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02 January 2013

Dana Stabenow: A Cold Day for Murder

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Dana Stabenow's first book in the Kate Shugak series is not only an interesting detective novel, but being set in a small remote mainly native Alaskan settlement is also a cultural challenge. Even if you have visited Alaska with a summer tour or cruise you will not be prepared for the cultural background that permeates Stabenow's book:

* most people are native Alaskan (Aleuts) and live inside the Nilintna Association's tribal jurisdiction. Persons who are not part of the tribe are called "Outsiders".
* while the Association has declared their jurisdiction to be alcohol free, many locals frequent a roadhouse conveniently located exactly nine feet three inches outside the jurisdiction.
* there is no road into the area and for most of the year the locals' means of travel are snow mobiles, dog slays and small planes.
* local food delicacies include ground caribou patties and moose steaks. Local radio station advertising fees can sometimes be paid in moose meat ("five roasts, not less than five pounds each").
* there is a very small population and everybody knows one another which unfortunately is a hindrance to any investigation.

All of this makes this a very different detective novel to others I have read. Kate Shugak was born in the jurisdiction but left the area for several years for study and work as an investigator for the DA's office in Anchorage.  She has retreated back to her home environment after she was wounded when a case went seriously wrong. She is surprised when her former boss visits her with an FBI agent to ask her to investigate the disappearance of an "outsider" Park Ranger and an investigator sent to find what happened to him.

When she reluctantly agrees to help, she has to find the answer within her own tight community who are not known for their ready cooperation with authority.

My main criticism is that it takes a bit of effort to understand the various cultural issues and to follow the many different, and sometimes only minor, characters. Despite this the book was a fascinating start to a pretty lengthy series of Kate Shugak investigations which I understand has a bit of a cult following. I enjoyed the book and will probably read more in the series.

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