M. J. McGrath- The Boy In The Snow

The Boy in the SnowWhen Arctic guide Edie Kiglatuk stumbles across a body abandoned in the Alaskan forest, she little imagines what her discovery will lead her to. With the local police convinced the death is linked to the Dark Believers, a sinister Russian sect, Edie’s friends insist she leave the investigation to the proper authorities. But remaining in the area as part of the support team for her ex-husband Sammy’s bid to win the famous Iditarod dog sled race, Edie cannot get the image of the frozen corpse out of her mind. While Sammy travels across some of world’s toughest and most deadly terrain, Edie sets off on an investigation which will take her into a dark world of politics, corruption and greed – as a painful secret in her past finally catches up with her . . .

Not to be deterred by my slight disappointment at McGrath’s debut ‘White Heat’ I approached this, the next in the series, with an open mind and found it a much more satisfying read overall. Familiar characters from the first book return in an altogether different setting with the action of the main plot being relocated to Alaska. Edie Kiglatuk (a native of the Inuit community on Ellesmere Island in the High Arctic) accompanies her ex-husband Sammy and police chief Derek Palliser to Alaska where Sammy is competing in the gruelling ‘Iditarod’- a world famous dog-sled race covering 1100 miles of the harshest terrain. However, Edie’s role in Sammy’s quest for glory is curtailed by her discovering the body of a baby in a snowy woodland and draws her into the path of not only an ostracised religious sect but a sinister sex trade involving young immigrant women. Running alongside this plot there is a well-constructed political story line revolving around the perfectly awful husband and wife team of Chuck and Marsha Hillingberg, as Chuck vies with an existing incumbent for the post of Governor of Alaska; a pair of the most power-hungry and scheming individuals it would ever be your misfortune to meet who inevitably cross paths with the indomitable Edie as she finds herself deeper in peril…

As with ‘White Heat’ McGrath’s research is to be applauded from the level of detail she applies to both the Iditarod race and the charting of the political processes in place for the electing of a State Governor. The depiction of the ‘Old Believers’, a religious group who broke away from the Russian Orthodox church having refused to accept the liturgical reforms imposed upon them by the main church, was also an interesting thread and this, along with the Iditarod, drove me to Google to find out more. It’s always pleasing to read a book that introduces you to a previously unknown world as long as it supports the main plot/mystery and McGrath largely achieves this.

One of my problems with the previous book was the flimsy characterisation- with the exception of the compelling Edie- and I’m glad to say that I felt infinitely more engaged with the characters in ‘The Boy In The Snow’ than I had previously. Police chief Derek Palliser seems to have shut up about his lemmings which is a bonus and I felt that by leaving his furry friends behind, McGrath’s characterisation of him improved greatly, and I was much more interested in him and his maturing relationship with Edie than before. There was a great deal more attention to detail generally in the characterisation throughout, from the main protagonists through to the ‘bit-part’ players, and I felt they had all been really fleshed-out however big their role in the plot and were altogether more believable. I’m glad that McGrath has achieved this balance as her factual detail is so compelling that the strength of this had really highlighted the weaker characterisation before.

All in all I found this an engaging read, bringing to my attention topics I had no previous knowledge of, but also providing a compelling and well- realised crime plot that held my attention throughout.

 Visit the author’s website here: http://www.melaniemcgrath.com/

 (With thanks to Macmillan for the advance reading copy)

M. J. McGrath- White Heat

White HeatNothing on the tundra rotted . . . The whole history of human settlement lay exposed there, under that big northern sky. There was nowhere here for bones to hide. On Craig Island, a vast landscape of ice north of the Arctic Circle, three travellers are hunting duck. Among them is expert Inuit hunter and guide, Edie Kiglatuk; a woman born of this harsh, beautiful terrain. The two men are tourists, experiencing Arctic life in the raw, but when one of the men is shot dead in mysterious circumstances, the local Council of Elders in the tiny settlement of Autisaq is keen to dismiss it as an accident. Then two adventurers arrive in Autisaq hoping to search for the remains of the legendary Victorian explorer Sir James Fairfax. The men hire Edie – whose ancestor Welatok guided Fairfax – along with Edie’s stepson Joe, and two parties set off in different directions. Four days later, Joe returns to Autisaq frostbitten, hypothermic and disoriented, to report his man missing. And when things take an even darker turn, Edie finds herself heartbroken, and facing the greatest challenge of her life . . .

Set in the icy wastes of a small Inuit community in the High Arctic on Ellsemere Island and the fictional Craig Island this is a tale of the harsh realities of survival and murder. The story centres on a community facing the common woes of an indigenous people subjected to their dependence on a larger sovereign state, in this case, Canada,  and highlights the social problems of drink and drug dependency that these and similar indigenous communities across the globe suffer. This, for me, was probably the most interesting aspect of the book as McGrath documents the day-to-day lives of these inhabitants referring often to the minutiae of their daily routines, language and life within this unrelenting environment, drawing on her established reputation as a non-fiction writer. The depiction of the landscape and the sheer grind of existence living with these climatic conditions was captured perfectly throughout and it did amuse me somewhat that a character refers to one day with a temperature of -25 as ‘balmy’! So these aspects of the book should have created a perfect backdrop for a gripping tale of murder in the Arctic wastes…

However, the main plot line was a disjointed and slightly unbalanced affair focusing on the character of Edie Kiglatuk, a part-time teacher and guide, and opening with the murder of a tourist she is accompanying on a visit to the island. As the town council are keen to sweep this incident under the carpet and the body count continues to grow, including one of Edie’s nearest and dearest, Edie finds herself drawn into a dangerous conspiracy concerning the tapping of natural resources in the Arctic region by an unscrupulous business organisation. This leads Edie to a seemingly suicidal mission to mainland Greenland to uncover and expose this conspiracy putting herself and those within her community at great danger. To be honest I found the plot a bit turgid with the central conspiracy not really gripping me in the way that I think it should, and I felt that at times some fiercer editing was needed with some passages meandering on losing this reader’s interest.  In terms of characterisation, aside from Edie who was a well-drawn and empathetic character, the other protagonists were less effective particularly the male characters, and I think that maybe McGrath focused to much on the factual construct of the book leaving gaps elsewhere, which would hinder the engagement of the reader with the overall story line. I think this is something that McGrath overcomes in the follow up book  The Boy In The Snow, but for me, despite the strength of the historical, political and cultural aspects of ‘White Heat, I was a little disappointed with this debut.

Visit the author’s website: http://www.melaniemcgrath.com/

Read Petrona’s review here: White Heat by M J McGrath.

Read a review at It’s A Crime here: White Heat – M J McGrath.

(With thanks to Macmillan for the advance reading copy)