Extreme environments provide first-rate backdrops for fiction. Especially works of crime and suspense fiction, which can contrast tales of human cruelty against the still more brutal reality of nature’s harshest climes. This combination works, no matter whether the setting is the sultry jungles of Central and South America, the spontaneously burning Australian Outback or the magnificently mysterious Arctic tundra.
Read the last Rap Sheet about rediscovering great reads with Walter Satterthwait’s “Miss Lizzie.”
In fact, the Arctic—though largely barren of familiar foliage—has proven to be quite fertile for stories of a felonious nature. Think Anthony Olcott’s May Day in Magadan (1983), a conspiratorial and political thriller set in eastern Siberia. Or Polar Star (1989), Martin Cruz Smith’s first sequel to Gorky Park, which takes place aboard a Soviet factory ship in the Bering Sea. Or Dana Stabenow’s long-running series about Alaskan detective Kate Shugak (Though Not Dead). Or for that matter, any number of Nordic whodunits that have lent new meaning to the expression “cold case.”
Now add M.J. McGrath’s White Heat to that list of frost-tinged narratives.
McGrath is a British-born journalist who, under the byline Melanie McGrath, previously produced several nonfiction books. Among those was The Long Exile (2006), which recalls the often-heartbreaking relocation in 1953 of three dozen Inuit natives from their homes on Canada’s giant Hudson Bay to the glaciated vastness of Ellesmere Island, the country’s northernmost neighbor to Greenland and now part of the province of Nunavut.
McGrath’s research for that earlier volume has been put to double use in White Heat, her first novel. And what a corker of a novel this is. For her protagonist McGrath has chosen the splendidly imperfect Edie Kiglatuk, a divorced, 33-year-old, half white, half Inuit erstwhile polar bear hunter and reformed alcoholic, who now works as a High Arctic guide and part-time teacher.
As this book opens, Edie is leading a couple of qalunaat (white men) over the ice to Craig Island, a (fictitious) refuge south of Ellesmere—only to have one of her naïve charges shot fatally, while the other, Andy Taylor, claims not to have witnessed the crime. Her stepson, fellow guide and nurse-in-training Joe Inukpuk, rides to the rescue on his snowmobile, but there’s little he can do to help; shortly after they all return to the hamlet of Autisaq, the gunshot victim dies—the first client Edie has ever lost.
“Up here,” writes McGrath, “violence was embedded in almost everything: in the unblinking ferocity of the sun, in the blistering winds, the pull and push of the ice.” Therefore, it comes as scant surprise that members of Autisaq’s Council of Elders, led by Edie’s ex-brother in law, Mayor Simeonie Inukpuk, aren’t particularly flustered by this turn of events. Eschewing allegations of murder or manslaughter, they not only decline to refer the shooting to local cop Derek Palliser, but quickly rule the hunter’s death accidental, the result of a ricocheting bullet discharged from his own rifle. That might not be the way things are handled in far-off Ottawa or Toronto, but Autisaq needs to safeguard its fragile tourism economy.
Of course, it’s easier to overlook the demise of an outsider than it is the suspicious loss of a local. So when disaster strikes again on a subsequent guiding expedition—this one involving Andy Taylor and yet another qalunaat adventurer—and Joe Inukpuk barely makes it back to Autisaq with hypothermia and frostbite, Edie is determined to figure out what went wrong. Before she can get any answers from Joe, though, her beloved stepson perishes, allegedly as a result of suicide (not an unfamiliar fate among young Inuit, unfortunately).
A grief-stricken but tenacious Edie is left behind to investigate this tragedy that almost everyone else, including Sergeant Palliser—an amateur naturalist more interested in studying the habits of Arctic lemmings than listening to what he’s convinced are Edie’s paranoid ravings—would prefer to chalk up to emotional breakdown rather than homicidal purpose. She just might get to the bottom of it, too, provided she can avoid her drinking demons, squelch her disappointment with aspects of Joe’s behavior and sort out how his apparent slaying links to corrupt Russians, a wee meteorite fragment, a dismembered corpse, avaricious energy companies and a historical expedition in which her most famous ancestor took part.
The opening installment of a prospective series, White Heat offers several disappointments. Although Edie is a commanding presence, a few minor characters—especially the self-protective Simeonie and Palliser’s self-involved former girlfriend—seem to have been whistled in from Central Casting. And some of McGrath’s action sequences are so heavily choreographed, they’re hard to track.
On the other hand, the author’s portrayal of Inuit culture is as impressive as it is captivating. Her players sup on sea urchins, sip bladder-busting quantities of hot tea, share the legends of their forefathers, divert themselves from months-long darkness with silent-movie screenings and muse on how their perspectives toward the natural environment diverge from those accepted elsewhere. (“Locals often said the difference between Inuit and southerners was that southerners thought of ice as frozen water, whereas the Inuit knew that water was merely melted ice.”) Oh, and they do all of this without interrupting the story’s momentum.
Harsh though the Arctic may be, White Heat makes it easy to appreciate.