Saturday, November 16, 2019

Alaskan Crime Fiction from Keenan Powell, HEMLOCK NEEDLE

It's winter in Vermont, and the weather's taken on an ambition to reflect the storms of the nation's capital: Gusty, icy, sometimes bright with color, but determinedly making things harder, day by day. And with the shortening hours of light, a person needs to take deliberate action to avoid freezing into some seasonal depression.

Reading mysteries set in Alaska might be a good notion, about now.

Crime fiction often goes dark when it's set in northern landscapes. Nordic noir exposes the cost of unhealed grief and trauma -- often, as in the hands of Henning Mankell, tugging a reluctant and damaged sleuth across the landscape. John Straley and Stan Jones tilt the darkness into the murders and abuse in their Alaskan crime fiction instead.

Keenan Powell takes another direction. Although her sleuth Maeve Malloy has reason to be bitter -- her choices in love have burned her and her career badly -- she can't afford time for a pity party. HEMLOCK NEEDLE is the second in the series (the first was Deadly Solution), and just as Maeve received notice that there's a bar complaint against her legal career, she confronts an irresistible emergency: Single mom Esther Fancyboy has vanished, and Esther's seven-year-old son Evan wants Maeve to find his mother. Now.

Powell spins a lively page-turner, with well-paced variation from action plot to Maeve's own issues. A former Anchorage attorney herself, she also dips heavily into Yu'Pik Eskimo culture:
Margaret continued. "In the village, when someone gets lost, their soul wanders the tundra. They look different from real people, all white. If you see them, they run away. They're afraid of living people."

Esther had been missing three days. No call, no text message from her at all. No effort to assure her seven-year-old son that she was alright, that he was loved, and that he didn't need to be afraid. By now, there was a pretty good chance that she was a ghost.

But until there was proof, Maeve would assume she was still alive and needed help.
It's touchy to write crime fiction that crosses cultures (white legal person, Yu'pik Eskimo community). Evaluating whether the author's crossed the line of #ownvoices is tough. The best measure that Powell has done this cleanly, though, is that her writing almost always stays inside Maeve's thinking: Her other Alaskan voices speak for themselves, but with restraint, and she writes with respect and a touch of awe about the customs and beliefs among her characters. Even the missing woman Esther Fancyboy, is a chief financial officer, someone strong and active and likeable.

Although the physical copy of the book, from Level Best Books, has the feel of a low-budget self-published work, HEMLOCK NEEDLE provides a well-written, hard-driving investigation with memorable characters. It stacks up well against the more experienced Alaska crime fiction voices of Jones and Straley, and I'll be watching for the sequel.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

1 comment:

lizabeth said...

Appreciated reading this perspective on my favoirte new mystery writer's 2nd novel.