Written by MJ McGrath — Melanie McGrath studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford, but instead of going on to join Britain’s governing class she decided to write excellent crime stories set in the far, far, far north of Canada. A commendable move on her part – and I’ll tell you straight away that I’m a sucker for that kind of setting. As a boy I loved Jack London’s Call of the Wild and White Fang. I was crazy about James Houston’s northern adventures that began with Black Diamonds. I find the First Nations people of Canada fasicnating – like in Hugh Brody’s Maps and Dreams. So, when Val McDermid tipped this book in her column for New Talent November, I had to get my hands on McGrath’s debut crime novel White Heat.
Edie Kiglatuk is a half-white, half-Inuit and she’s a guide up on Ellesmere Island – or Umingmak Nuna in her own language. She takes two suspiciously un-hunter-like fellows out hunting on the smaller Craig Island. While she’s melting a chip of iceberg to make tea, Felix Wagner is shot and his cohort Andy Taylor goes into a panic. Taylor didn’t do it, and she finds a bootprint nearby with a polar bear outline in it. There’s a scramble to save Wagner but he doesn’t survive the journey back to Autisaq.
Something fishy is going on but the community elders, mayor Simeonie, Edie’s exhusband Sammy, and just about everyone else, won’t look into what they consider to be the accidental death of an ignorant qalunaat playing at being a hunter. Saying it was a ricochet from Wagner’s own rifle, they sweep it under the carpet. But for some reason Andy Taylor soon returns to Ellesmere, this time with Bill Fairfax. A desendant of Sir James Fairfax, one of the first whites to explore the region in the 19th century, Edie has a connection with him. Her great-great-great-grandfather Welatok helped Sir James on his journeys.
Edie’s stepson Joe takes Taylor back to Craig and things go from bad to worse. Taylor disappears and Joe returns across the pack ice terrified, hypothermic and nearly dead. Fairfax, who was Edie’s charge, escapes unharmed and goes back to England failing to locate his ancestor’s grave site. Someone is rubbing out anybody sniffing around on Craig Island and Edie is the odd one out in Autisaq. She wants to solve this mystery. Eventually, she enlists the help of the region’s law man, Derek Palliser – half-Cree, half-Inuit, he’s also an outsider and next to his police work, he studies the island’s lemming population.
McGrath’s characters are utterly captivating. Edie and the other Inuit relate their feelings in a clipped, yet slightly whimsical way. There’s a dry humour among these hardy people who have been bossed around for 300 years by whites, but who grimly cling to their frozen edge of the continent knowing that very few whites could survive up there without them. They nearly all have alcohol problems, relationships seem fluid, and the spirits of the north are as close to them as the snow, ice, huskies, polar bears, foxes, char, seals and, yes, lemmings.
Sometimes the descriptions of travelling across sea ice and along costal waters are too lengthy and convoluted. However the natural environment and intricacies of Inuit culture give beautiful texture to the story. You’ll learn about the building of snow houses, various glacial formations and depsoits, snow mobiles, dog teams, spear fishing and hunting eider geese. Iniut love their tea more than the British, but also like to munch on fermented walrus gut, and sip seal blood soup.
All this detail is a stunning tapestry enveloping what is the most compelling mystery I’ve read this year. As it unfolds the really heavy issues come to the fore. With major energy companies encroaching on the icy paradise, Edie ventures as far away as Greenland to find out who is behind the killings. She has to go against her people in order to help save them and their culture. It seems the further north you go, the better the crime fiction gets. Simply put, this is an incredible book. Read it.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars
Note: MJ McGrath’s second Kiglatuk book, The Boy in the Snow, has also been released, alongside a free short story about Edie Kiglatuk. Use the links below.