Not being a huge fan of potboiler detective series novels, I have tended to meet protagonists into the second or third book of their series. The Bone Seeker is one of those books, however I found it worked just as well as a standalone novel as a series episode.
The protagonist in question here is Edie Kiglatuk. This half-Inuit heroine isn’t really a detective, she’s a hunter and a tracker, but this summer she’s working as a schoolteacher in Kuujuaq, a settlement on the south shore of the island, due west of her own hometown of Autisaq.
Her teaching stint ends when 15-year-old schoolgirl Martha Salliaq’s body is found in remote Turngaluk, known to the Inuit as Lake of the Bad Spirits. Now Sargeant Derek Palliser, the senior of the two members of the Ellesmere Island Native Police (75,000 square miles), needs Edie’s help and promptly deputises her... (hmmm)
Although the government in Ottawa sees him as a Nunavut native, the Inuit consider Palliser (who is a Cree), as a qalunaat, an outsider. Edie serves as his link to the people who can help him solve Martha’s murder, starting with the girl's father, Charlie Salliaq. Although Edie is only half Inuit, she still has access to Charlie, whom she addresses as avasirngulik, in deference to his position as tribal chief.
But Edie is plagued by doubts about her ability to help Derek solve the case, about her relationship with Chip Muloon, a researcher from the University of Calgary, and about how her role as deputy will affect her relations with the rest of the native population. Those doubts persist even after two unataqti (Canadian soldiers) are charged with Martha’s murder. Something in the speed with which Army camp Colonel Al Klinsman seems willing to jail two of his own - and his hostility to Sonia Gutierrez, the Salliaqs' lawyer - makes Edie think the case isn't as simple as Camp Nanook’s commanding officer suggests.
Interestingly for a murder mystery, the victim Martha is rather pushed to the side at this point – her death serving more as a catalyst for the much wider investigations that follow.
The Army Camp in question is Camp Nanook, just outside Kuujuaq, a Canadian forces base. The soldiers there are about to begin cleaning up a contaminated area around an old early warning radar station used by the Canadian and US military during the Cold War. The place is considered by the Inuit to harbour bad spirits – even tundra birds avoid it.
Meanwhile, a second plotline involves Martha’s father Charlie Salliaq. The old man has hired a lawyer called Sonia Gutierrez who has come up from Ottawa to make sure the military keep to the government’s promise to clean up the contamination. Gutierrez thinks the authorities have more to hide.
It seems she’s right – they are reluctant to send a forensics specialist up to do Martha’s autopsy, and later on the corpse is actually seized by Canada’s Defence Department. Old Charlie falls ill with grief, but luckily Derek progresses with the investigation. A pair of roughneck soldiers called Namagoose and Saxby were seen drinking with Martha just before she disappeared. Palliser and local opinion are ready to put the jacket on the jarheads, and so is their commanding officer Colonel Klinsman.
But Edie and Gutierrez suspect a cover-up. So, if the soldiers aren’t sadistic killers, who did do it and is Martha’s death connected to the Defence Department’s nefarious activities?
MJ McGrath recreates the High Arctic setting and the strange, lonely, barren feel of this settlement on the fringe very well, and the way she presents Edie’s interactions with Derek Palliser is one of the highlights of The Bone Seeker. He is an interesting, flawed but well-rounded, character who maintains a sense of duty, even though he’s treated as an inferior by Klinsman and the Inuit he deals with, because he has Cree blood.
The Inuit ways and customs, from eating slices of walrus head to their spiritual beliefs, make a fine backdrop for the story, which is liberally sprinkled with native words and phrases.
This is a book with flaws though, enjoyable as it was. The formulaic thriller genre gets in the way of McGrath’s serious points on the treatment of the Inuit by ‘southern’ Canadian – certain ‘derring-do’ scenes where characters suddenly learn to abseil, fly planes etc come across as thrown in to allow for marketing as an action filled book.
It is the ending that I find the hardest to swallow. Whilst much of the novel, albeit occasionally OTT, makes serious points of inter and intra Inuit prejudice and exploitation of land, the final chapter lets it down in my opinion… I won’t give the ending away but, for me, it was as sickly sweet as bathful of treacle with a bucket of sugar cubes thrown in…
I'm now leaving behind the Arctic wilderness of Canada but whilst I leave the country the weather is coming with me! I head off on an even more rickety plane than I arrived in, and – after a mercifully short helicopter transfer – I land in a white desert of snow and ice called, ironically, Greenland, with A Girl Called Wolf by Stephen Swartz.