White Sky, Black Ice

by Stan Jones

Published by Soho Press

264 pages, 1999

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Cold Comfort

Reviewed by Karen G. Anderson


Everything about Stan Jones' first detective novel, White Sky, Black Ice, is deceptively simple. The monosyllables of the title understate two of the most confounding phenomena of the Arctic North: White sky, blinding and dangerous to the unwary who venture forth under conditions in which a horizon can be invisible. Black ice, treacherous to cross.

Jones sets his mystery in rural Alaska, where perception is hampered and where judgment is difficult, be it geographic or moral. The best guides, the Inupiat (the Native term preferred to "Eskimo"), are often beset by liquor and poverty. The harsh environment leaves visitors from warmer climes ignorant and vulnerable.

The hard-bitten town of Chukchi, in the remote northwest corner of Alaska, is a place where people's needs are basic: shelter and food. Temptations are simple: alcohol, drugs, sex, money, and power. Keeping the peace is desirable; justice, a luxury. Murder can easily be disguised as an accident or suicide, and crime is simple to cover up or ignore.

Rookie Alaska state trooper Nathan Active seems no match for the denizens, or the weather, of Chukchi. A nice suburban boy reared in Anchorage, Active is hoping to tough out his assignment in this frigid backwater so he can win a promotion to Anchorage headquarters. His frustration with the brutal weather and the sordid bar scene in Chukchi is understandable, but ironic -- because he was born there. His teenage Inupiat mother, at the time more interested in partying and sleeping around than in taking care of an unplanned baby, had given him up for adoption to a Caucasian couple who taught at the local high school.

But don't think for a moment that this book wastes any time with sociological musings. By the time we meet her, Nathan's mother, Martha Active Johnson, has long since gotten her life together. She's married to an electronics technician from the nearby Air Force radar base and teaches in the local school system. She takes a strong interest in her half-Eskimo son -- and angers him when she advises him against dating Lucy Generous, a beautiful Inupiat woman who works as the local police dispatcher.

"You should look for a girl like you," Martha tells her son. "Smart, went to college, good job. Village girl will never do anything but have babies, play bingo, and get fat."

Active is a young, and not particularly cerebral, sleuth. He sports a buzz cut, reads Wired magazine, subsists on frozen Mexican dinners, and has the attitude of 20-somethings who are more likely to obsess about what they don't like than what they aspire to. What Active doesn't like is loose ends in his police work -- and he begins tripping over a lot of them when two local Inupiat are shot dead. The Caucasian city cops dismiss both deaths as alcohol-related suicides, all too common in the town. But Active's local contacts -- one, a savvy dope dealer, Kinnuk Wilson, the other, his mom's cousin Clara Stone -- insist that there's something wrong about the two supposed suicides. The first man, strapping young George Clinton, was about to marry his attractive girlfriend; the second, Aaron Stone -- Clara's husband -- was a respected elder with a good home life. Two empty whiskey bottles were found in Stone's hunting cabin, but his wife insists that he didn't drink. A common thread joins the two men -- both worked at the nearby Gray Wolf copper mine, an operation run by the GeoNord company on leased Native land.

As Active's investigation unfolds and leads him toward the Gray Wolf mine, Jones shows us places few of us can imagine: hunting cabins reachable only by snowmobile; Inupiat homes where kids play Nintendo while adults dine on delicacies such as muktuk (whale hide with the fat still on it); bleak apartments where permanently frozen sewer lines mean showering at the local gym, or not at all. Nothing is romanticized:

There were many things [Active] had come to detest about Chukchi since the troopers had posted him there eighteen months before. But it was probably the west wind he detested most.

It was the west wind's toothache-like persistence. God help you if you had to go gloveless in it, changing spark plugs on the Suburban or working an evidence camera. It gnawed at your hands and sprayed grit in your eyes. Inside a house at night you could hear it scratching bushes and weeds against the wall. You could feel it suck warm air out the cracks around the windows and push cold air under the door and through the electric sockets.

Jones' keen portrayal of Chukchi should shame the many established crime-fiction authors who, now that indigenous cultures are trendy, have taken to sprinkling shamans and tribal curses into their fiction like Hamburger Helper onto ground round. There is no substitute for deep knowledge of people and place.

Nathan Active is as honest a character as Chukchi is a setting. Low-key and patient, this young nalauqmiiyaaq (a pejorative term for someone of Inupiat blood who is a half-breed, or "almost a white man") seems to be learning about himself at the same time as he is uncovering the truth behind the recent Native deaths. Pitted against some powerful adversaries, including corrupt state officials and an ostentatiously well-heeled attorney GeoNord has brought in from San Francisco to protect someone from Active's investigation, Active turns out to be both shrewd and daring. He has more difficulty dealing with the obstacles posed by the agendas of his Inupiat friends, the ambitious tribal leader Tom Werner and Lucy Generous. Along with him, we wonder: How far would Werner go to protect the Inupiat financial interests? Is Lucy really falling in love with Active, or does she see the handsome trooper as her ticket out of Chukchi?

Jones, born in Alaska, has spent most of his career as a radio and newspaper reporter and editor there, winning major regional and national journalism awards. White Sky, Black Ice suggests that he is likely to enjoy at least as much success in the field of crime fiction.

Jones is, of course, treading in the venerable footsteps of Australian crime-fiction master Arthur Upfield, who more than 70 years ago created the half-aborigine Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte. Jones' writing, like Upfield's, is blunt, vital, passionate, and contemporary. His detective, like Boney, investigates not just crime, but cultures, and his own bicultural identity. A harsh environment such as the Australian outback or the Alaskan wilderness strips people, and stories, down to their bare essentials; in the hands of a fine writer like Jones, it also burnishes them to great beauty. I look forward to many more books about the investigations of Nathan Active. | July 1999


KAREN G. ANDERSON writes regularly about crime fiction for January Magazine.