The History of Kate Shugak in 20 Objects – 12

Warning: Spoilers spoken here.

HoZ Kate12 cover

Of course you’re all right. It’s the lock box.


Commemorated in this scene, which begins

    It was entirely involuntary, a knee-jerk reaction.  She didn’t stop to think about it, she just picked up the little tin lock box and let fly.  It’s arc was swift and her aim was true.  The box caught him just above the left eyebrow and burst open.

but also for what Kate finds in it before she launches it as an offensive weapon slash foreplay. It’s also a pretty good symbol, if I sez it who shouldn’t, of Kate breaking free of her grief over Jack to begin to live again. Even if it is with the single most unlikely guy in the Kate ‘verse. [Bonus points to anyone who remembers which book in the Kate series first signals Jim’s other than professional interest in her.]

HoZ Kate13

Next month, an object from A Grave Denied, the thirteenth Kate Shugak mystery. Please put your suggestions for said object in the comments below, and thanks!


PW Private Eye Interview

[from PW’s 2011 feature on mystery writers and their PI’s]

What first appealed to you about the PI as a heroine? Did you always envision Kate Shugak as a series character?

If I had been smart enough to see A Cold Day for Murder as the first in a series that would last 19 books and counting, I would never have killed off Abel, Kate’s mentor and the eminence grise of that novel. No, the first Kate Shugak novel was written more as a writing exercise, in between writing two science fiction novels. It was definitely the lazy woman’s way to write a book–it was set in my home state so little research required, it featured Aleuts (I was raised with Aleuts), and Kate was a woman because I’m a woman and it’s always easier to write in your own gender.

How were you influenced by earlier examples of PIs in crime fiction, both classic ones like Philip Marlowe and more recent (and more female) characters like V.I. Warshawski, Kinsey Millhone, and Anna Lee?

I was more influenced by Sherlock Holmes, whose stories I had about memorized by the time I was twelve. I am ashamed to say that I hadn’t read a lot of crime fiction until I started writing it, and then, look out! Beginning with Sharon McCone, the first woman PI who could take a punch, Kinsey, Vic, I inhaled them all. Later I even started reading Miss Marple and Miss Silver and Lord Peter because he was smart enough to fall for Harriet Vane, no mean sleuth herself.

Are there any drawbacks to writing about a character who exists, in a sense, between the civilian world and the world or law enforcement?

Rather the reverse. “Let’s face it, you never met a rule of evidence you liked,” as Chopper Jim once said to Kate Shugak. She can get away with much a sworn officer cannot. Very results oriented, Kate, and not one to worry about fruit of the poisonous tree if she can nail a perp who is hurting her Park rats.

Private eyes often have strong ties to the areas where they work. How do locations and settings help define Kate?

The Kate Shugak novels are as much about Alaska as they are about crime fiction. Alaska is one of the characters, it is omnipresent and all-influential, from the oilfields in Prudhoe Bay to the crab fishing grounds of the Aleutian Islands to the Quilak Mountains in the Park. But then all my novels are like that. I always start with a place, then I figure out who lives there, and then I see what kind of trouble they can get themselves into.

In P.D. James’s first Cordelia Gray novel, men scoff at the idea of women in the PI field, calling Gray’s chosen profession “an unsuitable job for a woman.” Do you think there are any inherent differences today between male and female PIs in crime fiction?

Would anyone but a fool dismiss Vic Warshawski or Clara Rinker because of their gender? Or Kate Shugak? Not unless they wanted their nuts handed to them on a platter.

A Cold Day for Murder Cover

The first Kate Shugak novel is free on Kindle and iTunes. Such a deal…

The History of Kate Shugak in 20 Objects – 11

WARNING: Spoilers spoken here.

HoZ Kate11 cover

I liked Ginger’s comment about the Dawson Darling and the other comments about the Good-time Girls, but I’m going with Megan. It’s the transcript. And you’re going to love this: There is a real one, or at least a transcript of the inquest into the death of a real-life good time girl.

Mrs. Harp's inquest

I learned of the tragic history of Alice Astor first in (of course) Lael Morgan’s marvelous Good Time Girls of the Alaska-Yukon Gold Rush.

On April 7, 1915, Alice was found dead, her throat cut, in the house she had rented on Fifth Avenue. According to the autopsy report (which should not be read on a full stomach), the murder had cut the jugular, severed her spinal cord, trachea, and esophagus, and taken cartilage from the lower third cervical vertebra. He also had taken muscular tissue off the fourth and sixth cervical vertebrae, and surgically removed the right ovary and tube.

So I called the Alaska State Archives Office in Juneau and the wonderful Angela Fiori was able to unearth documents pertaining to Alice’s death, which included the report on the inquest and the probate settlement of her estate (but not, mercifully, the autopsy report).

