Cold Storage, Alaska by John Straley
Back when I was growing up, one of the more interesting varieties of film that used to cross over the Atlantic and find its way up to our northern shores was the so-called screwball comedy. For those of you who like explanations of jargon, the screwball was a pitch in baseball. The ball spins and travels in unexpected directions. Primarily made during the Depression and the early part of the war, these movies were farces that played both with the struggle between the sexes and, in economic terms, between the social classes. They were often illogical and not a little impossible as different elements were juxtaposed, so poverty and wealth, upper and lower classes could be thrown together as in My Man Godfrey in which even the rich can be saved if given a chance. In some senses these films were romances but, insofar as they did deal with relationships, they were more about the attitudes of those involved than about the decision whether they were to marry. In more modern terms, I’m reminded of films like Get Shorty in which a debt collector decides it’s actually easier to get a Hollywood movie made than continue in a life of explicit crime. These are films with a general comedic sense that play with boundaries in crime and other genres to generate a satirical feel and considerable amusement.
All of which brings me to Cold Storage, Alaska by John Straley (Soho Crime, 2014) This is the story of Clive McCahon’s decision to return to his home community of Cold Storage in Alaska after completing a seven-year term in jail for drug-dealing. Since he left at the age of fifteen, not that many people remember him or have any conception of the man he’s become. His brother who served a tour in Afghanistan, acts as the community’s “doctor” while the rest of the inhabitants survive through a combination of fishing (although the cannery that used to provide employment has now closed), some small tourist activity, and sheer bloodymindedness not to be driven away from the inhospitable piece of land. They gossip about the possibility of his return and, as is required in books like this, he times his arrival just as his mother dies (of natural causes). This gives him the chance to meet everyone as they come together to mourn one of the last links with the original settlers who built the huddle of buildings dignified by the name of a town. On his way back up north, he has acquired a healthy pile of cash from Jake Shoemaker, his former business partner, and a potentially savage dog of fairly massive size. The cash pays for the flights and the dog ensures no-one will bother him on his journey.
The other major characters are Lester Frank, a Tlingit Indian who, while observing the foibles of the white folk around him, is actually trying to write the definitive Alaskan novel, young Billy who plans to paddle his way down the coast to meet with the Dali Lama, the young couple who teach at the local school, and the local State Trooper who’s convinced the town is a hotbed for Satanic practices and likely to be overwhelmed by the return of the newly released crime lord. When Clive does return, he decides to renovate and reopen the local bar. There’s just one problem. The local planning ordinances require that there be a church to counterbalance the lure of the demon booze. That’s no problem, of course. Clive will be only too willing to hold services every Sunday as the price of running the bar.
Some of you might sense this is not a crime or mystery novel and you’d be right. There are no murders and no detective, amateur or otherwise, stalks the boardwalks of this northern village to declare whodunnit. Yet, in a way, this is a serious crime novel because we’re dealing with a number of people who will stop at nothing to get their own way. Put a gun in someone’s hand and there’s no saying what mayhem may follow. Indeed, if they take the time and trouble to travel to Cold Storage, there’s no knowing what damage they may do, even if it’s no more than start a band with progressive tendencies. So if you put aside your prejudices, you should embrace this character-driven farce in which men and women, a large dog and the occasional salmon, spend time with each other and sometimes avoid injuring each other. I was delighted and massively entertained.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.