Saturday, April 20, 2019


A FATAL THAW by Dana Stabenow (1993)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

On her homestead in the middle of twenty million acres of national Park, Aleut PI Kate Shugak is caught up in spring cleaning, unaware that just miles away a man's sanity is breaking. When the sound of gunfire finally dies away, nine of his neighbors lie dead in the snow. But did he kill all nine, or only eight? The ninth victim was killed with a different weapon. It's up to Kate and her husky-wolf sidekick Mutt to untangle the life of the dead blonde with the tarnished past and find her killer. It won't be easy; every second Park rat had a motive. Was it one of her many spurned lovers? Was a wife looking for revenge? Or did a deal with an ivory smuggler go bad? Even Trooper Jim Chopin, the Park's resident state trooper, had a history with the victim. Kate will need every ounce of determination to find the truth before Alaska metes out its own justice....

I've been meaning to read Dana Stabenow's long-running Kate Shugak series for quite a while now, having heard good things, so when I had a wee breather between awards judging and other 'have-to' reads a little while ago, I snagged this one from my bookshelves and gave it a go. Very glad I did.

Kate Shugak is a fascinating main character. She is a native Alaskan, an Aleut, who used to work as an investigator for the District Attorney's office in Alaska's capital Anchorage before retreating from the mental, physical, and emotional wounds suffered in that job. She now calls a sprawling homestead in an Alaskan national park home, and works from there as a private investigator.

Stabenow writes a solid mystery, but the character of Shugak and the evocation of the Alaskan setting are the elements that elevate and differentiate A FATAL THAW among the crowd. As Spring blooms in Alaska, Shugak's small community is thrown into chaos when a mass shooting occurs, costing nine lives. Or that's how it seems at first - in fact one of the victims was killed by someone else.

Throughout Shugak's investigation, Stabenow brings the Alaskan setting to vivid life, both its landscapes and the people who call them home. This is a rural mystery with a real sense of frontier edge. Stabenow also does a good job taking readers into native culture with respect, alongside populating her mystery with a host of fascinating, eccentric characters you find in small towns.

Overall I really enjoyed this tale and will definitely be reading more of the Kate Shugak series.

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer from New Zealand, now living in London. In recent years he’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at books festivals on three continents. He has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can heckle him on Twitter. 

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