Murder in Cold Climates
by George J. Demko
This column is focused on a special set of places- very cold places! The
use of arctic or frigid locales for mysteries was relatively rare in the
past. It is clear, however, that cold settings have become much more
Mysteries set in frigid climes obviously underline the significance of
"place." The setting, the region, the local geography in many cases is as
important as the plot. These works often focus on environmental themes-
deforestation, the spread of development, and resource, especially oil,
exploitation. A common third theme is the fate of indigenous populations
as development and immigration intrude on native life styles and
Let me first turn to the Russian Arctic. Unfortunately most Russian-
authored stories set in northern USSR/Russia have not been translated.
Among western writers, one of the best is Anthony Alcott who produced
an excellent Siberian mystery--May Day in Magadan (Bantam, 1983).
Martin Cruz Smith's Polar Star (Random, 1989) is set on a
fishing/factory ship in the Bering Sea. Kolymsky Heights (St. Martin's,
1994) by Lionel Davidson is set in rugged Siberia and features a Russian
scientist who seeks help from a Canadian Gitskan Indian. Craig Thomas in
A Wild Justice (HarperCollins, 1995), exposes greed and corruption in
the northern Siberian oil and gas fields. The prolific Stuart Kaminsky has
created a series featuring a Moscow-based policeman who, in A Cold Red
Sunrise (Ivy, 1988), solves a vile crime in a Siberian village.
Scandinavian writers have set many mysteries in the Arctic but few have
been translated into English. Among the recent mysteries set in Arctic
Scandinavia, three merit special attention. The Zero Trap (Coward,
McCann & Geohegan, 1980) by Paula Gosling centers on a planeload of
passengers abducted and imprisoned in a luxurious house in Lapland. More
recent novels include Peter Hoeg's immensely popular Smilla's Sense of
Snow (Farrar,Straus &Giroux, 1994) set in Denmark and Greenland and
Kerstin Ekman's Blackwater (Doubleday, 1993) which is set in Arctic
Sweden on the Norwegian border. The latter is filled with environmental
concerns and social tensions between the Sami (Lapps) and Swedes.
Interestingly, two of the most famous of the Canadian "Mountie stories"
were written by non-Canadians. King of the Royal Mounties and Sgt.
Preston of the Yukon were created by Americans--Zane Grey and Fran
Striker, respectively. An excellent Canadian mystery set in the north is J.
R. L. Anderson's Death in a High Latitude (Scribner, 1984) involving an
18th century map and the search for the Northwest Passage. Scott Young's
mysteries feature an Inuk Mountie who solves crimes in the Northwest
Territories (Murder in a Cold Climate, Viking, Toronto,1988). Christian
MacLeon, a British thriller writer exploits the Canadian Arctic with
novels such as Ice Station Zebra (Doubleday, 1963) and Athabasca
(Doubleday, 1980). One of the best references on Canadian cold-country
crime is David Skene-Melvin's Crime in a Cold Climate (Simon &
Pierre, Toronto, 1994).
In recent years, Alaska has become a popular venue for mystery writers.
Among the most popular currently is Dana Stabenow's Aleut detective ,
Kate Shugak, who solves crimes all over Alaska. Her themes are very
frequently concerned with environmental threats and the loss of native
cultures. The physical geography of her novels is exquisite. One of her best
is Dead in the Water (Berkely, 1993).
Elizabeth Quinn features Lauren Maxwell, a female State of Alaska
Wildlife Investigator concerned with environmental crimes and the loss of
native traditions in A Wolf in Death's Clothing (Simon & Schuster,
1995). In Alaska Gray (St. Martin, 1994), Susan Froetschel has her female
protagonist solve a crime related to Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act
Sue Henry's sets a series in Alaska with State Trooper Alex Jensen as the
hero, although his friend, Jessie Arnold, a sled dog champion racer, usually
steals the show. Her immensely popular Murder on the Iditarod Trail
(Avon, 1993) was made into a television movie. Her Termination Dust
(Morrow, 1995) is set on the Top of the World Highway.
John Straley has won awards for his The Curious Eat Themselves
(Bantam, 1995), set in southern Alaska as was The Woman Who Married
a Bear (Signet, 1994). Benjamin Shaine in Alaska Dragon (Firewood
Press, 1994) deals with environmental politics and the mining industry in
Alaska. In Icy Clutches (Mysterious Press, 1990) Aaron Elkins creates a
frigid thriller and Dean Koontz has rewritten his 1976 Prison of Ice,
retitled it Icebound (Ballantine, 1995), and created a thrilling Cold War
novel of murder and Soviet-American cooperation on the polar ice cap.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge once wrote, "set adventures in remote lands for
the unknown thrills...an author can get away with less fact and more
imagination for there will be fewer among his or her readership who can
check for accuracy." Any reading of the novels suggested above, however,
will provide verification that these authors get away with nothing--they
know their place!
Selected Cold Crime Titles
Click to buy through our affiliation with Amazon
by Martin Cruz Smith
A Cold Red Sunrise
by Stuart Kaminsky
Smilla's Sense of Snow
by Peter Hoeg
Dead in the Water
by Dana Stabenow
Murder on the Iditarod Trail
by Sue Henry
George J. Demko is a professor of
geography at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. and a specialist in
international mysteries and the locus operandi of crime fiction. He is the
author/editor of 15 books including and many articles on social science
problems in foreign countries.