Reviewed by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter.
The challenge for any reasonably prolific series author is to keep the recurring characters fresh and interesting, yet familiar, and to give them consistently interesting situations to explore and, in the mystery realm, investigate or survive. Faithful readers will accept only so much deviation from the original character sketch, and only so many fatal incidents will seem believable in certain settings.
Dana Stabenow has met that challenge, and then some, in her newest Kate Shugak novel, Though Not Dead, primarily by using a structure that moves between eras and characters in ways that are new to the series. Kate continues to grow and mature while retaining the core personality that makes her so appealing and worth caring – and reading – about, and the Alaskan settings continue to educate and intrigue the reader. Other familiar characters from previous works in this series return to amuse and enliven the narrative, all increasing in depth while retaining the aspects that made them funny, lively, sympathetic or even (deliberately) annoying in earlier books. New characters add to the complex portrait of Alaska as a region of original personalities and unexpected histories.
While Kate and her family and friends remain comfortably familiar, although not necessarily predictable, Though Not Dead offers a major change of approach for a Shugak book. Rather than follow a linear path, this one not only backtracks to the past in great detail, but also takes both Kate and her lover, Jim “Chopper” Chopin, on parallel journeys into their personal pasts. The past of the setting – the state of Alaska – is also a layer in this aspect of the book, with its early history unveiled in a variety of ways and through a number of characters throughout the work, in far greater and new detail than in previous Kate Shugak adventures. This shift in structure and scope is an effective way of enlivening the landscape of a Stabenow/Shugak book, as well as testimony to the author’s skill and ability in making her works interesting to both new readers and established fans.
The title is a twist in and of itself, since the core of the book is someone who actually is dead – who, in fact, died before the book begins. Kate’s uncle and foster father, “Old Sam,” is a presence and moving force throughout the work, both as Stabenow takes the reader back to Sam’s youth and as he affects the people who survive his death.
The heart of Though Not Dead is Old Sam’s life, in the wake of his death at age 87. He leaves Kate a complex mystery to solve – not just the existence of a homestead that few people realized he owned, with its cluster of gold mines to boot, but his own past and origin, as well as what happened to an invaluable tribal artifact that he may have stolen many years before. As Kate turns her investigative skills to Sam’s origins, she finds herself the subject of a little too much interest and, as a result, several new bangs, bruises and narrow escapes. While she is on her mission, Chopin ends up undertaking his own after his father dies, and finds the key to his own past as well – a key that explains his family dynamics and much about his own personality. These parallel journeys both test and strengthen their connection.
Relearning Alaskan history starts with the first, somewhat jarring, sentence of Though Not Dead: “The black death didn’t get to Alaska until November. When it did, it cut down almost everyone in its path.” It takes almost too long – more than 150 pages – for Stabenow to clarify this statement for readers who are used to thinking of the plague in England as “the black death,” but the wait is worth the time. By that point, and throughout as the book moves along its arc, readers learn about Alaska’s early days and may be surprised to find out that not only Russians but Filipinos and others contributed to its early days and culture, along with various Alaska Native tribes and a veritable flotsam of people seeking not just to find gold and oil, but to escape “civilization” in its wild territories.
As Stabenow fans have a right to expect, Though Not Dead is beautifully written, with a strong touch of humor in even the most harrowing scenes. It can be followed and enjoyed by newcomers to the series, but going back to the previous books would help keep track of who’s who and who did what to whom when. The author has created a complicated network of friendships, family connections and other necessary relationships for surviving in a harsh environment with a fascinating mix of cultures. There are enough references to past incidents, and enough complicated relationships between characters, to make the earlier books useful – not to mention well worth reading on their own.
To this reader, the only negative note in Though Not Dead is the appearance of author Dashiell Hammett in Old Sam’s early years; I was too engrossed in the story to stop to verify whether Hammett served in or was attached to the U.S. Army in Alaska, but I doubt an author like Stabenow would throw that in if it were not true. That appearance is brief, and its intrusive feeling is a small price to pay for the pleasure of reading such a well-written, engaging, smoothly moving book with characters – whether human, canine or geographic – who come to life so effectively.
As usual, the new Dana Stabenow/Kate Shugak novel leaves me wishing she wrote more, and faster. I can’t wait for the next installment in the lives and histories of her wacky, wonderful characters.
Ruth E. “I can write about anything!”® Thaler-Carter is a 30-plus-year AIW member who served as the organization’s first ongoing newsletter editor. She is a lifelong mystery fan and reviewed mystery books for the Washington Book Review.
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