British-born Melanie McGrath first came to widespread critical notice after the publication of her non-fiction book The Long Exile: A Tale of Inuit Betrayal and Survival in the High Arctic (2006). It recalled Canada’s forced relocation, in 1953, of three dozen Inuit natives from their traditional home on mammoth Hudson Bay to the frigid, Great North wilds of Ellesmere Island, in what’s now the province of Nunavut.
But it was her chilling (in more ways than one) debut novel, last year’s White Heat—which she published as “M.J. McGrath”—that turned the heads of crime-fiction readers. Drawing on her research for The Long Exile, White Heat introduced Edie Kiglatuk, a half-white, half-Inuit ex-polar bear hunter in her 30s who’s become a guide, part-time teacher and hesitant sleuth on Ellesmere. In that novel, Edie gets involved with shady Russians and greedy energy companies after the suspicious suicide of her beloved stepson.
In McGrath’s new, second novel, The Boy in the Snow, the action moves to Alaska. Edie is there helping her former husband compete in the annual Iditarod dog sled race. However, her discovery of a baby’s frozen corpse abandoned ceremonially in the woods quickly draws her into a mystery that has her mixing with a potentially dangerous Russian Orthodox sect and political schemers, while she also struggles to cope with the peculiar customs of the “outside” world.
You wrote three non-fiction books in the late 1990s and early 2000s, on subjects ranging from America’s New Age movement to the Information Age. But then, 2006 saw the publication of The Long Exile, about the often-tragic Inuit relocation. Why your interest in that last subject?
As someone whose parents grew up poor in the East End of London, I’ve always been interested in families on the margins, whether those are socio-economic or geopolitical or, as in the case of the families in The Long Exile, both. People who’ve had to struggle against forces bigger than themselves are much more interesting to write about.
I knew it was going to be a really big challenge to write about the Inuit in The Long Exile, because their lifestyle is so different from mine. On the other hand, human desires, needs and fears are pretty much the same everywhere. So I traveled up to the Arctic several times, staying with local Inuit people and really getting under the skin of their culture, which was an amazing privilege, though I’ll be quite glad if I never have to eat walrus again.
What is it about Ellesmere Island that you thought would make it an ideal backdrop for a mystery-fiction series?
Gosh, where to start? It’s an astonishing place, amazingly weird and beautiful. All that space and yet there’s really nowhere to hide. Nothing rots there, so it’s like a giant forensics lab. There really are human and animal bones everywhere. And the people are natural forensic scientists in the sense that they handle guns and knives every day, they can track prey and they know how to butcher bodies. They’re also awesome observers of their environment. Every day when I was up there, I witnessed how Inuit people were able to see, hear and smell things which completely passed me by.
But ironically, they’re also beset by a lot of what we’d usually think of as inner-city problems—family breakups, substance abuse and violence. The rate of violent crime in Nunavut ... has increased by 40 percent over the last 10 years. It now has the same per-capita homicide rate as Mexico or South Africa.
Plus, there’s no question that the Arctic is fast becoming the most important strategic region on our planet. All kinds of giant geopolitical forces are at work there, from environmentalism to climate change science to oil and gas production.
Why pick Edie Kiglatuk as your protagonist?
She’s an independent-minded woman with a fierce loyalty both to her family and to the truth. Her mixed race makes her an outsider, a misfit in both Inuit and southern worlds, able to see the good as well as the bad in both. She’s tough and a maverick, but unlike many male “lone wolf” crime protagonists, she’s also warm and very attached to those she loves.
The Boy in the Snow deals with, among other subjects, sex trafficking in Alaska. How did you go about researching that subject? And is it true that it’s primarily young Russian women who are involved in the bawdy trade there?
It’s a fact that the rate of sexual crime per capita in Alaska is about twice the U.S. average. I’ve been a journalist, so I use that training when I’m researching something. Prostitution (note: different from sexual crime!) is very common, partly because there are a lot of male contractors working there on short-term contracts in the fishing and oil industries.
The sex industry isn’t particularly dominated by Russian women, but Alaska is a remote state and I was intrigued by the relative ease with which it would be possible to traffic Russians across the border. The Boy in the Snow deals with all these realities, but it’s still fiction!
The Old Believers, a sect that broke from the Russian Orthodox Church in the 17th century, and that still inhabits isolated communities in Alaska, also plays an important role in your new novel. Can I assume you interviewed some Old Believers while composing this work?
There’s no substitute for proper research. So I went to a very remote Old Believer community in southern Alaska and introduced myself and asked them about their lives. They generally keep to themselves, but they were actually very welcoming. One of them was even a mystery fan!
I understand the Edie series is currently being developed for television. Is this a British or American project?
As you can imagine, making TV in the Arctic poses a very particular set of problems and is potentially very expensive. If the TV series gets made—and I hope it will—it will be internationally financed. We’re at the early stages at the moment.