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  Bookends: Dan Davidson

From Ice to Ashes

Reviewed: June 29, 2010
By: Jessica Simon
Publisher: NeWest Press
257 pages, $19.95

There are several plot threads woven into the warp and weft of Jessica Simon’s first published mystery novel, From Ice to Ashes. Her central character, Markus Fanger, is one of the Yukon’s many German immigrants, whose past employment with the Kriminalpolizei Hannover has made him an excellent candidate as an RCMP auxiliary member.

In this capacity he has become involved in the rehabilitation of young Donjek Stoneman, a native boy who has managed to get himself into a fair amount of trouble with the law, much to the disappointment of his family, whose history with the force goes back several generations.

During a sentencing circle held in Dawson City, Fanger offers to take the young man under his wing and have him do some useful community service to pay his debt to society. In this case, he wants to use him as a race official during the latest running of the Yukon Arctic Ultra Race, which, in this particular year, is being run from Dawson using the route made for the annual Trek Over the Top snowmobile event.

Fanger and Stoneman will be manning the 100 K finish line at the Little Gold Customs Station. Donny is a kid with a chip the size of a 2 x 4 on his shoulder and thinks of Fanger as a “wannabe Indian”, but he has the skills needed to do this job and he knows it will keep him out of the prison system.

Details about the race and race relations (both types) are one part of this story.

The other part is what really makes it more of a thriller than a mystery. It concerns a plot to blow up the missiles at Fort Greely in Alaska, a plot hatched and carried out by a Moroccan Islamist terrorist on a mission of personal vengeance. While he is probably more motivated by his personal history, Omar Ahmed has convinced himself he is on a mission from Allah, has trained and has prepared himself to run the Ultra for the sole purpose of gaining entry to Alaska and transporting a load of explosives to Greely, where he has an accomplice who will enable him to carry out his mission.

Annabeth Secord is a very disturbed young woman who has already abandoned a marriage and a daughter in the Yukon for one love affair in Alaska. Seduced by Ahmed, who claims he can help her regain custody of her daughter, Annabeth, an electrician working at Greely, has willingly agreed to provide the technical expertise needed to make Ahmed’s plot work.

The story is told from several points of view. We follow Fanger as he works the race and works on Donny. We follow Ahmed as he runs the race and collects the materiel he has stolen and cached along the route. We follow what seems, at first, to be a totally unconnected RCMP investigation of an explosives theft in Whitehorse.

There are scenes from the race itself, a mad snow machine chase across and beside the Top of the World Highway, and some tense scenes at Fort Greely towards the end of the book. Simon is at her best when dealing with the outdoor aspect of this novel, as befits someone who has spent time as a wilderness guide, among her many career options during her more than twenty years in the territory.

From Ice to Ashes was nominated, along with a slew of other novels, in the 2010 best first novel category of the Crime Writers of Canada Arthur Ellis Award. This is named for the pseudonym under which the official public executioner in Canada used to make his rounds. The actual award statue is a wooden model of a hanging man. The arms and legs move when the model’s string is pulled.

Simon got an Advanced Artists Travel Grant to help her attend the Bloody Words Convention in Toronto in late May, where she served on a panel called Where the Wild Things Are and did public readings at three Toronto area bookstores that promote mysteries.

She didn’t win the award, but she was in good company for half the week and the book was definitely noticed.

There are more Fanger books coming, and Simon says they’re not appearing in chronological order. Her computer is currently gestating manuscripts for Adventures of a Talking Stick and Adventure Whitewater, which will actually be the third and first of Fanger’s adventures when they get into print. These, she says, will be less like thrillers and more like mysteries, and will present with a lot more of Fanger’s personal history.

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