By Paige Shelton. Minotaur Books, 2019. 288 pages. $26.99. Also available as e-book and digital audio.
Alaska seems to be an inescapable setting for mystery writers. Its remote communities of quirky and sometimes sketchy characters, its wild places, wildlife and wild life, all serve as inviting backdrops to stories of murder, mayhem and heroics.
Paige Shelton, a mystery writer out of Arizona, has taken up the challenge. The best-selling author of previous mystery series (the The Scottish Bookshop Mystery Series, the Country Cooking School Mystery Series, and the Farmers Market Mystery Series) has launched a new series set in Alaska. Her main character, a writer of thrillers, has escaped to the farthest place she can imagine to heal from a traumatic kidnapping and — she hopes — to be safe from the still-at-large psychopath back in Missouri.
The book opens with Beth Rivers clinging to her treasured typewriter as she flies in a small plane from Juneau to “Benedict,” a place she’s chosen from seeing picture of Glacier Bay National Park on the internet. She quickly discovers that “this world was different from my world, very different.”
It seems that Rivers, in her secretive rush to get away, had done limited research about her new home, including inadvertently booking at a “hotel” that is in actuality a halfway house for women convicted of non-violent felonies. The day she arrives at her “safe space” is also the same day a local woman is found dead — and may have been murdered.
Once it’s clear that Rivers is not a convicted criminal, the local residents begin to accept her made-up story about taking a break from being a business consultant and having been hurt by falling from a horse. (She has a big scar on her head from brain surgery, a result of escaping her captor.) She learns that everyone in town has an origin story, a reason they were drawn to Benedict, or a reason they left somewhere else. As one new acquaintance tells her, “If we aren’t hiding, we’re searching, maybe just running away. You’ll see.”
Multiple mysteries and plot twists are introduced. Rivers tries to keep her own secret while staying in touch with police and her mother back home. There’s a big backstory about her father, who disappeared when she was a child; her mother has been obsessive about searching for him and now becomes an amateur sleuth helping, or interfering, with the search for Rivers’ kidnapper. The three women at the halfway house all are known for lying, stealing, and suspicious behavior. No one can believe that the dead woman killed herself; what about her husband?
Rivers, who worked as a secretary in a police department when she was a teenager, noses her way into the short-handed police investigation of the dead woman. She also agrees to take over what passes for a local newspaper and reinvents herself as a journalist.
Shelton, the author, has created an intriguing cast of characters who might be believable as and to Alaskans. There’s the police chief who came from Chicago after seeing too many killings (and because his wife liked to fish). There’s the pistol-toting, tough-talking but compassionate woman who runs the halfway house. There’s the deputy policeman (and park ranger) who helps Rivers shop for appropriate clothes. There’s the town librarian, with his Willie Nelson braids who smells of pot and patchouli oil. There’s the Tlingit man known to be a healer. There’s the lesbian bartender and the knitting circle of women and men at the community center. Each one is individual enough not to be a stereotype.
Shelton generally avoids the worst clichés about Alaska and Alaskans, although a reader might begin to cringe when she introduces her token Tlingit, who lives in the cluttered (poor) part of town. When Rivers, in her ignorance, asks the person who introduces them if the man is “a medicine man or a shaman,” her acquaintance fortunately corrects her to say that “those titles” aren’t used. The explanation about tribes that follows is somewhat muddled.
There are the inevitable encounters with a bear and a moose, as seen through the eyes of someone who has never seen either before and thinks there might be something mystical about the moose’s behavior.
Shelton is perhaps at her best describing Rivers’s reactions to the trauma she’s so recently been through. Rivers has repressed details of her abduction and abuse, but as she works through her fears and regaining who she is or wants to be, memories both of her childhood (especially with her grandfather) and of her abduction surface. Details from the latter may build toward identifying the man who hurt her.
“Thin Ice” is clearly intended to be the first as a series. Although the immediate mystery of the dead woman’s death is cleared up by the end, there’s a summing up of the rest that feels rushed and meant only to set the stage for the next book. What will happen with that nice Willie Nelson librarian who used to work on UFOs for the government and still has access to all kinds of data? How about the Tlingit man, his abilities to heal, and his warning to stay off of the water? What about the missing dad? And, of course, will Rivers’ abductor be found? Will Rivers ever really be safe, from violent men and the traumatic memories that cause her to lock every door? Will she venture out to see the glaciers that intrigue her?
As a well-known author of what are described as “cozy” mysteries, Shelton already has a large following. Will readers who took so well to mystery series about bookshops, cooking schools and farmers markets take equal delight in a series set in an out-of-the-way Alaska town with one crossroads and poor internet service, adjacent to a national park full of glaciers and wild animals? We’ll see.