Book Review: Restless in the Grave
Minotaur Books, 2012
Readers new to the delightful Kate Shugak murder mysteries of Dana Stabenow might be put off by two things when confronting her latest, Restless in the Grave: it’s set in Alaska, and it’s the author’s nineteenth book starring intrepid Aleut private investigator Shugak (and also featuring gorgeous himbo state trooper Liam Campbell, who’s appeared in four novels of his own). Newcomers are often justifiably leery about joining long-running series in full tilt – the characters have impossibly tangled back-stories, old nemeses are constantly popping up, and in-jokes accumulate in all the corners. And for many readers Alaska itself may have acquired a bit of a taint-by-association, since it’s been the much-trumpeted political base of spokesperson-idiot Sarah Palin ever since Senator John McCain traitorously picked her as his 2008 vice presidential running mate. With Palin going on national TV to rant in sentence-fragments about how President Obama is driving the United States back to ‘pre-Civil War days,’ readers in the lower 48 (and the appalled world) might feel like giving a wide berth to anything connected with Alaska.
There’s nothing Dana Stabenow can do about the Sarah Palin problem even if she wanted to, but newcomers to her mysteries need not worry about the rest of it: even in Kate Shugak’s debut, 1993’s A Cold Day for Murder, Stabenow’s prose was already fine-tuned, perfectly balanced, and incredibly inviting – and it’s just kept improving since then. You won’t find an ongoing police procedural/private eye series done better than this one, and Stabenow manages the near-miracle of making each separate book a self-contained drama. Her characters have long histories, yes, but so do all fictional characters (whether their authors seem to know it or not) – the key is how well the writer of those characters recapitulates those histories. In Restless in the Grave as in all Stabenow’s books, the process of bringing new readers up to speed is so smoothly done they won’t even notice it’s happening.
The case this time involves obnoxious-but-successful Alaska businessman Finn Grant, who builds an aviation company through some hard-headed and often ruthless maneuvers, conducting air-safaris for tourists and ferrying cargo across the state. Grant is dead when the book begins, the victim of sabotage to the engine of his private plane – and Alaska state trooper (and aforementioned hunk) Liam Campbell points out, half the population of rural Alaska flies planes out of necessity, and all of those bush pilots would have the requisite knowledge to tinker with Grant’s plane … including Campbell’s own wife, Wyanet Chouinard, who’d been seen arguing with Grant right before his death. Arguing with him, and maybe threatening to kill him – although Shugak is wise enough to the ways of her home state to discount some of the more dramatic stories witnesses tell in winter:
Of course, this was winter, in rural Alaska, and that was always a time and place when the most outrageous stories were made up of whole cloth, and when the bloodiest fights started over the most ridiculous causes. Cabin fever was as real a condition as it was pernicious and pervasive. Months of unrelenting dark and cold would do that to a community. The smaller and more isolated the community, the worse the symptoms.
Since he’s got a sizeable conflict of interest, Trooper Campbell seeks out help in solving Grant’s murder (and, if possible, clearing Wyanet of suspicion), and that eventually brings him to employ private investigator Shugak to fly to the town of Newenham and look into Grant’s death. The meeting of Shugak and Campbell is something long-time Stabenow fans have eagerly anticipated: both characters are rock-solid competent at their jobs, both are cool under pressure and expert at reading people, and, not incidentally, both are attractive – although Campbell’s good looks (constantly, merrily extolled throughout the book, with a winking insistence you sense is at least half “turnabout is fair play” for decades of murder mystery misogyny) are much flashier than Shugak’s more laid-back sexiness (“Kate was sure anyone who spent that much time on their appearance had to be at least minimally aware of its impact,” we’re told. “At least he didn’t preen”). Sparks fly, of course.
And Shugak – and her faithful dog Mutt – face danger and intrigue, of course. Not for Stabenow the current Nordic fad of shabby detectives filling out endless forms with grubby fingers and then drinking themselves unconscious in filthy apartments (in Henning Mankell’s novels, the sleuths are more likely to drop their guns than fire them, and they only hit innocent bystanders, and then they complain about the extra paperwork that entails); her Kate Shugak is always at the center of things, always in command of herself, always thinking. The dilemma that faces less-assured series – how to make the heroine formidable without also making her a poor imitation of a man – is dispensed with easily in these books, mainly through the understated strength of Stabenow’s insight into her characters.
She also brims with insight into small-town Alaska (again, a possible touchy spot, although readers should be assured that Shugak isn’t a “Mama Grizzly” and never claims to be able to see Russia from across the Bering Strait); this is a richly atmospheric series of novels, and the town of Newenham can do stand-in duty for any number of rural Alaskan villages:
Besides, everybody went to Bill’s. Bill never watered down her drinks, Jimmy Buffet and the Neville Brothers were always on the jukebox – nowadays on the SoundDock – and if on that rare occasion someone as clueless enough to cause a ruckus, why, it so happened that Bill Billington was also the Newenham magistrate. It had a calming effect on the customers, while in no way dissuading them from having a good time.
Readers will have a good time in Restless in the Grave, and even many murder mystery adepts will fail to see the climax coming – as with all good whodunits, there’s a twist in the tale that’s all the more pleasing for having been inconspicuously foreshadowed. This is a winning entry in a winning series, from an author at the peak of her powers. Mystery fans shouldn’t miss it, whether they’re new to the series or not.