A Fatal Thaw by Dana Stabenow

And so I finally find a little window in my busy life to write a review – seems like ages but it’s only been a week. Never mind, normal service will hopefully be resumed soon. It’s not that I haven’t been reading, just haven’t found the time to write the reviews. Anyway…

You may remember A Cold Day for Murder, which introduced Kate Shugak, ex-investigator (yeah, right) for the Alaskan DA and, more importantly, her half-husky, half-wolf Mutt. And, more importantly, it is available as a taster for the series in ebook form for absolutely nothing from Amazon. On the strength of the first book, I picked up A Fatal Thaw, the second in the series – also not very expensive, and settled in for a read.

This book centres initially on a charming individual who decides to put his hunting skills to the test by slaughtering a number of Kate’s neighbours. Once his killing spree is over – the first chapter – the truth emerges that one of his victims was, in fact, shot by a different gun. A second killer is loose in the Park and Kate is charged to investigate.

First of all, and I want to make this clear, this book is a great read. Just like the descriptions in all those historical mysteries that I keep banging on about, the sense that you’re reading about a place that it’s highly unlikely that you’ll ever visit is enchanting. I can’t see myself heading to the Alaskan wilderness any day soon (but will do one day – I need my Alaskan fridge magnet for my collection) but the book brings it to life vividly, as it does the community that lives there.

It is to Stabenow’s credit that some of the traditions, despite seeming over-the-top, such as the Vietnam remembrance described in this book, still seem completely real. At no point did I ever question what was going on in the Park, I just went along with the ride.

But we’re here to talk about the mystery… hmmm.

[Just bear with me while I think about this a bit]

[Trying to think of how to put this without giving enough information that would spoil it]

[Still trying… ]

[OK, this is going to be verging on the spoiler-y. Sorry]

The murderer makes sense. The whole plot makes sense in a logical sense and a human sense and there is an inevitability about the murderer written throughout the book. Despite your tendency to look elsewhere, there really is only one direction the story can go. So how can you do something to hide the killer?

Introduce a plot element that rules them out of the killing and then never explaining it when they are revealed as the killer. I presume on re-reading various bits that it’s simply a presumption that is stated, rather than a fact, which sets up this alibi, but it’s not presented as such. And this is, I think, the biggest cheat in any of the books that I’ve reviewed in the last year and a half. Now if someone wants to correct me, feel free, but I re-read chunks of the latter part of the book looking for an explanation, but couldn’t find one. I’ll happily admit that at times I’ll doze off when reading a book only to wake up twenty pages later…

…but if I didn’t, then I’m sorry, but I can’t recommend this book as the sort of mystery that I like. Everything else – and I mean everything – about the book is great, and because of that, I’ll give the third book, Dead In The Water, a try at some point. So if you’re into character and setting, give this one a try. But if you’re a hard-core mystery nut, you might like to look elsewhere.


  1. I still haven’t read the first one, so it will take me a while to catch up, but I’d agree that that sounds like a pretty serious flaw (even if you don’t view it as a mystery, it seems pretty weak to just drop a plot point when it become inconvenient).

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. Assertions and assumptions can often cause problems, especially when editors and authors aren’t on the same page (I don’t know if Stabenow has a regular editor, so maybe this doesn’t apply here). Editors have a mania for brevity. It’s often warranted – one of the main features of unedited drafts is an overabundance of adverbs, adjective and other qualifiers. The temptation is to chop them all and think no more about it.

    But in mysteries, cropping out an “allegedly”, “supposedly” or even a “maybe” can ruin the experience for the reader by turning a mere possibility into an incontrovertible fact. I think sometimes the author can forget why they put all those qualifiers there in the first place and accidentally chop them out during a redraft. Or sometimes an editor comes along who’ll never understand why those extra words should have been there in the first place.


    • That’s an excellent point. But in this case, I think the word “probably” might have signposted the killer too early.

      I don’t know, maybe I missed something. Anyone out there who’s read the book who can point out if I missed something?
      Sent from my BlackBerry® smartphone on O2


  2. Sorry not to be able to contribute properly as I’ve not read this either, though I think I know what you’re getting at. There are Ellery Queen books for instance where a huge amount of effort is put into obfuscating what is in fact the most obvious solution, which I didn’t mind because it introduced new puzzles that were worth unraveling in and of themselves.

    On the other hand, if you feel that the author has cheated and done it just to spring an extra surprise and not as it were to make a point, then for me it means that you are likely to lose the suspension of disbelief, but more crucially also that sense of partnership between author and reader. It’s not so much about playing fair in the Queen sense (Manfred Lee used to say that you could only really solve the challenge to the reader correctly with what they gave you if you were a genius), but rather the case if you are not guying the genre or trying to pull some sort of post-modern critique, then all it means is that for the effect to work you are asking the reader to ultimately settle for second best. Yes you get a nice surprise, but at the cost of having to to be cheated to get there. And in a mystery, I think that’s a sin unless you have a point to make because what that means is that you are treating your reader with a certain lack of regard if not a little bit of contempt. Even children know a cheat i a story when they see someone not playing by their own rules just to get out of a tight corner – if you have enough charm to make people accept it then you get a pass, but usually it’s the same as a last minute ‘Deus-ex-machina’ which solves everything but leaves you feeling completely disenfranchised as a participant.


    • In some ways I’m reminded of Carter Dickson’s And So To Murder where Merrivale insists that the villain is innocent for no particularly good reason other than to annoy the reader.

      I know that the Queen logic can be perverse and often has holes that you could drive a bus through but at least I’ve never felt that there was a cheat.

      Probably comparing apples with oranges here though. There’s no attempt here, or in most books these days, to present a mystery of anywhere near the depth of Queen.
      Sent from my BlackBerry® smartphone on O2


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