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A mystery kept by the frozen winds

An unlikely trio sets out across Canada's frontier to solve a murder and find a boy.

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It's an archetype right out of a 1950s Western: The scalped body of a white man is found, and a search party sets out to track down the murderer.

Only there are a few differences in Stef Penney's debut novel, The Tenderness of Wolves. For one, the searchers are heading out into the Canadian winter, not the desert Southwest. For another, John Wayne isn't along for the ride. The party consists of the chief suspect's mother, another man arrested for the murder, and ... an accountant.

Penney, who previously wrote and directed short films, won the Costa Award (formerly Britain's Whitbread Award) for Novel of the Year. Although outwardly a murder mystery, "Wolves" is actually an elegiac musing on the nature of isolation – what one character calls "the sickness of long thinking." It's an affliction all the characters are battling in one form or another.

When Mrs. Ross's teenage son doesn't come home, she heads over to neighbor Jammet's cabin to see if he might have seen the boy. Instead of help, she finds the fur trader's body. After she reports the crime to the local magistrate, Andrew Knox, he comes up with the obvious answer, much to Mrs. Ross's disgust. "It must have been an Indian outlaw, Knox says. Scott [a local shopkeeper] agrees: no white man could do something so barbaric. I picture his wife's face last winter, when it was swollen black and blue and she claimed she had slipped on a patch of ice."

The twin settlements of Dove River and Caulfield sprang up in the 19th century, when 1.5 million immigrants came to North America from Scotland. "Despite being so crammed into the hold of a ship that you thought there couldn't possibly be room in the New World for all these people ... the land swallowed us up and was hungry for more." Perhaps surprising to modern readers, who view 19th-century settlers as a far hardier breed, violent death isn't shrugged off in Dove River, where every human represents a buffer against the elements. Knox, for one, is appalled by what he finds in the cabin. "In the past few years several people have died of old age, of course, of fever or accident.... But no one has been slaughtered, defenseless, in their stockinged feet. He is upset by the victim's shoelessness."

Before Jammet's murder, the biggest tragedy had been the disappearance years' earlier of Knox's nieces, who went berry-picking and never came back. Mrs. Ross is afraid her adopted son, Francis, is going to vanish as utterly, and her husband, Angus, refuses to waste his time looking for the boy.


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