me.
The setting was certainly a welcome respite from a harsh Australian summer and its depiction is one of the standout features of the book. Stabenow lets us know immediately where we are with her introductory passages
The rending, tearing noise of the snow machine’s engine echoed across the landscape and affronted the arctic peace of that December day. It startled a moose stripping the bark from a stand of spindly birches. It sent a beaver back into her den in a swift-running stream. it woke a bald eagle roosting in the top of a spruce, causing him to glare down on the two men with malevolent eyes. The sky was of that crystal clarity that comes only to lands of the far north in winter, light translucent, wanting cloud and color.
Such vivid descriptions are supplemented by several maps (which I always appreciate) so that readers are easily able to imagine the protagonist’s isolated and practical home base and both the town and national park in which the book’s action is centered.
The other element of the novel I found captivating was Kate Shugak. For even though strong female characters are easier to locate in my reading now than they might have been when she first came into being two decades ago there is still something very appealing about the character of Kate. She’s an Aleut Indian who grew up in a small community, moved to Anchorage for study and work then returned to her roots to live on her own after a traumatic event. Most of the time keeps her emotions deeply buried and gets on with being a competent, self-sufficient woman. But occasionally she can’t prevent them bubbling to the surface; as if they are being physically wrenched from inside her. It is these moments that lets readers build a picture of what life is like living in Kate’s skin. With Kate’s memories. And Kate’s anger.
A COLD DAY FOR MURDER is the first of what is now 20 novels in which Kate appears and it’s not difficult to see why it attracted attention, including winning an Edgar Award for best paperback original. Its plot is simple enough – Kate is an ex DA’s investigator but is asked here by her old boss Jack to help investigate two disappearances. A park ranger, who just happens to be the son of a prominent politician, went missing 6 weeks previously and the investigator Jack sent looking for him 4 weeks later also seems to have vanished without a trace. Both men were known to have been in Niniltna, a town Kate knows intimately as many members of her family still live there. Kate is reluctant to become involved but does so, rationalising it with this way when waking from a 3am nightmare
The hauntings would continue no matter what she did, she knew that already. But for a time, perhaps, the ghosts would take on a different shape, mouth different words, stare accusingly for different reasons. It was enough.
Although there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with it, the plot is the weakest element of this very good book. It is at times a bit repetitive and there is a layer of complexity missing but this is largely irrelevant because this is a book about character and place. Both leap off the page. Kate is not the only one with a long memory and demons to wrestle and the different ways this notion plays out make for gripping reading. As does the book’s exploration of Native American politics as they apply to Alaska in general and Kate’s extended family in particular. Her battle with her grandmother over this issue is fascinating.
It is always daunting to realise you’ve really enjoyed a book which now has many, many series companions and I don’t know that I’ll read every one of Kate Shugak’s adventures subsequent to this one but I am sure I will visit with her again. I found the central character and her world intriguing and can’t imagine too many readers wouldn’t be equally engaged.
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This is the ninth book I’ve read that I’m including in my quest to complete the Reading USA Fiction Challenge for which I’ll read a total of 51 books, one set in each of the USA (and one for the District of Columbia). My personal twist is that all the books are by new (to me) authors.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Gere Donovan Press [this edition 2011, original edition 1992]
Length 212 pages
Format eBook (kindle)
Book Series #1 in the Kate Shugak series
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