Arts & Literature - WKMS
3:33 pm
Fri December 16, 2011

Uncommon Mystery - A Cold Day for Murder

Murray, KY – Some people love reading on the beach, others enjoy sitting with a good book under a tree covered in springtime blooms. But there's nothing quite like curling up with a good mystery novel on a cold day. And mystery fan Michael Cohen has just the book. A Cold Day for Murder is an appropriately frozen uncommon read about an Aleut detective who investigates a pair of disappearances in the Alaska wilderness.

Dana Stabenow, A Cold Day for Murder (1992)

Doubtless there are mystery writers working away at local-color whodunits in every one of the fifty states, but let's face it: some states are more interesting than others. And the talent factor can't be ignored. Could Tony Hillerman make South Dakota as interesting as he makes New Mexico? Alaska, though, is a state with intrinsic interest for most people. On a visit there a couple of years ago, I went into a bookshop in Seward looking for a mystery set in Alaska, and I ended up with a paperback that had been autographed by Dana Stabenow.

Maybe Stabenow lays the local color on with a pretty big palette knife. She refers to both Jack London's "To Build a Fire" and Robert Service's "The Cremation of Sam McGee in the first four pages of A Cold Day for Murder, her first mystery, published in 1992. And there is a comic bar scene in the first half of the book that seems to be constructed of the same materials as Service's "The Shooting of Dan McGrew" and other examples of the Yukon variety of the American tall tale in verse or prose.

But Stabenow knows what she's doing. A Cold Day for Murder introduces Kate Shugak, a thirty-year-old Aleut who used to be the best investigator on the Anchorage D. A.'s staff. Shugak left the D. A.'s office after one of her cases ended with a knife fight in which she killed a child molester but sustained a serious throat wound herself. She retired to the bush, in the middle of a huge, roadless state park that Stabenow has constructed out of a real range of mountains the Chugach, which probably gave her the idea for Kate's last name as well as a renamed river and some imagined geographical features that comprise a park supposedly four times the size of Alaska's real gem, Denali.

Kate still does occasional work for the Anchorage office, especially when the case involves the disappearance of an investigator with whom she was romantically involved. That man was investigating another disappearance, that of a park ranger. In solving the case, Kate finds too many of her family and other loved ones are among the victims or the guilty.

So the elements here are a woman with a past, a most spectacular setting, a native American at home in it, and a community small enough so that, like all the good old crime stories from Cain and Abel on, it's all in the family.

If you like this Kate Shugak mystery, there are eighteen others to keep you reading, with the latest title, Restless in the Grave, due to come out in 2012. But A Cold Day for Murder , her first, is the only one so far to have won the Edgar Allan Poe Award given annually by the Mystery Writers of America.

Michael Cohen is a Professor Emeritus at Murray State University.