THE TENDERNESS OF WOLVES by Stef Penney
This is such a good book, lots of tension, drama, diverse characters, red herrings galore. And perhaps most amazingly, written by a Scottish woman who suffers from agoraphobia and has never been to the frozen wilderness of Canada.
I can't begin to imagine how grim life would have been in winter in Canada in the 1860s. Bitterly cold, frozen ground, long periods in darkness, no electricity of course, boring and mostly preserved food, little to do. Grim sums it up pretty well! And the people who chose to live in this part of the world had to be tough, strong, focussed, and true to the job of staying alive. Plus trust those around them in this struggle to survive.
But small communities did thrive, relying primarily on trade of local resources - furs and food. Large trading companies had small bases set up in remote locations to manage the plunder of local resources, mainly fur, and their traders, as well as keeping the local indigenous population under control/observation.
This story opens with the death of one such trader, Laurent Jammet, and the discovery of his body by a woman, Mrs Ross. Her 17 year old son, Francis. who has gone missing, was a good friend of the dead man, and is immediately under suspiscion for the death. Is it relevant that the dead man was scalped, thus pointing the finger at a native Indian? Or is it relevant that it looks as if the dead man's belongings have been gone through, obviously looking for something, but what?
In a small community a murder is rare, and reliance on those around you is high, so to feel that someone in the community has betrayed that essential trust turns the place on its head. A native Indian is arrested, the trading company's local representative and his entourage turn up to undertake a man hunt for Francis Ross, a local family also become involved in the mystery of the trader's murder, a religious community in the middle of nowhere becomes a place of refuge for those on the man hunt, and a remote trading station all have equal billing.
The reader is led on a circuitous route to discovering who the murderer is and the back story to the murder. The solving of the murder is told from the view point of a number of different characters, some in the first person, some in the third, but this method does not detract at all from the power of the story, or the gradual solving of the mystery.
The most powerful force in the story is the environment, how everything that these people do both in their day to day lives, and in an emergency situation is dicatated and controlled by the extremes of the climate and harsh landscape. It is frankly, terrifying, and it is hardly surprising that such an environment affects the moods and personalities of those living in it. There is a constant sense of forboding, danger, that any minute something awful and fatal is going to happen. And the writer is a master at conveying this atmosphere. Great read.