Keenan Powell; Level Best Books; 2018; $16.95
Alaska has long served as a lavish setting for mystery novels. We enjoy a whole crop of writers who draw upon our wild places — and our sometimes-wild people and their circumstances — for their whodunit inspirations. Think of Alaskans Dana Stabenow, John Straley, Sue Henry, Stan Jones, Mike Doogan and Lee Goodman, to name a few.
Anchorage writer Keenan Powell has now joined the mystery writer ranks with her first novel, a story that begins with a murder among homeless campers in the woods near the Chester Creek bike trail and travels from Talkeetna to Kenai, as well as through the machinations of the legal system.
The starring character, Maeve Malloy, is a recovering alcoholic and former public defender gone into sobriety and private practice. When a fellow attorney ends his own life, she's assigned the defense of a homeless man charged with murder— and has only three weeks to build a defense the previous attorney had not prepared for. From there on out, this fast-paced novel counts down the days as Malloy and her investigator, Tom, attempt to discover what really happened that morning at the blue-tarp camp. They soon discover that there have been an unusually high number of deaths among Anchorage's homeless — and that officials have seemingly not cared enough to wonder if there might be a serial killer victimizing them.
The premise is not so far-fetched. As Powell notes on her webpage, "During the summer of 2009, there was a string of homeless deaths which the Medical Examiner had ruled were the result of 'natural causes.' While attending a continuing education seminar, I learned of a little-known law that permits the ME to rule a death as natural causes without autopsy. In a moment of blinding light, I saw how someone could have gotten away with serial murders. (Really! A big light flashed in my head.) I slapped my forehead and yelled, 'That's how he did it!' drawing the attention of the knitters at my table. Then I wrote my first book."
So many characters and plot twists are involved in "Deadly Solution," shifting among points of view and locations, that this is a good book to read quickly, while a reader can remember who's who and what's what. Fortunately, the story is a compelling one, not likely to be set aside for very long.
Powell, who lives in Anchorage, is a practicing attorney and certainly knows her way around the legal system. She writes with authority about the process and the challenges of achieving justice, and she does this gracefully, always keeping it interesting.
Maeve Malloy, interviewing her client for the first time, thinks, "Every accused believed to his core that truth and justice went hand in hand. They must have learned that in grade school. But that wasn't how the justice system worked. It wasn't about truth, it was about evidence. It wasn't about justice, it was about closing files."
The author is sympathetic to social issues, and the book does a realistic dive into issues of homelessness, domestic and urban violence and addiction. Her character Malloy understands that homeless people are vulnerable to exploitation by those who would do them harm. One character finds herself caught in a vicious cycle — an injury, job loss, home loss, children put into foster care, difficulties with the insurance and medical systems, car breakdown, transportation issues, loss of car. She was a woman who did "everything people told her to do," and still she ended up homeless and victimized.
When the August weather turns cold and rainy, Malloy worries about the homeless. "Was there enough room for them in the shelters or did they hide in the woods, in an abandoned car or unattended warehouse? Maeve's mortgage was paid, her gas tank was full — almost — and she had a carton of copy paper back in the office. Her needs were met. She felt grateful, and guilty, that she was better off than many."
Alaska readers will enjoy recognizing landmarks, named or disguised, and references to Alaska history and practices. Characters take off their shoes at the door, know one another from "pipeline days," drive Subarus, dodge bikes on the bike trail, grow marijuana, notice the light in August, eat in a restaurant filled with lawyers one day and a soup kitchen the next, believe that Alaska is "a wide-open place where anything is possible." Malloy recalls her first days as a "baby lawyer" in Bethel, when she took a "cab filled with strangers" down a "ribbon-candy road" to "a town built on stilts."
Powell won a competitive award for mystery writers, known as the Deeck-Malice Domestic Grant, for her manuscript and has plans for a series of Maeve Malloy mysteries. Malloy — having faced demons to prove herself "a good person" — is an intriguing character with many issues of her own and is well-suited to undertake more crime-solving adventures. Indeed, with various relationships and temptations left hanging at the end of "Deadly Solution," she is ready for whatever comes next.