The Bottom Line: A fully absorbing detective thriller with a highly original PI you can’t help but root for. Fans of Dennis Lehane and Tana French will love Askew’s atmospheric style.
Alaska Deadly finds private detective Race Warren working his first case, and the Memphis PI is under the impression it’s going to be like a paid vacation. All he has to do is travel to Alaska, find his client’s estranged husband, Ron Billings, and deliver a message. Easy, right?
Except Warren has little to go on except the fish processing plant where Billings last worked. And then there’s the mysterious person trying to kill him. Soon after arriving in Alaska, he’s ambushed by a shooter at a post office, owing his survival to the instincts of a guide dog who happened to be there.
Someone doesn’t want Billings to be found, and they’re willing to do whatever it takes to ensure Warren fails.
In Warren, author J.L. Askew has created a truly differentiated hero. Fictional detectives nearly always fall into one of two buckets: experienced former police or amateur sleuths. To Askew’s credit, Warren is neither. His four-year psychology degree set him up to learn how to deal with difficult people and situations the hard way – investigating child dependency cases and counseling families. Throughout the book, his unique approach helps open doors in personal interactions, and his naïveté when it comes to law enforcement is endearing. It’s clear from the first page that Warren is in over his head, which is precisely what makes Alaska Deadly so suspenseful.
As Warren explores Alaska’s infrastructure, culture and people, Askew’s atmospheric prose makes for terrific escapist reading. Instead of defaulting to cinematic writing in passages told from Warren’s point of view, Askew perfectly captures a beginner’s mind in this vast, wild world. Conversely, the prose transforms palpably in passages written from the POV of experienced outdoorsman Mark Dunbar (“there were remnants of winter, thin lines of unmelted snow laying starkly on the barren land, white tendrils on the brows of irregularities, creasing the tundra”). And what is already an engrossing crime thriller takes on new dimensions as Askew introduces local folklore: indigenous rituals, legends about shapeshifters, and more. In all, Askew makes Alaska come alive in the way Dennis Lehane does Boston, and wraps it in a compelling detective story that mystery fans will love.