Dana Stabenow’s Shugak novels really defy pigeonholing. Yes, they are mysteries, but they are also an intimate look at life in Alaska (where writer Stabenow was born and raised,) and an ongoing set of vignettes about a unique special woman: Kate Shugak. One of my favorite things about this series (Stabenow has several series, as well as some freestanding thrillers and several works in anthologies) is that the characters grow, change, age, and—yes—die. This series works well both in its serial form and as novels read in any order you like. In each book, Kate is a fully present three-dimensional character whose life is complex, interesting, and sometimes scary.
In Restless in the Grave, Kate has reluctantly, once again taken on an undercover job. It is exciting to see a character from another of Dana’s series pop up here. Liam Campbell is an Alaskan State Trooper whose wife is the suspect in a case, and he wants Kate to help out so he can back off. The murder occurs early on—seemingly a typical Alaskan bush plane crash—but the dead man is disliked by nearly everyone, including his nearest and dearest. Kate takes a deep breath and plunges into her assignment as a waitress at a bar and grill.
There, Kate can get the real scuttlebutt on the dead man, uber-rich Finn Grant. Grant has embezzled, frauded and blackmailed just about everyone he knows, and a lot of folks he didn’t know. It is not really a matter of finding out who-done-it, but weeding out the least likely to zero in on the best suspects.
Restless in the Grave begins in Afghanistan, about as far away in climate and temperament as you can go from Alaska. Short and to the point, it will shake you and make you wonder what the hell the two places, and the characters involved, have to do with one another. Well, read on, MacDuff, for Stabenow and the intrepid Kate will reveal all…eventually.
Wonderful sidebars (subplots?!) include the arrival of cell towers for this part of Alaska; poor Jim Chopin, Kate’s love interest and occasional boss, hates always being accessible. The Niniltna Native Association (NNA) is undergoing change; Kate is stepping down from the pivotal chair position she reluctantly accepted when her Grandmother died. Her cousin is going to go on the board, and she and Kate are not the best of friends. The new head of the board seems to be much like Kate’s grandmother, and there is tension in the air at each board meeting. As usual, Kate has a lot of eggs to juggle, and no resolutions are in sight.
Her usual sidekick, the half-wolf Mutt, joins Kate as her aide-de-camp at the bar, watching pushy men and rude customers with a baleful eye. Kate’s adopted son, Johnny, isn’t around much in this book, which is disappointing, but the whole book is so much fun I didn’t notice it after a while. The relationship between Jim and Kate continues steamy, and Kate’s struggle to follow clues to their bitter end becomes a struggle to do the right thing by the living.
I would love to see some new fans for Dana Stabenow and Kate Shugak coming from this book. If you are a Liam Campbell fan or a new reader, you will find this 19th-book in the Shugak oeuvre everything a murder mystery-thriller should be.