First, a young national park ranger has gone missing in Alaska. Then an investigator sent to find him has disappeared, too. Will it be a case of search-and-rescue or murder?
The mystery begins with two men ski doo-ing their way to an isolated homestead, a log cabin that looked “more as if it had grown there naturally rather than been built by human hands.” One of the men, Jack Morgan, looking like John Wayne “if [he] had been outfitted by Eddie Bauer,” is well acquainted with the homesteader. Fourteen months prior Kate Shugak had retreated from the world and her former job as an investigator for the Anchorage DA. Jack introduces her and her wolf-like Mutt to Fred Gamble, an FBI agent.
“What’s so special about this particular ranger?” asks Kate.
Turns out he’s the son of an Ohio congressman. But Kate shows more concern for the missing investigator who was sent to find the congressman’s son. Kenneth Dahl was someone Kate trained and she feels in part responsible for him.
The men leave without Kate committing to the search, but Jack is certain “she’ll do it.” And indeed she will.
Chapter Two begins with an overview of the locale. “The Park occupied twenty million acres, almost four times the size of Denali National Park but with less than one percent of the tourists.” In this vast region, Kate will attempt to locate the missing men.
Her first stop is to visit Abel Int-Hout. He served as a sort of foster father to her and is quite familiar with the landscape. Abel’s crossed paths with the park ranger and vaguely remembers Ken, but is unable to offer any seemingly significant clues.
Though reluctant, Kate then heads for Niniltna, the small hometown tucked away in the vastness of the Park. There she will talk to her grandmother Ekaterina. Like the fabled Argus of Greek legend, Abel swears she’s “like that Greek you used to read to me about, the one with the thousand eyes that was always watching you.” “She always knows everything that’s going on in the Park.”
From Ekaterina, Kate learns that there was trouble in Niniltna involving tribal sovereignty and land rights issues that may have involved the park ranger. The mystery deepens and hits closer to home when Kate learns that her cousin Xenia had been dating the “Outsider” park ranger, and Xenia’s brother had threatened the man.
In “A Word from the Author” introduction to the hardcover of A Cold Day for Murder, “brought to you for the first time in hardcover seventeen years later by Poisoned Pen Press” in 2011, author Stabenow succinctly describes the novel as “the adventure that began the career of Aleut detective Kate Shugak and her half-wolf, half-husky sidekick, Mutt. A year and a half after she quit her job with the Anchorage DA, ex-boss and ex-lover Jack Morgan shows up in December on the doorstep of her Park homestead to ask her to find a missing, by now presumed dead ranger. One hint: The culprit probably wasn’t the weather.”
Though the likelihood of someone surviving in the wilds of Alaska in December for more than a couple weeks is dismal, for much of the book readers might just hope for that slim chance that one or both men are alive. The investigation does has that flavor of a search-and-rescue mission. Though the action leans more toward domestic entanglements and behind-the-scenes political machinations, we do get a bar brawl, a brief shootout, and a mine shaft incident … all very exciting moments.
I particularly enjoyed the novel’s authenticity as it described the terrain, tribal life, environment, and politics of Alaska. It’s no wonder this debut earned an Edgar award. The novel establishes a no-nonsense, intrepid investigator in an interesting milieu.
A Cold Day for Murder is the 1993 Edgar winner for Best Original Paperback. For more about this long running series and other books by Dana Stabenow, visit her site: www.stabenow.com. Stabenow’s site is of particular interest for those who want a better picture of the novels’ landscape as it includes photos and maps.