Book review: A whodunit convincingly captures a recognizable Alaska

“Death in Dutch Harbor”

By D. MacNeill Parker; The Wild Rose Press, 2023; 282 pages; $17.99 paper, $3.99 Kindle.

Dutch Harbor, as most Alaskans know, is a celebrated, almost mythic place of commercial fishing drama, wicked weather, great natural beauty, bar fights, historical consequences, global diversity and small-town insularity. D. MacNeill Parker, well-acquainted with the town and the commercial fishing industry, has delivered an absorbing crime mystery that’s rich in convincing details and almost entirely believable in its story. Parker, establishing herself here as an impressive debut novelist, is from a fishing family, has fished herself in many fisheries, and has worked as a journalist, a government fisheries specialist and a fishing company manager — giving her an ideal background for a true-to-life novel.

Parker’s main character, town veterinarian Maureen “Mo” McMurtry, has a somewhat mysterious past of her own. She loves most of her end-of-the-earth Alaska life but is contemplating taking a better job in Anchorage. In addition, she’s not too sure that her fishing boat captain of a boyfriend is a long-term prospect. When the town’s police chief asks her to help determine the cause of death of a couple of beached sea lions, she’s glad to do so. But what else is tangled in seaweed?

Before long, there are two dead human bodies — one on the beach and another recovered from a crab pot. Because Dutch Harbor is so far from any city with a coroner or forensic expert, Maureen is invited and then insists on being part of the investigation team. She and her retired, three-legged police dog, her good friend Patsy and a number of other colorful, well-drawn characters are pulled deeper and deeper into mystery, speculations and danger.

As crime mysteries go, the action generally makes sense although certainly, it’s unlikely that, even in a Wild-West situation, a pet doctor would be allowed to autopsy murder victims or collect evidence of crimes. But one thing does lead to another, the characters behave consistently, and most everything conforms to a recognizable world that doesn’t strain credulity. True to the genre, the story includes a few red herrings and keeps a reader (mostly) guessing about motives and relationships. If, in the end, the murderer is unmasked in a confessional bar scene that, again, seems unlikely, the wrap ties things together nicely and leaves the story open to a sequel.

The specific details of life in Dutch Harbor, on fishing boats, and even in an animal clinic are what make “Death in Dutch Harbor” rise above so many in the crime mystery genre. The scene on a beach when Maureen and a biologist first investigate the dead sea lions in dim light is, for example, perfectly evoked. There are piles of seaweed jumping with flies, scary growls that turn out to come from three scavenging foxes, and the decomposing sea lions. “Golden fur lay matted along her sleek body except where the enlarged teats of a lactating female pushed their way beyond the thick coat. Strands of kelp hung from her mouth.” Another time a sea lion in the harbor launches itself up a boat’s stern ramp, “barking and flashing its teeth,” to steal fish and terrify the couple preparing a grill.


The story switches among several viewpoint characters, and one of the most vivid scenes takes place on a crab boat in a horrific storm with waves that break out the wheelhouse windows. “Arlo grabbed hold of the captain’s chair, but the torrent ripped him loose, submerging him in four feet of swirling water. When his head burst above the surface, he gasped for air and fought the river of water rushing down the stairs again.” Other fishing boats and the Coast Guard come to the rescue, just as they do in real life. (Publicity materials note that the author herself once survived a sinking.)

Amongst all the sleuthing, Maureen carries on with the rest of her life — comforting a small boy with his injured dog, stitching up a pet bird attacked by an eagle, hiking the local mountain, sharing a fondness for the Red Sox with the notorious bar’s bartender, popping in on the boyfriend for some time together. She’s clearly well-liked in her community, capable, and smart except in some of her decision-making. All of the women here, in fact, are strong characters — the wildlife biologist, the officer who writes amusing police reports for the newspaper, the Native woman who runs a shipping company, and the friend who always shows up when she needs her. In one scene, Maureen skiffs to an outlying island to interview an older woman known for running off visitors with a gun, and the two enjoy tea and muffins together.

While each chapter usually ends with some action that encourages readers to quickly turn the page and read on, several chapters begin unusually, opening with factual, historical information. Chapter 4, for example, discusses Alaska place names given by early Russian explorers as a way to set up the cape-inspired name of a particular fishing boat. Chapter 8 begins with a description of the town, the origin of its name, its relationship to the original community of Unalaska, and its layout (listing fictional but scarcely disguised businesses.) Chapter 13 discusses navigation, just before the electronics on the flooded fishing boat die. Each of these short sections pauses the action and adds context for readers who want to learn more about the “real” Alaska. There’s also plenty of “real” Alaska in storylines that involve conflicts between fishermen and sea lions, fishermen and environmentalists, and environmentalists and the oil industry. (The town’s supply ships service a fictional oil rig in the Chukchi Sea.)

Will there be a sequel? Maureen and her dog surely will find more crimes to bite into. That nice bartender, too, deserves a return.

[A nostalgic memoir recounts a fishing life, from Southeast Alaska to Bristol Bay]

[5 mystery novels to curl up with this winter]

[Stan Jones, a master of the northern mystery, takes the genre to California with a co-written detective novel]

Nancy Lord

Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days," and "Early Warming." Her latest book is "pH: A Novel."