Written by MJ McGrath — After adventures taking in Ellesmere Island and Greenland in White Heat, and Alasaka in The Boy in the Snow, Edie Kiglatuk is back on Ellesmere for her third mystery. The half-Inuit heroine isn’t really a detective, she’s a hunter and a tracker, but this summer she’s working as a school teacher in Kuujuaq, a settlement on the south shore of the island, due west of her own home town of Autisaq.
Just outside Kuujuaq is a Camp Nanook, a Canadian forces base. The soldiers there are about to begin cleaning up a contaminated area around an old early warning radar station used by the Canadian and US military during the Cold War. The place is considered by the Inuit to harbour bad spirits – even tundra birds avoid it.
One of Edie’s pupils goes missing – a teenage girl called Martha Salliaq. Her body is discovered in the poisoned waters and she died horrifically. A hunting knife was inserted into her vagina cutting her womb causing her to bleed out. The author describes the setting and the body’s discovery in chilling detail. Under the disorientating 24-hour sunlight of the High Arctic summer, a swarm of mosquitoes is seen feasting on the bloody swamp water and there is the stench of death.
Derek Palliser of the native police force must investigate the shocking murder. Having survived events of the previous book together, he asks Edie to help him investigate. Edie’s boyfriend Chip Muloon, a white man doing some research on Ellesmere Island, is nonplussed by the murder but Edie decides to take up Derek’s request.
Meanwhile, a second plotline involves Martha’s father Charlie Salliaq. The old man has hired a lawyer called Sonia Gutierrez who has come up from Ottawa to make sure the military keep to the government’s promise to clean up the contamination. Gutierrez thinks the authorities have more to hide.
It seems she’s right – it takes ages for them to send a forensics specialist up to do Martha’s autopsy, and later on the corpse is actually seized by some goons from Canada’s Defence Department. Old Charlie falls ill with grief, but luckily Derek progresses with the investigation. A pair of roughneck soldiers called Namagoose and Saxby were seen drinking with Martha just before she disappeared. Palliser and local opinion are ready to put the jacket on the jarheads, and so is their commanding officer Colonel Klinsman.
But Edie and Gutierrez suspect a cover-up. So, if the soldiers aren’t sadistic killers, who did do it and is Martha’s death connected to the Defence Department’s nefarious activities?
As in previous books, MJ McGrath recreates the High Arctic setting and the strange, lonely, barren feel of this settlement on the fringe very well. Edie’s story and her inner pain – relating to her family’s past – are explored a little more, and the way she works with Derek Palliser is one of the highlights of The Bone Seeker. He comes into his own, even though he’s treated as an inferior by Klinsman and the Inuit he deals with, because he has Cree blood.
The Inuit ways and customs, from eating slices of walrus head to their spiritual beliefs, make a fine backdrop for the story. You just won’t find this kind of fascinating texture in Scottish or Scandinavian crime fiction, for instance. And, the investigation into Martha’s death is well-plotted, interesting and believable. Its effects on the family, on the community and on Edie are touching. It’s disappointing then that when the murderer and their motive are discovered, this is only superficially explored.
The bigger conspiracy element of the book is rather weak too. There are too many inconsistencies and tenuous oversights for it to seem believable, and more than that the investigation drags on too long to maintain the tension. The final climax seems unlikely and is a let-down. Less focus on the conspiracy and more on the psychology of the murder case would have benefited an otherwise very compelling novel.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars