We Come From the Land of the Ice and Snow*

Arctic ClimatesOne of the things about living in an extreme climate is that priorities can be quite different to what they are where it’s more temperate. The people who live in such climates have adapted to them, because they know that nature can be very unforgiving.

Some of the harshest living conditions in the world can be found in and near the Arctic Circle. For one thing, it’s dark or twilight-ish for half the year, and there’s no real sundown for the other half. For another, there are the temperatures and weather conditions. And yet, people live there and have created societies there. And there’s crime there, too – at least fictional crime.

Arctic-Circle crime fiction arguably has an added layer of suspense because of the element of the climate. And that can create tension and even conflict in a plot. Space doesn’t permit me to mention all of the great crime fiction that features that part of the world, but here are a few examples to encourage you to reach for that parka and light the fire.

We get a look at life on Ellesmere Island and the vicinity in M.J. McGrath’s Edie Kiglatuk novels. Kiglatuk is a half-Inuit hunting guide – one of the best there is. She’s learned how to survive under all sorts of conditions, and she knows how to make the most of whatever’s available. In these novels, we learn not just what it’s like to be a hunting guide, but also what life is like in the communities of Ellesmere Island. The diet of the people who live there is quite different to what it is in more temperate places, and people rely on small planes and radio to get supplies and information in and out of the area. There’s a distinct culture there, and a real difference between the people who live in that area, and those who come from more southern parts of Canada.

Scott Young wrote two mysteries, Murder in a Cold Climate and The Shaman’s Knife, featuring Inspector Matthew ‘Matteesie’ Kitologitak of the RCMP. In Murder in a Cold Climate, he investigates the shooting death of Native activist Morton Cavendish at the tiny airport in Inuvik. In The Shaman’s Knife, he investigates two murders that occur in Sanirarsipaaq, a tiny Inupiaq settlement on Victoria Island. In both novels, we see how the climate impacts people’s lives. For one thing, there’s a lot of use of small planes, sleds and snowmobiles, since the roads aren’t reliable. For another, there’s a certain sort of hospitality that’s extended. People don’t have much of a chance at survival if they’re outdoors for too long, so it’s the custom to look out for others, if I can put it that way. There are other subtle and not-so-subtle ways, too, in which Young conveys the realities of life in Canada’s Northwest Territories.

Life’s just as tough across the border in Alaska, and Stan Jones’ Nathan Active series makes shows readers what it’s like there. Active is an Inuit who was raised by adoptive parents in Anchorage. Now an Alaska State Trooper, he’s been reassigned to Chukchi, where his birth mother happens to live. So, beginning with White Sky, Black Ice, Active learns more about his own people, and his identity as an Inuit. The people of Chukchi are faced with the same harsh climate as are the people of the Northwest Territories. So in these novels, too, we see plenty of use of small planes and snowmobiles instead of cars. Just as interesting, people rely on radio to get messages to one another. Even personal messages are sent via Chukchi’s public radio station, nicknamed Kay-Chuck. And that makes sense, in a place where telephone signals aren’t reliable, if they’re even available. Jones also depicts some of the non-climate challenges that the people of Chukchi face. (Un)employment, alcohol and drug abuse, and culture loss are some of the issues that are addressed in these novels. Despite them, though, we see how well-adapted the Inupiaq are to their environment. For another look at life in Alaska, there’s also the work of Dana Stabenow. She’s written two series about that part of the world One features PI Kate Shugak; the other features Alaska State Trooper Liam Campbell.

In Åsa Larsson’s The Savage Altar (AKA Sun Storm), we are introduced to Stockholm attorney Rebecka Martinsson. In the course of events in this novel, she returns to her hometown of Kiruna to help an old friend, and ends up getting involved in a dangerous murder investigation. This series follows Martinsson, as well as police inspectors Anna-Maria Mella and Sven-Erik Stålnacke. Kiruna is a small place with its own distinct culture. The people who live there have adapted themselves to the harsh climate, and adjusted to life in a place where it’s dark or twilight for half the year.

