Ghost Light, by Stan Jones and Patricia Watts
Bowhead Press, 224 pages, 2021, $16.95
If you need to escape from the pandemic, there have been no reported cases of COVID-19 in Chukchi, Alaska. Of course, Chukchi is a fictional town, and people have an unfortunate habit of getting murdered there, but apart from that, it’s a decent place.
Chukchi, which is loosely based on Kotzebue, is the setting for the Nathan Active mystery series that Anchorage author and former Kotzebue resident Stan Jones has been writing since the late 1990s. The series follows the adventures of Active, chief of the regional Public Safety Department, who like any fictional sleuth worthy of his own series is a magnet for mysterious deaths.
“Ghost Light,” the seventh and latest installment, is no exception. The story opens on an otherwise uneventful day in late summer when local elder Oscar Leokuk brings his wife, Tommie, in to see Active. Tommie, who suffers from dementia, has a habit of walking around town on her own and bringing home the odd pieces of detritus she finds along the way.
In this case, the detritus is part of a human jawbone, with a single molar and a bit of tissue still attached. Not long afterward, the couple returns, this time with part of a rib. Active sends it south to the state medical examiner, who finds blade marks on it. Someone has been murdered, there’s a body somewhere, and no one in the small community has gone missing.
And so the story is off and running. As with the previous book in the series, Jones has brought fellow Alaska novelist and journalist Patricia Watts onboard as coauthor in what proves to be one of the shorter installments. Those looking for a quick winter read won’t be disappointed by the result.
The body is fairly quickly located in an abandoned shelter in a camping area near town. The victim is identified as Shalene Harvey, a resident of Nome who worked in Prudhoe Bay. A relative loner estranged from her mother, and presumed by her employer to have quit her job without notice, Shalene had dropped off the radar in late spring without anyone thinking foul play might be afoot.
Thus, of course, the job falls on the shoulders of our hero to find the killer. And this being detective fiction, Jones and Watts throw plenty of suspects at readers, most of them coworkers of Shalene’s. And readers will, naturally, play along, thinking at periodic moments that they’ve gotten ahead of Active and solved the case, only to have new twists thrown at them by the authors. But worry not. Nathan Active is having the same problem.
The story leapfrogs across Alaska, as Active chases down suspects and leads from Deadhorse to Nome to Anchorage and back to Chukchi. One of the best things about this series has been the way Jones and now Watts capture Alaska in the details as they work through their plots. This is especially true with their depiction of the predominantly Inupiat community of Chukchi. In one particularly memorable scene, Active attends an evening beach gathering that caps off the town’s annual cleanup day, where of course, a clue waits to be found:
“He picked out the rhythmic thwack of an Inupiat dance drum and the cadence of an old chant from a group of elders on one side of the fire. Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” rolled out of a boom box on the other side. From somewhere, the mournful strains of a harmonica drifted through the other music.
“A quartet of kids in dark hoodies skewered hot dogs onto sticks to grill in the flames. A pair of teenage break dancers, wearing sideways caps and baggy sweats, attracted a circle of clapping, shouting fans. A dozen or so of the older crowd lounged in lawn chairs or on Army blankets and blue tarps on the gravel beach.”
This idyllic moment is matched elsewhere, when Active stops in to visit an elder:
“Millie set out a dented aluminum camp saucer stacked with Sailor Boy Pilot Bread, along with a knife and a jar of peanut butter. He hadn’t had breakfast yet, and his mouth watered at the thought of Sailor Boy. He spread peanut butter on one of the pancake-sized crackers, took a big bite, and let his eyes close in bliss. There was nothing better than pilot bread with peanut butter. Nothing.”
As I said, apart from its frighteningly high murder rate, fictional Chukchi is an enticing destination. It’s an older Alaska that can feel lost in our present disarray, and it’s this, along with solid plots and nicely developing characters, that will keep readers returning to the series.
Another element mystery writers have to properly balance is the soap opera aspect. Active’s backstory has developed nicely over the course of the seven novels thus far. An Inupiat by birth, he was raised in Anchorage by white parents and has one foot in Western culture and the other in his Native heritage. He’s married and has a young child and an adopted older one. Following his evolving relationship with his wife, Grace, has been a mainstay in the recent books, although here it takes more of a backseat to the action than in previous volumes.
Other recurring characters include Active’s deputy chief Danny Kavik, who is starting to get his own subplot going, and bush pilot Cowboy Decker, who could easily be spun off into his own action series — looking at you, Stan Jones. Longtime readers will welcome them back as friends.
The most important element, however, is the story itself, and “Ghost Light” delivers. Despite the gore, Jones and Watts have emphasized the investigative side of this story rather than the action, appealing to their readers’ intellects. They toss plenty of red herrings at Active, and thus at readers, and keep things going nicely to the conclusion. Revealing more would spoil the fun. Head to Chukchi and find out for yourself. Just be sure to avoid becoming the next murder victim.