Book review: In the novel ‘Cold to the Touch,’ Alaska provides a dark setting for a series of killings (2024)

“Cold to the Touch”

Book review: In the novel ‘Cold to the Touch,’ Alaska provides a dark setting for a series of killings (1)

By Kerri Hakoda; Crooked Lane Books, 2024; 336 pages; $29.99.

Alaska has always been an attractive setting for mystery, detective and thriller novels. The reasons are not hard to sleuth out, as the environment and ways of life offer compelling set-ups — the cold, winter darkness, spaciousness, wildness, grittiness of Anchorage, end-of-road mentality, transient population and lawlessness. Yes, many or most of those are formulaic tropes, but there’s enough reality to them to make them effective. Add in wild animals, hunting culture, Indigenous and immigrant cultures, missing persons and Alaska’s high rate of violence — all great for developing plot lines and adding “color.” Add in coffee culture.

In author Kerri Hakoda’s “Cold to the Touch,” Anchorage Homicide Detective DeHavilland Beans (yes, he and his siblings were all named after airplanes) is a serious coffee drinker. He regularly gets coffee at the drive-in coffee kiosks in and around Anchorage, where many of the baristas dress in animal-themed or skimpy costumes. On the very first page, one of these baristas, a 19-year-old Native college student, wakes from a drugged state in some kind of shed. On page four, Detective Beans is called to investigate a dead body found in the snow just off the Glenn Highway.

Publicity materials for the book state that it will appeal to “true crime junkies fascinated by the Israel Keyes case.” Alaska readers will recall the abduction and grisly murder of barista Samantha Koenig in Anchorage in 2012 and may not be particularly eager to be reminded of it. Fortunately, the novel, inspired by the barista angle, greatly departs from that case and, although it includes a series of murders and months of efforts by authorities to find the killer, does not depict the kind of overly graphic violence that will induce nightmares.

Many genre books deal in stock characters and focus mainly on page-turning plots. Hakoda departs from this to build complex, interesting characters. Detective Beans, instead of being the kind of hard-bitten alcoholic gumshoe so familiar to readers of the genre, is a young, Buddhist, non-drinker, gum chewer, cat adopter, and helpful friend and brother. He comes from village Alaska and is of mixed heritage. He listens to audiobooks by the Dalai Lama while riding his stationary bike and has terrifying dreams about murder victims as well as childhood trauma. His love life is a bit of a mess.

Others among the manageable number of characters are similarly well-realized and representative of our state’s diversity. Beans’ childhood friend, a hapless gambler whose mother runs an Asian grocery, might be implicated in the disappearance of a Filipino loan shark. The medical examiner is calm and compassionate. The other detective, who doesn’t like to work with Beans, might be a bit racist. The former girlfriend, an expert on predatory wildlife, is the daughter of a sketchy hunting guide with Chinese clients. A barista roommate is a dancer with the Anchorage Ballet. An autistic bus driver with an eye for detail and an eidetic memory is recruited to assist the investigation team. Beans’ sister keeps disappearing, throwing him into a panic.

One of the pleasures of reading fiction set in Alaska is finding in the pages familiar places, names and situations. Hakoda, who lives in Washington state, has lived and worked in Alaska and depicts it with reasonable accuracy. The story takes place between December and “spring” in and around Anchorage, with one side trip to Beans’ family home in Galena. Alaska readers will recognize locations and Anchorage businesses that Hakoda has lightly disguised.

Other elements in the storyline also draw upon Alaskan reality. Bow hunting plays a role, along with illegal hunting and the sale of bear gallbladders. There are chicken farmers and co*ckfights. There’s snow, of course, and snowplows aplenty. A truck collides with a moose.

Descriptive passages don’t linger or involve literary flourishes but depend on plain, telling details. When he visits the family of one victim, “Beans balanced his notebook on the weathered arm of the leather recliner in the overheated living room ... On the wall behind the two women, a small wooden crucifix, suspended by a thin leather strap, hovered between time-faded family photos.” Elsewhere a character exhibits an “intriguing scent combination of maiden-aunt lavender perfume and deli meats.”

As with any good mystery/thriller, “Cold to the Touch” includes numerous red herrings and digressions from a direct path to the killer. The side trips into various relationships and events are never dull, and the pace throughout is unrelenting, with one development following another and most of it presented through dialogue. If there are a few incongruous actions and omissions — that’s all part of keeping the reader guessing and second-guessing. In the end, Beans and his team get the killer, and all wraps up in a logical fashion, with — despite the numerous deaths — a bit of happiness.

For fast-paced action with well-developed characters and intriguing glimpses into some of what makes Alaska uniquely well-suited for stories involving various kinds of darkness, “Cold to the Touch” should find appreciative readers both in- and outside of Alaska.

[‘American Predator’ is a chilling, meticulous look into the life of serial killer Israel Keyes]

[Book review: Stan Jones, a master of the northern mystery, takes the genre to California with a co-written detective novel]

[Book review: A whodunit convincingly captures a recognizable Alaska]

Book review: In the novel ‘Cold to the Touch,’ Alaska provides a dark setting for a series of killings (2024)

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