TW/CW for series: murder, abuse, domestic violence, animal abuse, sexual abuse, child abuse.
Reading Jane Doe by Victoria Helen Stone was the spark to my powder keg. The inferno it produced could only be fed with books that featured that same kind of enigmatic female protagonists. As an ardent fan of Killing Eve, I thought it was the protagonist’s psychopathy in Stone’s book which made Jane so compelling, but reading Maestra by L. S. Hilton showed me how wrong I was on that count. Then began a – largely disastrous – deep dive into Amazon, seeking out women who were first and foremost independent agents: they make choices based on their own internal moral compass and are not swayed by external pressures. Yet, they can be soft and flawed and deeply human. In Dana Stabenow’s Kate Shugak, I found someone confident, unapologetic and unashamed.
Kate Shugak is an Aleut woman in her early thirties living on an inherited homestead in Alaska on the outskirts of Niniltna, which is itself on the edge of “The Park” – a massive tract of land with nary a tourist to be seen. While Kate was brought up here, she has only spent the last 14 months living alone on her homestead. Prior to her self-imposed exile, she had been a star in the investigative team of the Anchorage DA’s Office. In an altercation which we slowly learn more about during the novel, Kate’s throat is slit from ear to ear. She’s left with a gnarled scar and a voice that sounds “like a dull saw ripping through old cement”. She’s short, strong, lithe, and reserved.
At the start of the book she is dragged back into the world of investigation. Two people, a park ranger and the investigator sent to look for the park ranger, have gone missing and Kate is asked to investigate. She doesn’t say yes, but Jack Morgan, her former boss/lover at the DA’s office, is confident that she’ll accept the case.
Right from the get-go, we are introduced to Kate’s sexual history. She has taken lovers and left them, not in a careless way, but in the same pragmatic, straightforward way that she runs her homestead or hunts for food. Kate’s truest love is probably her half-wolf Mutt, who is the loyal companion that my mother’s sausage dog pretends to be: brave, intelligent and fluffy. There is only one person who seems to actually push Kate’s buttons: her grandmother, Ekaterina, a Machiavellian matriarch who attempts to control Kate’s actions, but has limited success.
Yes, this is a classic murder mystery novel, albeit in a different sort of setting. No, Kate does not find her HEA or even HFN. Yet, why does reading this book give me a sense of warmth and comfort? In Kate, I have found a woman who is wholly comfortable in her skin and marches to the beat of her drum and her drum alone. In a world in which women are subject to control, shame, etc., spending time with Kate feels like a release. It’s liberating living in a world that is not determined, dominated, or delineated by men.
Kate’s world is one that feels a little surreal to me. I’m fascinated by the caches and the snow mobiles and all the other everyday parts of life in that part of Alaska. While the crime/murder mystery genre is a favourite of mine, there are only so many hard-boiled city detectives I can take. Kate’s status as an unconventional heroine and the unique (to me) setting helped make this tightly plotted suspense really work. That said, I have limited knowledge of Alaska and northern Canada, and the First Nations of those territories. Coming from a place of relative ignorance, there might well be issues I misunderstood or missed entirely. If that is the case, please let me know in the comments.
This may seem to be a strange review, as I have only read the first two books in this series. And there are many more: book 21 was released in 2017 with the 22nd book due to be released next year. Each novel focuses on Kate solving a new case. In the two I’ve read so far, Kate seems to be a “freelance” investigator for the Anchorage DA’s Office, so each novel is part procedural, part suspense. While I very much recommend those two if you are also looking for fiercely independent, intelligent heroines, I am unsure about the rest of the series. Of the subplots that focus on Kate, I am particularly curious about the tension between Kate and her grandmother Ekaterina and how that relationship develops. I also fear that the romance subplot develops into a love triangle (a trope I find utterly infuriating).
As a suspense, this book really worked for me. There are enough red herrings and genuine clues to keep it interesting and unpredictable. The identity of the culprit revealed at the end was a shock, but in retrospect, they were the clear villain based on the clues woven through the plot. In short, this book is a perfect water slide – fast and twisty enough to make you laugh-scream, but not so intense that you feel sure you’re about to die on this slide in front of Uncle Pieter, your cousins and half of the Durban beachfront. Add Kate’s unrelenting self-assuredness, and my desire for fierce, uncompromising heroines was more than satisfied. My concern: I’m not all that confident in how the series develops from here.
So while I happily recommend A Cold Day for Murder, and A Fatal Thaw, I am curious about your experiences with this series.
Does Kate remain someone unapologetically independent? Are there other female protagonists out there who – regardless of their romantic status – give a reader that same sense of independent, self-sufficient power?