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I spent my senior year of high school in Ketchikan, to give me an idea of what city life was like after having lived most of my life in the remote bush. As it turned out, I spent the year feeling like an alien observer and couldn’t relate to the other kids’ interests. But there were a few kids who stuck out for me because of their quirky sense of humor that I could relate to, regardless of cultural shock.
Many years later, when I finally got internet out in the bush, I typed in “Alaskan mystery novels” in Amazon’s search bar and “Mink Island” by Brent Purvis popped up. The name seemed familiar somehow, but I couldn’t place it. I bought the book and was immediately hooked, laughing out loud as I turned the pages quickly.
It’s rare enough, in my experience, to find fiction set in my area of Alaska, let alone fiction that captures the over the top eccentricities of many bush people.
The story starts out as a fairly straight forward murder mystery (if you don’t count the fact that the dead woman is in a bikini floating in Alaskan waters…as the locals note, that’s not a sight you see a lot around here). Then garbage-marauding bears, hapless RV owners, guitar-playing mink farm owners who harvest at the wrong time of the year, vengeful sail-boaters with a demolitions expert on board, humpy-slinging locals, a crooked politician, and assorted lunatics come into the picture.
Meanwhile, our detective, State Trooper Jim Wekle, finds his murder investigation taking a turn that leads him to a prescription pill empire catering to the sunshine-deprived locals. I was genuinely surprised by the reveal — twice — when it came to finding out whodunit.
There is a romance, but it’s mild and takes a back seat to the mystery, which takes a back seat to the crazy shenanigans of the locals. I hadn’t even finished the book before I was recommending it to everyone I knew.
If you read “Mink Island” prepare for a wild and fun ride with characters so zany and actions so far left-of-center that you might think they couldn’t possibly be based on reality. But the fact is, they’re not as far out there as you might think.
For example, I went to school in Meyers Chuck with a guy who, in his wild 20’s, ate bar glasses (including the ones in the bars in Craig where characters from “Mink Island” spend a lot of their time) to impress the ladies. I met him again a few years ago and during the course of our reminiscing he said, feeling his years, “You know, the pain just doesn’t feel as good as it used to.”
He would have felt right at home in Brent Purvis’ Craig.
And then there’s my youngest brother who, riding shotgun on the roads on Prince of Wales Island, got up close enough to a running Sitka black tail deer to leap out of the racing car and tackle it. Or there’s my second youngest brother who in his teens liked to dress up as an Old West gunslinger and went to bed every night listening to the audio track of “Star Wars: The Empire Strike Back” that he’d recorded himself, artistically looping Han Solo’s tortured screams in order to lull himself into a peaceful sleep.
As I said, Brent does not exaggerate when it comes to the eccentricities of Alaskan characters.
Here are some of my favorite quotes from “Mink Island”:
“Roger, do you still own that cannon?”
“You look like Kahn. From ‘Star Trek: The Wrath of Kahn.’ But I’m sure you get that all the time.”
“Jim began to question the merits of alcohol.”
“Nothing says Alaska like dead humpy stink.”
I was convinced, by the time I’d finished the book, that the author had to live in my part of Alaska — was it possible that I knew him? Was it possible I’d gone to school with him in Ketchikan? I found his contact information online and wrote to him asking the question and he wrote back, confirming it. I dug out my high school yearbook and lo and behold, there he was! And once I saw him I remembered him immediately as being one of those classmates whose sense of humor I’d enjoyed.
Since then he’s written two more quirky, madcap Alaskan mysteries in the Jim and Kramm series: “Tsunami Warning” and “Hooligan Arm” (full disclosure: I edited his later books); and he just came out with another madcap mystery set in Northeast Washington State where he currently lives, called “Paydirt Blues.”
So, if you’re hankering for some almost-too-real Alaskan characters involved in an Alaskan mystery (think “Northern Exposure” meets Tim Dorsey), don’t hesitate to grab “Mink Island” by Brent Purvis.
• Tara Neilson lives in a floathouse between Wrangell and Ketchikan and blogs at www.alaskaforreal.com.