In the Inupiat culture, “village of the ghost bears” is the name given to the land where polar bears wander off to die. In Stan Jones’s fourth installment of the Alaska State Trooper Nathan Active series, this village of legend is used as a metaphor for the multiple deaths that occur during this gripping, character-driven mystery.
Nathan Active is a native Inupiat (they do not use the term ‘Eskimo’ in Alaska) who patrols the small village of Chukchi where he was raised. While taking a chartered flight for a weekend camping trip with his girlfriend, Grace Palmer, they come across a badly decomposed corpse at the foot of a hidden lake. Nathan and Grace have no choice but to cut their romantic getaway short and take the frozen, brutalized corpse with them on the plane back to Chukchi for identification.
Upon their return, they learn that tragedy has struck the town. A recreation center has burned down, leaving behind eight victims - including Nathan’s friend and town Police Chief Jim Silver. It appears that this was a case of arson, and the victims were actually trapped inside when the fire was set. The arson investigator and Nathan’s colleagues all suspect that the act was premeditated. First, they must get the identity of all eight victims then try to figure out who might have had a murderous grudge against one or more of them. The obvious choice is that a criminal was enacting revenge against Chief Silver. However, as the identities of each victim are slowly revealed, Nathan and his colleagues begin to come up with multiple scenarios - none of which have easy outcomes.
During this investigation, the identity of the dead body found by Nathan and Grace is determined to be a Korean ex-con known for illegally trading in rare animal organs and other body parts. It turns out that one of the victims of the fire had visited him while he was in prison. How are these two random acts of violence connected? Is there a possible tie to a fatal plane crash that occurred a year earlier in the same Brooks Range where the Korean criminal’s body was found?
What Stan Jones does best is to place the reader deep within the heart of the Chukchi village and surrounding area. Even more so, he engulfs the reader in the Inupiat way of life - complete with a glossary of terms that are used continuously throughout the book. The lives of these people are far more connected than other parts of the country, and the degrees of separation between criminal, victim and the law may not be as vast as it would seem.
Nathan Active is a highly moral character full of integrity and driven by a sense of justice and desire for truth. All of the characters in this well-written mystery/drama are worth spending time with - sort of like a murderous episode of Northern Exposure. I look forward to returning to Alaska with Trooper Active.