Bad Blood, by Dana Stabenow

Review published on February 20, 2013. Reviewed by Mike Stafford

I love an author with good credentials, and Dana Stabenow’s are among the best. If you’re going to write outdoorsy fiction set in Alaska, being born in Anchorage and raised on a fish tender (that’s a boat to us landlubbers) automatically imbues you with a certain authority.

Successful in the US for over two decades – she won an Edgar for her debut, A Cold Day for Murder – Stabenow has managed to avoid the attention of British readers up until now. Fortunately for us, that looks set to end, thanks to Head of Zeus unleashing the twenty books that comprise her Kate Shugak series onto the market over the course of 2013.

So who is Kate Shugak? An Aleut private investigator (“Aleut” being a person hailing from the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, and an ethnic cousin to the Eskimo), Kate is formidable, an accomplished outdoorswoman, and accompanied throughout by a half-wolf half-husky named Mutt. In crime fiction, heroines can fall into the traps of being spunky, or struggling to succeed in a man’s world, or as is sometimes the case with male authors, being a highly sexual literary pin-up. Kate avoids all of these. She is beyond spunky, and she doesn’t struggle against patriarchy. She confronts the world on her own terms, and in Bad Blood, when the chips are down, there isn’t the slightest suspicion she might need rescuing by a man. What’s more, though Bad Blood doesn’t want for raunch, Kate steers well clear of adolescent male fantasy. The love scenes are evocative, they’re about the unification of two people, rather than being merely titillating.

Blessed with fortitude and self-sufficiency, Shugak is truly a product of her environment. It’s an environment that Stabenow showers with affection in Bad Blood. For Alaskans, nature isn’t something that can be visited whenever desirable; it is reality. There is a sense of Alaskans as stewards of the land, exemplified in Kate’s internal musing –

“In another hundred years, the spruce would have reestablished themselves and the aspen and birch would die back to their previous levels, but Kate wasn’t sorry she’d been here to see the transformation. Captain Cook had seen it too, when he had sailed up Cook Inlet that May 230 or so years before.”

This backdrop isn’t all crystal air and spellbinding landscapes though. Bad Blood is the tale of two very different Alaskan settlements, Kuskulana and Kustaka. Initially founded in friendship, the two villages were driven to enmity by multiple complex forces, which Stabenow outlines with all the deftness of a historian. Between quirks of history, inequality in levels of financial investment, and even geological differences between the two towns, their fortunes are thoroughly divergent. Kuskulana is the economic powerhouse, Kustaka is little more than a shell of a town. Fuelled by petty jealousies and a meticulous keeping of the score of wrongs, the hatred between the two turns deadly in Bad Blood. It’s the tale of a dynastic feud with more than a whiff of the Montagues and the Capulets.

There is much to love about Bad Blood. It has a unique heroine, a rare and precious setting, and a rich narrative with a Shakespearean twist. The mystery itself is not the most meticulously plotted, but with a backdrop and a protagonist like this, it needn’t matter too much. If this twentieth offering is anything to judge it by, the Kate Shugak series deserves to be a smash in 2013.

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