July 24, 2014
(++++) COLD WORLD, COLD WAR
The Bone Seeker: An Edie Kiglatuk Mystery. By M.J. McGrath. Viking. $27.95.
M.J. McGrath is really hitting her stride in the third and best of her mystery stories featuring Inuit hunter, guide and reluctant detective Edie Kiglatuk. Both Edie and the supporting cast emerge as more fully human, better-developed characters in The Bone Seeker than in White Heat and The Boy in the Snow, and the largest character of all – the remote High Arctic setting – is more thoroughly plumbed and is a fuller participant in the action this time. As before, the region is a source of bitter cold, of multiple kinds of ice (each with its own dangers), and of the rich Inuit history in which all the books are steeped – a history that McGrath cleverly connects with southern readers (meaning anyone from Alaska on down the map) by having Edie herself be half Inuit and half qalunaat (meaning southerner or non-Inuit; her father’s desertion of the family when Edie was a child thus stands for qalunaat neglect of or unconcern for all things Inuit). But here there is more: the distant Arctic is a staging ground, chosen for its extreme remoteness, for now-decaying observation posts left over from the Cold War, for modern-day military training and maneuvers, and maybe for something so dangerous and shadowy that secretive arms of the Canadian and U.S. governments will to go frightening lengths to conceal its existence.
The government-conspiracy angle could easily drift into cliché, and in fact has some weaknesses that almost cause the book’s otherwise tight plotting to unravel: a too-dedicated investigating lawyer from Guatemala who is “disappeared” in a less-than-believable scene, and a change of heart from a character that is crucial to the wrapup of the plot but is quite unrealistic in context and never satisfactorily explained. Nevertheless, the Cold War overlay is what makes The Bone Seeker more than a murder mystery – it begins as one but soon, as Edie and her associates seek the killer, starts to have resonance that reaches well beyond the killing of one of the girl students that Edie teaches in the remote hamlet of Autisaq. That resonance comes from the past, or rather from two different pasts: that of the southerners who have long exploited the Arctic for their own political and military purposes and that of the Inuit, for whom the past lives side-by-side with the present in a land where bones do not decay and remnants of history may reappear anytime as the ice shifts unpredictably.
This is not the first time McGrath has explored the ways in which these two pasts intersect in Edie’s life and the life of those around her. For example, White Heat refers to the contamination of Arctic sea life by PCBs whose source may have been “Russian nuclear plants [or] wartime radar stations [or] U.S. naval submarines.” But McGrath pulls the elements of this story together with a surer hand than she has shown before. The difficult and crotchety Inuit elders, long a thorn in Edie’s side, are crucial to the plot of The Bone Seeker, and the old Inuit beliefs and superstitions turn out to have completely germane connections both to the murder and to the mysteries of the Arctic’s military past and present. The way in which McGrath ties together Inuit reproductive difficulties and government indifference to Cold War policy effects makes this book far more tightly knit than the previous two, and far more chilling in ways that go beyond the bleakness (to southern eyes) of the landscape in which the events play out. The fact that The Bone Seeker is loosely based on real events may be one thing that gives it particular resonance, but it is McGrath’s growing skill at showing Edie and the other fictional characters as real human beings – whose actions are intimately connected with their personalities rather than dictated by the exigencies of the plot – that really gives this novel its impact.
The Bone Seeker contains passing references to events of the two prior Edie Kiglatuk novels, and it does help to have read them in order to have a full appreciation of what happens here – Edie’s attitude toward alcohol, for instance, after her abuse of it (a common problem among the Inuit) ruined her marriage and nearly destroyed her life, as well as her feelings toward her ex’s son, Willa, in light of what happened to Willa’s brother, Joe, in White Heat. However, it is perfectly possible to read and understand The Bone Seeker without being familiar with the prior books – and given the skill with which McGrath handles matters here, this novel may be a better entry to the series than either prior one. Readers who start here are very likely to want to go back to the earlier Edie Kiglatuk books to gain additional perspective, much as Edie herself finds that she must delve into the past, hers and the Arctic’s, to solve intertwined mysteries whose tragic consequences are personal and intimate and wide-ranging and far-reaching, all at the same time.