Category Archives: Dana Stabenow

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

I’m Going to Some Place Where I’ve Never Been Before*

Field TripsClassrooms aren’t always the best places to learn things. After all, if you’re going to teach a science lesson about salamanders and other amphibians, what better way than for students to actually see some in their natural environments? If you’re teaching a unit on The Scottish Play, why not take students to see a production of it?

If you went on field trips yourself, or you’ve sent your children on them, then you know how much of an impact a field trip can have. They’ve been a part of schooling for a long time. So it shouldn’t be surprising that we also see field trips woven throughout crime fiction, too.

When we first meet Stuart Palmer’s Hildegarde Withers in The Penguin Pool Murder, she is escorting her fourth grade students on a field trip to the New York Aquarium. Her plan was an enjoyable and educational outing, as field trips are supposed to be. But that’s not how it works out. First, Miss Withers’ handbag is nearly stolen by a pickpocket. Miss Withers manages to trip up the would-be thief, and he is caught by security guards. Later, the class is gathering to leave the aquarium when one of the students notices that Miss Withers’ hatpin is missing. It’s just been found at the bottom of a flight of stairs when Miss Withers sees that one of her students is not with the group. The class soon finds him staring avidly into the penguin tank. And that’s when they see the body of a man sliding into the tank. It turns out to be a complicated case for Miss Withers and for New York Police Inspector Oscar Piper, who investigates the crime. Certainly it’s not the field trip Miss Withers had imagined!

Much of the action in Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons takes place at Meadowbank, an exclusive school for girls. In that novel, what starts out as an ordinary summer term becomes anything but that when the new games mistress, Grace Springer, is shot one night in the school’s new Sports Pavilion. Then there’s a kidnapping. And another murder. One of the pupils, Julia Upjohn, goes to visit Hercule Poirot. She’s heard of him because he knows Maureen Summerhayes (yes, fans of Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, that Maureen Summerhayes), who is a friend of Julia’s mother. Poirot returns to the school with Julia, and works with the police to find out what’s behind the events at the school. Although these events rock the school, it is still an established girls’ school, so there are several field trips. One chapter of this book takes the form of letters that various characters write; they speak of trips to see ballet, opera and other performances. It’s an interesting look at life in such a school at that time.

Aaron Elkins’ Fellowship of Fear is the first in his series featuring cultural anthropologist Gideon Oliver. He’s been invited to do a series of guest lectures and classes for the United States Overseas College (USOC), which provides higher education for those associated with US military installations in other countries. Instead of the peaceful lecture series he thinks he’s going to give, Oliver gets drawn into a web of international conspiracy, espionage and murder. But there are still the lectures to give and the other educational plans he’s made. One of his lecture stops, for instance, is in Spain. He’s made a reservation at a local museum for a private tour for him and his students. But when the group gets there, they are told the museum is closed. Oliver is trying to work out what he’s going to do to complete this part of his lecture series when his students make a grisly discovery: the bodies of two men. As it turns out, Oliver can’t avoid the web he’s been drawn into even on a field trip…

And then there’s Dana Stabenow’s A Grave Denied. When Ms. Doogan takes her eighth-grade students to Alaska’s Grant Glacier, she thinks it’s going to be an opportunity for them to add to the richness of what they’re learning about the glacier and its history. In fact, she’s asked them to keep a journal of this trip and other things that they do. But instead, the class finds the body of a dead man frozen in the glacier. He is Len Dreyer, a local handyman and ‘fix-it’ person. He didn’t have any family or close friends, so no-one really noticed his disappearance, much less knew that he was dead. Alaska State Trooper Jim Chopin investigates the case, and works with PI Kate Shugak. She has a personal stake in it, since she is acting as guardian for one of the students who found the body. And she knew the dead man, although not well. Certainly Ms. Doogan’s students have more to write about than she expected.

