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 popular recently.
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 traditions.
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 of 1971.
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
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- Polar Star 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
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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.