Welcome to another edition of In the Spotlight. Some novels and series are as much about a given lifestyle or culture as they are about anything else. Stories like that invite the reader to learn about a different way of life, and when they’re done well, they can be both interesting and really informative. That’s the kind of novel M.J. McGrath’s White Heat is, so let’s turn the spotlight on that story today.
As the novel begins, Ellesmere Island hunting guide Edie Kiglatuk is leading an expedition consisting of Felix Wagner and Andy Taylor. She doesn’t care much for either of her clients, and neither seems like a very good shot. But they are willing to pay a lot of money for the hunting trip. Then, tragically, Wagner is shot. Taylor claims he’s innocent, and the evidence supports him. So at first, it’s put down to a tragic hunting accident.
That in itself is a big problem for Edie, since the death happened on her watch. Several members of the council of Elders aren’t very happy about a woman hunting guide, and it’s quite possible that they’ll use this to rescind her guiding license. It doesn’t help matters that at least one of them, Simeonie Inukpuk, resents her anyway because of her breakup with his brother Sammy. And Simeonie is the mayor of Autisaq, where Edie lives.
The council decides not to revoke Edie’s license, which she desperately needs in order to feed herself and help her former stepson, Joe. In unwritten exchange, they intend to submit a report that Wagner died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in a terrible accident; and they don’t want anyone contradicting that report. Edie knows that’s probably not true, since the evidence she saw in the snow, and some other evidence, suggests that someone else shot the victim. She knows that something’s going on behind the scenes, and she doesn’t like what she sees as a ‘deal with the devil,’ but she goes along with it on the surface.
She does, however, call Sergeant Derek Palliser, the senior of Ellesmere Island’s native police officers. At first there’s not much he can do, since there’s an official report (which Edit signed) attesting to the fact that Wagner accidentally shot himself. But then, there’s a disappearance. And Joe dies, apparently a suicide. It’s soon clear that more is going on here than an accident and a suicide. Each in their own ways, Edie and Derek investigate to find out what really happened to Felix Wagner, and how it’s related to the other incidents.
In the end, Edie and Derek find that these deaths are, indeed, connected. They have everything to do with the future of the island, and what different people think should happen to it. And they’re far from isolated incidents.
One of the most important elements in this novel is the culture and lifestyle of the people who live in the High Arctic. McGrath shares quite a number of details about life on Ellesmere Island, including diet, customs and so on. We also get a sense of the difference between the people who live here and the people who live in more southern parts of Canada.
There’s also a sense of the people’s belief systems:
‘There was no deep archaeology, no layering of history here.
Southerners often marveled at the way the recent and ancient past were equally present, as though there had only ever been on yesterday and everything in the past had happened on that single day.’
For many of Ellesmere Island’s residents, their ancestors are just as present as anyone living is, even if they can’t be seen.
McGrath also shows some of the challenges faced by modern Inuits who live on Ellesmere Island. Alcohol is one of them. In fact, Edie and her ex-husband Sammy have both had drinking problems (hence Edie’s decision to get a divorce). So is employment. There’s also the encroachment by those who want to develop the area for its resources or other purposes. But this is a sturdy people, and it’s interesting to see how they maintain their culture, language and lifestyle.
The story is told from Edie and Derek’s points of view (in third person), so we learn a great deal about them. Edie is half-Inuit, preferring to identify with that part of her background. She’s doing her best to put her life together after her divorce, and is, more or less, doing well. She’s
‘…the best damned hunting guide in the High Arctic.’
So even if there are some people on the council and elsewhere who don’t care for the fact that she’s half-White, she is accepted. And readers who do not like demon-haunted sleuths with drinking problems will be pleased to know that Edie doesn’t constantly drown her sorrows. Nor does she spend all of her time wallowing in unhappiness.
For his part, Derek struggles with the assumptions made about him (since he’s Inuit). He’s also dealing with the loss and embarrassment of being dumped by his ex-girlfriend Misha. Still, he’s a good cop who does his job well. He also finds himself becoming attracted to Edie as the novel evolves. But readers who do not like romance in their crime stories need not worry. This couple doesn’t instantly meet and pair up.
White Heat is the story of life in Canada’s High Arctic, and of what happens in that community when there’s a murder. It features a pair of sleuths who couldn’t imagine living anywhere else, and some important questions about the future of the place. But what’s your view? Have you read White Heat? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 21 December/Tuesday 22 December – A Madras Miasma – Brian Stoddart
Monday 28 December/Tuesday 29 December – The Dead Pull Hitter – Alison Gordon
Monday 4 January/Tuesday 5 January – Readers’ Choice! Please use the poll below to let me know which John Grisham novel you’d like to see in the spotlight. I’ll keep the poll open for about a week, so you have a chance to let your voice be heard.