Scandinavian crime fiction seems to go from strength to strength, but let’s not forget that North America has its fair share of frigid locations to offer – perfect for crime fiction. Maine, Minnesota, Quebec and Canada’s far north have all been explored by authors recently. For his crime debut, William Giraldi has chosen Alaska, that huge territory populated by Native Americans and settlers from the lower 48 states which stretches on up into the Arctic Circle.
The dark being held in title refers to the long nights that are closing in on the village of Keelut in late November. But that’s not all. A dearth of game has forced a local wolf pack to be more daring in its pursuit of dinner and three children from the village have been taken. Wolf expert Russell Core is summoned to the village by Medora Slone whose son Bailey was the last child lost. Even though just about everyone in the village knows how to track and kill a wolf, she wrote to Core after reading his book about wolves in Montana, and he’s an expert tracker and hunter. He arrives to meet this strange distraught woman with pale blonde hair, who walks about the cottage naked at night and even jumps into his bed.
Medora’s husband Vernon is away fighting for the US Army in the Middle East somewhere, and Core borrows the man’s outerwear and heads off into the snow. As he strides into the hinterland of Eastern Alaska, we’re treated to Giraldi’s descriptive prose. This is an author who likes tight sentences and chooses his words with care. The writing can be dense at times, with an unusual cadence to it. The brutality of the cold, the landscape, and the wolves themselves, leave us in no doubt about nature’s power, but at the same time Core begins to unravel. He doesn’t have to be here in Alaska, but he is. It could be the death of him. And, maybe that’s what he wants. When the wolves charge him, he decides not to kill them.
Returning to Keelut he’s in for a shock. In a cellar beneath the Slone house he finds Bailey’s frozen body. The boy wasn’t eaten by wolves, he was killed by human hands. Medora disappears into the woods, and the police are called in. Meanwhile, Vernon Slone is summoned back from the war and when he discovers his child is dead and his wife is gone he goes on a murderous rampage, assisted by his lifelong friend Cheeon. Core manages to escape their wrath and eventually agrees to help the local detective Marium track Slone down.
We experience the story from Slone’s point of view too. As he deals death in Keelut and beyond, the mystical, mythical elements of the story comes to the fore. He looks back on his life and his history with Medora, and parallels between his own nature and that of the wolves out there on the tundra become clearer. Vernon even takes to wearing a strange wolf mask as he searches for her. So it’s fitting in the end that the wolf hunter Russell Core should be the one sent to find this deadly predator, taking the book towards its gripping finale.
As the secret to the Slones’ madness is revealed, man’s place in nature is explored detail by visceral detail. However, at the edges of the main story things are rather blurred. It’s not clear, for instance, why the villagers in Keelut are willing to accept Vernon Slone’s violence. They protect and aid him, even though he’d kill any one of them if they meddled in his mission. There is not a lot of humanity in this version of Alaska, and where it does show up, it’s stabbed, shot, strangled or gets an arrow through the neck.
Hold the Dark is unsettling, but Giraldi’s dark, poetic writing certainly has a beauty to it. If you liked any of James Sallis‘ recent novels, or Galveston by Nic Pizzolatto, you’ll enjoy Hold the Dark.
Read our interview with William Giraldi here.
No Exit Press
CFL Rating: 4 Stars