Book Review: Dark Night by Paige Shelton
By Janet WebbMarch 1, 2022
What is the appeal of living in a practically off-the-grid Alaskan community? For Beth Rivers, who writes popular thrillers under the name Elizabeth Fairchild, the allure of Benedict is its remoteness. Folks in Benedict (a fictional town) respect one another’s privacy. Thin Ice was the first in Paige Shelton’s Alaska Wild mystery series. The series begins with Beth arriving in Alaska in a two-seat prop plane. She’s just escaped from the terror of having been kidnapped by a lunatic who claims she belongs to him.
Beth suffered a serious head injury during her kidnapping by Travis Walker so her memories of her short imprisonment come through flashbacks. Her forehead bears a significant scar. A salient fact—Beth suspects Travis knew her as a child, and that he was close to her father and another man. Beth has been searching for her father for years, with help from her mother Mill (Millicent) Rivers. That was then.
Beth’s carved out a good life for herself: she has a job, writing the weekly newspaper, the Petition, a room at the Benedict House, a halfway house for female felons, and friends and acquaintances (like her almost-boyfriend Tex). Only the police chief Gril Samuels knows her back-story, or so Beth supposes. Take her conversation with Elijah Wyatt, the guy you call if you need a tow.
“You’re pretty popular around here. I haven’t needed a tow yet, but maybe someday.”
“I’ve heard of your . . . scar.” He smiled sheepishly. “Wow, that was terribly inappropriate. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it. It’s hard to miss.”
My hair, now white from the trauma of being kidnapped, had grown out some from the hospital bathroom haircut I’d given myself, but the scar would probably always be obvious. I didn’t care what I looked like as long as it wasn’t brown-haired novelist Elizabeth Fairchild.
Dark Night opens as winter is closing in. In Alaska, winter stretches roughly from October until March: the sun rises late in the morning and sets early at night, and the temperature drops way below freezing. If a suspect is on the run, where do they hide, especially if they’re from the lower forty-eight? Most outsiders don’t have the wherewithal to prepare adequately for the extreme conditions.
There’s a new man in town—Doug Vitner, the census guy. People give him a wide berth, preferring to keep their business to themselves. Vitner visits Ned, a surly man who lives on the outskirts of town, and his wife Claudia. When Vitner asks how many people live in their house, Ned gets agitated and upset. Later that evening Claudia staggers into the town bar, battered and bloody. The townspeople know what to do, starting with Benny the bartender: they whisk her off to the local halfway house.
“Who’s tending the bar?” I asked Benny.
“Someone will take care of things,” she said. She was correct; someone would. It’s what we did in Benedict. “All right, Claudia, tell me what happened. Did that son of a bitch do this to you?”
Tears filled Claudia’s eyes. “It wasn’t like that, Benny. He . . . thought he was in trouble. I didn’t explain it all well enough. It wasn’t his fault.”
It was textbook victim denial, and I didn’t even know the circumstances.
Complicating the situation, Ned’s sister Lucy, who has been secretly staying with him, is on the lam (she’s been accused of stealing jewelry). He hid her in a building on his property but Vitner discovered her presence. What a mess. The police chief puts Lucy in the halfway house, on house arrest. He wants to transport her to Juneau but when winter sets in, the ferry from Juneau only runs once a week. The weather isn’t much more hospitable to planes.
The next morning Gril asks Beth, Claudia, and Viola, Benny’s sister, to accompany him outside. Viola wants to know why. Reluctantly, Gril tells them they’ve found a body.
“It’s my Ned!” Claudia shrieked. “It’s my Ned!” How did he die?
“What happened?” The words jumped out of my mouth. I took a step closer to the scene, but Viola put her hand out to stop me. I couldn’t see anything—no body, not even a spatter of blood.
For a long moment, no one said anything as Claudia wailed.
“He was murdered,” Benny finally said. “Stabbed, we think.”
“Murdered?” Viola said. “Are you sure? The weather last night. The elements . . .”
Donner shook his head slowly. “No, not the elements. It was murder.”
Complicating life further, the police chief tells Beth that there’s a rumor Mill is on the ferry from Juneau. Beth really doesn’t need this. Mill isn’t on the ferry’s manifest but Gril and Beth wait anyway.
“Darlin’!” Mill smiled and waved in our direction, an unlit cigarette hanging from the corner of her mouth. “You came to greet me! Hold on, I’m coming.”
“Your mother, I presume,” Gril said.
“Yes. That’s her.” I blinked back some unexpected tears and told myself to keep it together.
Mill is no ordinary mother: she’s on the run like Lucy. The town of Benedict takes most things in stride but Mill is a chaos creator. A chain smoker, fiercely protective of her daughter, Mill is judgmental and leaves havoc in her wake. She thinks nothing of destroying evidence or going out on her own to investigate. There’s been a murder, the census man has gone missing, Beth has received a suspicious note—perfect timing for Mill to join forces with Beth and figure out the truth. Dark Night is a page-turning roller-coaster of a book—prepare to be surprised.