Dana Stabenow

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (WOMENSENEWS)–This was a virtual who’s-who of famous Far-North female sleuths. There was Kate Shugak of the Niniltna Native tribe and former star investigator for the Anchorage district attorney. And Jessie Arnold, a passionate dog musher who completed both the grueling Iditarod and Yukon Quest races. Then, there were the outsiders, the non-Alaskans, like Rachel Porter, intrepid U.S. Fish and Wildlife agent, and Manhattan psychotherapist-sleuth, Dr. Melanie Wylie.

These female fictional detectives and their flesh-and-blood creators came here from across the country to attend the 11th annual Left Coast Crime Mystery Writers Conference last month, the first mystery conference in Alaska and the first one sponsored by the state’s chapter of Sisters in Crime.

The sisters talked shop, swapped stories, lent each other moral support and learned about arctic forensics, animal heroes and alternative publishing.

At the panel “Freezing in the Dark Builds Character[s], or The Return of the Great Alaskan Roadshow,” Edgar-award-winning Dana Stabenow and Sue Henry, another award-winning Alaskan author, joined three other writers in discussing everything Alaskan from shotguns to 55-gallon drums in which to stuff bodies.

“Alaska is a place that grows strong women,” Stabenow explains. “My mother was a deckhand on a fish tender for five years, and then worked ground support for an air taxi service.”

Charlene Doris, former coroner of Anchorage’s Third Judicial District, discussed cases such as the “missing dead guy who wasn’t” and “the man who burned his wife’s body in their fireplace.”

And then, there were the dogs and dog-sledding. Libby Riddles, the first living woman to win the Iditarod, the world famous dog sled race, hosted a discussion called “Iditarod Tales,” covering history, characters and techniques. It took her 18 days to win the 1,049-mile race in some of the worst weather in the history of the race. Her lead dog joined the panel.

Female Sleuths Are Cut from a Different Cloth

A breed apart from their male counterparts, female mystery writers tend to create strong protagonists who are involved in conflict-filled relationships with lovers, family friends and coworkers. Their stories touch on the “real stuff” of feminine experiences.

They may use food, as does Stabenow, in “Fire and Ice,” when Kate Shugak stalks and shoots a moose outside of her Alaskan wilderness homestead cabin. Over three days, she guts, skins and quarters the animal, guaranteeing food for the entire winter. The night she finished, Stabenow writes, “They had heart for dinner, breaded and fried and served with a heaping portion of mashed potatoes.”

Other authors use humor and female issues to heighten suspense, such as Jane Isenberg’s “Death in a Hot Flash” and Denise Dietz’s “Footprints in the Butter.” Setting also makes for characters. Locate a woman in a rugged environment, like Alaska, and she needs a multitude of skills to survive.

That doesn’t mean these women behave like men. Kate Shugak cries over the death of Emaa, her grandmother; Jessie Arnold can dash boldly into an arctic storm and at the same time be wonderfully gentle with her dogs. Dr. Melanie Wylie confronts a virtual killer, who exclaims “Your death will be my cure!”–all the while, the therapist continues to see her regular patients. They combine courage and tenderness, power and nurturing.

Sisters In Crime Has an Ax to Grind

In 1986, Sisters in Crime was founded by author Sara Paretsky (“Hard Time,” “Deadlock,” “Tunnel Vision”) and other mystery writers and enthusiasts. Its purpose is “to combat discrimination against women in the mystery field, educate publishers and the general public as to inequities in the treatment of female authors, raise awareness of their contribution to the field and promote the professional advancement of women who write mysteries.”

Sisters in Crime created the Review Project to combat discrimination against female mystery writers. The project tracks how various print media cover mysteries written by women. Past surveys show that while women write half the published mysteries, they receive only about 30 percent of the reviews. Since reviews and media coverage often determine the success of a book and its author, they are an important reflection of gender equity.

Author Stabenow, president of the Alaska chapter, is the award-winning author of more than 12 mysteries, including “Midnight Come Again” and “Play with Fire.” In addition to writing her Kate Shugak mysteries, she is something of a legend in both Alaska and the lower-forty-eight. Stabenow spent much of her youth on a 75-foot fish tender in the Gulf of Alaska and vividly remembers the great Alaska earthquake of 1964 that struck during her 12th birthday party.

“It was then that I realized I was destined for greatness, always supposing I survived the day.”

Dr. Jeri Fink is an author and family therapist in New York. Her most recent fiction includes the adult mystery, “Virtual Terror,” and the forthcoming teen thriller, “Matthew’s Web.”

Our Story

A special daily feature of Women’s Enews during Women’s History Month

(WOMENSENEWS)-1966. The Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray, one of 28 founders,co-authors the statement of purpose that launches the National Organizationfor Women on June 30:

“The purpose of NOW is to take action to bring women into full participationin the mainstream of American society . . .”

NOW was founded in Washington by those attending the Third NationalConference of the Commission on the Status of Women. Betty Friedan, anotherfounder of the direct action feminist organization, was the first presidentof NOW. Almost 35 years later, it is the largest feminist membershiporganization in the United States. – By Glenda Crank Holste.