And the Dawson Darling was born.

HoZ Kate12 cover

Next month, an object from A Fine and Bitter Snow, the twelfth Kate Shugak mystery. Please put your suggestions for said object in the comments below, and thanks!

The History of Kate Shugak in 20 Objects – 10

WARNING: Spoilers spoken here.

HoZ Kate10

It’s the Herc. Has to be.

C-130 Hercules

In service since the 1950s, designed originally for troop transport in war zones, it is also one of the sturdiest and most reliable workhorses for transport of freight and heavy equipment into Bush Alaska, home to more rough gravel airstrips than just about anywhere else. They are common to Alaskan skies–I see one or more every day on their way to doing touch-and-goes at Homer Airport. Admittedly, it took a long time to find a pilot who would agree to putting a Herc into a flat spin, even if it was just in his own imagination. When I finally did, I stopped asking and wrote the scene.

A few years after Midnight Come Again was published, I was invited to ride along on the Alaska Air National Guard’s Operation Santa Claus, the annual trip they make to Savoonga. I even got to ride up front for a bit. Earplugs are advised.

And here’s the Kate Shugak history lesson I promised you last month–

Hunter’s Moon was very nearly the last Kate Shugak novel, not because Kate was done living her life but because my publisher lowballed me on the next contract offer. I like to eat, and a roof is good, too, and neither was possible with that offer. As far as I was concerned, the Kate Shugak series was done.

Meanwhile, across town, the lovely and talented Kelley Ragland, she of St. Martin’s Minotaur, heard on the wind that Kate might be homeless. It turned out she was Kate’s biggest fan, so she contacted my agent and made an offer that allowed for food and lodging. For the first time in my career I was making a decent living, and later, under Kelley’s care, Kate was hitting the New York Times bestseller list. Now I’m working on the twenty-first novel in the series.

Our hero.

Our hero.

None of it would have happened without Kelley Ragland. If there is a particular novel between Kate10 and Kate20 you like, thank her for it.

HoZ Kate11 cover

Next month, an object from The Singing of the Dead, the eleventh Kate Shugak mystery. Please put your suggestions for said object in the comments below, and thanks!

The History of Kate Shugak in 20 Objects – 7

WARNING: Spoilers spoken here.


7 – Golden crowned sparrow

Although you people are killing me here, being all over the map as you are (the 747 engine! the bear! the pickup! the Cat! snow machines!) the most votes are for the sparrow.


We call it the “spring is here” bird, because it is when you first hear the notes of its song. Listen to it here.

It’s my favorite bird, singing the first bird song I ever recognized. Not to sound too precious, but it chose itself to manifest as the voice of Everybody Talks to Her, aka Emaa. I had no idea it would become a leitmotif of the Kate Shugak novels. One of those gifts from the writing gods.

Also, FYI, every single one of the bear stories in Breakup is true. Kate going backwards up the creek bank in full retreat from a pissed-off sow? That would have been my dad.

Next month, an object from Killing Grounds, the eighth Kate Shugak mystery. Please put your suggestions for said object in the comments below, and thanks!

Killing Grounds cover

The History of Kate Shugak in 20 Objects – 5

WARNING: Spoilers spoken here.

Play With Fire cover

5 – The hunter’s tunic

The votes are in, and although there was a strong minority in favor of the morel mushroom, in the end Arlene’s comment made the case for this fifth object.

…It was made of caribou hide, tanned to ivory. Red, white and blue beads were worked around the collar in a pattern that sort of resembled the Russian Orthodox cross, or maybe those were birds, Kate wasn’t sure. The seams at shoulder, armhole and underarms were heavily fringed and hung with dyed porcupine quills. Dentalium shells gleamed from a sort of a breastplate, and something in the order in which they were sewn to the hide hinted at the shape of a fish. You could see the fish better if you didn’t look straight at the design.

In 1988 the Smithsonian mounted an exhibit called “Crossroads of Continents,” a collection of old and new artifacts from Native life from Siberia and Alaska. They brought it to the Anchorage Museum, and I went back to see it I don’t know how many times. I bought the book, too, which you will pry from my cold, dead hands. It’s the best written and best illustrated exhibit book I’ve ever seen.

Crossroads of Continents

Regalia, harpoons, visors, grease bowls, blankets, baskets, drums, masks, and the stories behind them all–it was the class in Native art and technology they should have taught us in school and never did. And yes, it’s where I saw my first hunter’s tunic, which was the inspiration for the hunter’s tunic in Play With Fire.

hunter's tunic

Next month, an object from Blood Will Tell, the sixth Kate Shugak mystery. Please put your suggestions for said object in the comments below, and thanks!

Blood Will Tell cover