Edie Kiglatuk Mysteries
M. J. McGrath’s mysteries, featuring half-Inuit Edie Kiglatuk and a frozen northern landscape, effectively meld two domains, two historic layers of past wisdom and present conveniences. Her novels take place in a changing world, where native savvy and modern knowledge must function side by side. Sometimes snow mobiles; sometimes dog sleds. Sometimes tracking prey across the ice; sometimes tracking movements on the internet. Sometimes blood soup and whale blubber and protein-rich diets; sometimes far too much Canadian Mist. For those of us who like authors who teach us about other places and other customs, M. J. McGrath is a terrific discovery. Her Inuit peoples’ engagement with the twenty-first century is both powerful and convincing.
The first novel in the Edie Kiglatuk series is White Heat. Set on Ellesmere Island (Umingmak Nuna) in northernmost Canada, White Heat introduces Edie, her family and friends. She is guiding a hunting expedition when one man inexplicably is shot and killed. The Autisaq elders, choosing to avoid controversy, call the death an accident, but Edie (who found a telltale footprint) knows it was murder. As she pursues the icy clues, and as more deaths occur, Edie discovers a complicated outsider-insider plot to secure environmental resources. Past and present are colliding with force and brutality.
Unlike many series that tend to be repetitive, McGrath changes tactics and locale in her second novel. The Boy in the Snow takes Edie and two other Autisaq colleagues to Alaska. Sammy (Edie’s ex) is racing the Iditarod, while Derek (White Heat’s Ellesmere Island policeman) and Edie form his support team. But Edie finds a corpse, a “boy in the snow”, and is soon immersed in another cultural clash. This one involves the Old Believers, a cult of immigrants who broke off the from Russian Orthodox church in 1666 and who have lived in isolation for centuries, versus modern-day Alaskans, policemen and politicians who are scrambling to take advantage of the Alaskan economy. The way Edie, an outsider, negotiates the Alaskan milieu, is fascinating, for Alaska is just as foreign to her as it would be to someone from the lower forty-eight.
McGrath’s third novel, The Bone Seeker, returns Edie to Ellesmere Island and soon embroils her in another unsolved murder. This time Edie has been hired to help out at a Native school, and one of its prize pupils has been killed. Before long, another cultural clash is set in motion, this time between the Inuit villagers and soldiers at a nearby military encampment, where five hundred men are undertaking summer maneuvers. Whether young Martha was killed by one of her own or by one of the outsiders proves to be a complicated problem. Edie and Derek expose countless lies and cover-ups, undertake innumerable false trails and misdirections, while finally solving the mystery of Martha’s murder.
M. J. McGrath’s novels keep getting better and better. I liked the first two; I liked the third one even more. It seemed more complex, with a taut story line that eventually spread from the Cold War to the twenty-first century and that kept me guessing throughout. I also appreciated the “Spoiler Alert” at the end, where McGrath explains the genesis of The Bone Seeker and where she indicates exactly how fact and fiction converge and digress. McGrath, a journalist, published a number of nonfiction books about the Arctic North before beginning her Edie Kiglatuk series, so she is on familiar ground when describing Inuit life, the landscape that surrounds them, and the ways in which modernity is impinging upon their lifestyle and their land.
From Inuit dietary constraints to Inuit linguistic characteristics, and from Inuit spiritual beliefs to Inuit customs and habits, McGrath constantly teaches her readers. As “Bookin’ with Sunny” followers know by now, I highly value books that dig more deeply into historical and cultural roots. None of McGrath’s novels is purely anthropological, however. They’re really fine mysteries, simultaneously unraveling the present and the past while strongly depicting cultural confrontations. I highly recommend them. – Ann Ronald
Also available by M. J. McGrath: (nonfiction) The Long Exile; Silvertown; Hopping; Motel Nirvana;The Long Exile; Hard Soft and Wet, Digital Generation Comes of Age.