He makes mysteries of the real grit of Arctic crime

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: August 20, 2018
  • Published August 19, 2018

Not as many murders happen in Kotzebue as happen in Stan Jones's mystery novels, but some do. A cop he rode with told him about a case he worked on a little bit every day.

The victim supposedly committed suicide, but the police didn't believe that. A witness who could tell the truth wasn't talking. But Kotzebue is small and the officer would see this man in the road often. Every time he did, he would stop and talk about the crime.

"That struck me as one of the realest cop stories I ever heard," Jones said. "He said, 'I think if he doesn't tell us what he has, he'll kill himself in a few years.' The real cop said it, and now Nathan Active says it."

Alaska State Trooper Nathan Active is the hero of Jones' series of five novels, books full of vivid cold.

Recently, when the New York Times Book Review published a world map of mystery authors who portray exotic places in their books, Jones alone represented Alaska. His books have been praised by reviewers from outside Alaska as an authentic picture of life in the Alaska Bush.

Jones, ever the skeptic, said, "How would they know?"

Stan Jones.

But it's true. The blue tarps are there, the beaver flap hats and engine heater plug-ins, and when people talk, they leave out certain words, as in real village grammar. Jones lived in Kotzebue as a radio journalist, a federal aviation worker and a pilot and he goes back there from his home in Anchorage to refresh his stories and his sense of the cold.

He also knows something about investigations. In 1985, as a reporter for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Jones broke the biggest investigative story in Alaska history, when he dug up corruption that led all the way to Gov. Bill Sheffield.

A grand jury recommended the Alaska Legislature impeach Sheffield. Testimony left little doubt the governor had directed a big-rigging scheme to benefit a campaign supporter with a government lease. But the Senate came a couple of votes short of a two-thirds majority for the case to proceed.

The story gripped Alaska. Lawyers famous from President Nixon's Watergate scandal came to Juneau to work on the case, along with national media attention.

Jones had started it alone. Before the story broke, not knowing who he could trust, he secreted a copy of his files with a colleague. And state lawyers did try to get the key papers back, although Jones's editors backed him up and the secret copies were never needed.

Thirty years later, Jones still runs into people around town who were involved in the scandal — no one was punished. And he still won't reveal the source who tipped him to the story.

For a while, as a journalistic celebrity, that story created the opportunity for him to move up to the big time and leave Alaska behind.

"I couldn't think of any particular reason to do so," he said. "I'm an Alaskan boy and I know things here."

I first met Jones when we both worked at the ADN in the late 1980s.

Even in speech he uses short, precise sentences, the kind he puts in his books. He can project a hard-boiled look, too, with his weathered face and a pair of dark glasses. But his smile is huge and includes his eyes. He's reserved and deep-voiced, but kind and funny.

The power of the books comes from observation. Jones describes the feel and look of things, and he also knows how they work. The characters are no smarter than we really are in daily life, but also no simpler.

In real life, cultural programming decides most of what we say and do. That happens in Jones's world, too. But he doesn't tell us about it. When Natives and whites interact in his books, he shows cultural frictions indirectly. What Jones doesn't say makes the story feel real.

As an Alaskan, I found that realism more interesting than the details of who committed the crime.

Most writing about Alaska presents it in a frame of adventure and romance that says more about visiting writers than about the place itself. Even news media exaggerate Alaska, not only phony reality TV shows. According to the New York Times, we are all reeling over Sam's Club closing.

Jones's rural Alaska has some edges sanded off. His books contain less sex abuse and alcoholism than is found in the real communities he writes about — but that's only polite in a book of genre fiction. Issues like those don't belong in a piece of entertainment. But the essence of the place comes through.

In his first book, published in 1999, Jones modeled the killer on the late John Shaeffer Jr., an important Inupiaq leader of Native land claims and the general of Alaska's national guard. The portrait was recognizable. Jones felt dread when he met Shaeffer in the Kotzebue airport .

"He said, 'I read your book,'" Jones recalled. "'Thanks for making me a double murderer.' And then he grinned."

A version of Gov. Sarah Palin shows up in another book.

In Jones's Alaska, reviewers from elsewhere find the misery of cold weather and rural poverty, but as an Alaskan, I feel his love for the place coming through. It's family love — not explainable. As he said, he's an Alaskan boy.

My hope for Alaska is that more of us learn to love the place that way, as it is. We don't need to make Alaska like anywhere else, but we do need to care enough about this place to start solving our real problems.

Meanwhile, Jones's fame continues to spread. A Hollywood screenwriter and producer bought options to two of the books in hopes of creating a TV show. That brought more publishing interest, too.

The sixth book is coming out in December. And Jones still goes back to Kotzebue annually. It's a long-term relationship.

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