Ms.pegasus's Reviews > The Woman Who Married a Bear

The Woman Who Married a Bear by John Straley
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Sep 05, 12

bookshelves: fiction, mystery
Recommended to Ms.pegasus by: Dale of Goodreads
Recommended for: anyone interested in mysteries set in unusual locales
Read in September, 2012 — I own a copy, read count: 1

Mention myths or folklore, and I'm “hooked.” When I heard this title and learned it was a mystery set in Alaska, I had to read this book. The author notes that the version of the story he uses is a variant of several Yakutat Tlinget stories. Like so much of folklore, without a cultural context, the story could mean almost anything, so it's a clue that's subject to multiple interpretations, and therefore perfect to be the center of a mystery.

The primary setting is Sitka, an island community of small fishermen, bar flies, and the training center for the state's police force – a town of contradictions, it's marginal status underscored by location in the southeast tail of Alaska. The narrator is a detective, of sorts, Cecil Younger. He doesn't drive and he doesn't carry a gun. Most of the time he is anesthetizing himself with alcohol. Of his occupation, he modestly summarizes: “If cops collect the oral history of a crime, I gather folklore. And people who have set themselves up to be the judge rarely accept folklore as the whole truth, unless it's their own story they're telling.” It is his distinctive voice that sets the mood. Other reviewers have noted how it evokes John D. MacDonald (whom I have not read, but plan to). What's notable is that Cecil maintains his own individuality. That individuality is expressed by observations and voice, which serve to balance the moody introspection. Sperm whale exploding from the sea to feast on herring, eagles floating on the updrafts; or the memory of picking berries in a graveyard with Hannah, the woman who has just left him are examples of that tone.

The story begins simply. Louis Victor, a local hunting guide, was murdered. Alvin Hawkes, his mentally unstable employee, was convicted of the crime. Louis' mother has hired Cecil to investigate the murder because Alvin Hawkes' actions do not “make sense” to her. Cecil decides its a matter of asking around and finding a story that will placate the old woman. When his roommate, Todd is shot by a bullet meant for him, Cecil begins to suspect the old woman's intuition might be correct. The deeper he probes into the case, the more confused his investigation becomes.

The pace of this book is extremely leisurely for a mystery. Considerable time is spent telling the back story of Todd, Cecil's complicated relationship to his father (“the Judge”), his relationship with Hannah – both past and present, and even his barroom friends. Another frequent diversion is nature. Weather, mountains, riverbanks, eagles, ravens and salmon are all described in detail. It is a tribute to Straley's writing that these details add to the mood of the book rather than divert from the mystery.

This is a well-written mystery with interesting characters, and a balance of cultural detail and present-day social grit -- all embedded in a well-constructed mystery plot.
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