Stabenow, Dana

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Born 27 March 1952, Anchorage, Alaska

Dana Stabenow has followed a growing trend in crime fiction in recent years of putting emphasis on regional settings. The particularities and peculiarities of an author's home can add interesting flavor to an otherwise blasé story line. Following in the footsteps of other regional writers, like Tony Hillerman who writes about his home in the Southwest, Stabenow has made her home in the Pacific Northwest an intricate part of her contemporary mysteries.

One of Stabenow's most popular of her three writing series features Alaskan Kate Shugak, a feisty, courageous, and yet very independent freelance investigator. Throughout the series, Stabenow makes effective use of the Alaskan settings, Aleutian culture, and Kate's personal heritage passed down from her grandmother to add depth and meaning to her tales of mystery and intrigue. Kate is an ex-investigator for the Anchorage district attorney and has turned part-time private detective while trying to maintain a low profile after retiring to her native home in a fictional national park somewhere near the town of Cordova.

Stabenow herself was born in Anchorage and raised on a 75-foot fish tender in the Gulf of Alaska. She worked many odd jobs, including being a gofer for Cook Inlet Aviation and an egg grader, bookkeeper, and expediter for Whitney-Fidalgo Seafoods. Along the way, she learned the traditions of her homeland and the industries located there. After saving her earnings during the bustling days of the oil pipeline, Stabenow was able to pay her way through the University of Alaska's M.F.A. program. She began her writing career penning science fiction—the subject of another of her series starring Star Svensdotter. Her science fiction work has been described as "almost cinematic vividness" by Roland Green of Booklist. However, the Kate Shugak series remains her most well known.

Stabenow won an Edgar award for the first book in the Kate Shugak series, A Cold Day for Murder (1992). This first whodunit features a popular formula for the contemporary crime story: a female investigator, a remote setting, and a conflict between the traditional culture (in this case Aleutian) and the modern American way of doing things. The story line explores how the Aleutian culture is pressured into fitting into the mostly white society. Stabenow seamlessly weaves Aleut traditions and customs into the plot, as she does in all the books in the series. She has the ability to relate to the reader the majesty of Alaska, as well as the rugged terrain and the toll it takes on its inhabitants.

Stabenow's Kate Shugak series offers readers a welcome change to the ever present urban crime drama. Moving the mystery out of the city and into the beauty of Alaska makes for a pleasant change for crime fiction followers. She now competes head on with Alaskan mystery writer John Straley, the creator of Sitka private detective Cecil Younger, with one difference—Stabenow's character being a woman adds a whole new twist to the mystery novel and attracts a whole new crop of readers.

Both Staley and Stabenow, however, have the ability to describe in great detail the eccentric and interesting characters that inhabit the towns they write about. This is one of the most intriguing elements to the regional novel—the reader feels like they get to know the small-town folks depicted in the story. Take, for instance, Kate's crafty grandmother, Ekaterina, a leader of the Niniltna Native Association, and Olga (Dead in the Water, 1993), a skilled Native basket weaver. Learning the Native stories is intriguing to the reader and teaches a little bit of the local color.

In 1998 Stabenow introduced a new character and, in doing so, a new series. Again the backdrop for her mysteries is Alaska, but this time the hero is Alaskan State Trooper Liam Campbell. Campbell's character debuted in Fire and Ice, the story of another Anchorage native who has left behind the city to retreat to smalltown life in Newenham. This story is filled with turmoil and twisted plots, but is led to a smooth ending by the sure writing of Stabenow.

With both the Kate Shugak series and the newest Liam Campbell series, Stabenow ably weaves tales of the region where she was born. She writes splendid, intriguing mysteries, successfully interplaying the beauty and harshness of the Alaskan wilderness, the eccentric but unique inhabitants, and the Native Aleut customs and traditions. Stabenow ably blends thrills and chills, fact and fiction, and danger and peace to tell compelling tales of mystery and crime.

Other Works:

Second Star (1991). A Handful of Stars (1991). A Fatal Thaw (1993). A Cold-Blooded Business (1994). Play with Fire (1995). Red Planet Run (1995). Blood Will Tell (1996). Breakup (1997). Killing Grounds (1998). So Sure of Death (1999).


Reference works:

CA Online (1999).

Other references:

PW (1991, 1993, 1998). Seattle Times (online, 1998). Dana Stabenow website (1999).