Village in the Dark by Iris Yamashita

3 Mins read
Village in the Dark by Iris Yamashita front cover

We’re back in the cold wastes of Alaska for Village in the Dark, Iris Yamashita’s follow up to her debut novel City Under One Roof, which got a five-star review on the site early last year. That story was set in the fictional town of Point Mettier, and a portion of book number two takes place there too.

But it opens in Anchorage, where Detective Cara Kennedy is visiting a snow-covered grave. The plot contains the remains of her husband, Aaron, and son, Dylan, who died aged just six. However, rather than standing respectfully at the graveside, Kennedy is overseeing the exhumation of their bodies. A lot has happened since we last met her, it seems.

In just a year and four months, Kennedy has lost her family and been placed on long-term disability leave after spectacularly failing a psych evaluation. The family were on a trip in the Talkeetna wilderness two hours north of Anchorage when Aaron and Dylan went out to look for snowshoe hares and never returned. Nine months later, the remains of a man and a young boy were found at the bottom of a ravine and Kennedy’s world fell apart.

But Kennedy’s obsession with learning the truth about her husband and son did not die when she was forced to step away from her job and this exhumation looks like another step on her road to madness. Or is it? Because at the end of her last big case – in Point Mettier – she walked away with an anomalous clue. Why were Dylan and Aaron’s photos on the phone of a dead gang member?

Meanwhile, in Point Mettier, straight-shooting, straight-talking Ellie Wright, owner of the Cozy Condo – to be found inside the Davidson Condos, a complex known to the locals as Dave-Co – has family troubles of her own when she gets the news that her only son is dead of a suspected overdose in Anchorage. As Kennedy heads to Point Mettier, Ellie is travelling in the other direction. Soon circumstances will bring the pair together, and united in grief and fighting in the same corner.

The third part of this female triangle is Mia, a young indigenous woman who has quite a back story and is now working under an assumed name at the Lonely Diner in Willow, Alaska. Now she is a waitress called Carol, but once, she lived with her mother in Unity, a village refuge for women fleeing from sexual assault or oppression, well hidden away from 21st century living and all the better for it. Life was simple there and Mia has struggled to assimilate into ‘Man’s World’. But why is she here and what is her connection to the stories of Cara and Ellie?

Ah, that’d be telling – and why spoil the fun when Iris Yamashita does the job so well? She was nominated for an Oscar for her screenwriting work on the movie Letters from Iwo Jima, and those skills transfer so easily to book writing with excellent dialogue and quirky but wholly realistic characters that step off the page and shake your hand. Suffice it to say that all three women have been shaken to the core by past experiences and must dig mighty deep to get through what transpires here.

As with City Under One Roof, Yamashita also works hard to convey sharply rendered landscapes and locations. Her debut focused on Point Mettier – based on the real life Whittier, a small town in Alaska nicknamed ‘the town under one roof’ – but this time her focus expands, and in doing so, takes away some of that overwhelming feeling of claustrophobia that made the first book so memorable. Nevertheless, as locations shift she still manages to increase the tension, one notch at a time.

At the centre of everything is Detective Cara Kennedy, who must set aside her grief and strive to regain her sleuthing smarts if she is ever to get to the bottom of what happened to her family. Ellie is an offbeat but excellent foil to Kennedy’s almost manic approach, and if some of the scrapes they get into might stretch the bounds of possibility a little, they help to keep the narrative rolling along.

Those qualms aside, Village in the Dark is a strong second novel, with a pulsating plot and a fine cast of performers. I’m intrigued to see what Yamashita comes up with next.

Isolated, quirky, dangerous – Alaska has many faces in crime fiction from William Giraldi to John Straley to True Detective: Night Country.


CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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