Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Crime fiction that features indigenous sleuths and other major characters runs the risk of being self-conscious about the cultural backgrounds of those characters or of being condescending. But when it’s well-written and features interesting characters it can be a fascinating way to get to know another culture and understand just a little what the culture is like. To show you what I mean, let’s take a close look at Stan Jones’ Inupiaq sleuth Nathan Active. Let’s turn the spotlight on the first Nathan Active mystery White Sky, Black Ice.
Active is an Alaska State Trooper who’s been assigned to the Chukchi detachment under the command of Patrick Carnaby. Active was born in Chukchi but he’s virtually a stranger there. His birth mother Martha gave him up for adoption since she was a teen mother who was unable to raise him herself. Active himself was brought up in Anchorage and is eager for a transfer back to that city.
Although crime within the city limits of Chukchi is usually investigated by the Chukchi police, Active happens to be on hand one morning when the body of George Clinton is found near a local bar. Clinton apparently committed suicide by shooting himself. Although there are certain details about the shooting that don’t quite add up to suicide, Active knows that the suicide rate in the area tends to go up when the weather gets cold, and Clinton’s family is willing to accept the suicide verdict. Then Clara Stone, a relation of Active’s through his mother, tells Active that her husband Aaron went on a hunting trip and hasn’t come back yet. She wants Active to go to Katy Creek where Stone had his camp and see if there are any signs of what happened. Active agrees and hires a local pilot Cowboy Decker to fly him over the area. When the two get to Katy Creek they find that Stone has been shot, again an apparent suicide.
Active finds it hard to believe that these two suicides would occur so close together and not be related, especially since neither Clinton nor Stone fit the profile of the “typical” suicide (if there is one). Then he discovers that the two men knew each other and begins to believe that they were both murdered and that their connection is what’s behind the deaths. Active then gets two vital clues to the mystery. Those clues point him in the right direction and in the end, he’s able to link the two deaths find out why and by whom Clinton and Stone were murdered.
One of the very strong elements in this novel is the sense of place. Chukchi is a small, mostly Inupiaq community near the Arctic Circle. It’s a struggling town, and we get a good look at the life of the people who live there. Here, for instance, is a scene that takes place when Active visits Clinton’s family to ask about his death:
“Active went through the kunnichuk [storm shed] and knocked on the inside door. He looked around while he waited, savoring the sharp, oily smells in the shed. Several parkas hung from nails on the walls, alongside some steel traps, a pair of caribou mukluks, and the hides of a marten and two foxes. Two red plastic jugs for snowmobile and boat gas sat on the floor in the corner. In another corner stood three rifles and two shotguns…
Daniel Clinton sat at a Formica-topped dining table with a cup of coffee in front of him. He had a round, mahogany face above a squat, solid-looking body. A small black-and-white television on the table was tuned to the state Bush channel…Clinton paid no attention to the coffee or the television. He was looking out across the lagoon to the white folds of the tundra beyond.”
It’s not just in the physical descriptions either that Jones places the reader in the Arctic Circle. Jones depicts both in subtle and in more obvious ways what it’s like to live in that area. For instance, people in the area travel by water, snowmobile or plane unless they’re going very short distances and hunting and fishing are the most popular non-work pastimes. Jones shares some of the Inupiaq language, too, and makes use of the local speech patterns. That said though, it’s not at all difficult to understand the dialogue.
Jones doesn’t sugarcoat the lives of the Inupiaq either. There are quite candid discussions of the rates of alcoholism and suicide, and in several places in the novel there are discussions of how the Inupiaq are seen by Whites and how they see themselves. In one of the novel’s sub-plots for instance, there’s an upcoming vote on whether Chukchi should become a “dry” area in which alcohol is prohibited. Proponents claim that banning alcohol will help the local indigenous people free themselves from that crutch and start to make better lives for themselves. That campaign is being spearheaded by Tom Werner, president of Chukchi Region, Inc., a Native-owned company that holds much of the local land. Here’s what Werner says in one speech he makes:
“We can stop it…Some people blame it on the white man, because he brought the liquor and gave it to our grandparents….That’s true, but the white man doesn’t pry open our teeth and pour it down our throats. We do that ourselves.”
Jones also shares with the reader the sense of family and the day-to-day culture of the Inupiaq.
Nathan Active and his self-discovery are also elements in this novel. Active resents his birth mother for giving him up for adoption. She tells him that she knew she couldn’t take care of him herself and that she believed allowing him to be raised by a White family in Anchorage was the best thing for him. Although Active accepts that she thought she was doing the right thing, her decision has made him somewhat of an “outsider” among his own people. There are a lot of local ways he doesn’t understand and he’s not fluent in the Inupiaq language. And yet the locals know very well who Active is and that he belongs there. They tease him about his Anchorage ways and his ignorance of the language, but it’s good-natured teasing. They see him as an Inupiaq who doesn’t know enough about his own people’s ways. In fact in another sub-plot, one of the locals Pauline Generous wants to match Active with her grand-daughter Lucy, the police station dispatcher, and she’s not the only one who sees him as a good catch.
The mystery itself makes sense given the area and the people involved and Active finds out the truth in believable ways. To Jones’ credit too, Active doesn’t get information by “punching first and asking questions later.” He uses his wits, his intuition and his ability to put the evidence together. The motive for the killings is very sad, but it is credible.
White Sky, Black Ice is a distinctively Arctic-Circle mystery that presents a respectful and candid look at a unique culture. It features a sleuth who belongs in that setting whether he thinks he does or not, and a cast of some interesting characters. But what’s your view? Have you read White Sky, Black Ice? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 20 August/Tuesday 21 August – Edwin of the Iron Shoes – Marcia Muller
Monday 27 August/Tuesday 22 August – Faceless Killers – Henning Mankell
Monday 3 September/Tuesday 4 September – What Was Lost – Catherine O’Flynn