In A Cold Day for Murder, author Dana Stabenow gives us a chilly introduction to life in the Alaska Bush… and I mean that in the best way possible.
The book opens with a wonderful set piece — two men on a snowmobile crossing miles of undeveloped, snow-covered land on their way to a remote homestead, so cold that ice cracks off their faces as they talk. Their destination is the home of Kate Shugak, a former investigator for the Anchorage DA’s office, now living in self-imposed isolation way out in the middle of nowhere. The men are Kate’s former boss and lover, Jack Morgan, and an ill-prepared FBI man, dressed in a fancy suit and dress shoes under his snowsuit. Their goal? To convince Kate to resume her crazy talent for investigating and help them look into the case of a missing park ranger and the agent who went looking for him, now also missing.
Kate is 30-years-old, an Alaska native with strong family ties to the nearby Niniltna Park region and its tiny settlements. She’s also emotionally and physically damaged, having suffered a major injury on her last case in Anchorage. Kate is reluctant and hostile, but ultimately agrees to help out when she hears that the missing agent is someone she dated on and off and whom she first introduced to the park. She feels responsible, so she embarks (with her enormous dog Mutt) to visit the neighboring homesteads, the town of Niniltna, the local roadhouse — only place to get a drink in the area short of flying to Anchorage — and various relatives and townsfolk, most of whom she’s known all her life.
I sometimes struggle to keep my attention in focus when I listen to audiobooks, but in this case, no struggle was required. I quickly became fascinated by the characters, the mystery, the setting, and the amazing descriptions. Kate is a terrific heroine — talented, sharp, tough as nails, but with a vulnerability stemming from both her own wounds and from her deep connections to every single person whom she faces as she attempts to collect clues.
The townsfolk are exactly what you’d hope for: Quirky and odd, devoted to their little patch of land, fiercely proud, gruff and lovable. They’re an interesting mix of natives, immigrants from “Outside” who came and never left, government officials, and tribal elders. Beneath the frontier attitudes, there’s passion and politics, which prove to be quite a volatile mix.
The issues in the missing persons case involve more conflicts than you might think possible — the conflict between developers, miners, and “greenies”, the urge to open the Park to all versus the locals’ desire to preserve things as they are, the demands of the tribal elders trying to maintain their community versus the aimlessness of the young who desperately seek a way out. With a deft touch, the author introduces us to all of these elements through the people Kate encounters, but it’s never heavy-handed.
The mystery itself is multi-layered, and Kate’s investigation turns up all sorts of bad apples and surprise twists before it’s all sorted out.
As you can see, I enjoyed A Cold Day for Murder very much. I’m not generally much of a mystery reader, but the plot and the characters really grabbed me from the very beginning and kept me hooked.
Will I continue with the series? There are 20 Kate Shugak novels published so far, and that seems like an awful lot to bite off. I don’t feel the need to consume them all at once in a massive binge… but I do think I’ll dip back into this series in between other books and slowly work my way forward.
Teeny confession: I’m more than a little bit in love with Alaska, so reading a book series centered on Alaskan lives and highlighting the gorgeous natural terrain and animals of Alaska is a big thrill for me.
Fun fact: Dana Stabenow won the 1993 Edgar Award for best paperback original for A Cold Day for Murder. And in the Kindle version, at least, she tells a very amusing story of herself as a young author flying from Alaska to New York City for the award ceremony. Read it, if you get a chance!
And a final note on the audiobook: Two thumbs up for narrator Marguerite Gavin! She does a remarkable job of giving the various characters distinct voices that absolutely suit them. Truly a very fun and engaging listening experience — you can hear a sample here via Audible.
Title: A Cold Day for Murder
Author: Dana Stabenow
Narrator: Marguerite Gavin
Publisher: Various print editions available
Publication date: 1992
Length: 212 pages (print edition); 5 hours 31 minutes (audiobook)
Source: Download via Audible