Book Review: A Cold Day For Murder by Dana Stabenow

A Cold Day for Murder by Dana Stabenow, Kindle edn, Gere Donovan Press 2011 (first published 1992).

The first of the Kate Shugak series is a very readable novel, once you get into it. The reader meets Kate as the book opens, learning that she lives alone in the wilds of Alaska and has been badly injured a year ago during the course of her job as a DA’s investigator, so quit. Two men come to visit her, one an ex-boyfriend and the other representing the FBI. They tell her that two men have gone missing: a park ranger and his supervisor, and Kate is their last hope of finding out what happened to them.

The plot, therefore, is simply that of Kate’s investigation. But the book is much more than that. Kate is an Aluet, so part of the culture and tradition of this cold, desolate land. The nearest village to her simple homestead is Niniltna, which is where Kate conducts her search for the lost men. During the course of her inquiries, we meet many of the inhabitants, most of whom seem to be related to Kate either biologically or by past incidents and adoptions. The inhabitants are, mostly, pitted against the US park service, which represents the larger America that the native Alaskans (the older generation, anyway) want to keep away from their pristine land, as well as an inhibitory force so far as their hunting and mining (and other commercial) activities are concerned. Niniltna is run by a coalition of native Alaskans using federal money ceded by various governments. Their economy is based on fishing for the five months of the year that the weather permits: for the rest of the year everyone is bored (electronic communications are limited to one or two centres, and everything anyone uses has to be expensively flown in). Predictably, sex, fighting and drugs of various kinds become the main event: alcohol has been banned in the village itself by the tribal council.

Kate uses her local knowledge and her experience of law enforcement to track down various leads and eventually solves the mystery, but at some personal cost to her own view both of herself and of her place in the community. This novel is the first of (so far) sixteen books about Kate, so it is understandable that quite a bit of it is taken up with scene setting and her background. But even so, it’s a solid if not that challenging mystery which absolutely convincingly conveys a sense of place and culture, leaving me keen to read more, particularly as the protagonist is so independent and does not go out of her way to make herself likeable. The view of the US park and wildlife service is in the same universe as, but a different perspective from, that provided in the Joe Pickett series by C J Box, which is quite fascinating. I was very pleased to see two maps at the start of the novel, which are quite useful, though I presume generic to the series as Bobby’s house (where Kate is based for most of the story) is not marked whereas those of other characters who do not appear in this novel are indicated.

I read this book on the recommendation of Keishon of Yet Another Crime Fiction blog. The fact that it was 69p in Kindle edition helped also, though I see that the price has now gone down to 0p! Subsequent volumes are not as cheap, of course.

Other reviews of this book, which won the “best paperback mystery” Edgar in 1993: Beth Fish reads, Mervi’s book reviews and Laura Valeri’s blog.

Although there are sixteen books about Kate, the author has made a helpful video on YouTube which is an abridged version of the entire series so that new readers can start at book 16 if they like. (I haven’t watched the video as I am quite happy to progress slowly through the series in order, for as long as I continue to enjoy it.)

About the Kate Shugak series at the author’s website.
About the author’s other novels (her website).
Original publication dates are not provided there or at Amazon UK so if you want those, they are at Fantastic Fiction.

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16 thoughts on “Book Review: A Cold Day For Murder by Dana Stabenow

  1. Nice review and the book sounds good. I have bought one of this series ‘cos it was cheap in eBook format but don’t think it’s the first. Still I’m not that fussed about reading this kind of series out of order. There are some of these available in audio format too so I might try those as I’m always looking for good audiobook recommendations

  2. Maxine – Thanks for this fine review :-). It is interesting, isn’t it, how this book and the Joe Pickett series portrays the U.S. National Park Service in a similar way. I’m also intrigued by your description of how much the book shares about the setting and culture. Yup; going to have to plunge into this series…

  3. Ah, just what I needed. You see, I landed in our cottage yesterday after two busy exam days without any paper books in my bags (forgetting books shows you how busy I have been!) But I am sure I also have a Stabenow or two in my Kindle so I can give in to temptation WITHOUT buying new books :D

    I really enjoyed working together with the examinating teacher, by the way. She likes teaching Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Keats as much as I do, and in her spare time she reads lots of Scandinavian and British crime fiction.

  4. Ah, you beat me to this one but I plan to read it. I loved her Liam Campbell series when they first came out, the first of which is Fire & Ice, btw and it’s in hiatus but maybe not for too much longer since everyone is self-pubbing these days. I really like her voice and sense of humor.

  5. Thanks everyone.
    Keishon- yes, I bought Fire and Ice too, as that was also 69 p, so have that yet to try….yet another series!
    Dorte – that meeting does sound like fun, it is so nice to chat to friends who share one’s reading interests.
    Bernadette – I think the author has written these so the order does not matter? At least, the one I read had lots of unexplained back story (as well as lots of explained!) so there is clearly lots of material for future books to go into this in non-chronological fashion. And there’s also the author’s You Tube abridged version ;-)
    Margot – thanks, the conveying of place was what made this book for me. And the comparision between it and C J Box, though he is quite sympathetic to the local’s hunting activities, he’s less so than Stabenow, who seems more on their side, in the sense of showing how hard it is for the locals to make ends meet in that economy and environment.

  6. I have read nearly all of this series over the years, liked it, found it intriguing, not only about Kate Shugak, but her friends, family, environment, community, culture, history, etc.. Dana Stabenow’s books, as Nevada Barr’s books, are read by many people in the U.S. concerned about protecting the environment.
    It is very important to read this series in the order in which it was written. One gets to know the characters in depth, and a lot of changes occur in Kate’s life over the course of the books — including monumental ones. (I will not elaborate so as not to give spoilers). And, as mega-profit-seeking commercial enterprises start encroaching on Indigenous land, there are many challenges to the Aleut way of life. Eruptions, crises and murders ensue, as one would imagine.
    I kept on reading until the last few books, which I found tedious so I quit. But the series held me until the last two or so books. I had traveled far with Kate and needed a change of scenery — from Alaska to Scandinavia, I guess.
    But, definitely, whatever I can say here, do read the books in chronological order.

  7. Thanks, Kathy. I’ll definitely read in chronological order, but based on what you write, only buy one at a time ;-) I really like the environmental aspects in C J Box and here, as they are not presented in “fluffy, sentimental” style but realistically convey love for the environment from a range of (practical) perspectives.

  8. Yes. Good idea to buy one at a time. I like the environmental and cultural issues in the Aleut communities, too.
    Some interesting and shocking developments happen several books on in the series which shocked readers. I took a break, then began to read them again.

  9. Surprisingly B&N is selling this cheap for the Nook as well, so I might have to break down and buy it. I like that it’s told not only from a woman’s perspective but from someone indigenous to the area as well. I’m obviously missing out on some good American mystery writers so need to get back into the habit of picking up these books and not just the more exotic/foreign writers.

  10. Thanks, Danielle. I think the trouble is that they are only selling the first one of the series cheap! And it is a long series – at least some of which is out of print (though has just been reissued in e-format) so may be hard to obtain via libraries.
    I suppose that books set in the USA are quite exotic for me! Though I find some of those set in the UK with a strong sense of place very appealing, eg Martin Edwards’s Lake District series, even though I know the region well.

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