Wrap up warmly. MJ McGrath’s earlier Arctic-set outing, White Heat, may have borrowed its title from an old James Cagney film, but was in every other respect a totally original piece of work, demonstrating – for a first novel — an authoritative grasp of the thriller idiom. That book made people sit up and take notice, but inevitably raised expectations for its successor. Has McGrath managed to match her achievement with The Boy in the Snow, the second book to feature her female Inuit hunter/sleuth Edie Kiglatuk?
Edie is an Arctic guide who knows every inch of the Alaskan forests, but when — on one of her expeditions — she is led by a ‘spirit bear’ (a ghostly white creature held in awe by the aboriginals) to discover the frozen corpse of a child, she little realises the grim consequences it will have for her. The Anchorage authorities are keen to link the death to a dangerous Russian sect, the Dark Believers — and Edie determines to force herself to forget the sight of the body of a boy wrapped in yellow fabric, even though she must remain in the territory. Her ex-husband, Sammy, has entered an important and challenging dogsled race (ending in Nome, Alaska), and Edie has agreed to help him. But while Sammy sets out on his journey across hostile territory, Edie finds herself drawn into finding out the truth behind the death of the child. The secrets she uncovers have dark political implications – and Edie’s life is soon in the greatest danger.
As anybody who has read McGrath’s earlier book will know, she is an author with a quietly impressive command of character – Edie is a heroine with whom it is extremely easy to identify, however alien her lifestyle will be to most of us in Britain. But the author’s real skill is in the astonishing evocation of the frigid landscape here, along with the sharply conjured details of Inuit life. What’s more, McGrath is able to keep all these elements satisfyingly balanced, even as the tormented past of Edie Kiglatuk begins to invade the present. The burying of secrets – in both the physical and metaphorical sense — in a snowbound landscape is hardly a new idea, but McGrath makes us feel we are encountering it for the first time. This is turning into a series that readers will want to follow with close attention.
THE BOY IN THE SNOW
by MJ McGrath
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