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Saturday, July 15, 2017

Review of STRANGE THINGS DONE by Elle Wild

2.5 Stars
This book came to my attention because it won the 2017 Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel.  The fact that its setting is in the Yukon also appealed to me.

Jo Silver is a journalist who arrives in the Yukon just as winter is closing in.  After losing her job at a Vancouver newspaper, she has accepted the position of editor of the Dawson City paper.  As soon as she arrives, she finds herself in the middle of a murder investigation, and it quickly turns out not to be the only criminal investigation in the remote northern community.  Being new to the town, she doesn’t know whom she can trust when she starts trying to get to the bottom of the deaths and disappearances.

One of the things constantly emphasized is that Dawson City is almost totally isolated from the outside world in the winter: “Last chance [to leave Dawson City] before freeze-up: when the Yukon River froze and the ferry to the west was dry-docked.  Then the Top of the World Highway to Alaska would close, the airport would follow suit, and the Klondike Highway – the only route out via the south – would begin to snow in.”  My understanding is that the Klondike Highway is maintained and kept open year-round, though obviously a snow storm might make driving difficult.  And in March, a friend posted a photo from the Dawson City airport before taking a flight south.  The author also repeats several times that Dawson City has no cellular service.  Again, my research suggests that this is not true; the town has had 4G service since 2012.  The novel is set in 2004 so perhaps the community was absolutely isolated in the winter at the beginning of the century?  Surely there must have been some way of bringing in provisions.  People with medical emergencies could not be taken for treatment outside the town?  Is the author guilty of some exaggeration in order to heighten the suspense? 

Jo is not a convincing character.  For an investigative journalist, she certainly lacks common sense.  She knows so little about Canadian geography that she brings only rubber boots when she moves north?  On her first night in town, the day before she is to begin her new job, she gets so drunk that she has almost no memory of what happened?  She makes stupid, thoughtless decisions; for example, how many times will she visit a site where she is in danger of being shot?  She breaks the law in order to investigate a person’s disappearance? 

Jo is also a poor judge of character.  She may be a cheechako, a newcomer, but when choosing whether to trust someone, she ignores all the clues pointing to that person’s trustworthiness or lack thereof.  She is attracted to a man who has a reputation as a womanizer and is a viable murder suspect?  After a few of her actions, she just becomes irritating.

The police are portrayed as inept.  Jo keeps stumbling over bodies and so becomes a suspect when she reports them to the police?  The police seem not to investigate a disappearance very seriously, yet arrest Jo on the flimsiest speculation?  Even the police in Vancouver are inept:   Jo feels guilty for going along with a police request, a request that had dire consequences.  Her constant agonizing over this decision becomes annoying because it is the police who are responsible for what happened.  The focus seems to be on showing Jo to be smarter than the police.  Naturally, she also has the ability to melt the heart of a policeman:  “melted him like snow”!

There are some colourful secondary characters, as one would expect.  It is these eccentrics who often steal the limelight.  Sally, Jo’s roommate, for instance, is a much more interesting character than Jo though some of her behaviour isn’t just oddball, but stupid.  A seasoned Yukoner would go out in stiletto boots into the bush during a snowstorm?  And no matter how independent and quirky the people, is it likely that a piece of outdoor art would be erected at the beginning of winter? 

The ending is very abrupt.  The motivation for the killings seems really weak.  And though Dawson City in the winter “might as well be on another planet,” the killer has a means of escape not previously mentioned?  Much is also left unexplained.  Certainly, I craved more information about the Cariboo/Alice story which seems to have a connection to current events in the town. 

The writer uses some imaginative comparisons:  “Her face looked like a store receipt left in the bottom of a handbag for too long.”  Unfortunately, there are too many similar water analogies:  “attempting to attribute meaning to anything in Dawson was like trying to look at something underwater, where the shape and size of a thing changed when you reached toward it” and “Somewhere just below the calm surface of her subconscious, something menacing floated yet, threatening to breach the still waters and emerge at any time” and “Jo had the feeling of looking at something underwater, flitting just below the surface, and not being able to make out exactly what it was.”

I so wanted to like this book, but I found too many weaknesses in it.  For me, the most memorable line is about a young girl’s disappearance eight years earlier:  “’That happens sometimes in the North.  Especially to First Nations girls, but nobody talks about that.’”