Death at Sub-Zero Degrees – M.J.McGrath

M. J. McGrath

M. J. McGrath

A thumbs-up for the crime series featuring Edie Kiglatuk by M. J. McGrath, by CICELY HAVELY.

CICELY HAVELY

CICELY HAVELY

The series includes

WHITE HEAT,

THE BOY IN THE SNOW,

THE BONE SEEKER.

mcgrath-m White HeatEdie Kiglatuk, part-time teacher, part-time arctic guide.  Her buddy Derek Palliser is the senior of just two cops responsible for policing ‘a frigid desert of mountains, fjords and rocky scree the size of Wyoming’ in Nunavut, Canada’s newest and largest province.

The search for rare minerals prompts the murders that open McGrath’s first novel White HeatPeople trafficking from neighbouring Russia is the theme of The Boy in the Snow and The Bone Seeker disinters the fatal legacy of military exploitation in the region.  Great stuff.

And all (to me) utterly convincing.  The writing rings so authentic that I was surprised to discover McGrath isn’t Inuit herself. How does she do it?

McGrath’s research began with a factual project, about the unacknowledged son Robert Flaherty left behind after directing his silent documentary Nanook of the North (1922).  In 1952 the Canadian government relocated Josephie and his family to Ellesmere Island, thousands of kilometers north of their homeland on the Hudson Bay, in order to establish Canadian rights to the territory.  It’s a fascinating, moving story which clearly left its author both outraged and admiring.

But research alone isn’t enough.  There’s got to be empathy.  For most of McGrath’s readers, ice is frozen water, but to Edie and her Inuit clan, water is thawed ice.  This subtle reversal of perceptions operates throughout.  Most arctic thrillers delight in making you feel the cold; McGrath makes you feel that 10° can be stifling.

Never express surprise or shock at what is perfectly normal to your characters.  That has to be rule number one. There’s plenty to horrify the fastidious in the Ellesmere way of life, but because McGrath takes in her stride the Inuit diet, their troubled relationship with booze and sugar and the scruffiness of their immediate surroundings, she is able to make the less material, more spiritual aspects of a very alien value-system more accessible and sympathetic to her readers.  She never over-explains.  Being a little baffled can be very flattering.  It makes us feel that we are not too far from being in-the-know (and of course it prevents the narrative from getting bogged down in detail).

Highly recommended.  But the problem that any writer who chooses to write about a single community always faces, looms very large here.   While deaths by suicide on Ellesmere are tragically common, and deaths by accident are inevitable in such terrain, too many murders among such a tiny population will stretch credulity.  McGrath herself seemed to have this in mind when she moved her second novel, The Boy in the Snow, to the comparatively mild climate and denser population of northern Alaska.  Trouble is, that like Edie, she seems less at home here than on the high arctic tundra.  The novel opens with Edie getting lost in a forest – this is the first time she has encountered trees.  But the plot itself – though gripping and powerful – is in danger of becoming equally bewildering.  You can sense the relief of returning to the vast open spaces in her third novel, which had me poring over some of the blankest pages in my atlas to appreciate its scope.

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About peterjearle

Writer of thriller novels. 4 Published: 'Purgatory Road', 'The Barros Pawns', and the Detective Dice Modise Series:'Hunter's Venom' and 'Medicinal Purposed Only', all from Southern Africa.
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