If December released a rash of Christmas-related novels into the crime fiction universe, it appears that January brings the snow. New Year’s Day is still a recent memory, but already in 2023 we’ve reviewed Cold People by Tom Rob Smith, set in the Antarctic, and CJ Tudor’s The Drift. Now the temperature is about to drop again, because all of the action in City Under One Roof happens in the fictional town of Point Mettier, Alaska.
It is a place with just 205 inhabitants, all of whom live in the Davidson Condos, a complex known to the locals as Dave-Co. Port Mettier is only accessible through a tunnel, and that’s how Cara Kennedy, a detective from Anchorage, arrives when body parts are found on the desolate beach. We’re in the depths of winter, and when a snow storm and subsequent avalanche force the tunnel to close, Kennedy is trapped in a place where both the temperature and welcome are icy cold.
The local cops think the severed hand and foot belong to an unlucky tourist who fell from one of the cruise ships but Kennedy isn’t so sure. When a severed head is unearthed in a barn it becomes clear that the victim’s identity is much closer to home. First to fall under suspicion is Lonnie, a local woman who has a number of eccentricities – not least having a moose called Denny as a pet. She admits to burying the appendage, but did she do the deed?
We first meet the delightfully different Lonnie as she is taking Denny for a walk and is spotted by Kennedy and local cop Joe Barkowski, known as JB. Soon we are seeing Port Mettier from three perspectives – that of the incomer, Kennedy; from Lonnie’s skewed, conspiracy-ridden viewpoint; and through the eyes of teenager Amy, whose mother runs the only takeaway in Dave-Co. As the story unfolds it becomes clear that all three have their parts to play here.
Debut crime writer Iris Yamashita was nominated for an Oscar for her screenwriting work on the movie Letters from Iwo Jima and her skills are put to sterling use in City Under One Roof. Balancing a sense of overpowering vastness with a cloying claustrophobia is no mean feat, but this author manages it with aplomb. Scenes in the great outdoors are tempered by those inside the complex, a place where there are secrets around every corner and where the walls seems to close in on Kennedy, whose fear of enclosed spaces grows to epic proportions as she tries to get to grips with the case in hand. She, like virtually everyone who features in this book, has a hidden agenda which is teasingly revealed like the pieces of a complicated jigsaw without a picture on the box.
Port Mettier is an unnerving place to live, and it came as a shock to discover that it is based on real-life Whittier, a small town in Alaska nicknamed ‘the town under one roof’ that I hope NEVER to set foot inside. Yamashita lovingly depicts her fictional location in Technicolor detail, the icy blasts emanating off the page as you huddle near a radiator. This is a desolate, beautiful place – and when unwelcome incomers arrive from Chugach Village things take a turn for the terrifying with one plot strand suddenly unravelling in myriad directions. It’s cleverly done, and as the tensions sneaks up a notch or two the pages fly by.
This is a fine first step into fiction writing for an author who sure-footedly leads the reader into a world that is alien to most of us and somehow makes us feel at home. She gets top marks for characterisation and location and comes up with a story that can lull the unwary into a false sense of security. Trust me – best to keep your guard up and carry on reading, because this is a book to savour.
For more crime fiction from Alaska try John Straley’s novels, including Blown by the Same Wind.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars