One 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.