If you read my blog from time to time, you may have noticed how often I seem to be reading a Kate Shugak novel. Kate Shugak, for those who don’t know, is the main character in an ongoing mystery series by Dana Stabenow. The series is currently 20 books strong, and the author is supposedly working on #21.
How did I get started with the Kate books? I honestly don’t know.
Perhaps I picked up the first one due to my obsession with Alaska.
Or maybe I picked up book #1 after seeing the series mentioned by Diana Gabaldon in her Methadone List.
Either way, something just clicked for me — and here I am a little over a year later, just wrapping up my read of book #10, Midnight Come Again.
I started the Kate Shugak series via audiobook, and enjoyed the first several volumes that way until I decided that I really wanted to gobble up the stories at a faster pace than the audiobooks allowed. Fortunately, my local library has kept the hard copies coming, so I was able to get the next book pretty much as soon as I put down the last.
The first book in the series, A Cold Day For Murder, was published in 1992. I listened to it in March 2015, and here’s what I had to say about it at the time, according to my Goodreads review:
I just finished the audio version of this book, and truly enjoyed it. A murder mystery set in the Alaska Bush, A Cold Day for Murder includes offbeat characters, gorgeous settings, politics, greed, snowmobiles, mines, shotguns, roadhouses, and so much more. The audiobook narrator does a great job of giving the various characters distinct voices, and the whole story moves along at a fast pace with never a dull moment. Main character Kate Shugak is a tough-as-nails crime investigator with local roots, family and clan loyalties, and an unerring sense of justice and the ability to sniff out clues.
Highly recommended for mystery fans, as well as for anyone wanting a little taste of Alaska.
I continued onward, and grew to love Kate herself as well as the sprawling cast of supporting characters more and more with each book I read. Kate is a smart, tough loner, a damaged soul, and a woman committed to justice and truth. She lives alone on a homestead miles from anyone, within the borders of a fictitious national park in the Wrangell area of Alaska. After a brief career in the district attorney’s office in Anchorage investigating horrible crimes, Kate seeks solitude and quiet, with just her enormous companion Mutt — half wolf, half husky — at her side throughout the Alaskan winters.
Kate is also a member of a large Aleut family, and her relationship with her grandmother, the domineering and well-respected tribal leader, forms a major theme throughout the books. Kate continually gets pulled back into the world of crime investigation, and each book has Kate at the center of one crime or another, not always willingly.
Through Kate’s experiences, we travel the state, from the Park to the Aleutian Islands and Bering Sea, to the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay and the fishing harbors of Prince William Sound. Besides providing an up-close view of the natural wonders and man-made curiosities of Alaska, the books also weave into the story the ongoing corruption, political maneuvering, and favor trading that goes on behind the scenes. We get a crash course in Alaska politics and hot-button issues, like the exploitation of resources, the battle to keep tribal rights to subsistence fishing, the tourist and fishing industries’ impact on local economies, and so much more.
You can tell that my enthusiasm for Kate’s adventures stayed strong by reading my comments on book #4, A Cold-Blooded Business:
Another excellent addition to the Kate Shugak mystery series! Kate herself is a magnificent main character, tough as nails, ultra smart, and with a fierce love for her people and her land. In this book, Kate is hired to investigate drug dealing at the Prudhoe Bay oil facility, which means we get to see Kate outside of her comfort zone, in an entirely new setting, but still doing what she does best. It’s a surprisingly nuanced look at the impact of the oil industry in Alaska, as well as a terrific, dangerous adventure. Highly recommended!
What’s funny is that I’m not usually a mystery reader. In fact, while I generally enjoy the crime story in each of the Kate books, what truly draws me back over and over again is the people angle. I’ve just really fallen for Kate and the gang — Chopper Jim, Bobby Clark, and the rest of the folks living in and around Niniltna and hanging out at Bernie’s Roadhouse. And, as I mentioned, I’ve got this thing about Alaska. I’ve been for a few visits now, and can’t wait to go back… and meanwhile, the next best thing to being there is traveling there in a book!
Okay, but then I got to the 9th book, Hunter’s Moon, and I almost threw the damn thing across the room:
Damn you, Dana Stabenow! How could you do that? My heart is broken into a million teeny pieces right now. I love this series, but this one is just devastating. NOOOOO.
Ahem. That said, bring on the next book!
Not to be spoilery or anything, but man, that book just killed me. I won’t say why. Read it yourself and find out!
I couldn’t stop there, of course, so I continued on with #10, Midnight Come Again, which I finished (much) earlier today:
Appropriately, I finished Midnight Come Again just past midnight. It’s one of those books that is best read straight through, even if it means giving up a little sleep.
Midnight Come Again is an installment of the Kate Shugak series that’s hard to put down — less for the mystery than for the character development of Kate. The mystery is kind of “meh” in this book — Russian mafia, money laundering, involvement of FBI and state troopers. The personal side, though, is terrific.
Kate is dealing (not well) with the aftermath of the events from the previous book, Hunter’s Moon — and no, I won’t be forgiving Dana Stabenow for that any time soon! She’s a mess who’s shut down emotionally, living under a false name in the tiny town of Bering. When Jim Chopin — Chopper Jim — gets assigned undercover work in Bering, he’s instrumental in cracking Kate’s shell and helping her start her slow crawl back to life.
Kate is an amazing character, and she’s been through hell. I can’t wait for the next book, and plan to keep reading the Kate Shugak series until I’m all caught up!
Of course, I’m going to continue onward with #11 just as soon as my library hold request comes in. Meanwhile, I’m thrilled to have reached the halfway mark… and also, to have finally made it out of the 1990s! I have ten more books to go before I’ll be all caught up (#20, Bad Blood, was published in 2013). I’m not binge-reading or anything. I think of the Kate Shugak books as my reading comfort food (although the last two were about as far from comfort as I could imagine). I like to pick up a volume or two in between other things, both for the sake of getting a long-distance taste of Alaska and for the opportunity to check in with Kate.
Kate is one hell of a terrific character, and I’m invested in her life! I want that woman to be happy. Are you listening, Dana Stabenow? Ha, just kidding, don’t worry about me. A happy Kate probably wouldn’t have nearly as much drama in her life.
For those of you who’ve read further in the series — don’t tell me anything! For those who haven’t given the books a try yet, consider this my recommendation, yet again. The Kate Shugak books have heart, humor, drama, adventure, an amazing setting, and truly quirky and wonderful characters. Not to mention the odd grizzly bear.
Bundle up, light a fire, pour some hot cocoa, and curl up over at Kate’s homestead!