Sunday, October 23, 2016
"A Night Too Dark"/ "The golden age for fictional spies"
By Patrick AndersonMonday, March 1, 2010
A NIGHT TOO DARK
By Dana Stabenow
Minotaur. 323 pp. $24.99
Dana Stabenow is one of those regional crime novelists who too often don't achieve national attention. She was born in Alaska in 1952 and has lived there ever since, and this is her 17th novel about the Aleut private investigator Kate Shugak. It's an outstanding series and one that has, in fact, won awards and begun to turn up on bestseller lists here in the Lower 48. If you've never visited Alaska, it's also an intriguing introduction to that big, brawling, rather bewildering state. Once you've met the strange characters who inhabit the Shugak novels, Sarah Palin becomes easier to comprehend.
Kate is only 5 feet tall but fears neither man nor beast: Early in this novel she takes down a knife-wielding roustabout and a charging grizzly bear. Her two live-in loves are Sgt. Jim Chopin, a hunky state trooper, and silver-gray Mutt, who's half wolf and half husky and whose ever-changing moods make him somewhat more interesting than the trooper. Kate started her career as an undercover investigator for the DA's office in Anchorage but later moved to the small, isolated town of Niniltna, where she works as a PI and also heads the board of directors of the Niniltna Native Association, the primary governing body in that corner of Alaska.
The plot of "A Night Too Dark" centers on the Suulutaq Mine, where vast gold deposits have been discovered. The gold isn't being mined yet because environmental questions must be answered, but the prospect of a billion-dollar bonanza has various hustlers and corporate vultures circling. (The Suulutaq Mine is fictional, but Stabenow has said it is based on the controversial real-life Pebble Mine in southwest Alaska.) Kate has deeply mixed feelings about the mine; the region needs the jobs but doesn't need the environmental damage and the threat to its way of life. However, she and Sgt. Jim are drawn there after two of the mine's employees mysteriously die and a third goes missing.
This plot unfolds nicely, but what makes the novel outstanding is Stabenow's vivid portrait of the Alaskan culture. In the opening pages we meet an old-timer with a long white beard whose "Carhartt bibs were frayed and stained, the black-and-red plaid Pendleton shirt beneath it patched and faded, and the Xtra Tuffs on his feet looked like they'd been gnawed on by ferrets." We meet the town's four "aunties," Native Alaskan women in their 80s who are the community's social arbiters. We learn that it is unwise to ask an Alaskan "Where are you from?" because so many have pasts they are determined to escape.
We attend a board meeting of the Niniltna Native Association and discover that Native Alaskans are just as angry, stubborn, greedy and duplicitous as anyone else in politics. We learn that in today's Alaska, outsiders sometimes marry indigenous Alaskans for their money -- the Alaska Claims Settlement Act of 1971 having awarded huge amounts of land and nearly a billion dollars to them through regional corporations like the one Kate heads. As a result, at least some Native Alaskans have become prosperous. We see that Sgt. Jim doesn't bother much with dope smokers, bigamists and poachers, if they otherwise behave. We also learn, after a quiet dinner at home, that he and Kate are partial to spontaneous displays of affection: "She laughed harder when he cleared the table with a sweep of one arm and threw her down on it."
Stabenow is blessed with a rich prose style and a fine eye for detail. At one point she devotes two delightful pages to detailing the beauty of Kate's garden ("The deep purple spire of monkshood, its cluster of closed blooms giving off an air of mystery, appeared and disappeared around every bend of trail"), and elsewhere we're treated to a digression on the hunting and cooking of moose ("Old Sam liked his meat crisp on the outside and bloody close to the bone, and this took time and care.").
Stabenow doesn't say much about Alaskan politics, except to have Kate quip, "Anyone in Juneau [the state capital] in their right mind is an oxymoron." However, in an interview with Publishers Weekly, Stabenow said that she'd met then-Gov. Sarah Palin twice, the second time in 2007, when Palin named her Alaska's Artist of the Year. Stabenow added, "She didn't mention the novels either time." This is alarming. It's always wise to greet a novelist with "Loved your book," whether or not you've read the book in question. The writers are invariably grateful, and none has ever been known to demand proof. If Palin can't figure that out, how can she ever hope to lead a great nation?
Anderson reviews mysteries and thrillers regularly for The Post.
Sept. 12, 2016 "The golden age for fictional spies": I cut out this article by Joe Wiebe in the Edmonton Journal on Sept. 18, 2015:
My not-so-guilty pleasure is to dive into a thick spy novel, preferably one set in Europe during the Second World War or the Cold War decades that followed. This low-tech era before the advent of computers and satellites and cellphones is when the cloak-and-dagger genre works best. Here are three recent spy novels by some of my favourite writers:
Leaving Berlin Joseph Kanon Atria Books
Kanon has written several spy novels, including The Good German, which is set in Berlin during the Second World War and, most recently, Istanbul Passage.
He returns to Berlin in this novel, but it’s now 1949, and the city is divided into sectors by the occupying powers: France, England, the United States and the Soviet Union. Once allies during the war, the Soviets are now trying to force the western nations out of Berlin by blockading the city.
Jewish writer Alex Meier grew up in Berlin, but escaped to the United States as the Nazis came to power in the 1930s. A foray into communism in his youth earns him a subpoena from the McCarthy witch-hunt trials, where his refusal to name names results in deportation.
The East German communists welcome their prodigal son back, but little do they know that he has actually been recruited by the CIA, which has promised to allow him to return to the U.S. But almost immediately upon his arrival, his situation worsens when he kills a Russian agent in self-defence.
Not only that, but he learns that his true assignment is to spy on his own old friends, including Irene, his first and only true love.
Leaving Berlin is both a page turning thriller and a thought-provoking study of a remarkable place and time in our history.
The Lady from Zagreb Phillip Kerr Penguin Putnam
Fans of Philip Kerr’s nine Bernie Gunther novels rejoiced when this book came out because we all thought Kerr had ended the series when A Man Without Breath was published in 2013. But Bernie is back in The Lady From Zagreb and will apparently return next year in The Other Side of Silence.
If you haven’t encountered Gunther before, he’s a tough, honourable and outspoken Berlin homicide detective who drinks and smokes too much, has an eye for women that often leads to trouble, and a mouth that almost always does. He’s the quintessential hard- boiled, noir hero who won’t hesitate to use his fists or gun when the situation calls for it, but ultimately succeeds because he uses his brain. What makes him endearing to the reader is the moral compass that guides him through the horrific events caused by the Nazi regime.
Kerr provides his trademark combination of pulp fiction action set against realistically depicted historical events, with an assortment of moral dilemmas for the reader to think about along the way.
All The Old Knives Olen Steinhauer Minotaur Books
Olen Steinhauer started his writing career with a series of five well-crafted novels set in a fictional eastern European country running from 1948 through the days of the Cold War to the end of the Communist regime in 1989. He followed those up with a trilogy of contemporary spy thrillers. His two stand-alone spy novels are The Cairo Affair and All the Old Knives.
The core of the story features two ex-lovers meeting for dinner at a fine restaurant. Henry Pelham and Celia Favreau once worked together in the CIA’s Vienna station.
He’s still a CIA operative, but she left the game several years ago.
Although the story begins innocuously enough, it quickly becomes apparent that Pelham has an ulterior motive.