One of the funnier field trips in crime fiction (at least from my perspective; your mileage, as they say, may vary) is in Simon Brett’s What Bloody Man is This?  Down-and-out actor Charles Paris is ‘resting between roles’ when his agent gets him a ‘play as cast’ position with the Pintero Theatre, Warminster. They’re doing a production of The Scottish Play, and Brett ends up having half a dozen minor roles. He also ends up deeply involved when Warnock Belvedere, who has the role of Duncan, is killed. Paris is ‘a person of interest,’ since he was in the theatre building at the time of the murder. But he is by no means the only likely suspect. At one point, a group of students attend a matinee performance of the play, and Paris is asked to talk to them after the performance, and field their questions:


‘Charles persevered. ‘So for them, you see, the theatre provided everything. Tragedy, comedy…’
‘Where’s the comedy?’ demanded an aggressive recently broken voice.
‘Well, even in Macbeth there’s comedy.’
‘The Drunken Porter. He’s a comic character.’
‘But he’s not funny.’
‘No, I know he’s not funny, but he is a comic character.’
Dear, oh, dear, this is uphill work, thought Charles… ‘You see, you have the latest sit com, but in the same way the people of Shakespeare’s time had the Drunken Porter….’
‘Poor sods,’ said a voice from the back.
The short bearded teacher leapt up in fury. ‘Who said that? Come on, who said it? We are not leaving this theatre until the boy who said that word owns up.’
Oh God, thought Charles. We could be here all night.’


Paris probably didn’t imagine that his thespian duties would involve field trips…

Field trips are an important part of education. Fortunately most of them go much more smoothly than these!

Speaking of field trips, the ‘photo you see was taken at Carlsbad, California’s beautiful Agua Hedionda Lagoon Discovery Center. I had the privilege of co-presenting a two-part workshop on Writing in Nature the past two weekends. Many thanks to our hosts! It was a great experience!


NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Canned Heat’s Going Up the Country.


Filed under Aaron Elkins, Agatha Christie, Dana Stabenow, Simon Brett, Stuart Palmer

Coca-Cola Got Machines in Every Land*

GlobalisationOne of the facts of life in today’s connected world is globalisation. On one level, that means that some large companies such as McDonald’s® and Nestlé® now have an international reach and outlets all over the world. On another, music, clothing and lifestyle have ‘gone global’ too. Some people argue that this makes quality products and services available to more people. Others argue that globalisation will mean the end of local cultures.

But local cultures are as vibrant as ever, and people find their own ways of preserving what they have. That tension between the global (or even national) and the local is certainly there in real life. We see it in crime fiction too. Let me share just a few examples to show you what I mean.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman is an accountant-turned-baker who takes great pride in her work. To her, bread is real:


‘I make bread, that’s what I do, that’s what I am.’


So in one plot thread of Trick or Treat, there is quite a lot of tension when a bread chain called Best Fresh opens a franchise in the same neighbourhood as Chapman’s own bakery. Although her assistant Jason reassures her that the competition’s food isn’t as fresh and doesn’t taste as good, it’s still a cause for concern. Matters get even worse when a young man jumps to his death from a local roof after an ergot-induced hallucination. It’s soon clear that ergot has gotten into the local supply of flour, and all of the bakeries, including Chapman’s, are suspect. An investigation closes them temporarily and Chapman determines to find out where the tainted flour came from, so as to clear her bakery’s reputation and open up again. Chapman’s determination to preserve her own local bakery is an important part of this novel.

Barry Maitland’s The Marx Sisters also includes an important plot point of tension between global and local. Jerusalem Lane is a unique and historic area of London that has its own culture. It’s got little shops and residents who’ve been there for quite some time. A development company wants to buy up the lane and turn the area into a tourism, shopping and entertainment complex. Economic realities mean that several of Jerusalem Lane’s residents decide to sell. But Meredith Winterbottom, who lives in the lane with her two sisters, refuses; she is determined to stay where she is. Without her property the development project can’t go on as planned, so there’s a great deal of pressure on her to change her mind. Then she dies suddenly in what looks like a successful suicide attempt. But DCI David Brock and DS Kathy Kolla aren’t sure that’s what happened, and they investigate. Several of the development project people are suspect for obvious reasons. So is Meredith’s son Terry, who stands to earn quite a lot by selling his mother’s home. There are other possibilities too. The difference between the distinctive local ‘feel’ of Jerusalem Lane and the more generic development is an important plot thread in the story.

Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe is well aware of the pressure that globalisation puts on people, especially young people. In The Full Cupboard of Life for instance, Mma. Holonga, the successful owner of a chain of hair braiding salons, is ready to get married. She’s narrowed down her list of suitors to four and she wants Mma. Ramotswe to ‘vet’ them for her. Mma. Ramotswe agrees and takes a closer look at each man. One of them, Mr. ‘Spokes’ Spokesi, is a radio deejay/personality who’s very much attuned to popular culture. He drives a brand-name car, wears brand-name clothes and plays the latest music. He’s also quite attractive to the local young girls and does little to discourage them. And therein lies the problem from Mma. Ramotswe’s point of view. She sees that Spokes has no respect for the traditional ways or for Mma. Holonga and it’s one of the several reasons she doesn’t recommend him to her client. Mma. Ramotswe’s determination to preserve the best of traditional Botswana while still accepting for instance global technology is an important thread through this series.

Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges series features the small town of St. Denis, in France’s Périgord region. The locals are very proud of their own traditional ways of cooking, of baking and of making cheese. They’ve been doing it that way for generations and they’ve developed their own distinctive local culture. So no-one is best pleased at EU regulations that require local food and drink to be prepared in certain ways. On the surface, those regulations seem like sensible ways to avoid bacteria and other toxins. But the locals see those policies as overreaching. And Bruno agrees with them. So at the beginning of Bruno, Chief of Police, he helps them evade EU inspectors who’ve come to take a close look at St. Denis’ market day. That tension, between the regional culture and the larger EU culture isn’t the main plot thread in this novel. But it adds to the story.

There are several novels, too, in which we see how Aboriginal and other Native nations work to preserve their unique lifestyles and cultures in the face of globalisation. It’s a tricky balancing act. On the one hand, global realities such as technology, medicine and so on have a lot of benefits. On the other, they often come with intense pressure to assimilate.

That balance is explored in different ways in Scott Young’s two novels featuring Matthew ‘Matteesie’ Kitologitak, M. J. McGrath’s Edie Kiglatuk series, Dana Stabenow’s Kate Shugak series, and Stan Jones’ Nathan Active series, among others. In those novels, we see for instance, local and distinctive ways of interacting, of using language, of cooking, eating and dressing, and traditional kinds of hunting. We also see the global influence of radio, of Western medicine and of technology such as planes. There’s also the unfortunate global influence of drugs and alcohol. The balance between adopting what’s best of global realities and maintaining a unique local culture is a thread that runs through these series.

Globalisation is a definite force in modern life. Like anything else it has its benefits and its disadvantages. The key seems to be finding ways to preserve what is unique and local without giving up the good parts of globalisation. That’s not easy to do, and it’s just that tension that can add to a crime novel or series. I’ve only given a few examples. Your turn.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Chumbawamba’s And in a Nutshell.


Filed under Alexander McCall Smith, Barry Maitland, Dana Stabenow, Kerry Greenwood, M.J. McGrath, Martin Walker, Scott Young, Stan Jones

I’m Leavin’ on a Jet Plane*

Air TravelI’m getting ready for a trip next month to a conference. I’m especially excited about this trip because I’m going to get to meet some friends I’ve only ever ‘met’ virtually. But of course, this trip is going to involve air travel. The whole thing has gotten me thinking about air travel and the role it plays in most of our lives. Lots of people commute to work by air and even those of us who don’t are quite accustomed to getting on planes to get wherever we’re going. So it’s little wonder at all that we see a lot of air travel in crime fiction. Sometimes the flight is the central point of the novel; that makes sense because a flight brings together all sorts of disparate people and that can make for a terrific setting and plot. Sometimes the flight is a minor point. Even then it allows the author to move the sleuth around, explore characters’ personalities, add to the plot, and so on. And it’s realistic, since so many of us travel that way.

