Review

Cold Water Burning

by John Straley

I've
never had a burning desire to go to Alaska. If someone administered
a word-association test to me and said the word "Alaska," my
immediate response would be "cold." I get enough of that living in
Ohio. My wife has been there and keeps talking about how beautiful
it looks from a cruise ship. Sorry. I've been getting a little
nudge at the edge of my brain, however, a little itch that says
"Hmmm." What put it there is a short but intense novel by John
Straley entitled COLD WATER BURNING.
Straley is well-regarded in mystery circles, which makes it
hard for me to confess that I was unfamiliar with him before
reading COLD WATER BURNING. This is Straley's sixth novel featuring
Cecil Younger, a down-at-the-heels private investigator in the
trapper and tourist town of Sitka, Alaska. Younger has been
evolving over the course of the past six years or so, and COLD
WATER BURNING finds him living with his girlfriend Jane Marie, her
infant daughter, and his not-quite-autistic friend Todd. He is also
maintaining sobriety after years of alcohol abuse and trying to eke
out an existence in a setting where such a task is by no means
easy, particularly for a private investigator who, by his own
admission, is not a very good one. He is, however, good
enough.
In
COLD WATER BURNING Younger finds himself haunted by the
circumstances of a grisly case he was involved with several years
previously. Younger had been part of a legal team defending Richard
Ewers, a deckhand accused of murdering four people aboard the scow
Mygirl and setting it ablaze. Ewers was found not guilty of the
murders, due in no small part to Younger's efforts, but the cloud
of suspicion has continued to hang over him. Now Ewers has
disappeared, and his wife believes someone has taken revenge.
Younger is initially reluctant to become involved. However, when
Ewers is killed in a police shootout, and two other people involved
in the case die in separate incidents, it appears that someone is
taking dramatic steps to either bring rough justice to the matter
or to conceal the truth behind the unsolved Mygirl murder case ---
or, perhaps, to do both. Younger, due to his prior involvement in
the matter, finds himself drawn into the circumstances in spite of
himself. In doing so, he finds that he has put not only himself,
but those he loves, in mortal danger. He also finds himself slowly
reaching the conclusion that a lifelong friend, a person whom he
has always trusted, may have betrayed that trust. It is soon clear
that no matter how the case is resolved, Younger's view of his
world --- and the people in it --- will be changed
forever.
Straley, himself a resident of Sitka, is an absolute master at
weaving his surroundings into the fabric of this masterfully told
and compelling story. Younger is real; he is still dealing with the
consequences of addiction and the circumstances of his past, and if
he doesn't always do so well, it makes his story all the more
true-to-life. Straley also gives his readers little bits and pieces
of the sociology and uniqueness of Alaska, a state most Americans
know only by repute.
Again, I have read only one of the Younger novels. But I was
reminded repeatedly of Ross MacDonald's Archer novels. This is not
to say that Straley copies MacDonald's style --- Straley's voice is
uniquely his own --- but rather that he captures, as does
MacDonald, a unique place and time within the context of an
intriguing story as seen through the eyes of a complex
character.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 21, 2011

Cold Water Burning
by John Straley

  • Publication Date: January 2, 2001
  • Genres: Fiction, Thriller
  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Bantam
  • ISBN-10: 0553106430
  • ISBN-13: 9780553106435