Murder on the Iditarod Trail


By Sue Henry — To gear up for cold weather, you couldn’t do better than reading Sue Henry’s first Alaska mystery, Murder on the Iditarod Trail. Whatever winter throws at us in the lower 48, compared to the people who race the Iditarod, our situation is positively toasty. First published in 1991, the story won Macavity and Anthony awards. It has aged well and is worth a fresh look.

Pretty much all I knew about the race when I turned the book’s first page is that it is a thousand-mile dog sled race from Anchorage to Nome that you’d have to be near crazy to undertake. For from eight to fifteen days or more, mushers compete through blizzards, white-out conditions, below zero (F) temperatures, and brutal wind-chill. They traverse sea ice, travel through tricky areas that look frozen solid but may not be, and drive on in gale-force winds. There’s little (but mandatory) time to rest for dogs or humans. The fact that many mushers continue to compete year after year means . . . Brrr-r-rrr.

The story begins when the centrifugal force of a sharp turn sends a sleeping musher flyikng from his sled and crashing into a tree. The stub of a broken branch enters his skull. Accidents on the trail are inevitable, but death is not. This was a first, and Sergeant Alex Jensen, an Alaska State Trooper, is called in to investigate. An autopsy reveals the dead man’s coffee had been laced with a powerful barbiturate.

Because Jensen is new to Alaska, he doesn’t know a lot about how the race is run or the single-mindedness of the competitors. Over the next week, he finds out. He begins his inquiries at the Finger Lake Checkpoint, where the high temperature for the day will be a balmy 5˚ F and the low -3˚. There he meets many of the leading mushers and several race officials, people he will encounter repeatedly over the next nine days, as he and his colleagues leapfrog ahead to farther checkpoints.

If that first death unnerved people, a few hours later a sled careens off the trail north of Finger Lake and musher Virginia Kline plunges to her death. The gang-line on her sled snapped, and when Jensen arrives, he observes that the line had been cut nearly through. These apparent murders have occurred near the beginning of the race, when the sled teams are relatively close together, but as the race continues, the teams spread out, the number of people with the opportunity for sabotage shrinks, and the dangers mount.

Henry steers the novel’s tension as deftly as an experienced musher traversing Rainy Pass. On the one hand is the tension of the fiercely competitive race, with mushers determined to win despite the hazards of weather and terrain and exhaustion. On the other hand is the pressure on the investigators to identify the culprit or culprits before more deaths and injuries can take place.

A budding romance between Jensen and musher Jessie Arnold gives her the chance to explain what the race means to participants. This aspect of the story is a bit dated, with Jensen’s patronizing advice she should quit, but Arnold doesn’t let him get away with it. All told, it’s a thrilling adventure.

The Iditarod (the Athabascan name of one of the small villages the race passes through) was never more than of transient interest to me, but Sue Henry brings it to life. In recent years, animal rights groups have objected to the treatment of the dogs, which has resulted in some rules changes. By telling the race’s story so fully, she provides perspective on that issue, as well.

Photo: skeeze for Pixabay.

****Hold the Dark

arctic wolf

(photo: myri-_bonnie, Creative Commons license)

By William Giraldi, narrated by Richard Ferrone. This crime thriller set in the remote villages and tundra of Alaska lays bare different visions of civilization. The inhabitants of remote Keelut have their own ways of doing things—of dealing with birth, and death, and grief—and no matter how strong the forces of conventional culture are, in the end, the old ways win. In the process, the book “peels away the thin membrane that separates entertainment from art, and nature from civilization,” said reviewer Alan Cheuse in the Boston Globe.

Russell Core is a nature writer and an expert on wolves, with a famous book about them. When wolves take two, then three children from Keelut, the mother of the third child, a six-year-old boy named Bailey, asks him to come help her understand what is happening. Untethered from family and any part of life he finds meaningful, Core responds to her plea, and is drawn deeper and deeper into the lives, ways, and secrets of the remote village. The child’s mother, Medora Slone is married, but her husband Vernon has joined the military, fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan, this nation’s “desert wars.” Do not assume this has made a regular American of him.

Yet Slone is described as a renegade, and Core wonders how this squares with life as a soldier. His best friend, an Alaska Native named Cheeon says Slone can make himself look like he is doing what he is supposed to, but will be doing what he wants to, nonetheless. Cheeon did not join the military for that reason. He hadn’t that gift.

When Slone returns to find his son dead and his wife missing, well, in the classic crime novel vernacular, “all hell breaks loose.” Hell, in this case, plays out during the year’s longest nights—18 hours of darkness—and over a tundra so vast “whole states could fit on its frozen breadth.” The weather is practically another character in this frozen terrain: “Like grief, cold is an absence that takes up space. Winter wants the soul and bores into the body to get it.” Before this book is through quite a few souls fall to the cold, the wolves, and the people.

Richard Ferrone’s narration perfectly fits the other-worldliness of the Alaska Natives and the care with which residents of the far north must operate in their unforgiving environment. Giraldi is the fiction editor of Boston University’s literary magazine Agni.