Air travel is a way of life in some areas. For instance in Alaska, it’s the main method of transportation into and out of many places. That’s what we see in Stan Jones’ Nathan Active series. In White Sky, Black Ice, Active, who’s an Alaska State Trooper, is investigating the supposed suicide of George Clinton, whose body is found outside a local bar in Chukchi. Some little clues suggest that Clinton didn’t kill himself though, and Active has been looking into the matter. Then Active gets a request from Clara Stone, a relation on his mother’s side of the family. She is worried because her husband Aaron hasn’t returned from a hunting trip to Katy Creek. At first, Active wonders whether there’s even any reason to worry since Stone wasn’t really specific about when he’d be back. But Clara insists, so Active arranges with a local pilot Cowboy Decker to fly him over the Katy Creek area. That’s when Active discovers Stone’s body – another supposed suicide. But neither Clinton nor Stone ‘fit’ the profile of the typical suicide (if there is such a thing), so Active is more convinced than ever that both men were murdered. Active turns out to be quite right. These two men were murdered, and their deaths are linked.

Getting from place to place in Alaska often involves planes that aren’t exactly luxurious, and Jones makes that clear in his series. So does Dana Stabenow in both her Kate Shugak series and her Liam Campbell series. In Fire and Ice, for instance, which is the first of the Liam Campbell series, Constable Liam Campbell has just been assigned to Newenham, a small town in the Alaska bush. He no sooner de-planes when he gets involved in his first local murder case. Professional pilot Bob DeCreft has been killed by a propeller. DeCreft was a seasoned pilot who didn’t take un-necessary risks, so he wouldn’t have been likely to make the kind of mistakes that led to his death. On the other hand, he didn’t seem to have any enemies, so it’s hard to identify a motive for murder. Soon it comes out that the plane was sabotaged. This case is complicated by the fact that the plane that killed DeCreft is owned by Campbell’s former lover Wyanet “Wy” Chouinard, a skilled bush pilot in her own right. But little by little, Campbell starts getting a little closer to the truth about the murder – or so he thinks. When his chief suspect is also killed, Campbell has to re-think his original theory. In the end though, he gets to the truth about the murders.

One of the more famous air-related murder mysteries is Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air). Marie Morisot, who does business as Madame Giselle, is a well-known French moneylender. She is en route one day from Paris to London when she suddenly dies of what looks like heart failure. Soon enough though, it’s established that she was poisoned. The only possible suspects are her fellow passengers so Hercule Poirot, who was on the ill-fated flight, works with Chief Inspector James Japp to look among the other passengers and find out who the murderer is. The first part of this novel takes place on the plane, so as well as telling the story of the murder, the novel also depicts air travel at that time.

In William Ryan’s The Darkening Field (AKA The Bloody Meadow), Moscow CID Captain Alexei Korolev is assigned to a very delicate case. Promising young actress Maria Alexandrovna Lenskaya has been found dead – an apparent suicide. There are, however, small hints that suggest that she may have been murdered. So Korolev’s charge is to travel to Odessa, where Lenskaya was filming on location, and investigate very quietly. If the death was in fact suicide, then no more need to be done – there are certainly enough suicides during this time (pre-World War II Stalinist Russia). If the victim was murdered though, Korolev will have to find out who the killer is. Korolev prepares for his investigation and in the process, takes his first trip by air. This is a small plane too, and although the pilot says there’s nothing to worry about, that doesn’t exactly settle Korolev’s nerves. Things don’t get much better when each passenger is weighed. The total weight can’t exceed a given amount, so Korolev is concerned:


‘When all the passengers had been weighed and their names checked off, the younger pilot and the clerk examined the ledger and the latter flicked balls back and forth on an abacus. Their faces were grave and Korolev felt every one of his two hundred pounds, bag included.’ 


