Reading White Heat immerses you in the ice-covered, bone-chilling Arctic landscape of Ellesmere Island. When you first meet Edie Kiglatuk, she’s out on a high-Arctic guiding trip thinking about the Southern tourists she’s taking out to shoot ducks, and melting down iceberg bits for tea. Almost immediately, Edie hears a gunshot back at camp and discovers one of the men has been shot. The community elders are anxious to keep the tourists coming, so they rule it a hunting accident and consider the case closed. But even though the tourist was a terrible hunter, Edie doesn’t buy it – her senses tell her there is something more going on. The only one willing to investigate the matter is Derek Palliser, police chief in the neighboring town, but that’s only when he isn’t too busy studying lemmings. Everyone tells Edie to keep out of trouble, and keep her nose in her own business. But that’s not how she works.
The story quickly unfolds and more people are lost, some of whom aren’t strangers to the town. Edie deals with the trauma by returning to alcoholism, and delving deeper into the mystery, despite many threats to her life. She travels far to find out what she can, even venturing across to Greenland looking for answers and finding corruption and more controversies. There are scientists who have lost their minds, an untrustworthy town mayor, and Edie finds that a lot of people are coming to the Arctic looking for a quick score, no matter what it takes or who has to die. Others have tried to cover up the murders, but the Arctic is a hard place to bury evidence. The ice can hold secrets, but only for so long.
M.J. McGrath uses Inuktiput words to tell her story, and they are telling of the overall plot: qalunaat, white man; maktaq thick, chewy whale skin; inuviniq, a dead man; saunerk, a bone; nutaraqpaluktuq, bad-tempered, hysterical; ikuliaq, stay calm; puikaktuq, a mirage. It takes a while to get used to the language, but, the lexicon adds depth to the story, and reveals the author’s strong desire to root the story culturally, not just geographically, on Ellesmere Island.
I came away from the book wanting to go talk to McGrath and ask her more about the research she’s so clearly done. So much of her knowledge about the Arctic comes through her descriptions of the setting, and her imaginative and well-drawn character Edie. This is McGrath’s first novel – she has written six non-fiction books and you can tell that non-fiction is her forte. So many details of life in the Arctic go in to the book, many more than one would typically find in a mystery novel. And they’re perfect — the attention to minutiae doesn’t detract from the story, the details only enhance the sense of place and add to the depth of the mystery. She tells of guillemot eggs taken from a nest and eaten raw; the equipment and effort required to visit an aunt living outside of town; the blending of outsider and Inuit knowledge and equipment required to go on a hunt. You learn intricate details of the land, and the ice, and what it takes to survive there.
I read this book on the Northern Peninsula where icebergs loomed out in the bay, and when I dipped my toes in the ocean they froze instantly. They drank melted iceberg water in White Heat, and I picked iceberg bits out of the ocean to melt for fresh water. It was a wonderful setting to read this engaging mystery – although then again, the perfect setting would be in the high Arctic itself, where my numbed toes wouldn’t find much warmth to thaw. Pick up White Heat when you have time to read it all, you won’t want to put it down. White Heat is the start of a new series, and I for one will be anxious to read more of Edie’s adventures.