Murder in Alaska

I just finished the first two Kate Shugak mysteries by Dana Stabenow—A Cold Day for Murder, and A Fatal Thaw. Stabenaw started publishing this series in 1992, so I don’t know how I have completely overlooked it until now, but the first book popped up in my Kindle freebies and I gave it a try. I wasn’t really looking for a new mystery series, but I will most likely dip back into it from time to time, now that I have found it.

It’s one of those in which the locale plays as big a part as any protagonist, so you have to be at least marginally interested in the scene-setting because there’s a lot of it. This one takes place in a remote area of Alaska, inside a national park that is largely inaccessible (no roads) for more than half the year and so beloved of its few residents that they want to keep it that way. Niniltna, the closest “town,” consists of about 800 people, but that swells to thousands (flown in) from (very) late spring through summer as the thaw sets in and the various hunting and fishing seasons begin.

Kate Shugak is a member of the Aleut people and, although she has many relatives in the area (including her grandmother, Ekaterina Moonin Shugak, head of the local tribal council), lives alone on a 160-acre homestead, except for her half-wolf, half husky, Mutt. She is in emotional recovery, as the series opens, from a traumatic incident during her tenure as a police officer in Anchorage that left her with a lot of anger, a growly voice, and a ropy white scar that stretches from ear to ear. She mostly keeps to herself, engaged in doing all the things a homesteader in Alaska has to do to get by, but occasionally, when the local police and the FBI can’t seem to solve a case for themselves, they appeal to Kate to get involved, since for all her solitude she has a better handle than they on her neighbors—the miners, hunters, trappers, fishermen, bush pilots, and pipeline workers who populate the area.

The first book was a bit slow, because the author focused almost exclusively on drawing a picture of the Alaskan scenery and outlining the main players, with all their quirks. It picks up in the second half as Kate gets closer to figuring out what happened to two missing men and turns into more of a mystery, but in general it was pretty low-key. The second book made up for that by opening with a literal bang as a man goes about shooting everyone in sight, and although it bottomed out a little in the middle while Kate ponders her course of action (which she keeps close to the chest and doesn’t share), it had a dramatic ending as well.

I wouldn’t call these books page-turners, but there’s something about them that is appealing, enough so to keep me reading beyond these (although not right now, I have two books about to be due back to the library that I have to finish first). Although there are certain passages involving scenery description that seem a little stiff and extraneous, there are equally beautiful paragraphs that let you know both the author and the protagonist are people who love and are focused on the natural world. There is an element of humor that gives the stories a kick in the pants when needed, and the complex relationships between a lot of people with unmeeting wishes when it comes to their surroundings makes for both interest and fireworks. The book I just started (Jane Harper’s second book, Force of Nature, starring Aaron Falk) beckoned to me, but I admit there was a little reluctance to leave Kate Shugak behind; I had gotten used to hanging out with her.

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