Inuit woman at heart of solid mystery 'White Heat'

By Douglass K. Daniel

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Aug. 5 2011 7:01 a.m. MDT

"White Heat" (Viking), by M.J. McGrath: Edie Kiglatuk is an unlikely sleuth. In the first place, what kind of mystery could need solving on her chunk of ice and rock in the Canadian Arctic?

Besides, it would take a lot to stir up this quiet little woman. Edie would rather be hunting than poking her nose into the business of her fellow Inuit and the qalunaat, or white people, who hire her as a guide. Other times she's at home with a cup of hot tea watching a Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin movie on DVD and chewing a slice of fermented walrus gut.

"White Heat," M.J. McGrath's solid first novel, begins when an Edie-led trek goes wrong and a qalunaat ends up dead. She knows the official finding of a self-inflicted gunshot is bogus but is willing to let it go to maintain a sense of peace and privacy in her tightknit community. Later, another death raises questions that her conscience, and the spirit world around her, won't allow her to ignore.

Edie struggles with more than the puzzling events at hand. In spite of her hunting skills, she is viewed warily in what is traditionally a man's profession. Her personal demons, including alcohol and depression, are common to Inuit. A mercurial ex-husband is at the center of the complicated relationships in her thirtysomething life.

And all this in a world in which 10 degrees below zero is almost balmy and death is as close as a blizzard or a stretch of thin ice.

McGrath is a London-based journalist who has written nonfiction about the Inuit, a native Arctic people once commonly called Eskimos. She weaves a strong strand of whodunit into a broader story about life in a 21st-century community on Canada's Ellesmere Island. The plot is wholly satisfying, and McGrath's portrait of a culture that uneasily blends yesterday and today is engrossing on its own merits.

The Arctic is a big place — big enough, one hopes, for Edie Kiglatuk to find another mystery that needs solving between warm bowls of seal blood soup fresh from the microwave.

Douglass K. Daniel is the author of "Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks" (University of Wisconsin Press).

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