Stabenow mystery keeps fan guessing

Posted: Thursday, January 08, 2004

Thirteen is a lucky number for fans of Dana Stabenow's mystery novels.

"A Grave Denied" joins 12 previous volumes in the popular series about Alaska sleuth Kate Shugak. It's another good two-lunch read, in which Stabenow's sexy investigator wins again. The latest in the series maintains the high standards and consistent suspense of its predecessors.

As the story opens, Shugak is living on her family's homestead on an inholding in the unnamed park north of Prince William Sound near the fictitious village of Niniltna. Her solitary lifestyle has been modified by her informal adoption of Johnny Morgan, the 14-year-old son of her dead lover.

On a fine, spring day, Johnny's class field trip to a nearby glacier turns nasty when he and his companions find a corpse in an ice cave.

The man is Len Dreyer, a well-known handyman, dead for months of what Shugak, with her gallow's humor, describes as "a radical lungectomy with a shotgun."

The resident trooper, "Chopper Jim" Chopin, brings Shugak in as an investigator to crack the very cold case. She soon discovers that the deceased is a mystery unto himself.

"It's weird," she tells Johnny. "Everybody knew him but nobody really knew him. ... Nobody can remember him mentioning family. Nobody knows where he came from."

When someone torches Shugak's own cabin, it becomes obvious that the murderer could strike again.

In a classic plot twist, the killer's identity comes as a big surprise to both Shugak and the readers in the book's final pages.

Stabenow, a lifelong Alaskan who grew up in Seldovia and Anchorage, has a masterful command of her turf. Her continued stress on Alaska's blend of people, both Native and imported, plus her panoramic knowledge of geology, geography and now glaciology swirl around a first-rate murder puzzle with a surprise ending.

Shugak's quest for both murderer and victim leads through a lively labyrinth of suspenseful clues, colorful characters and subplots.

These deal with an array of believable but gripping issues such as family obligations, friendship, race and romance. On the side she has to deal with parenting a teen, homelessness and her ambivalent, mutual attraction with Chopin.

The addition of a teenage boy into Shugak's household may raise a few eyebrows if her own sexuality continues to carry so much up-front focus.

Young Morgan emerges as a strong character, combining precocious maturity with the standard adolescent allotment of melancholy angst, nave assumptions and confused yearnings. The book drops hints that he will emerge as a talented protg for Shugak in future adventures.

Stabenow won a national mystery writers' award a decade ago with "A Cold Day for Murder," in which she first introduced her tough heroine.

Shugak has survived emotional and physical scars in the intervening volumes, but remains a strong and evolving character. In herself, she embodies the diversity of Alaska, as described by Chopin:

"Her cheekbones were high and flat and just beginning to take on that bronze tint he had noticed during previous summers, all gifts of her Aleut heritage, although the high bridge of her nose was all Anglo and the jut of her chin as Athabascan as it got.

"She seemed tall but wasn't, reaching a neat five feet on a lithe, compact frame. She had a tall personality, he decided."

Character depiction is one of the book's many strong points. The author has a great ear for dialogue, eye for gesture and feel for nuance. The scene where Shugak confronts Johnny's sour mother in an Anchorage eatery is a delicious catfight.

The book's pacing also is strong. The action flows seamlessly through scenes of personal interactions and fond descriptions of rural Alaska life down to its mud and magpies.

Although Stabenow frequently lingers over the lives of her secondary characters, such tangents add to the overall tapestry of her series and never bog down her narrative.

"A Grave Denied" implies that Kate Shugak and Dana Stabenow are at the peak of their form and have plenty more great stories to tell.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Peninsula Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks. Gini Ferguson, who contributed to this review, is an avid mystery reader in California

(and Shana's mother).

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