Miss Bates had every reason to want to read Cathy Pegau’s Murder On the Last Frontier: feminist-writer heroine, wintry setting (MissB’s favourite!), blue-eyed deputy hero, and that gorgeous hat! Sailing from her native Yonkers, journalist Charlotte Brody arrives in 1919 Cordova, Alaska, to join her doctor-brother, Michael. Charlotte’s plans are to write about northern frontier life as it confronts twentieth century American concerns: financial boom-times, women’s changing roles, mechanization, and the “soon-to-be-voted” Volstead Act. Charlotte is a proponent of women’s rights, especially the struggle for suffrage, and writes from that unique perspective, sending dispatches to Yonkers’s Modern Woman Review. Cordova is a small, but growing northern frontier town with sufficient amenities and a population, especially its upper echelons, who prides itself on its successes and attractions. Michael introduces Charlotte to the Kavanaughs, town mayor and wife, his fiancée Ruth and her most respectable father, the Reverend Bartlett and his missus.
Charlotte settles in Mrs. Sullivan’s rooming-house and immerses herself in the town’s social life, dancing through the night, including a whirlwind partnering with the twinkling-blue-eyed town rogue, Deputy Marshall James Eddington. Charlotte’s “journalistic and justice-seeking instincts” are soon alerted, however, when thumping sounds outside her room late one night turn out to be a local prostitute’s murder. Charlotte’s natural curiosity and need to defend the most vulnerable and exploited of Cordova’s denizens (joining forces with her coroner-acting brother and the handsome deputy) find her stepping on every rung of Cordova’s social ladder for Darcy Dugan’s killer, from the mayor to Darcy’s madam, brothel-keeper Brigit O’Brien.
Many are Pagau’s Murder On the Last Frontier‘s pleasures. Primarily, Miss Bates loved the heroine, setting, and secondary characters (especially the delicious Deputy Marshal Eddington). Charlotte describes Cordova (Pegau’s actual home) as reflecting the “dichotomy of civilization and the Last Frontier.” Charlotte’s newcomer eyes give us a wonderful sense of a town on the cusp of change, yet very much carrying the age-old vices. Though the dead girl Darcy, the madam Brigit, and others in the house of “ill repute” are not stereotypical “whores with hearts of gold” – Pegau’s characterization is more nuanced and compelling than that – they are a good mirror to the town’s hypocrisy. Men who demand respect and power are their customers. Charlotte’s sense of justice makes her a dogged and intelligent amateur investigator and her feminism covers her in righteousness. But investigating this murder also brings out Charlotte’s secrets – guilt, remorse, uncertainty, self-doubt, anger – without spoiling the novel for Miss Bates’s readers – suffice to say, Charlotte’s past gives the novel depth and renders her character more sympathetic, at least to Miss Bates.
Miss Bates has described how Cordova serves as a terrific milieu for Pegau’s characters. Pegau’s writing does the landscape justice, the night sky, the vastness and silence of the north, but doesn’t renege on the mud, cold, and discomfort. More importantly, and of more interest, Miss Bates enjoyed how Alaska is synonymous with second chances for the various characters, even though it carries old-world burdens, like social and economic inequality. Seeing how Michael’s post-WWI malaise has been lifted in this new town, new life, Charlotte hopes it does the same for her: “Alaska had tamed his demons. Maybe it could tame hers as well.” Alaska as the “last frontier” for its distance, but for what it means metaphorically is echoed by Charlotte’s slow-burning love interest, James, when he says to her: “The … thing that brings most everyone to Alaska,” he said. “A chance to start over.”
Miss Bates takes a moment to tell you what a wonderful character James is. He is protective, but not alpha-domineering. James respects Charlotte’s opinion and her fine, sharp mind no less than her beauty. When he’s exasperated with her, it’s fun without being officious. And, in keeping with his studly, lovable characterization, he recognizes her inner struggle when he says to her: “There’s steel in you, to be sure, but also sadness that makes me wonder who or what hurt you enough to bring you way the hell out here.” Le sigh. Interesting, dangerous work, Mr. Studly-Alaskan-Stetson, mountains, fresh air, and an open horizon, what can a feminist-journalist do but commit herself to this town, to exposing its secrets, or keeping them when the innocent are at stake, to getting to know her brother again, and – ha! – Miss Bates loved this – promising to care for James’s tabby when he leaves, temporarily, to wrap up their solution to Darcy’s murder. All Miss Bates can say is she wants MORE Charlotte and James, MORE Cordova …
And where does Pegau’s Murder On the Last Frontier trip and stumble? Well, Miss Bates admits she had the solution to the murder about half way through. Miss B. is not one to care about this all that much, as long as the heroine is compelling and nuanced, the hero, studly with nothing overbearing to him, she’s really okay. A warning to Miss B’s inspirational rom-readers: Pegau treats certain bioethical issues in a way that may be antithetical to your convictions. Whether Miss Bates agrees or disagrees was not at issue for her: as long as topics are treated in their complexity and without rigidity, Miss Bates is content to read about a variety of perspectives. The next Charlotte Brody mystery won’t visit us till July, darn it. Miss Bates eagerly awaits its arrival, as would her reading-partner, Miss Austen, who would say of Murder On the Last Frontier, here is evidence of “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Cathy Pegau’s Murder On the Last Frontier is published by Kensington Books. It was released on November 24th, 2015, and is available in e and paper at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates is grateful to Kensington Books for an e-ARC, via Netgalley.