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Mystery, Alaska

February 17, 2011

On February 6th, the writer of the popular Alaskan “Kate Shugak” mystery series, Dana Stabenow, gave a talk and signed books at the local Fairbanks, Alaska library. The event was not widely publicized, but I was notified in time to send a representative to the event. Unfortunately, my correspondent has not read any of these highly entertaining novels (a lapse soon to be rectified I am told). To prepare her for the talk, I sketched out some basic thematic elements of the novels and explained why one might be interested in the books from a literary, and not just entertainment based, perspective.

If you are also not familiar with these books (you can learn more about the plot and fictional world of the novels here), this is what I said: the detective novel is a highly conventional genre that has, like any literary genre, specific elements that make it recognizable. Generally (and I am not a scholar of detective fiction), the hard-boiled detective novel features a male hero whose character traits make him something of an outsider to society, it takes place in an urban environment, it is almost always a “lone” (usually white) hero and the crime and the psychological effects of the crime and investigation often arise from social anxieties about modernity, race, community change, economy, etc and after the crime is solved, the anxiety remains. In short: male, white, city, individual, outsider. In contrast, Stabenow’s novels are more reminiscent of the “cozy mystery” novel (such as Agatha Christie wrote in which equilibrium returns to the small close-knit community after the crime is solved) crossed with the more feminist rewritings of the male-centered urban noir type. Her hero is a woman, Alaska Native, lives within a national park amongst family members who are quite prominent members of the community, and has her trusty companion-wolf hybrid, Mutt. In short: female, native, wilderness, tribal, insider.

The tricky thing about genre, however, is that once the conventions of a genre are set, it becomes wide open for experimentation (parody, it has been said, is how you know when a genre has “arrived”). On the surface, then, it looks like the “Kate Shugak” mysteries have little in common with the hard-boiled detective novel and they are not exactly “cozy” or feminist either. Besides the central concern of the genre (that is, the plot or fact that a mystery needs to be solved), there are other elements we can consider in our examination, such as the importance of setting for the staging of the hero’s actions—in urban noir, often the cityscape becomes as much of a character as the detective with the use of “lively” adjectives and emotive descriptions to illustrate urban space. The generic “Park” that Kate lives in and in which a majority of the novels are set, functions just like the city in this respect, playing an important role in both the kinds of crimes committed and the types of characters that people the novel. The plot follows the conventional “whodunit” model of investigation and (also typical to the genre) the sleuth usually knows ahead of time before both the readers and the other characters who committed the crime. The resolution (like in a Christie novel) brings temporary—until the next installment—peace to both the detective and the community at large.

When thinking about radical shifts in the elements that make up an established genre, often we can find aspects that are not radical at all, and in fact, are mechanisms that allow the reader to feel comfortable with newness. So even while we have a main character who is female and not male, she is still both sexualized and exoticized in a highly normative fashion—tropes (figurative language) used in the descriptions of Kate, her “aunties”, and other native characters are derivative of most white writers writing about native people, especially indigenous women. Kate also represents the (white) myth of (indigenous) bicultural access, or the ability to move within two different worlds at once, equally well. The novels also feature a multicultural pluralism that somewhat erases political and social stratification and, while making real issues found in the news around Alaska the motivation for certain crimes, social and political ills always remain just that—background to a good story. Heidi Hansson has concluded that even though Stabenow inverts the heroic lone male in an adversarial relationship with the arctic environment narrative (the old adventure story genre) with her female character that is utterly at home in a highly communal arctic setting, ultimately, Stabenow is engaged in “cultural tourism” as she leads readers from “outside” (the Arctic, Alaska, or indigenous communities) into an exotic world with just enough history and conflict to make it seem real, but not uncomfortably different.

Armed to the teeth with literary analysis, my representative set off to the reading. My informant reported back to me that Stabenow is quite a personable speaker, but she was disappointed in that all my prepping had prepared her for a greater depth of conversation than was offered. None of the questions asked related to the “hard” stuff of the novels and focused instead on those book group staples like: “How do you get yourself to write so much?” or “Why did you decide on a woman for the main character?” To this last, I am disappointed in Stabenow’s traditional writer’s cop-out answer: “Because I am a woman, I find it easiest to write from a woman’s perspective.” Please, by that logic her main character should be a white writer living in Anchorage! (Of course, that character does appear in one of the novels). Or what about the fact that her other mystery series has Liam Campbell as the main character? Writers shouldn’t be so shy about talking about literary conventions, genres, tropes, topoi, stereotypes, and the work of language. What a perfect opportunity to educate her reading public in the politics of literature, authorship, and consumerism!

I digress. What I was actually hoping to hear about (that may make you question my position vis-à-vis the literary) was not brought up and is in reference to this article in the Fairbanks Daily News Miner: Kate Shugak coming to the Big Screen (or at least television). I just hope the rumor of Demi Moore as Kate is a big fat lie—we need to get some of the talented Native American actresses a chance to shine, we don’t need another Twilight travesty (and the same goes for Northern Exposure for that matter) of putting non-Native actors in prominent Native roles.

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