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White Heat - M.J. McGrath

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Paperback: 320 pages / Publisher: Pan / Published: 16 Feb 2012

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      12.02.2013 11:24
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      a thriller set in the High Arctic

      Meet Edie Kiglatuk, a new member of the ever growing posse of feisty, female sleuths. She isn't a professional, she belongs to the faction that stumbles over corpses and then takes up the hunt when the authorities don't react as they should. She's a thirty-something, divorced, part-time school teacher. So far, so average. But there's much more that defines her and makes her stand out from her fictional sisters in crime.

      She's of mixed race, half Inuit and half qalunaat (southerner) living in the Canadian part of the High Arctic, on Ellismere Island to be precise. This is a bit smaller than England and Scotland combined and has about 150 (!) inhabitants including two policemen (These are real life facts). Edie used to be a polar bear hunter but now works as a licensed guide for foreigners who want to get a feel for the High Arctic. Edie can't imagine living 'in the south'. The south is the rest of the world south of Ellismere Island. It's 'where ice melts into water'. The North is 'where water freezes into ice'.

      She needs the extra money to pay for the nursing training of her beloved stepson, Joe. The fact that he's begun the training is a sensation in itself. "Joe was a beacon of hope in what was otherwise a fog of drink, boredom, unwanted pregnancies and educational underachievement". Many Inuit just vegetate without any prospects of a bright future. Sadly, they drown their frustration in booze, a fate Edie used to share with her husband. Her divorce was an act of self-preservation. Had they stayed together, she'd probably be dead already. "Inuits and drink are a match made in hell."

      The story proper begins when Edie takes two adventurers from Kansas out into the tundra and one of the men dies after a mysterious shooting. Edie doesn't believe in an accident but the council of Elders who run the show in her settlement and distribute the permits for the guiding of expeditions dismiss her and refuse to call in the police for an investigation. Some time later another American arrives. He's a descendant of a legendary Victorian explorer. He wants to locate his ancestor's remains and hires Edie and Joe as guides. His companion is the man who survived the former expedition. Edie and Joe split up, Joe takes this man. He's shot dead during the trip. Joe fights his way back to the settlement in a blizzard and dies soon afterwards under mysterious circumstances before he can tell anything.

      Again, the authorities aren't eager to get to the bottom of the affair. The policeman is more interested in how to regain his lost love and the study of lemmings. So Edie starts to investigate on her own. It doesn't take long until she knows for sure that the three deaths weren't accidents or killings because of individual strife. She follows leads which take her even to Greenland and into considerable danger.

      White Heat belongs to a thriller genre that has appeared on the market only relatively recently, namely, one in which the thriller plot is firmly worked into the setting. The crimes can only be committed in a special place and in a way which is typical for it. I like that. It's always nice to learn something new about places one doesn't know in an entertaining, even thrilling way. The difficulty for the author is to find the balance between background information and story. Opinions differ widely on the question if Melanie McGrath has found it. In my opinion she has. I must admit, however, that I have a more than average interest in geography and ethnology. The reviews on Amazon show that readers who're mainly interested in the Whodunit aspect get bored by too much background information. It's clear that McGrath knows the Inuit and their culture well and that it is her intention to share some of her knowledge with us. Is it really important to know that the Canadian government lured Inuit to this most northern habitable place on planet Earth, misinformed and cheated them? Yes, I think so because we can thusly understand better why they are how they are and live in the way they do. It's not that we get page after page of dry information, it's sprinkled over the whole text.

      Would I want to visit the places I read about? Never, when it comes to Ellismere Island. It's enough for me to sit in my armchair and read about three months of uninterrupted coal-pitch-raven-black night (as the Germans say) and three months of glaring, blinding bright light. I don't have to experience this myself.

      Other reviewers complain that there is too much about Inuit cuisine in the book. They don't seem to know that it has become rather fashionable among writers of thrillers set in foreign lands to include recipes and describe meals in loving detail. They let their protagonists either prepare meals themselves - Martin Walker in his Bruno, the Policeman series - or let them eat meals prepared by others - Donna Leon's Commissario Brunetti and Andrea Camilleri's Commissario Montalbano - to name but a few. Is it Melanie McGrath's fault that the Inuit cuisine differs from the one of Southern European countries? I can see her enjoying herself when letting Edie eat seal-meat porridge, whale blubber, fermented walrus gut, caribou jerky or taking a thermos full of seal-blood soup to a sick person.

      What about sex? No detailed descriptions here which is just fine with me. Edie's ex-husband stays over occasionally when they're both p*ssed (Edie has a relapse). Besides this there's a chaste night in an igloo with the lemming loving policeman to watch the narrowest band of light at the horizon in the morning. They celebrate that the powers of darkness are on the retreat.

      I belong to the rare species of readers who, when they say they read a book from cover to cover, speak the truth and nothing but. I read all acclaims, announcements and acknowledgements, forewords and epilogues, even in which type a book is set. White Heat only displays a photo of the author and the information where she was born and for which newspapers she has worked as a journalist. White Heat is her first work of fiction. How did she acquire her profound knowledge about the High Arctic and the Inuit? I find it strange that not one word is lost about this. From an interview I've found on the net I've learnt that McGrath lived with the Canadian Inuit in the High Arctic for some time and has written a non-fiction book about them. She uses some Inuktitut words in the text (but doesn't exaggerate), so I assume she's learnt the language. In case you're interested in it, you can get information about it here (including the pronunciation): www.tusaalunga.ca/splash.

      Now we've moved a long way away from the thriller plot, but that's fine with me. The sequel The Boy in the Snow will be in the shops at the end of the month and I look forward to reading it.


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