Despite his misgivings, Korolev and the other passengers have no real trouble getting to Odessa, and Korolev begins to look into the case. As it turns out, Lenskaya’s death was indeed murder, and the trail to the killer leads to some very high places.

Of course, plane travel can prove to be very useful in ways beyond the obvious. In Lindy Cameron’s Redback, for instance, we meet journalist Scott Dreher. He’s been doing some research on the use of war simulation games to recruit for the military, and his trail leads to Japan, where he wants to meet game developer Hiroyuki Kaga. On board a flight to Tokyo, Dreher happens to notice that the passenger sitting next to him has a copy of Global WarTek, one of the games Dreher’s been researching. He takes a look at the game and sees something that gives him an important clue that the military may not be the only ones using games for recruitment purposes. It turns out that Dreher’s instincts are right. This game is being used by a shadowy group of terrorists to recruit, initiate and give instructions to members. While Dreher is pursuing this story, the same terrorists are in the ‘line of sight’ of Team Redback, a crack Australian retrieval team that specialises in rescuing people from dangerous situations. Led by Commander Bryn Gideon, they’re called out to rescue delegates to a conference on a Pacific Island and pull off the operation very successfully. Then they learn about other incidents in other places in the world including a train that is blown up in France, an attack on a U.S. military base and two murders, including that of Hiroyuki Kaga. Little by little, Gideon and her team find the connections among these incidents and when they get the information Dreher has, they target the terrorists who are behind the events. And one of the key pieces of information that leads everyone to the terrorists comes from that on-board encounter Dreher has.

Air travel has become so common that most of the time, we just don’t think about it (unless of course one happens to be squeamish about it). But it’s an integral part of modern life, so it makes sense that it would also be woven into crime fiction. Now let’s see…which seats shall I choose? Aisle, I think…  😉



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Denver’s Leaving on a Jet Plane, made most famous by Peter, Paul and Mary. I miss both John Denver and Mary Travers…


Filed under Agatha Christie, Dana Stabenow, Lindy Cameron, Stan Jones, William Ryan

In The Spotlight: Dana Stabenow’s Fire and Ice

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Sometimes, crime fiction novels are as much about a place and a way of life as they are about anything else. Novels like that can give the reader a genuine sense of what it’s like to live in a particular place and when it’s done well, it’s not too cliché to say that the reader feels transported. That’s the kind of story that Dana Stabenow writes about her native Alaska. Today, let’s take a closer look at the first in Stabenow’s Liam Campbell series, Fire and Ice.

The novel begins as Alaska State Tropper Liam Campbell arrives in Newenham, a small town in the Alaska Bush. He’s been demoted from his former rank as sergeant and transferred from his previous post in Glenallen because of a disastrous incident in Denali National Park. Some troopers under his command didn’t do their jobs well and that cost the lives of a family. Although he himself wasn’t responsible for the tragedy, someone had to pay the public price, so to speak, for what happened. Besides, the troopers were under Campbell’s command, so he’s carrying that burden of guilt as he arrives at his new posting.

He’s no sooner off the plane – quite literally – when he gets his first case. Bob DeCreft, a professional pilot, has been killed by a plane’s propeller. It’s not long before there’s evidence that the plane was sabotaged. Without even having made it to his office, Campbell’s got to start asking questions. At first he doesn’t get particularly far. DeCreft didn’t have any obvious enemies, so there’s no obvious motive.

What makes this investigation especially challenging for Campbell is that the plane’s owned by bush pilot Wyanet “Wy” Chouinard, Campbell’s ex-lover, who now lives in the area (Readers who are suspicious of too many coincidences fear not; this one is explained very logically in the story). The two have a complicated history (more on that shortly), and are still working that out. So as Campbell begins to investigate DeCreft’s murder, he also has to confront his own past.

