By Keenan Powell. Level Best Books, 2019, $16.95.
Keenan Powell, a practicing attorney in Anchorage, published her first mystery novel last year. “Deadly Solution” followed recovering alcoholic and former public defender Maeve Malloy into the shadows and homeless camps of Anchorage to discover a killer. It was clear from that book that the author’s intent was to build a mystery series around her main character.
Just one year later, Powell has delivered “Hemlock Needle,” again featuring Maeve Malloy and her investigator-partner Tom Sinclair. This time they’re asked by a friend for help finding a missing woman, the Yup’ik chief financial officer of a Native village cooperative or corporation. (It’s sometimes called one, sometimes the other.)
Just as her first book addressed a very real Alaska social issue — homelessness and the victimization of the homeless — “Hemlock Needle” begins by recognizing that the disappearance of (and violence against) indigenous women is a disturbing and under-resourced problem. When the over-extended and assuming (“she’ll come home when she’s done partying”) police fail to actively work the case, Malloy is drawn further into her own voluntary investigation. The missing woman has a 7-year-old son and a professional career. She also has an earlier partner (the son’s father) with a criminal record, bosses who are less than forthcoming with information and former friends who now seem detached.
Malloy has her own set of problems that include both a bar association complaint, accusing her of negligence, and a lawsuit against her. Her entire career is in jeopardy.
Perhaps because the author is setting up circumstances for a longer series, this book juggles numerous plots and sub-plots and dozens of characters with different points of views, sometimes to a confusing degree. Red herrings abound, but there are also some unlikely actions and inconsistencies that readers may find more annoying than mysterious.
Still, as with her previous book, Alaska readers will enjoy recognizing landmarks and historical and cultural references. The initial disappearance takes place during a Russian Orthodox Christmas party, and the businesses involved are in a “section eight” joint venture that grants federal contracts to tribes and Native corporations. In the fictional case, the business involves providing villages with clean water. Some records and money seem to be missing along with the CFO.
The wintry Anchorage environment is consistently well-rendered. Here are Maeve and Tom at the Native business in a “golden glass office building,” meeting the CEO, “a short Yup’ik man in an expensive gray suit, gray shirt, and silk tie": “He stood at the head of the table and motioned for them to take a seat facing the Alaska Range, color blooming across it. Vague lavender shapes formed pink mountain tops and then sharpened into blue-white jagged peaks. Moments like this were the reason Maeve Malloy lived in Alaska even though she hated the cold and dark.”
In their search, Maeve and Tom cruise the snowy streets to scrape ice from abandoned cars and peer inside for frozen people. Later, looking for a cousin of the missing woman, they visit a dental school in “an abandoned shopping center” now owned by the state university. That, we learn, is where dental therapists train to teach dental health in villages.
As with the physical environment, the main characters Maeve and Tom are well developed and interesting. Maeve is both strong and vulnerable. At one point, Tom teaches her some martial arts moves — which she soon puts to use. Although she’s still recovering not just from alcoholism but some missteps made in her career and love life, she is deeply committed to the troubled people who were her clients when she was a public defender and to the principles of justice in general. She will do all she can to protect the grandmother fresh from a village and the small boy who wants his mother back.
The title, “Hemlock Needle,” evokes the Alaska Native story of how Raven the Trickster transformed himself into a needle to be drunk in water by a young woman. When Raven was reborn as a half-human child he stole the box of light from his grandfather and spread that light through the world. The source story, while not integrated in any obvious way, appears in the end, told by an elder wanting to brighten a sadness.
Keenan Powell is clearly well versed in the law and the legal system, from police procedure to the work of prosecutors and public defenders, to child protection cases, to courtroom settings and the work of judges. In this volume, even the FBI gets involved. Powell’s characters Maeve and Tom sometimes test the limits of convention and legality — all in the interest of justice and in propelling an engaging story forward. Readers can expect to follow them into future adventures.