Book review: Gas tank empty, the Bush plane went down — but was it an accident or murder?

The Big Empty

Stan Jones and Patricia Watts, Soho Press, 2018, 264 pages. $26.95

Keeping a series going in any of the popular forms of genre fiction can be a difficult challenge. Be it science fiction or fantasy, horror or mystery novels, the series is dependent on building compelling central characters, developing their lives over an ever-growing collection of books, coming up with unique plots for each story, keeping the material fresh while maintaining continuity, and all the while writing each installment in a fashion that allows readers new to the series to jump in at any point and be able to understand what’s going on. If it sounds easy, you try it.

Stan Jones is now six books deep into his Nathan Active series, which follows the adventures of the Director of Public Safety for the fictional Chukchi Borough in Northwest Alaska. First introduced as a state trooper, Active is an Inupiat born in the village of Chukchi, which is modeled on Kotzebue. Raised by white parents in Anchorage, he reluctantly returned to Chukchi and eventually embraced his heritage and role in it. It’s a good basis for building a series that follows the conventional detective story format while lending readers insight into a corner of the world most will never visit.

Jones has done well with the books, but like any author working this area, he has needed to stay ahead of the pitfalls mentioned above and keep the series from going stale. In the fifth book, “Tundra Kill,” he did this by introducing a strong element of humor to the storyline. In the newest, Jones takes a step that many series writers would be loathe to do: he’s brought in a co-author. Patricia Watts, a journalist and novelist who spent two decades in Alaska, has assisted Jones this time out, and the result is a win. “The Big Empty” is the most tightly-crafted Nathan Active story yet, and for both longtime fans of the series as well as those unfamiliar with it, it’s a good yarn that will draw readers in and keep them turning pages.

Jones and Watts open the book with Active and his friend (and recurring character) Cowboy Decker, a Bush pilot, examining the wreckage of a small plane that crashed in the Brooks Range. Killed were the pilot, Evie Kavoonah, and her fiancé, Dr. Todd Brenner. The cause of the crash has been determined as pilot error. The plane ran out of fuel and went down. The FAA determination is that Evie had neglected to fill the tanks before departing for Fairbanks.

But Decker isn’t convinced. He had considered Evie practically a daughter, had known her skills as a pilot, and was convinced the tanks had been full when she left. Decker suspects some sort of sabotage. Active presumes his friend is grieving and unwilling to accept the mistake, but goes along to the remote crash site to help look for any evidence that might have been missed by the feds.

Needless to say, this being a mystery series, evidence of foul play will be found and the story will unravel. Jones and Watts contrive a novel means of explaining why the plane’s tanks ran dry, and they keep the creativity going from there. Like any good mystery story, there are false leads, multiple people with possible motives, clues planted along the way that seem insignificant but prove crucial to breaking the case, plot twists, and an action packed finale. It’s all there.

After the last few books, which sent Active out into the Bush and across Alaska, “The Big Empty,” despite its title, keeps the action mostly in Chukchi, which allows the authors an opportunity to show readers what life in an Arctic Alaska village is like. Jones spent many years living in Kotzebue, and while he’s now a resident of Anchorage, he knows the town well and offers details that those unfamiliar with it will enjoy learning about. Houses on stilts to avoid sinking into permafrost; the need to build a sea wall because of the increasingly powerful storms slamming in from the climate change-impacted Chukchi Sea; a Chinese restaurant owned by a Korean immigrant in an Inupiat village far from Alaska’s road system.

The dialogue also rings true. Many residents speak in “village English,” Inupiaq words are scattered through the exchanges, and the discussions never seemed forced. The book has the feel of village life about it, something not often found in Alaska books, and thus a worthy contribution to northern literature.

From the broader series viewpoint, there’s also plenty of character development. Books of this sort depend on a certain amount of soap opera style continuity, and Jones and Watts accomplish this nicely without overplaying it. Central to this theme in the series has been Active’s wife, Grace, who was introduced in the third installment. A victim of severe sexual abuse as a child, she has been living with the aftermath of it, and this has been an ongoing theme in the books. Now pregnant with the couple’s first child, she works through her conflicting emotions, and Jones and Watts use this subplot to explore the terrible effects that abuse have on adult survivors. That they are able to do this without letting it overwhelm the story is impressive, and it’s likely that having Watt’s as co-author helps make this element seem so real. Watts likely added important insight into how the key female character would respond under such circumstances.

They’ve also introduced a new character with Danny Kavik, a young officer under Active’s command. Here he helps break the case, and while his personality is only emerging, he seems poised to become a significant part of the series and help keep it moving forward.

“The Big Empty” works well on all levels. It’s genre fiction, so it’s not deep. But it is quite readable. The Nathan Active series is the best thing going right now in Alaska mystery writing, and this is one of the best episodes yet.