One of the more interesting looks at that harsh, Arctic climate comes from Antti Tuomainen’s The Healer. This story takes place mostly in a dystopian-future Helsinki. Climate change has wreaked havoc on the planet, and left millions of people homeless refugees. So the city has become overcrowded and the police are badly understaffed. As a result, Helsinki is descending into anarchy. Those who can do so are leaving for the north of Finland, where a decent life is still thought possible. In that situation, people aren’t really as concerned about the harsh climate, because of the way the planet has changed, and because it’s at least better than the city. Against this backdrop moves Tapani Lehtinen, a writer whose journalist wife Johanna has gone missing. She was working on a major story about a man who calls himself The Healer. He’s taken responsibility for several murders of CEOs and their families – people he blames for the current conditions on Earth. Lehtenin believes that if he can follow the leads his wife was following, he’ll find her. As he searches, he runs into much more and bigger danger than he’d thought.

And I don’t think I could do a post about Arctic climates without mentioning Arnaldur Indriðason’s series featuring Reykjavík Inspector Erlendur. As it happens, Reykjavík is the northernmost capital of a sovereign state. So, as you can imagine, Erlendur and his team have to contend more than once with the elements. In fact, fans of this series can tell you that one of the story arcs in this series is Erlendur’s ongoing search for his brother Bergur, who was lost in a blizzard when the brothers were boys. Blizzards in that part of the world are savage, so it’s not surprising that no trace of Bergur was found. It’s haunted Erelendur ever since.

And that’s the thing about Arctic climates. They can be extremely harsh and unforgiving. And yet, people make lives there, and create rich social structures. Which Arctic-set novels and series have you enjoyed?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song.


Filed under Antti Tuomainen, Arnaldur Indriðason, Åsa Larsson, Dana Stabenow, M.J. McGrath, Scott Young, Stan Jones

35 responses to “We Come From the Land of the Ice and Snow*

  1. Nice round up, Margot! I’m very fond of the Erlendur stories, and the setting and climate is so important. And my, is that poor man haunted by the past…

    • He is, indeed, KBR! And that adds such a lot to his character, I think. It gives him an extra dimension, in my opinion, and it’s part of what makes this series so excellent.

  2. This kind of setting just appeals to me tremendously, I am addicted to the books you mention above. I also really liked the French author Olivier Truc’s Forty Days Without Shadow, which takes place in the northern reaches of Lapland, with the Reindeer Police.

    • The setting really is done fabulously in those novels, isn’t it, Marina Sofia? And there is just something about that context… Thanks for mentioning the Truc. I must put that on my radar, as it sounds great.

  3. Ice Station Zebra as a favourite of mine when I was young, Alistair MacLean (not sure I spelled that right)…loved his stories and the tension he built. I have enjoyed watching the Icelandic series Trapped but have not read the books. Confined spaces again – the locked room mystery. My brother spent time in Iceland and thought they were very buttoned up people who rarely smiled, especially when greeting you. That throws you off balance a little. Tourism has opened up there and I guess they will unbutton soon!

    • I’ve not seen Trapped, Jane, but I’m already intrigued. And yes, there is something claustrophobic about that sort of setting, isn’t there? I have to admit I’ve not (yet) spent time in Iceland, ‘though I’d really like to visit at some point. And it’s interesting what your brother has said about smiling. Every culture is different about how much and what sort of smiling is appropriate, and I think those cultural differences can take adjustment.

  4. Pingback: We Come From the Land of the Ice and Snow* | e. michael helms

  5. Completely agree with you about Indridason, and a big fan of Stabenow too. You’ve just given me some great suggestions for winter reading – thank you!

    • Stabenow is really talented, isn’t she, CC? And yes, Indriðason has written some memorable books. Thanks for the kind words, and I hope that if you try some of these others, you’ll enjoy them.

  6. When you mentioned Alaska, I thought of Heather Graham’s latest release, DEADLY FATE, that is set in Alaska. The elements become a character in themselves. The isolation adds another layer to the stories. Great post, Margot.

    In case I don’t get a chance to drop by Monday, hope you and your family have a safe and wonderful holiday.

    • Thank you, Mason – I hope you have a fabulous holiday, too. And thanks for mentioning Deadly Fate. It’s an interesting example of exactly what I had in mind with this post. And it reminds me that I ought to do a spotlight on one of Graham’s books. I appreciate the nudge.

  7. This post reminded me of Julia Spencer-Fleming’s series — not actually in the Arctic, but certainly in pretty cold territory. “Through the Evil Days” even has an ice storm…

    • Right you are, Pat. Just because that series doesn’t take place in the Arctic doesn’t mean that there’s no terrible weather there. And it certainly impacts the characters.

