killing grounds

Book groups and book blogging: two great ways to discover authors you might not otherwise have been aware of.

My crime reading book group recently introduced me to the joys of Dana Stabenow’s ‘Kate Shugak investigates’ series. Set in Alaska it follows the adventures of a retired (but young) District Attorney investigator with four Aleut aunties, a half-wolf, half-husky companion called Mutt and a tough streak a mile wide.

Of course, any crime committed within her local wilderness will eventually result in the authorities – this time in the form of hot Trooper Jim – seeking her advice, even if she hasn’t been the one to discover the body (and I get the impression that she often is the one who finds the body).

What’s it about?

Stabbed, beaten, strangled, drowned. Sometimes people get exactly what they deserve.

Now there’s a strapline to lure you in!

Kate first encounters Cal Meany (and oh yes he is) abusing his son by casually backhanding him off a boat into the Pacific Ocean. Twice. Next she spies him engaging in adultery, fishing during a fishing strike and generally being a bastard. So it’s safe to say that when he turns up dead, Kate isn’t all that sad. Trouble is, nor is anyone else. In fact, fishermen and neighbours alike freely admit that they would shake the hand of Meany’s murderer!

Sometimes people get exactly what they deserve.

As motives for murder pile up and Meany’s wife seeks the reassurance of knowing he is definitely dead, Kate and Trooper Jim have to establish who wanted him dead enough to stab him post-beating and drowning.

The game changes when Meany’s daughter is murdered and her lover disappears; can Kate catch the killer – or will they catch her?

What’s it like?

Atmospheric. Slow-moving. Logical.

Sometimes a blurb can give away a little too much, and as it takes 100 odd pages for Cal Meany to die, it would be easy to get impatient with Stabenow’s story-telling. Except. She captures the life of the local people and their attitudes so completely that the opening chapters are a pleasure to read, even though they focus on the act of fishing, gutting, still-beating hearts and all – and I’m a vegetarian.

In Stabenow’s vividly realised Alaskan world you’re following Kate Shugak’s life, and she just happens to have solved a murder.

There’s actually not a lot of depth to the main plot here. Once Meany’s daughter is murdered and Kate discovers the lover is missing, the pieces fall into place and, like the gentle opening, there’s a lengthy closing to the book with the murderer dealt with 26 pages before the end, allowing plenty of time for Shugak to resolve her personal dilemmas and mysteries before the book’s end.

I have to admit, I quite liked this approach. Sometimes in books this feels like a cheat – in a really tense thriller you’d be waiting for a bonus twist, or in an ongoing series you might expect to be snagged on a hook for the next book – but in Stabenow’s vividly realised Alaskan world you’re following Kate Shugak’s life, and she just happens to have solved a murder. No big deal, and when’s the next fishing session anyway?

Final thoughts

I loved reading about Kate’s relationship with her aunts and I like Kate’s tough and fiery nature, and her ability to recognise her flaws and make amends. If I was going to be critical I’d focus on her seemingly indestructible nature, but we all know a recurring series heroine cant die, so it would be churlish of me to feel this was a flaw.

I also enjoyed reading about America’s ‘last frontier’ and the characters who dwell there. I shall certainly be keeping an eye out for more of Dana Stabenow’s books in this series (a few of the others my group read sounded very appealing), though I’m mindful of her admission that continuity can be a bit error-prone, so I may wait a while before reading another.

Has anyone got any recommendations for which of her books I should read next?

‘Killing Grounds’,
Dana Stabenow,
2013, HeadofZeus, paperback