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.