Thank you for giving me The Woman Who Married a Bear (1992) by John Straley. He is a remarkable writer. It is a rarity in my experience of crime fiction to read a superb work of fiction that happens to feature a crime investigation.
Cecil Younger is a great character. He does not fit the classic mould of a hard boiled P.I. He gets around by hitchhiking, taking cabs and walking. He does not carry a gun. He has but one scar from a 6th grade altercation. He likes to read poetry and writes haikus. I am confident I have not encountered another sleuth who reads the New York Times Review of Books.
At the same time he is a self-indulgent drunk. I am not fond of sleuths caught up in their private demons. Fortunately, Younger is a multi-dimensional character not totally absorbed in himself.
While Younger differs from the usual hard boiled P.I. he has their defining characteristic in that he lives by a strong moral code.
Some years ago I read and reviewed books by Toronto author, Jill Edmonston, whose sleuth Sasha Jackson was a tough girl P.I. In exchanges Jill provided me with her definition of the hard boiled P.I.
While working on her MA at Athabasca she had studied women in mysteries focusing on Canadian mysteries. As part of her work she wrote an essay titled “From Spenser to Yeats: Feminism’s Answer to the Hardboiled Sleuth is on the Wagon and Rides a Harley”
In that essay she stated:
Toughness and raw, pared-down characters and styles seem to be uniformly present within hardboiled fiction, but those characteristics alone do not identify or define hardboiled fiction. Many of the genre’s hallmarks have to do with the characters’ attributes and conduct (Blade 69), both of which are, or have in recent years become, malleable and elastic. One feature, however, is stoically present in all hardboiled fiction, whether classic or contemporary. Eclipsing habits and foibles as hardboiled imperatives is the “moral code” or “code of honour” (Blade 70). The private eye may drink or not, he may have a family or not, but the one inviolable tenet of the prototypical hardboiled detective is the ever present, often unique and occasionally contradictory moral compass. Chandler stated this moral compass may permit the spoiling of a duchess, but commands respect for a virgin; in doing so Chandler defined by omission the unfailingly amorphous internal value system that guides a hardboiled sleuth in all matters.
Younger’s roommate, Todd, is classified by Social Services as “mentally and emotionally challenged”. Straley provides a moving description of Todd that belies the harsh official designation:
…. the woman who used to love me said he had too gentle a heart to live
in the real world.
When Todd, instead of Younger, is shot by mistake Younger is bound by a sense of honour to pursue both the original quest and the shooter of Todd
Younger’s introduction to the reader further illustrates his personality. He is working his way through a nasty hangover and considering the various ways he has dealt with past hangovers. He will sort out what has happened to his credit card after he sees Mrs. Victor at the Pioneer Home.
Mrs. Victor is a striking minor character in a book filled with such characters. Sitting in a wheelchair and smoking she wants Younger to find out why
… her son, Louis Victor, the Indian big-game guide. The Brown Bear Man, was shot with a high-powered rifle by a crazy man. His body had been consumed by the bears near one of his hunting cabins.
I was captured by the “why”. It is my favourite question. Younger was equally caught up by the question.
I found the plot to have the feel of a Shakespearean tragedy brought to the 20th Century. What started as a routine investigation into motive developed into the unraveling of a troubled and complex family. The result is aptly described bu Shakespeare’s phrase from Hamlet “murder most foul”.
The title, taken from an Indian story, draws upon the universal conflicts often consequent upon a stranger entering the family of another culture. I refuse to say inevitable because I do not believe cross-cultural unions are bound for tragedy.
I find it compelling that the Nathan Active mysteries of Stan Jones, another mystery series set in Alaska, also feature a character, Active, in the midst of cross cultures in that he was born Inuit and raised in a white family. He has his struggles but is more successful in working his way through the cultures in his life than the Victor family.
I found a lyrical quality to the descriptiveness in Straley’s writing:
I remember picking each berry. The stains on my fingers and thumb. The sweet bitter taste of the seeds resting in the back of my tongue and my teeth. I held one berry up to the light and looked at the tiny hair coming from each sack. I saw the membrane surrounding the juice as thin as the surface tension on a drop of water. An occasional horsefly would create a small disturbance in the still air and the wind would stir the trees above us, mixing the shadows in a warm broth.
The book further evoked for me a deep connection between the story and the land, history and people of Alaska.
What could be more vivid than:
An almost subsonic groan percolated up from below and the surface of the water broke. Giant ovoid forms heaved up out of the water, abstract at first, ten feet of curve, texture, and confined space. The water boiled with little silvery fish dense on the surface like a trillion dollars in quarters spilling onto a sidewalk. Then, the surface of the water actually bent as the huge bulk continued to rise and the two forms closed together, combining into one, slippery gray-black monument. There was a massive exploding breath and the damp smell of fish and tideflat, a cloud of vapor drifting away. As the form tipped to the side and lay in the water, a narrow rubbery wing lifted out of the sea and slapped the surface: curved and scalloped, knobby and limber. It popped the water and the form lengthened as it tipped to the plane of the horizon, as if it spilled out of itself. Then, an eye, an eye the size of a softball ….
The Woman Who Married a Bear reminds me of Cool Water a book written by Dianne Warren of Regina and set in southwestern Saskatchewan. It was another book in which weather and the land and the past and characters were all vivid and real to me.
I further thought of Cool Water during my reading of The Woman Who Married a Bear as it had been given to me by a friend. It proved a special gift. The Woman Who Married a Bear is also a book I will treasure.
My review of Cool Water (here is a link - https://mysteriesandmore.blogspot.com/2014/12/cool-water-by-dianne-warren.html) was a letter to Cody, the young man who gave me the book. I wanted to get his thoughts on Cool Water. I equally want to engage with you on your reaction to The Woman Who Married a Bear.
Having never visited Alaska I would like to ask how well The Woman Who Married a Bear portrays Alaska in all its facets?
You went from Saskatchewan, a land of farming and broad open spaces and little rain, to the Yukon and currently Alaska where forest in the lower regions of the state dominates the landscape and rain, especially in coastal Alaska, is ever present. If it is not too personal how have you integrated with the land and people and culture of the North?
Are there any aspects of Emma, the widow of Victor who came from San Francisco, and became an Alaskan that resonate with you?
I appreciate crime fiction writers who can make the setting integral to the story and, subject to your comments, I could not see this story taking place anywhere but Alaska.
If you are able to reply and are willing to have your reply posted I would be glad to put it up on my blog.
All the best.
The above review in the form of a letter was written to a friend, Maureen, who loves and teaches English in the Yukon. She grew up in Melfort. As set out in the letter I appreciate her introducing me to John Straley.