The best non-Nordic cold climate crime…

6 Mins read


A challenging setting often makes for an interesting read, and Scandinavian authors in particular have become renowned for their ability to weave the freezing weather into their crime stories. From Jo Nesbo’s Blood on Snow right back to Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, low temperatures and extra-long nights only augment the high drama. But if we step out of the Nordic region, there are plenty of other cold places that have proven themselves extremely effective settings for crime fiction. If you love Nordic noir, these titles are great bait that’ll get you hooked on new reading adventures in cold places far and wide…

gorkypark200Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith
There’s a growing number of books set in the former Eastern Bloc countries, and some even see the region as ‘the next Scandinavia’. Perhaps the best crime novel set in Russia is Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park, which successfully contrasts both Soviet and American society, and the methods of Soviet and American detectives. Renko is at its centre, a police investigator trying to solve the murders of three people found in Moscow’s Gorky Park in the middle of Russian winter. Their faces and finger tips have been cut off and everything points to a KGB hit. But Renko won’t let it go and the web of intrigue soon connects him to powerful American business interests. Chilling and atmospheric, it spawned an excellent film and the Arkady Renko series now includes eight gripping novels. Start here and you won’t be disappointed.
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childthiefThe Child Thief by Dan Smith
Author Dan Smith seems to love writing about places with extreme temperatures. Whereas The Darkest Heart was a hot and sticky mystery set in Brazil, The Child Thief takes us to a frozen Ukraine in the 1930s. Soviet troops are roving around looking for villages to ransack and burn, and the residents must defend themselves. The threat they don’t anticipate is a serial killer who preys on children, and in Luka’s village the grim truth hits home in the book’s white-hot beginning which contains flashes of cannibalism, a lynching and the disappearance of a young girl. Luka must track the child thief across an icy wilderness. What will be worse, the murderer or the rapacious Bolsheviks?
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murderinmoscow200Murder in Moscow by Andrew Grave
Let’s go back and uncover a hidden gem, now. Footprints in the snow feature as a prominent clue in this forgotten 1952 Cold War thriller. Foreign correspondent George Gerney travels to Moscow by train one icy February to report on post-war developments in the USSR, only to find himself in the company of a pro-Soviet delegation from England. He does what he can to avoid this group of sycophants, until one of them is murdered. Gerney refuses to accept the Soviet government’s explanation of the death, and sets out in his thick fur coat to find the truth on his own. It’s rather hard to get hold of now but is available as part of an omnibus on Amazon.
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frozendeadThe Frozen Dead by Bernard Minier
You don’t usually associate the Pyrenees with freezing weather, but the brutal cold is a key feature in French author Bernard Minier’s mystery. Up there in the mountains, there’s an insane asylum where new forensic psychologist Diane Berg is working. She’s not sure just what her superior and his assistant are up to, but the story takes a strange turn when a decapitated horse is found near an isolated hydroelectric plant high in the mountains. Even more bizarre, is the forensic discovery of DNA on the dead horse from one of the asylum’s most dangerous residents – serial killer Julian Hirtmann. As French policeman Commandant Servaz investigates the horse, his storyline twists around that of Diane Berg. The Frozen Dead is a sinister, stylish and peculiar debut. Cold too.
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holdthedark200Hold the Dark by William Giraldi
A is for Alaska. B is for brilliant. C is for cold. And D is for dark. Just like in Dan Smith’s book (see above), in Hold the Dark children are going missing, but this time it’s from a small village in the wild Alaskan hinterland. A local wolf pack takes the blame. Medora Slone, whose son Bailey was the last child to disappear, calls on Montana lupine expert Russell Core to hunt down the wolves. When he finds out that Bailey wasn’t taken by the animals, and Medora’s husband Vernon arrives back from the war in Afghanistan, all hell breaks loose. What starts with blood and vengeance turns into an ever more violent tale of primeval mythology as Vernon hunts Medora, and Core hunts Vernon…
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yiddishpolicemansunion200Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon
Homicide detective Meyer Landsman is divorced, works for his ex-wife, has a murdered sister, and is about to lose his job and his homeland. Only this Jewish homeland isn’t in the Middle East, it’s in the Alaskan coastal city of Sitka, mooted in 1942 as a location for the emergency transfer of Europe’s Jews. Chabon considers what might have happened if this had actually happened. The holocaust is greatly reduced, but the surviving Jews are in a precarious position with the temporary lease on their frozen homeland about to end. This innovative novel melds the language of American hardboiled fiction with references to Judaism, and hops between Yiddish, American and Esperanto languages. It’s a complex novel with many layers, but the mystery story is good enough to enjoy as an original work of crime fiction.
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coldstoragealaska200Cold Storage, Alaska by John Straley
When coke dealer Clive McCahon returns to his home town of Cold Storage – so called because its raison d’être is a cod packing facility – it really stirs things up in the settlement, particularly for his brother Miles. The vicious dog Clive has in tow is the least of their worries though, because Clive is also being tailed by the dog’s original owner, a mobster from down in Washington state. This example of screwball crime fiction promises plenty of snow, 200 inches of rain, and a fascinating cast of characters. If Northern Exposure had been a crime show, it would have been very similar to Cold Storage, Alaska. The Tlingit/Haida-style artwork on the front cover caps off a wonderful and bizarre read.
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whiteheatWhite Heat by MJ McGrath
From Alaska, we move across the arctic to Canada’s far north for the first novel to feature Edie Kiglatuk. Half-Inuit and half-white, Edie seems to be the odd one out in Autisaq. She’s a guide for visiting hunters. When two men from down south are killed in just such an expedition, Edie is drawn into a mystery that’s far more complex than merely the idea that the deaths were an accident and these ignorant outsiders had it coming. The village elders and even Edie’s ex-husband all want to sweep the killings under the carpet so she decides to investigate them herself, helped by law man Derek Palliser. White Heat is a book that looks at everything from the Inuit way of life to the problems the community face, and on through to the way big energy companies will do anything to exploit their frozen homelands. MJ McGrath is an excellent crime author who was introduced to us by Val McDermid a few years ago.
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generationlossGeneration Loss by Elizabeth Hand
Coastal Maine isn’t really thought of as a cold place, but Generation Loss by Elizabeth Hand does make it seem very dark and wintry. Similar to many Scandinavian authors, Hand uses the bad weather to emphasise the evil and madness that lurks within a killer. Photographer Cass Neary is sent to a remote island to interview a photographer from New York’s 1970s art scene who today is a recluse. Travelling between the mainland and the island, she meets several strange locals and hears tales of how teenagers have been disappearing from the area. Most people think that they’ve been running away to start again in the city – rural Maine just hasn’t got the opportunities or the glamour they crave. When Cass begins to discover amazing pieces of photographic art and strange, ritualistic turtle shell sculptures, she’s intrigued and it becomes a case of her versus both the elements and an insane serial killer.
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boyfromreactor4The Boy from Reactor 4 by Orest Stelmach
And we finish off our selection more or less where we started, in the former Eastern Bloc. The Boy from Reactor 4 is a teenager called Adam who is a phenomenal ice hockey player, and was born near Chernobyl. First generation Ukrainian-American Nadia Tesla, who is also a part-time PI, is told the boy holds a secret, and when she goes to Kiev to seek him she ends up in a mad-cap chase across the former Soviet Union. The story involves Easter Europe’s infamous vor gangsters, a missing fortune and maybe even a solution to the world’s energy problems. It’s fast-paced, violent and full of freezing weather, and has spawned two ‘The Boy…’ sequels.
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If you still crave Scandinavian crime fiction, click here.

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