Reviewed by Wendy Hawkin
“It was a vast empty land we paddled through. With only low hills to obstruct the view, the horizon seemed limitless, apart from a few days of rain, when clouds cloaked us in misty drizzle. After paddling through still smouldering lands of the forest fire, we travelled northward. The smattering of short, scrubby trees grew sparse until disappearing altogether. We had travelled beyond the treeline…We were utterly alone.”
The wild romantic landscape of the Canadian north plays a major character in this, R.J. Harlick’s latest Meg Harris mystery. The ninth book in the series, it explores the culture of the Tlicho or Dogrib people, part of the Dene First Nation in the Northwest Territories. This is the land of continuous daylight, of stubbly trees, barren lands, pristine lakes, and resources just waiting to be gobbled up by the greedy; juxtaposed alongside Yellowknife, a makeshift amalgam of big box stores, parking lots, strip malls, and all the seedier sides of life a city offers.
This is my first introduction to Harlick and her tenacious and complex heroine, Meg. In prior books, Meg has explored the Migiskan Algonquin, an Anishinabe culture of West Quebec—her neighbours at Three Pines and her husband Erik Odjik’s people. She’s flown to Iqaluit in the Canadian Arctic looking for answers to her father’s disappearance and encountered the dangerous world of Inuit art forgery. And in Vancouver, she’s been caught up in the death of a young Haida carver and explored the beauty of Haida Gwaii.
A reluctant hero, Meg, must venture once again from the safety of her home at Three Pines in Quebec. She’s recently experienced a vicious attack by two men during a terrifying blizzard—an attack she has yet to deal with or heal from. But leave her safe haven she must. Her husband, Eric Odjik, Grand Chief of the Grand Council of First Nations, has been imprisoned for murdering his step-daughter’s abusive ex-boyfriend, Frank. To up the stakes, Teht’aa, Eric’s step-daughter lies in a coma after being raped, beaten, and left in a alley to die. Believing Frank is her attacker, Eric exacted his revenge—so the police believe—and Eric thinks it might be true. He doesn’t remember a thing.
This is plenty for Meg to deal with. She’s an alcoholic who’s only been sober two years, and is a recent assault victim herself. But Meg is strong and feisty and when she decides to do something, she does it. In this story, she must watch over her step-daughter who lies in a coma, and free her husband from prison. She must unravel the truth of what happened; a truth that involves her husband’s Dene family.
My favourite character is Joe Bluegoose. The “uncle” who helped Eric reclaim his Algonkian heritage, Uncle Joe acts as sidekick to Meg. He reminds me so much of his namesake Joe Gomba from North of 60, that I see him and hear his voice with every word this Joe utters. They are both old, grey, wiry, wizened indigenous men who know the land and love their people with every bone in their skinny bodies. A man of grunts and few words, Joe Bluegoose misses verbs, but understands everything. He is a man of the land, cooking up caribou stew, bannock, and smoked grilled whitefish, which he manages to pull out of the lake with surprising dexterity.
As is the nature of all good murder mysteries, RJ Harlick keeps us guessing about what really happened. Is the death of Frank Chocolate, and the rape and beating of Teht’aa somehow connected to the creepy Father Harris, former teacher at St. Anne’s Residential School? Or is Reggie, an ambitious Tlicho man, who has declared himself acting Grand Chief due to Eric’s incarceration, involved? Then, there is the bad-tempered Hans, a German prospector who scans the land for diamonds, and Teht’aa’s complicated cousin Gloria, who’s into drugs, alcohol, and prostitution. The one thing Meg does know, is that her husband cannot possibly be guilty, though he doesn’t remember a thing and woke up beside Frank’s body clutching the bloody knife. What really happened? You’ll have to read the book to find out.
I will say this. I am charmed by Harlick’s “purple palette” and her web-weaving. One of the major symbols in this book is an artifact, a piece of ancient embroidered caribou skin, died purple with blueberries, tufted with Dene flowers sewn with purple caribou hair and shimmering beads. The way she uses the fabric is brilliant and will keep you reading to the last page.
Purple Palette for Murder will be published by Dundurn on October 14, 2017 in Canada.
Wendy Hawkin writes an urban fantasy/murder mystery series. She reviews and blogs at bluehavenpress.com