Less Than A Treason

Written by Dana Stabenow

Review written by Gwen Moffat

Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes. The style echoes this: rustic charm masking horror.

Less Than A Treason
Head of Zeus
RRP: £18.99
Released: May 06, 2017

Kate  Shugak is a solid native Aleut, five-foot eight, 120 pounds, fortyish:  a P.I. resident in an Alaskan village but currently holed up in her cabin in the  forest recovering from a near-fatal wound to herself, and worse, the miserable death  of her beloved dog.

So Kate is not feeling sociable when a string of orienteers comes galloping across her property; even less so when one limps back, lost. The last straw is the news that the girl has stumbled on a body. The necessity of returning her to civilisation forces Kate in from the cold and, having looked at the remains herself, she is involved in the case as a witness. At the same time and apparently by coincidence she is engaged by a distraught wife who is searching for her missing husband. There is no apparent connection. People disappear in this northern wilderness all the time and the body found by the orienteer was little more than bones, scavenged by wildlife, and years old; the client’s husband was alive a week ago.

 The absentee is a geologist and his destination unknown so the investigation must start with his back history and his contacts, the first and most obvious being his wife. But although she provides some information including the name of her husband’s closest friend and colleague, it’s pretty obvious that the woman is holding something back. Then she steals Kate’s off-roader and shortly afterwards is found dead under the crashed vehicle with a suspect head wound.

 Kate flies to Anchorage in search of the missing man’s friend. Having made an appointment she turns up at his address to find he’s been killed in what passes for a “home invasion”. The plot is following a predictable pattern. Both men were geologists. The missing husband had sent specimens to an assayer and they showed signs of gold. This isn’t surprising in a state as rich in natural resources as Alaska. There are innumerable mines in the region, many abandoned, at least one major operation closed down but still in private hands, hiding behind a web of shell companies.

At the centre of that web is an aged tycoon so powerful that he can import muscle from the Chicago mafia.  A couple of gay hoods sporting mullet haircuts and wall-to-wall tattoos have appeared in the village bar looking for a local man who’s had the sense to go to ground. Since he’s a member of Kate’s extended family, here’s a personal thread tying her to the action. A neat crescendo accelerates. Somewhere there is a new and hitherto unsuspected goldmine but where?

 The plot is transparent and none the worse for that. It’s the unfamiliar setting and the minor characters that make the story. All are well-drawn but it’s the aged who shine and best of all: the four aunties, whittled down to three as one tries to dodge a grizzly when driving home from berry-picking. She was not much missed, being the least likeable of the quartet led by Auntie Vi who runs the B and B in the village. She was installed to manage the place by the mine people but there is no suggestion of gratitude or servility on the part of Auntie Vi. After all, it was less than her due; her people were here before the exploiters. Native Aleuts have learned survival techniques, a quality neatly demonstrated when Kate’s fierce and much-mourned love shows up at the end of the book.

A raw romp of a tale, jokey and facetious, colourful and careless of human life: an antidote to pretentious stuff on the one hand, Scandinoir on the other: a frontier book, and tops in the genre.


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