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Pair of Alaska murder mysteries offer compelling tangled tales

  • Author: David James
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published March 6, 2016

Tundra Kill

By Stan Jones; Bowhead Press; 2016; 305 pages; $25.99

Sundown on Top of the World

By R.E. Donald; Proud Horse Publishing; 2015; 314 pages; $14.95

Alaska is no stranger to murder mysteries, so much so that it has become difficult to keep up with all the northern-based crime novels being published. Homegrown writers and Outsiders alike have fictional detectives scurrying about the landscape seeking the causes of mysterious deaths while, true to the genre's core requirement, their personal lives remain in limbo.

Two recent northern-based crime novels take place in opposite ends of the state. One comes from a lifelong Alaskan and is set on the northwestern coast while the other comes from a Canadian author whose investigator zigzags back and forth across the Alaska-Yukon border. Both are finely crafted stories driven by well-defined characters and strong sense of place.

"Tundra Kill" is the latest installment in the Nathan Active series by Alaskan author Stan Jones. After too long of a hiatus since the previous novel, Jones brings Active back to solve a murder in the fictional Inupiat town of Chukchi, a thinly veiled stand-in for Kotzebue.

Hit-and-run snowmachine accident?

The hero of the series is a former Alaska state trooper who is Inupiat but grew up in Anchorage and is caught between his Native heritage and the white ways in which he was raised. When we last saw Active at the end of "Village of the Ghost Bears," he had quit the troopers and taken the job of chief of public safety in the newly created Chukchi Regional Borough. He was also settling in with his girlfriend, Grace Palmer, a woman with plenty of her own past traumas.

The book opens with the discovery of a local man killed near town in what appears to have been a hit-and-run snowmachine accident. With little to go on, Active and his assistant, officer Alan Long, send the evidence to the state crime lab and hope for the best.

From there the book backtracks a few days to the arrival in Chukchi of the town's most famous resident, Alaska Gov. Helen Mercer, there to cheer the end of a dogsled race her husband, Brad, is expected to win.

This is where Jones starts having fun. Mercer is an extremely attractive, highly manipulative and not particularly intelligent woman with a national profile and ambitions far beyond the remote state she governs. When she first appears, Jones writes that she "swept into the room, complete with Helly-Hansen parka, the rectangle glasses, the weapons-grade cheekbones, and a cloud of the famous perfume."

Of course, no such person could ever assume the governor's chair in our fine state, and anyway, we're assured in a disclaimer that any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. This no doubt explains why one of Active's first lessons about the governor is to avoid getting between her and a camera. As I said, this is entirely fictional.

Mercer drafts Active to be her bodyguard while in town, and from there the storyline unfolds in directions that shall not be revealed for fear of giving too much away. Suffice it to say that there's an emergency plane landing, a dysfunctional first family, scandals, personal histories that come back to haunt the lead characters and some odd coincidences linking the governor to the dead man.

While prior books in this series have been more on the noir side, Jones lightens up a bit this time out, but not so much as to turn it into a comedic murder romp. There's still a tightly controlled narrative and the second half of the book moves quickly. One needn't have read the earlier installments to follow the character developments, but it does help and they're all good.

Murder takes a back seat

Hunter Rayne is another detective with a past, and it comes back on him in "Sundown on Top of the World" by R.E. Donald. The gimmick in this series is that Rayne is a former homicide investigator for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who quit and took up long-haul truck driving after his partner committed suicide and his wife left him.

We get Rayne's backstory as he and a pal named Sorry, an overweight biker recently kicked out of his house by his wife, head up the Alaska Highway from Vancouver, B.C., to deliver a load of materials to a mine near Fairbanks. They break down in Whitehorse just in time for the murder of a strip club owner. Having once been stationed in the town, he still knows some local officers, but instead of getting involved, he and his passenger head up to Dawson and over to Chicken.

Enroute Rayne obsesses over an unsolved case from the early 1970s when a local trapper vanished from his cabin in what appeared to have been a break-in by a bear. At the same time, a hippie girl passing through Whitehorse may or may not have vanished herself. Their paths ultimately collide with an aging Athabaskan woman from Eagle named Betty Salmon and her granddaughter Goldie, whom Betty has raised after both of Goldie's parents died in her infancy.

Of course it's all going to come together somehow, and again, too many details would ruin the fun. Donald's story meanders more than Jones' laser-focused tale, but she keeps things interesting by devising a solid ensemble of characters whose lives sort themselves out over the course of the book. The murder and disappearances practically take a back seat to what is more a story of human relationships, the value of family and the search for identity.

Both books provide what crime readers want: quick tales with flawed but decent heroes, people with pasts they can't escape, a few plot twists and a handy resolution, all set in locations that help drive the stories. Alaska again proves itself prime geography for fictional killings.

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based critic and freelance writer.

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