Legal Procedural Novels, the crime as seen through the eyes of a lawyer, were not my genre of choice. I must confess that when I saw the date, time and place at the beginning of every chapter I thought, aha, just as I thought, emphasizing process over creating rich characters and developing a robust plot. A meticulous rendering of criminal court procedure and politics, along with how police and prosecutors work together (or don’t).
Then, as if that was not enough to put me off, this audacious author immediately assaults my comfort zone with an unfamiliar scene of Esther Fancyboy, a Yup’ik woman, cutting, gutting and draping thirty-pound fish carcasses over drying racks. However, I forged ahead and within a few pages I was hooked. Keenan Powell’s tour de force, “Hemlock Needle”, quickly put my reservations to rest. The intricately woven narrative is not simply a tale of intrigue and subterfuge it is an experience and the briefest of glimpses into another culture.
The female protagonist, Maeve Malloy, is a tough and capable Attorney at Law with a past of her own that helps her understand many of the people she must routinely deal with. The story is so well crafted and characters so well drawn that we begin to empathize with Maeve. You will experience her fear when a witness is shot to death in front of her; disappointment and despair when she is betrayed by a previous lover; and suspicion those around her.
This tension filled unique and convoluted mystery begins with Esther Fancyboy dropping her son, Evan, off to spend the evening with his grandmother at a Russian Orthodox Christmas celebration called Starring. Then she simply walks out the door into the blizzard. We are struck by the stoicism of those left behind, a jarring contrast to our own unruly emotions. Even under the most emotionally trying circumstances the Yup’ik enviably maintain control.
The tale is one swirling in an insidious brew of the prejudices of racism and chauvinism combined with liberal measures of lust, gluttony, envy, pride and an extra measure of avarice. Maeve and investigator Thomas Sinclair uncompromisingly seek to find and expose the truth even as Maeve is in a battle to save her own professional career.
Keenan Powell is brilliant at creating a sense of realism so powerful you will feel the cold fresh Alaskan wind on your face and get a whiff of the aroma of fresh warm bread baking. She truly is a master of her craft.
“Hemlock Needle” challenged my preconception of legal procedurals and has emerged triumphant. She has, without doubt, taken the genre to a new level.