Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Some authors write long series with several entries. Others though write just two or three novels about a given character. On the one hand, if you like the series, it can be a disappointment if it ends too soon. On the other, it’s much easier on the TBR list. Let’s take a closer look at that kind of very short series today. Let’s turn the spotlight on Scott Young’s Murder in a Cold Climate, the first of only two novels he wrote about Matthew ‘Matteesie’ Kitologitak of the RCMP.
As the novel begins, Matteesie is at the airport in Inuvik on his way to his home in Ottawa. His plan is then to go on to a conference in Leningrad (this novel was published in 1988). Everything changes though when he gets a call from his boss, the RCMP commissioner, whom he refers to as ‘Buster.’ Buster asks Matteesie to look into the disappearance of a chartered Cessna that was carrying three men. There’s a good possibility that the missing plane is tied in somehow with drugs trafficking into and out of Canada’s Northern Territories. And even if it’s not, the men on it could be hurt or worse. That’s not to mention the fact that the owner of the Cessna wants to know what’s happened to his property. Matteesie agrees to see what he can find out, and goes on with the process of boarding his flight.
On board this flight is Morton Cavendish, a Native activist who’s had a stroke and is on his way to Edmonton for emergency medical care. When the plane makes a stop at Fort Norman, a gunman forces his way aboard and shoots Cavendish. Matteesie was a witness to the shooting and what’s more, he knew Cavendish. So he wants to find out who the killer was.
At first Matteesie thinks he may have to hunt for the killer on his own time, since he’s supposed to be looking into the matter of the missing Cessna. But it’s soon suspected that Cavendish’s murder may be related to that case. So Matteesie carries on his investigation with that strong possibility in mind.
The one person who may know something about what happened and how it all fits together is Cavendish’s son William. But William has disappeared. He may have been party to his father’s killing, or he may have gone into hiding because he knows more than it’s safe for him to know. He may or may not be involved in the drugs trafficking. Whatever the truth about William is, Matteesie needs to find the young man to get the answers he wants. And in the end, he does tie the pieces of the case together.
Matteesie is a cop, so there is a hint of the police procedural about this novel. He works with other cops, talks to witnesses and puts the pieces of the puzzle together in much the way you would expect a cop to do. Because the protagonist is a cop, we also get a look at how policing is done in the most northern parts of Canada.
But this isn’t a stereotypical police procedural. For one thing, there isn’t really the ‘patch war’ that there can be in some such novels. In the main, the different police departments work well together and share information. There is a bit of police politics in one sense though. Matteesie is Inuk, and he’s had experience with the professional ‘ceiling’ often imposed on Native members of the RCMP. That said though, the cops whom he works with most closely know and trust him, and they don’t, for the most part, condescend to him.
The novel takes place in Canada’s Northwest Territories along the Mackenzie River, and Young places the reader distinctly in that environment. The story takes place at the end of January, so there are about five hours of daylight and the winter ice hasn’t broken up yet. Travel is mostly by snowmobile, dogsled or bush plane, and Matteesie uses all three forms of transportation as the novel goes on. You learn not to turn off your engine while you’re stopped anywhere, because it might not start again. Readers get a real sense of what it’s like to live, work and get around in the North. Here’s a bit of a view from a small bush plane:
‘When we crossed the Big Smith again it was the same game, but the country more rugged, with the caribou trail winding among gullies, valleys and minor watercourses dfined mainly by the few scrubby trees along the banks.’
It’s rough country, but Matteesie grew up in it and knows it. So he’s a match for it.
We also get a sense of the culture of Canada’s North. Everyone knows everyone and people tend to help one another. There’s also a sense of politeness that you don’t see everywhere. Here for instance is a bit of an incident that happens when one of William Cavendish’s cousins pays Matteesie an unexpected visit.
‘He didn’t bother to knock. Just pushed the door open and stood there…
‘Come in,’ I said.
‘I am in.’
‘That’s what I mean.’
He got it, all right. People of the North are almost invariably polite.’
Matteesie’s character is another important element in the novel. Raised in an Inuit environment, he’s quite at home among his own people. He uses that traditional knowledge too to stay safe and warm, to find clues and to solve the cases. But at the same time, he works among Whites quite frequently and successfully. In fact, his wife Lois is White. In general he’s not particularly trusting of Whites, but experience has given him good reason. That said though, there are plenty of individual Whites whom he works closely with, likes and trusts.
Matteesie isn’t perfect. For one thing, his attitude towards most Whites could be considered prejudiced, although it’s not belligerent. For another, at the same time as he’s married to Lois, he’s also involved in a long-term relationship with an Inuvik woman named Maxine. And yet, he’s refreshingly not an authority-flouting, drunken, demon-haunted ‘lone wolf.’
He also has a solid, sly kind of wit:
‘…streetlights showed two ravens playing a con game on a dog. The dog was trying to eat a scrap of something. As one raven dove at him so close that the dog charged after it…the other member of the raven team sloped in, bounced once, grabbed the food and flapped away. A pick play. Maybe ravens invented the pick play.’
The story itself isn’t exactly a happy one and although we do learn the truth about everything, it’s not all OK again at the end of the story. The wit lightens what is in some ways a sad story.
So do some of the characters Matteesie encounters along the way. Fellow cops, a dog team driver, a bush pilot, several people in both Inuvik and Fort Norman and other characters too all play interesting roles in the story. Many of them are very helpful to Matteesie and although some are eccentric, they aren’t caricatures.
Murder in a Cold Climate is a distinctly Northern story featuring a distinctly Northern cop and distinctly Northern characters. The mystery itself is credible given the context, and Matteesie gets to the truth in a way that makes sense. There’s a thread of adventure in the novel, and a bit of sly wit too. But what’s your view? Have you read Murder in a Cold Climate? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Oh, and one other thing about Scott Young. You may have heard of his son Neil. Yes, that Neil.
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 17 March/Tuesday 18 March – The Burning – Jane Casey
Monday 24 March/Tuesday 25 March – Bleak House – Charles Dickens
Monday 31 March/Tuesday 1 April – Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel