WHITE HEAT by M. J. McGrath

White Heat
M. J. McGrath
Viking
ISBN-13: 978-0670022489

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White Heat by M. J. McGrath has the usual mystery novel elements:  murders, hidden agendas, police procedures, and an amateur sleuth. The novel opens with the murder of a hunter named Wagner, a qalunaat (white) man. He and his partner, Andy Taylor, hired half-Inuit Edie Kiglatuk to guide them, but their inability to bring down so much as a hare disgusts her. Suddenly, Wagner’s shot in the chest. He didn’t shoot himself, and Taylor didn’t shoot him, so it must have been another hunter, mistaking Wagner for game. The only sure things are the shooter is somewhere in the community and someone knows who he is. Slowly, the mystery ensnares more and more people, including the most unlikely suspects.

Yet White Heat isn’t a typical mystery. It’s set in one of the coldest, most inhospitable places on earth. Ellesmere Island, part of the Canadian province of Nunavut, is farther north than Greenland, sitting just off that island’s northeast shoulder around 79° North Latitude. (The Arctic Circle begins around 66°.) There are no large towns on Ellesmere, and the small population is largely Inuit. In such a small human community it’s hard for people to keep secrets. For the land it is impossible. Nothing rots in the frozen ground, and time uncovers everything.

The heroine/amateur sleuth is Edie Kiglatuk. Half Inuit, half qalunaat, she is a recovering alcoholic and divorced, though in the settlement of Autisaq on Ellesmere Island, it’s impossible to avoid her ex, Sammy Inukpuk. Edie doesn’t want to avoid his sons, Joe and Willa, whom she loves as if they were her own. Joe remains especially close. He is a promising, ambitious young man, planning to be a nurse. Edie’s determined to help him realize his dream. Between her jobs as hunting guide and part-time teacher, trying to stay sober, and stay out of trouble with her ex and his brother, the mayor of Autisaq, Edie’s life has little enough comfort. She finds that and inspiration, too, from watching classic silent comedies starring Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Laurel and Hardy. Edie’s sense of humor is pretty grim, but so is her determination. Her strength is nearly boundless, her love fierce. These qualities bind the reader to her from the start.

Derek Palliser, only resident lawman on Ellesmere, is a character one is not as quick to like. He starts out uninvolved and unmotivated to get involved. His main interest is the study of lemmings, which she pursues with ambitions to publish an important article. Moreover, he’s carrying a torch for a lovely Russian lass who left him flat a few months before. When she returns, with what may be very convenient timing, Derek is slow and reluctant to respond to Edie Kiglatuk’s calls for help.

As well as being an absorbing mystery, White Heat is a thoughtful journey through the history and politics of Ellesmere’s Inuit culture and how climate and landscape shape people and  events. A lot of the book’s tension relies on the clash of cultures between those below 79° North and those above it, anyone Inuit and anyone not. Thoughtful doesn’t mean slow. Suspense develops page by page, not all in one heart-pounding rush and builds to an exciting climax.

I highly recommend this fascinating, literary mystery.

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