Cold Storage, Alaska by John Straley

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As the Edgar Award-winning author John Straley mentions in his notes at the end of this book, he considers his writing to be screwball comedy as much as it is crime fiction. Indeed, Cold Storage, Alaska is full of unusual and ironic things that’ll make you smile. There’s more than one screwball character in it… but how much crime is in Straley’s literary locker?

The first thing coke dealer Clive McCahon wants when he’s released from McNeil Island Penitentiary is to eat some fresh lettuce. The second thing he wants is some money for keeping his lips sealed when he could have gone state witness. And, lastly, he wants his dog back. So first he goes to a grocery store and munches down a salad, then he gets heavy with Oscar. Oscar is holding money for Clive’s ex-boss, Jake. Clive takes the money and, because his dog died in Oscar’s care, he takes the man’s dog too.

The dog is more than a brute. He’s called Little Brother and won’t let anyone touch him. Yet somehow Clive manages to fly – with Little Brother for a companion and Jake in pursuit – back to Cold Storage, Alaska. He returns home to an isolated coastal town accessible only by seaplane where his brother Miles and aging mother are waiting. Army veteran Miles is the town’s healthcare provider. He’s not a doctor, more like a chief nurse. He’s the only one in town who can stitch people up when they get cut or, as is more often the case, help them cope with alcoholism and depression. After all, they get 200 inches of rain annually in Cold Storage.

The town is populated by loners and oddballs. There’s Lester, a Tlingit tribesman who’s carrying out an anthropological study of Alaska’s white immigrants. The town stoner is called Weasel, and his friend is a young Buddhist called Billy whose ambition is to kayak down to Seattle to greet the visiting the Dalai Lama. There are also the school teachers Ed and Tina, so fascinated by the whales and the wildlife. Clive returns very much as a prodigal son. But what will happen when Jake catches up with Clive? Can Billy really paddle to Seattle? And, will Miles forgive Clive for leaving him to look after their poor old mother?

Each character has their own philosophy, making the book a little reminiscent of that 90s TV series Northern Exposure, which was also set in Alaska. There’s that sense of isolation, in a claustrophobic community where nothing’s a secret for long. On the one side, miles and miles of icy ocean. On the other, wilderness and the steep slopes of the Rocky Mountains.

The habitat and this sense of a town on the fringe of oblivion are wonderfully evoked by the author. There are no cars. Just an old cold storage facility where they still pack black cod when there’s been a catch. This peculiar setting is made stranger still by the fact that the dog Little Brother can talk. You’ll want to read all about how Clive uses his stolen cash to open a bar which doubles as a church, and how crime lord Jake and Native American Lester start plotting a motion picture together. Even Clint Eastwood gets in on the act and, thankfully, Sarah Palin does not.

However, as wonderful as the writing is, and as fascinating as the characters are, the crime fiction elements in Cold Storage, Alaska are rather low key. Yes, there are fights and shootings, and that monster of a talking dog isn’t in there for nothing, but they take second stage to the story of this weird community under the ancient cedars. If the frigidity and minimalism of Scandinavian noir has worn you down a little, grab Cold Storage, Alaska for a lighter look at life and crime in a cold place. You may end up wanting to go there.

Incidentally, this book has a wonderful illustration of a salmon on the cover, drawn in that bold graphic style the native peoples of the Pacific Northwest are known for. We do like it when publishers do a little more with a jacket…

Soho Crime

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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