  8. kathyd

    I used to read Dana Stabenow’s Kate Shugak books and liked them. Have enjoyed the indridason books a lot, White Heat by M.J. McGrath and Asa Larsson’s books, including the one you mention.
    A newer book I read recently about a mother and deaf daughter driving in a blizzard in northern Alaska is Rosamund Lupton’s The Quality of Silence. Additionally, the child’s thinking about communication is informative and so is the woman’s knowledge of astronomy.
    On top of the fiction about the Arctic area, I just read about the Inupiaq village of 600 people in Shishmaref on an island in the Chukchi Sea. It’s falling into the sea.due to erosion and flooding. And due to global warming, the ice they need to walk on to hunt and fish is forming later in the year, leaving them without adequate food. Thirty-one Native villages are in imminent danger in Alaska.
    On Aug. 18 the Shishmaref villagers voted to relocate, but they want to stay together. Also, it’s expensive to move and live in other areas, and this is a poor village.
    I read an opinion piece by Esau Sinnok in an Alaska newspaper. He attended the Paris climate change conference to raise an alarm at what’s happening in the Arctic.

    • Climate change is certainly taking a toll on the Arctic and the people who live there, Kathy. And the choices they have are few.

      Thanks for mentioning the Lipton. I’ve heard of it, but not read it. It certainly sounds like a good read, and fits in very well with what I had in mind with this post, so thanks.

  9. A.M. Pietroschek

    While the harshness of climate, and the contamination by capitalism, are sad truisms I still dare-dream about actually moving into a cooler climate, hoping for green technology to make it more comfortable (now that I am aging into an old man).

    I decided to offer this link:

  10. Very nice post, Margot. I have added some of these to my reading list and look forward to indulging. We are winding down summer here where I live but next summer when the temps hit 100, this is the list I’ll be reaching for. Thanks for sharing.

  11. Margot: No shortage of crime fiction in the Arctic by Canadian writers. In addition to the Scott Young books which I thought were exceptional I would add Darkness at the Stroke of Noon by Dennis Murphy and An Arctic Blue Death by R.J. Harlick. Both are set in our newest territory of Nunuvut. While winters are harsh it can get hot in northern Canada. The Wail of Windigo by Steve Pitt featuring the first Trudeau Prime Minister as a 12 year old is set in a very warm Yukon summer.

    • Thank you very much, Bill, for adding those suggestions. Trust you to have some excellent Canadian crime fiction to contribute. I’ve liked the Harlick work I’ve read, so I’m sure I’d enjoy that one. And I think the Leaders and Legacies series is a terrific way to introduce young people (and some maybe not so young) to Canada’s Prime Ministers. It’s interesting, too, that you mention summers in northern Canada. People tend to think of that part of the world as always freezing, but it’s not. Perhaps it’s better to think of it as a place of temperature extremes?

  12. The FBI Ryker Townsend series by Jordan Dane comes to mind. Book one, The Last Victim, was set in Alaska, and it really added a nice layer to the tension.

    • Thanks very much, Sue. That’s not a series I’ve dipped into yet, but it sounds interesting. And the setting is a great example of what I had in mind with this post,

  13. Margot, I was thinking of Alistair MacLean when I noticed that Jane Risdon had already mentioned the author, one of my all-time favourite writers. I must reread “Ice Station Zebra.” I have probably seen more movies set in the Arctic and Antarctica then read about them in books.

    • Now I’ll have to dive into McLean’s work more than I have, Prashant. He really is skilled, and with two of you recommending him, well, that’s enough for me to focus on him more.

  14. Col

    I have visited Alaska twice recently in my reading, but I ought to try something by Stan Jones and M. J. McGrath.

  15. I don’t know where the Shetland Islands fit in with this, but I know when I read a couple of Ann Cleeves books set there, I was surprised that they have the very, very long days in summer, and short days in winter. I know so little about geography.

    I have read one M. J. McGrath novel and one Erlendur novel (and liked them both) and I would love to try all the others you mentioned here.

    • Oh, I think both of those series are terrific, Tracy. I know that nobody has time to read everything, but those are, I think, excellent series. So is the Cleeves series. It is hard to remember how far north Shetland is.

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