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White Heat, By M J McGrath
A hunter who is hot on the trail
Monday 11 April 2011
We are now at the extreme edge of detective gastronomy.
The track can be plotted through Henning Mankell's Wallander, with his miserable hamburgers, then the microwaved sheep's head, chief subsistence of Arnaldur Indridason's Inspector Erlendur, to the sea-lion's intestine and pickled beavers' paws that feature in White Heat. Crime fiction has been moving steadily north, so the setting of this book is a logical progression beyond the Arctic Circle to Inuit territory where Edie, an experienced tracker, is acting as guide to two tough-terrain tourists from the outside world who want to experience Arctic life in the raw.
Very raw it proves to be when one of them is a murder victim on a duck-hunting expedition to the remote Craig Island. Edie, already having problems with the Inuit council of elders who do not approve of a woman taking on a man's role, finds that they are anxious to cover up the circumstances and turn the shooting into a mere hunting accident.
Edie takes pride in her ability to protect her charges through the cruel tundra and she is also descended from Welatok, the guide to a famous Victorian explorer, Sir James Fairfax, who vanished somewhere in the Arctic wastes. Two more adventurers arrive wanting to search for Fairfax's body, for in this fearfully creepy place nothing ever rots. Edie and her beloved stepson, Joe, set out to accompany the men. But the expedition is divided, disaster strikes again, and Joe, barely surviving himself from hypothermia and frostbite, returns without his charge. When he too dies, Edie sets out to find the killer and take revenge on a search that leads her to ultima Thule and what was once the most northerly human habitation on Earth, an ancient polar Inuit settlement.
The author of this very convincing depiction of the northern wastes was born in Essex, but she has lived with Inuit families and conveys a deep understanding of their culture. White Heat plunges the reader into a world where a harsh existence is rendered with unvarnished observation. Edie's struggle with alcoholism, her difficult relationship with her ex, her need to be accepted by the domineering men of the community, make her a deeply empathetic personality. Edie's a tough cookie: she fights her way through the icefields with a tenacity that armchair explorers everywhere will relish. Let's see more of her, even chewing on beaver's paws.
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