Bit by bit, Campbell gets pieces of the truth about the murder and they lead him to Cecil Wolfe, wealthy and successful fishing boat owner. Fishing seasons in Alaska can be very short, particularly since for many species, there’s a limit to how many fish may be taken. So many boat owners hire “spotters,” pilots who spot fish from the air and direct the boat owner to them. Wolfe had hired Chouinard and DeCreft to spot for him and, as we find out, may have had a reason to sabotage the plane. But Wolfe wasn’t anywhere near the plane at the time it was sabotaged, so he couldn’t have done the damage. Then, Wolfe himself is murdered. Campbell gets to the truth about both murders. He also faces his own personal demons, and learns quite a lot about life in the back of beyond in the Alaskan Bush.

One of the strongest elements in this novel is the sense of place that we get. This is the Alaska Bush, where road and weather conditions mean that bush planes are often used in place of cars, trucks or trains. Stabenow gives us a solid picture of this beautiful and wild country and the town in which Campbell works:


“It was the headquarters for three national parks, one state park, four game preserves, a dozen wildlife refuges, and a federal petroleum reserve that had yet to be tested… the town of Newenham rambled across twenty-five square miles of rolling hills, all of which looked alike, with one important difference: they were on the river, or off it. The roads ran from the two-lane gravel monstrosity that connected the town with the airport to the narrow streets of downtown that were more patch than pavement to half-lane game trails that ended abruptly at plywood and tar-paper cabins built on the bluff of the river, said bluff usually crumbling beneath them.”


The reader gets a very strong sense that this novel wouldn’t likely take place anywhere else, and that sense is made stronger when we know the story behind the murders. That sense of place is also clear as Stabenow shows us the complicated relationships between the different groups of people who live in the area.

Fire and Ice also features some interesting characters. The story is told from Campbell’s viewpoint, and we learn about his backstory little by little. Campbell’s wife Jenny and son Charlie were struck by a drunk driver; Charlie was killed and Jenny left in a coma. That’s when Campbell first met Wy Chouinard, who flew him to various places on business. The two started a relationship for which both feel guilty, although each has strong feelings for the other. Campbell carries his share of personal burdens, but he’s not stereotypical “damaged goods.” He’s trying to get past what’s happened to him and in fact, he’s not particularly happy that he has such trouble “putting it all behind him.” He’s certainly a flawed character, but he’s not mired in his past. In fact, he has a dry sense of humour that comes through more than once in the novel.

For her part, Chouinard is also interesting. Part Yupik, she was adopted from one of the Native American villages. She’s a highly skilled pilot who’s lived most of her life in the area. She’s also an aspiring adoptive mother to twelve-year-old Tim Gosuk, a Yupik boy who’s suffered for years in an abusive home. Chouinard fell very much in love with Campbell, but he’s married. Attractive as he is, Wy doesn’t feel right continuing their relationship as long Campbell’s already got a wife. Besides, she wants to adopt Tim and is determined not to do anything that could threaten that adoption. As the story evolves, we learn that Chouinard is far from perfect. But she is strong, smart and independent.

There are other interesting characters in this small town, too. And as Campbell settles in, we get to know them and we see how all of them are inter-related. Many of the characters are eccentric. For instance, there’s Moses Alakuyak, who introduces himself as the local shaman. There’s magistrate Linda “Bill” Billingsly, who also owns the local restaurant/bar. There Mayor Jim Earl, too. They’ve all got interesting facets to them and it’s to Stabenow’s credit that although they are a little eccentric, they’re not laughable.

The mystery itself is believable and it’s a fit, you might say, for the setting. Campbell solves the mystery in a credible way, too. He talks to people, pays attention to evidence and puts the pieces together.

A believable mystery that’s uniquely Alaska Bush, Fire and Ice is also the story of Liam Campbell’s attempt to start his life over. But what’s your view? Have you read Fire and Ice? If you have, what elements do you see in it?



Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday 26 December/ Tuesday 27 December – Lullaby Town – Robert Crais

Monday 2 January/Tuesday 3 January – Surrender – Donna Malane

Monday 9 January/Tuesday 10 January – The Deep Blue Goodbye – John D. MacDonald



Filed under Dana Stabenow, Fire and Ice