"Alaskans Die Young," by Susan Hudson Johnson
Alaskans Die Young
By Susan Hudson Johnson
Published by McRoy & Blackburn
Many a mystery fan has fantasized about writing their own tale of corpses and clues. Fairbanksan Susan Hudson Johnson has made that fantasy itself a piece of "Alaskans Die Young" her homegrown detective yarn.
Heather Adams, the narrator, has written, by her own admission, a bushel of short stories destined to wither in unpublished obscurity. A widow and retired school teacher living in a cabin in Fairbanks, she works on, driven by what she calls the incurable itch to write.
Sharing her obsession is a group of writers who call themselves the Oysters (because they meet only in months containing the letter "R" ). All women "of a certain age" with husbands and children removed from their lives, they are a creative but eccentric and tight-lipped lot.
When they praise one of her stories, Adams takes a plunge:
"Well, I got carried away. Inspired and energized, I announced that I was going to write a full-length mystery novel," she says.
Jump starting her imagination with reality, she turns to the local newspaper archives for ideas. On a hunch, she expands her search from murders to include unnatural deaths of all sorts. Noting that three casualties on the list were freshmen at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, she arbitrarily invents a serial killer of college students.
But when she looks deeper into their cases, she finds that they share far more than their untimely demises. Soon Adams finds her source material far more interesting and upsetting than anticipated.
Adding to her disquiet is the reaction of her writing group. The members, far from encouraging her project, toss obstacles in her way at every turn.
Soon mishaps dog her progress, and it becomes clear that someone doesn't want the story told. And that someone is likely a cold-blooded murderer.
"By defining the murderer, by walking in his footsteps, I have somehow created him; he has become real," Adams muses. "I have created such a monster that I am afraid of him. If I tear up my notes, will he go away?"
"Alaskans Die Young" follows three interwoven story strands. Adams' research and speculation construct and reconstruct the sad tale of three fine young men whose promising lives were cut short. Framing that central mystery are the narrative of Adams' life during the course of about eight months and her reflections on the creative process.
This book is unusual in that it walks the reader through a beginning novelist's work. One gets the sense that much of what Johnson writes about Adams' literary life is autobiographical.
Johnson tells us about her protagonist's favorite reading, reference books she consults and the primers that coach her through the writing process real-world books all.
The central mystery about the fate of the three students is intriguing and compelling.
Other aspects of the book, however, reveal weaknesses. The first chapter begins slowly with a survey of the "dramatis personae" rather than action. The middle of the book is gripping and well-constructed, but at the end pieces seem to be missing and a few loose ends dangle.
Like many genre mysteries, "Alaskans Die Young" asks readers to accept improbable coincidences and the underlying premise that an amateur sleuth could and would uncover more than professional police detectives.
Heather Adams and her own domestic dramas are believable to the verge of banality. Her feisty grandson, Andrew, energizes her fairly staid existence, but a subplot about problems with her parents' dementia wanders away from the main story. Such digressions are interesting, but only loosely connected to the main plot.
Johnson has done a good job with Adams and writes sprightly dialog. But sometimes the Oysters come across as assembled from a catalog of mystery sidekicks. The author could have developed them and other secondary characters better.
The publisher describes "Alaskans Die Young" as one of a series of "cold cozy novels," promising it is neither "noir nor gory." The book delivers on that promise, managing to convey both a sense of dread and a touching respect for the dead without lurid scenes.
It is perfect for a relaxing read in an easy chair with a mug of steaming coffee on the side. Johnson has written a novel about and for gray-haired ladies who adore puzzling through mystery fiction. On that level, "Alaskans Die Young" delivers.
Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.
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