M J McGrath – Melanie McGrath in her previous non-fiction outings – has a wonderful knowledge of life in the outer reaches of Arctic Canada, its history and politics, and its culture in the contemporary world. She shares all this in White Heat, managing to take in Greenland along the way. Her protagonist, Edie Kiglatuk, is a force to be reckoned with and a beautifully refreshing character in today’s world for this is a woman who takes family, responsibility and commitment seriously. She may be divorced but she still feels and acts upon her commitment to her stepson Joe.
Edie is an expert hunter and guide in a forbidding terrain. She takes two tourists on an expedition but returns with one dead, shot in mysterious circumstances. Canada it may be, and arms length at that, but with a sparse population the authorities do not operate as many of us would expect. When Edie reports this unfortunate occurrence, the Council of Elders in Autisaq are quick to deem it an accident with an overriding view to protection of their much needed economic income from tourism. Think hushed. Think hidden. Think under the carpet, if such flooring existed in this part of the world.
Later, a second pair of tourists arrive wanting to locate the remains of Victorian explorer Sir James Fairfax. Edie employs step-son Joe for this expedition and they split into two groups. Having lost contact, it takes four days before Joe returns to Autisaq and he is seriously ill. Can it get any worse for Edie and her extended family? It certainly can and does. Suddenly she finds herself in the position of the only determined investigator seeking truth after unbearable personal tragedy.
The exquisite and major strengths in this novel come from the setting and the character of Edie. Life in this Canadian outpost is quite unique on a day to day basis as well as in culture. And yet we also see similarities to the western territories where drink and drug dependence take hold, mainly in the younger generation. Edie may be a stalwart and a sturdy character but she is not without her own demons to battle. The novel provides an education for this geographic area without ever shrieking ‘Look at my research!’ The fabric of the setting is rich and imbued in the story in palpable detail. Edie is a welcome character to the crime genre and one to return to.
When it comes to plotting, there are few characters to make the suspect list and in this area of sparse population it leads to a slight feeling of engineered (and potentially anticipated) denouement. But it’s Edie’s journey that takes the eye here, and her life close to the tundra. Edie has the potential to be the next Jane Tennison in terms of character, and we need one.
McGrath is one to watch, as is Edie. More please and let’s celebrate, for I now hear it’s coming.