The Shaman’s Knife

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The success of Tony Hillerman’s novels of Navajo detectives in the American Southwest is the obvious inspiration for this, Scott Young’s second mystery focusing on RCMP Inspector Matteesie Kitologitak, Canada’s most famous Inuit (Eskimo). Hillerman praised Young’s earlier Matteesie book, MURDER IN A COLD CLIMATE, as a fascinating mystery plus a tour of the Canadian north country, and Young pays a not-so-sly tribute to Hillerman in this second installment. However, Young’s depiction of life within the Arctic Circle does not have the magical aura of Hillerman’s desert world.

Most of the story takes place in the small Inuit settlement of Sanirarsipaaq on Victoria Island. A middle-aged hotel clerk and her grandson have been murdered and an old woman has been seriously injured; when Matteesie is called in on the case, he discovers that the injured woman is his ninety-year-old mother. The suspense hook of the novel—never really made believable—is whether Matteesie can find the murderer before the murderer finds Matteesie’s mother, the only witness to his crime.

As in Hillerman’s novels, much of the interest of this book lies in the local-color descriptions of the area in which the story takes place and the cultural context of the people who live there. The plot is not a traditional whodunit and the criminal is not a mastermind—nor, for that matter, is the detective. Matteesie is a genial combination of the intuitive native true to his culture and the modern trained lawman, with just enough of the hard-bitten detective thrown in to make him interesting.

The shaman of the title is less integral to the plot than hauled in for his potential for mythical magic—a potential that is never quite realized. Although Young creates an engaging detective and seems familiar with the culture of the area, the plot of THE SHAMAN’S KNIFE moves along in an ordinary and predictable way, making the climax merely anticlimactic.