Crime in Cold Places: A Geographic Review


Crime and mystery fiction is an endlessly fascinating literary genre and one that feeds the reading appetites of what is probably the largest book-buying audience. The genre is an unusual one in that, more than any other type of literature, it provides a mirror on the society, country or region in which the mystery is set. Clearly reflected in most good crime fiction is place in all its complexity. The "order" of the place is upset by the commission of a crime, the detective - professional or amateur - uses deductive prowess to solve the crime, and order is restored to the place and its inhabitants. In the early years of the mystery genre, country houses in bucolic settings were popular venues for action. Conan Doyle extended it a bit to the vile back alleys of London and, later, the Americans created the "hard-boiled" mystery set on the mean streets of the modern city. In recent times the mystery has completely lost its spatial constraints and, especially in the United States, has found fertile soil for criminals in all types of geographic settings and, indeed, the reading public has become a congenial market for such "diversity of place." In fact, the recent trend has been to set mysteries in less traditional urban settings such as small towns , rural regions and very exotic places. Thus one can note the great popularity of Nevada Barr who sets all her stories in national parks or Joan Hess who writes two series set in rural and bumpkiny Arkansas. This trend of setting mysteries in non-traditional, more exotic locales has become very popular and, indeed well-written mysteries can be substituted for travel/tourist guides, usually with a gain in information and pleasure.

This essay is focused on a special set of places, very cold places, and the nature of the mystery and crime genre set in such locales.

The Frequency and Character of Mysteries in Cold Places

The use of arctic or frigid locales for mysteries was relatively rare in the past. The Hubin Bibliography that lists settings for all English language mystery novels from 1949 to 1990 lists only 20 novels set in the Arctic and 11 set in Antarctica. Unfortunately it is impossible to detect if novels set in Arctic Russia or Scandinavian Lapland are included as "Arctic" settings. It is clear, however, that cold settings have become much more popular as will become clear from the discussion below.

There are a number of generalizations that clearly emerge from the rather recent plethora of mystery novels set in frigid climes. The most obvious is the significance of "place" in this literature. The setting, the region, the local geography in many cases is as important as the plot. It is fair to say that the geographical elements set these novels apart and account for a large part of their popularity.

The second theme or generalization involves the popularity of environmental themes in this literature. Such issues as deforestation, the spread of development, resource, especially oil, exploitation are addressed and usually condemned in subtle and unsubtle dialogue. A persistent and interesting third theme is the fate and condition of indigenous populations as development and immigration intrude on native life styles and traditions. The final generalization to be made about this literature is the important role of women , as authors and as sleuths. Such a trend has been characteristic of the mystery genre in general, but has been relatively unusual in the traditionally male, even macho, context of climatically afflicted regions.

Review of Selected Mysteries in Cold Places

True Mysteries

There is a body of so-called "true mysteries" set especially in the Arctic related to nature tales and to the adventures of early explorers. An interesting reference from a native population point of view is found in Trish Fox Roman's edited tome entitled Voices Under One Sky: Contemporary Native Literature. In addition, there are a number of interesting accounts of early explorations including two accounts of Sir John Franklin's expedition - Buried by Ice by Owen Beattie, et al and David Woodman's Unraveling the Franklin Mystery that focuses on Inuit accounts of the expedition. Other interesting volumes include John Geiger's Dead Silence focused on James Knight's pursuit of the Northwest passage in 1719 and Charles Feazel's Who Killed C. F. Hall?, an account of the Polaris expedition in 1871.

Finally, in this same category an important book is the Explorer Club tales published in 1940 that contains interesting contributions by R. Anderson ("on Steffanson") and V. Steffanson ("An Arctic Mystery).

Mystery Fiction

The mystery fiction set in frigid climes is quite extensive and as noted, clearly reflects the so-called "in" locales in recent years. A relatively early collection of detective and mystery stories that take place on an arctic voyage can be found in William Crisp's Trial by Ice.

In more specific geographic terms, let me first turn to the Russian Arctic. Unfortunately the relatively large number of Russian stories set in northern USSR/Russia have not been translated and the selected citations here are all by western writers. Among the least known and best of these is Anthony Alcott who produced a really excellent Siberian-set mystery - May Day in Magadan . Martin Cruz Smith, most noted for his Gorky Park created a much more interesting crime for his detective, Arkady Renko, in his Polar Star set on a factory ship in the Bering Sea. A more recent publication by Lionel Davidson entitled Kolymsky Heights is a page-turner set in Siberia where a Russian scientist seeks the help of Johnny Porter, a Canadian Gitskan Indian! A new mystery by Craig Thomas, A Wild Justice, is set in the northern gas and oil fields and exposes the greed and corruption of the "Wild East" capitalism afflicting the country recently. Finally, one of the most popular mystery writers today, Stuart Kaminsky, created a series with a Moscow-based policeman, Porfiry Rostnikov, who, in one of the better novels in the series solves a vile crime in a Siberian village. This dark, Cold War period piece, A Cold Red Sunrise, is worth a read.


