March 7, 2014

First-Rate Writing from the Last Frontier: a review of John Straley's "Cold Storage, Alaska"

Cold Storage, Alaska
by John Straley
Soho Crime (2014)
304 pages
ISBN13: 9781616953065

If this novel is to be believed, Alaska is the home of some of the most genuinely quirky and borderline insane characters in all of America. It would certainly explain Sarah Palin.

Clive McCahon is out, after seven long years sitting in a prison cell and keeping his mouth shut, while his ex-partner has been worried sick that Clive would spill to the feds about the drugs, the money, and the rest of it. Clive isn't really interested in putting Jake away, though. No, he just wants his money, and to make a fresh start for himself back in the hamlet of Cold Storage, Alaska. But when Clive goes and gets his money, money Jake believes is his, and even takes the vicious guard dog to boot, he winds up provoking the drug-dealing screenwriter into hunting him down. Meanwhile, Clive's little brother, Miles, gets word that Clive is coming and he's worried that if Clive doesn't kick up a hornet's nest himself in the coastal fishing village, the people coming after him will.

For a crime novel that didn't ever feel like it featured much crime at all, this novel was a hard one to put down. This was my first time reading John Straley's work, and I guess it's the fact that he's been living in Alaska since the 70s that he managed to create such a vibrant and enticing portrait of some of the most unforgiving land on the continent. By the end of the book, I knew I never wanted to live in Cold Storage, but I sure as hell wanted to pay it a visit. Well, Alaska in general, since the little cluster of homes clinging to the rocky shores is sprung out of Straley's imagination, but you know what I mean.

The characters populating this novel might be even more outstanding than the scenery. An eclectic bunch to say the least, and while the oddballs of Cold Storage were comical, none of them came off as farcical. I never got the sense that the peculiar antics of the locals were presented with any kind of point-and-laugh approach, and frankly a few of them were downright lovable for all their antics.

If I'm to knock the novel for anything, I guess it would be how it seemed to get muddied around the midpoint, veering off from the very clear conflict between the McCahon brothers, as well as the desperate criminal and priggish trooper on Clive's tail. Oh, the distractions were fun, and offered a lot by way of highlighting some secondary characters, but it took a heck of a time for things to get back on track, I thought. In the end, I think it exemplifies John Straley's own opinions on the genre and the concept of revenge. Quirky, but it works.

Still, a wonderful example of story being bolstered by character and setting, and a great way to be introduced to Straley's work. I will definitely be looking for more of his novels.

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