THOUGH NOT DEAD is the 18th addition to Dana Stabenow’s Kate Shugak series, which takes place in Alaska. Kate Shugak is a practicing private investigator who, along with her wolf/dog, lives in a national park with relatives and friends known as Park rats. As the book opens, Old Sam Dementieff, Kate’s 87-year-old uncle, dies and in his will leaves everything to her, including a homestead no one knew about. Kate has to find the map that will lead her to the site that is situated in the Park near Hot Springs. He also leaves an enigmatic note saying: “Find my father.” Kate does not know what to make of this. But she knows how hard it is to get information from the people who knew Sam best; they hold the secrets of the past deep inside themselves.
While going through Sam’s things, Kate is whacked on the head and is rendered unconscious for a while. She can’t imagine why anyone would come after her and wreck Sam’s house. Obviously they were looking for something. But what? Nothing was stolen, and the whole unfortunate event makes no sense to Kate. This is not the only attack she suffers. She is forced off the road in a whiteout snowstorm and assaulted in her shack when she goes to Hot Springs. This time her attacker tells her he wants “the map,” but she is in the dark about what he means.
As the narrative moves along, Kate finds out about a Russian icon that is very valuable and belonged to the tribe long in the past. Everyone believes her biological father stole it. He was an outsider, and when he disappeared, so did the icon. She is also looking for a manuscript that may have been written by Dashiell Hammett during World War II, while Sam was in the Aleutians. In addition, a giant gold nugget is out there to be retrieved, but will Kate be able to bring all of the lost materials together without getting herself killed?
Another storyline is the relationship between Kate and Jim Chopin, who is rooting around in his family for information that could prove life-changing for him. He is in California for the funeral of his father. One of the treasures he inherits is an old writing box. What he finds in it astounds him.
Stabenow uses flashbacks of Alaskan history to link the chapters and experiences the characters have. The 19th century is where the book really begins, and as readers move along, they get glimpses of how life was then --- when Alaska was only a territory. The references to the “lower 48” are reminders of how much the world has changed over time. The Alaskan wilderness in present-day parlance is rendered with care and finesse. Readers will easily form tantalizing word pictures from Stabenow’s descriptions of land, wildlife and sky.
Clues and red herrings undergird the structure of the book, and readers who like to solve the puzzle before reaching the end will find enough signs to lead them to the climax. Both fans and newcomers will not be disappointed in this new novel. The mystery is finely wrought, and the prose is appealing. All in all, THOUGH NOT DEAD is a good read.
Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on November 4, 2011