Again, the Scandinavian writers have set many mysteries in the Arctic region but few have been translated into English.

However, among the recent mysteries set in Arctic Scandinavia, three merit special attention. An early and outstanding example is The Zero Trap by Paula Gosling. The story centers on a planeload of passengers abducted and imprisoned in a luxurious house in Lapland. More recent novels include Peter Hoeg's immensely popular Smilla's Sense of Snow set in Denmark and Greenland, and Kerstin Ekman's Blackwater, set in Arctic Sweden on the Norwegian border.  It is filled with environmental issues and social tensions between Sami (Lapps) and Swedes. The literary quality of Ekman's mystery is very high indeed.


The Canadian mystery scene is somewhat complex and interesting. One of the best references on this topic is David Skene-Melvin's Crime in a Cold Climate. Another important reference is an article entitled "The Mountie Novel", that appeared in The Mystery Review in 1995. One should also consult Maurice Richardson's Maddened by Mystery: A Casebook of Canadian Detective Fiction and Peter Sellersí edited volume, Cold Blood: Murder in Canada.

It has been stated that most Canadian mystery writers have not frequently set their stories in the Canadian Arctic. In fact, the most famous of the "Mountie" stories were created by non-Canadians. For Example, King of the Royal Mounties and Sgt. Preston of the Yukon were created by Americans - Zane Grey and Fran Striker. It is noteworthy, however, that the prolific Charlotte MacLeod, writing as Alisa Craig, did create RCMP Inspector Madoc Rhys (although she is now living in the United States).

A very interesting example of a Canadian mystery set in the north is J. R. L. Anderson's Death in a High Latitude that involves an 18th century map and the search for the Northwest Passage. Scott Young has created a series featuring a Inuk Mountie who solves crimes in the Northwest Territories. Christian MacLeon, a British thriller writer has some exciting mysteries in the Canadian Arctic including, Ice Station Zebra and Athabasca.

The United States

In recent years, Alaska in particular and the U. S. Arctic region in general have become very popular venues for mystery writers. Among the most popular currently is Dana Stabenow who has created an Aleut detective in Kate Shugak who solves crimes all over Alaska. Her themes are very frequently concerned with environmental threats and the loss of native cultures. The physical geography of her novels is exquisite. Her most recent novels include Play with Fire and A Cold-Blooded Business.

Elizabeth Quinn has also created a female investigator - a State of Alaska Wildlife Investigator - who also is concerned with environmental crimes and the loss of native traditions. Her most recent tomes include A Wolf in Death's Clothing and Murder Most Grizzly. In Alaska Gray Susan Froetschel has her female protagonist solve a crime related to Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971.

Sue Henry has created a series set in Alaska with a State Trooper as the hero although his female friend and sled dog champion usually steals the show. Her immensely popular Murder on the Iditerod Trail was made into a television movie. Her most recent book in the series is Termination Dust set on the Top of the World Highway.

Among the male authors the most popular recently is John Straley who has won awards for his The Curious Eat Themselves, set in southern Alaska as was The Woman Who Married a Bear. Benjamin Shaine in Alaska Dragon deals with environmental politics and the mining industry in Alaska. In Icy Clutches Aaron Elkins creates a frigid thriller in his inimitable style. Finally Dean Koontz has rewritten his 1976 Prison of Ice, retitled it Icebound, and created a thrilling Cold War novel of murder, iceberg transport and Soviet-American cooperation on the Polar Ice Cap.


In general, mysteries set in Antarctica are unusual in that the "population" there is made up of scientists at research stations. A number of early "formula" type mysteries were set there in such multi-authored series as the Nick Carter capers. Most were very superficial and were concerned only with exotic locales to set bad guys against a good guy. Most novels even now set in Antarctica are "thrillers" such as Bob Reissí Purgatory Road, the plot of which focuses on international negotiations for the mining activities on the continent. Clive Cusslerís Shock Wave is set in the region and is an environmental adventure involving passengers abandoned in the area.


This short geobibliographical essay has attempted to provide a representative sample of the crime and mystery literature set in cold places. I do believe times have changed enough to render the rather cynical advice of Samuel Taylor Coleridge obsolete - "set adventures in remote lands for the unknown thrills whereas what is familiar can be blasť and an author can get away with less fact and more imagination for there will be fewer among his or her readership who can check for accuracy." Any reading of the novels suggested above will provide verification that these authors get away with nothing - they know their place! And, the readers' knowledge of these places and the complex societies in them is greatly enhanced through some of the most enjoyable reading available. These are indeed places with fragile environments threatened by modern developmental progress. In these places indigenous populations are experiencing painful intrusions by other cultures and face wrenching decisions in coping with these changes. And, these cold places are endlessly interesting, beautiful, fragile and in a serious state of flux. All of this is captured and reflected in the mirrors provided by the mystery authors, an increasing number of whom are proffering views into these landscapes and societies via a woman's eye. In the end, these frigid landscapes of murder are brought to us in one of the most entertaining vehicles possible - the mystery story.


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