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.

Book review: Snowdrops by A D Miller

Snowdrops by A D Miller, Atlantic 2011.

Snowdrops is a debut novel that comes garnished (OK, garnered) with praise from the UK literary “mafia” – on the cover alone are endorsements from Simon Sebag Montefiore, Jonathan Dimbleby and Julie Myerson. After all the advance publicity last year that was hard to avoid, I was slightly put off reading this novel but as it was in my local library last week I decided to try it. In sum, it is a passable read but the people who rave about it really should get out more, by which I mean “read some proper crime fiction”.

The novel is about a mid-30s lawyer, Nicholas Platt, who is based in Moscow for a couple of years to help ease through the multimillion dollar deals that typify the “new” Russia. Of course corruption is endemic but Nicholas is incurious, despite having a good friend who is a cynical journalist, and who tells him all the latest scams and fashionable crimes. The plot is two-stranded: Nicholas’s firm is acting for some banks who are lending oodles of money to some Russian companies who plan to supply oil from the north in some complicated deal that Nicholas neither understands fully or wants to – as he is only a lawyer he reckons he has no responsibility for anything dodgy. Even so, the set-up is so blindingly obvious; even I, who knows nothing about business, could have avoided the outcome of these transactions by one relatively simple action.

The more compelling plot thread involves Nicholas’s relationship with Masha and her “sister” (or possibly “cousin”) Katya. The two attractive girls meet Nicholas on the metro after he rescues them from a half-hearted attack. Nicholas falls for Masha in a big way; most of the book is about his feelings for her and the tale of their relationship as they do the rounds of various Moscow and other Russian bars, restaurants, hotels and so on. The girls have an old aunt who wants to leave her traditional Moscow apartment for a place in the country, and soon Nicholas is involved in drawing up the paperwork for the transaction.

Nicholas is unbelievably naive: we are supposed to imagine that he is so smitten with Masha that he will do anything, even though he has never seen where she lives, does not know her address and his only way of contacting her is by mobile phone. I don’t want to give away any spoilers (though we do know right from the start that everything has gone wrong somehow, as Nicholas is writing the novel as a confessional document to a subesequent, safely English, fiancee), but Nicholas’s deliberately stupid and blinkered actions mean that there is little suspense in the story, or involvement by the reader in him as a protagonist.

The book’s strength is in its depiction of Moscow (and other parts of Russia). Here, it comes to life as characters are tellingly observed, personal history and politics are woven into the narrative, and the scenes are described with clarity. The author was the Economist’s Moscow correspondent from 2004-2007, so it is not surprising that the best parts of the book are, in effect, a journalist’s observations of Russia at that time – either through Nicholas’s own perspective or via his knowledgeable friend, who obligingly provides several overviews to keep the reader up to speed.

Snowdrops is a short book which takes not much more than an hour (or two) to read, and is very easy-going, so I can say I quite enjoyed it, even though the plot itself is so weak. I did not think that readers needed to be told four separate times of the peculiarly Russian definition of “snowdrops”, particularly as I felt this part of the story was not very strong (to say why would again give away a spoiler, and for a plot so bare, there aren’t that many elements to spoil!).

Read some other reviews of this novel at: The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Independent.

Book review: Overkill by Vanda Symon

Overkill by Vanda Symon, Penguin NZ 2007.

After finishing this novel, I can write that it is a good, solid mystery about Sam Shepherd, the only police officer in the tiny New Zealand town of Mantaura. A young housewife, Gaby, apparently commits suicide, leaving a devastated husband and infant daughter. Sam begins the process of documenting the death but is very soon convinced that it was no accident (as usual in a crime novel), so calls her superiors and a team is sent in to take over what turns into a murder investigation. Sam is a very committed officer but extremely naive: it does not occur to her to mention to her colleagues that she had lived with the dead woman’s husband for more than a year before he married Gaby. As soon as this inconvenient fact comes out, Sam is not only taken off the investigation but treated as a suspect. Furious and humiliated, she decides to continue unofficially, and to find out the real criminal for herself.

Although this plot is a standard one for the genre, Sam’s lively, tough and humorous approach to life and her job lift the book to well above average. Aided by her flatmate Maggie, Sam finds plenty of information that needs following up, but it is not until she sets aside her jealousy towards Gaby and accepts that the poor woman is a victim, that she begins to make real inroads into the case. The route to the solution, as Sam uncovers more and more clues (via devices such as the police search of the victim’s house missing out all her files!), is compelling and exciting, thought the denouement does stretch it a bit (both in itself and in the rationale for the murder).

The novel is strongest in describing Sam’s personality, life and attitudes. Slightly disappointingly for me, it did not convey a convincing sense of place: I felt the book could have been set in any small farming community in the English-speaking world. Nevertheless, Sam is a very Antipodean woman (if you’ve read The Build-Up by Philip Gwynne, set in northern Australia, you will recognise the type), which makes up for a lot.

What almost ruined the book for me, and made it very hard for me to read it at all, is the first chapter describing Gaby’s death. I found it literally unbearable to read and in retrospect the cruel, sadistic description not at all necessary for the subsequent plot. I did carry on with the book, having faith that it would not continue in this vein, and indeed it did not, leaving me totally bemused as to why such a harrowing and upsetting introduction was necessary for what is quite a light mystery novel.

I thank Bernadette of Reactions to Reading for so kindly sending me this book, which unfortunately is not published in the UK. Her review of the novel is here. Other reviews of the book can be found at: Mysteries in Paradise, Crime Watch, and The Game’s Afoot.

Vanda Symon’s website, including information about the four (so far) novels about Sam Shepherd.

What I read in May, and what’s next

In the end I managed to read 10 books in May, covering quite a wide geographical area:

White Dog Peter Temple (Australia)
The Dinosaur Feather Sissel-Jo Gazan (Denmark, review submitted)
An Uncertain Place Fred Vargas (France)
Turn of Mind Alice LaPlante (USA)
The Winter of the Lions Jan Costin Wagner (Finland, review submitted)
Hanging Hill Mo Hayder (UK, not reviewed)
The Dead of Summer Mari Jungstedt (Sweden)
Mercy Jussi Adler-Olsen (Denmark)
Blue Monday Nicci French (UK, review submitted)
Back of Beyond C J Box (USA)

I enjoyed many of these books, but my favourites are Mercy and Turn of Mind, with White Dog getting top marks out of the rest for beauty of language.
What’s next? I am currently reading Overkill by Vanda Symon (New Zealand); after that I have a proof of Ruth Dugdall‘s second novel, The Sacrificial Man, which looks very good, and have purchased Officer Down by Theresa Schwegel (largely due to a review by Rob Kitchin though I have had my eye on this series for a while). Nowhere to Run by C J Box is also awaiting reading.
On the Kindle I have downloaded The Chatelet Apprentice, the first Nicolas Le Floch investigation by Jean-Francois Parot, as a subsequent book in the series is on the CWA International Dagger shortlist this year, and the first novel has received very good reviews (this one by Laura Root at Euro Crime). I’ve also got the first novels in two series by Dana Stabenow to read as previously reported. So much for my aim of only having one e-book in the queue: blame the ludicrously cheap prices of these downloads (all under £1 each), deals which I did not think would last forever.
Once I have worked my way through those I intuit that I’ll have another tranche of translated, newly published crime fiction to read. To be on the safe side, I’ve also ordered Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga, nine books and a couple of interludes, so that should keep me occupied for a while.