Bush sleuth goes to town in mystery thriller

Posted: Thursday, November 11, 2004

Anchorage writer Dana Stabenow has won critical acclaim and legions of fans with her Kate Shugak series of mystery novels. The 14th installment, "A Taint in the Blood," is now available.

Shugak combines petite good looks with grit and ferocity. An Aleut who survived a hardscrabble childhood to make her way as a top investigator in the Anchorage District Attorney's office, she abandoned her job after a horrific crime-scene encounter left her emotionally and physically scarred.

Stabenow began the series with Shugak seeking a hermit-like life on her late parents' remote homestead near the imaginary village of Niniltna, surrounded by a vast national park modeled on Wrangell-St. Elias. But a revolving cast of Bush crazies, poachers and visiting ne'er-do-wells foil her attempts at a quiet life. In book after book, her reputation for unorthodox and brilliant murder solutions leads others to call her in as a private investigator.

"She was comfortable with who she was and what she had done to get there," Stabenow tells us. "Mostly, she did things for people. Most of the time, it helped, enough of the time it earned her a living, and she was comfortable with that, too."

"A Taint in the Blood" steps out of this mold by taking Shugak away from her rural home and sending her uptown. Specifically, most of the story takes place in Anchorage, playing out among its wealthiest neighborhoods.

The story kicks off when Shugak drives up the rutted, alder-lined lane to her cabin and discovers, to her astonishment, a royal purple Cadillac Escalade parked in her yard. An impeccably dressed, middle-aged woman introduces herself as Charlotte Muravieff, scion of one of Alaska's oldest, richest and most powerful families.

Most murder mysteries begin with the awkward discovery of a corpse and end with an arrest. But Muravieff presents Shugak with something different.

The heiress hires the sleuth to re-examine a case closed 31 years earlier. The crime was particularly nasty. Muravieff's mother was tried and convicted of the arson murder of one of her sons and the attempted murder of the other. The elder woman is serving life in prison and now has cancer. The daughter wants to clear her mother's name and win her release before she dies.

Shugak takes what she considers a frivolous and futile case only because the enormous payment will allow her to start a college fund for her ward, Johnny Morgan. Soon she is checking into her town house on Westchester Lagoon, digging her only formal outfit out of the closet and hobnobbing with an elite whose attitudes make her skin crawl.

The shift in setting removes many of the series' regular supporting characters from roles this go-round, leaving this story less grounded in Shugak's rich back story. But it also gives the author a chance to catch up with city contacts and to introduce a few new characters. The most memorable is the impish Morris "Max" Maxwell, the elderly ex-cop Shugak borrows from the Pioneer Home. His recall of dirty deeds from generations past proves as entertaining to readers as it is helpful to the plot.

As Shugak stirs up the ashes of this very old case, she is surprised to find that they still generate heat. She discovers that Muravieff's family has an unusually high number of skeletons in its closet, and if she is not careful, her own might be added to the toll.

Stabenow is a real pro, and her surefooted prose shines. She describes her hometown in deft detail, from jogging on the Coastal Trail to cocktail-party chitchat about state politics.

But the book also harbors flaws.

The author amply pads a few scenes, sometimes letting her usually charming gift of gab outwear its welcome. The writing and plotting are not as tight as they could have been.

Subplots prove distracting. Al-though most tie into the main plot with finesse, a few leave lose ends and consume space that would have been used better exploring underdeveloped aspects of the promising main story line.

The dominant subplot continues an ongoing thread from the series about Shugak's busy love life. In this volume, when she is not working the case she is working over Trooper Jim Chopin, the commitment-phobic park Casanova who has the hots for her so bad he doesn't even realize it. Their randy sparring makes for racy reading far more than in previous volumes.

Stabenow also dishes up standard plot devices: an escalating body count and a scene where the bad guys almost knock off the heroine.

Moving the scene to Anchorage and its moneyed class distances "A Taint in the Blood" from the Native culture and wild land that provide the bedrock beneath most of the series. For some readers, the urbanized context seems more mundane and less Alaskan than Shugak's home in the wilds.

Stabenow is a good writer, she sets up an interesting premise at the heart of this tale, and Shugak is always a compelling heroine. But, despite her talent for plotting, the author is slacking off a bit here, and "A Taint in the Blood," even though it is fun, is not her best work.

Shana Loshbaugh is a former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks. Contributing to this review was Gini Ferguson, an avid mystery fan who lives in California (and is Shana's mother).

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