I’ve just had the privilege of reading Dead of Winter, by Gerri Brightwell, the most recent addition to Salt Publishing’s crime list. Gerri Brightwell is an English academic who works in Canada. The novel is set in Alaska and I’m certain it draws on her experiences of Canadian winters for some of its local colour.
The story is told in the third person, but through the eyes of Fisher, the (anti-) hero of Dead of Winter, a divorced taxi driver and born loser who is estranged from his only child, a teenage girl called Bree (short for Breehan); he has a barely-speaking relationship with his former wife Jan, who, years before the story begins, has tired of her drab and grubby life with Fisher, smartened herself up, turned estate agent and met and married the obnoxious but successful Brian. Even the cab company (‘Bear Cabs’) that Fisher works for is second-rate and his life is filled with shifty characters who continually exploit him. Two of these, Fisher’s step-mother Ada and Grisby, his on-off friend, are rare jewels of characterisation. Both introduce black humour into the novel. Ada manages to cheat him and make him feel guilty for not running her errands at the same time. The depiction of Grisby is a compelling addition to the great tradition of literary scroungers: he could happily rub shoulders with Joxer Daly and hold his own. Fisher knows that Grisby takes advantage of him, but he also recognises that the man is pathetically inadequate, even more of a loser than he is himself, and therefore feels unable to abandon him. Grisby, for his part, turns to dross everything that he touches: to call him accident-prone would be a gross understatement. He is motivated by a low cunning that attempts to be devious but doesn’t fool Fisher. The only solid-gold creature in Fisher’s life is Pax the dog, and he is growing old and incontinent.
It is because of the actions of Breehan, Jan and Brian and Grisby and Ada that Fisher not only stumbles upon the aftermath of a murder, but is in danger of being wrongly accused as the killer. To protect his estranged family, he enlists Grisby’s aid to remove the corpse from the crime scene. From this point, event piles on event to immerse Fisher ever deeper in lies and apparent guilt, a vicious circle from which he cannot break free because of his love for Bree and Jan.
The tense and fast-moving action is played out over a period of a few days. The setting is a small Alaskan town in the grip of a vicious winter. The winter itself becomes one of the villains of the novel, alternately endangering and thwarting Fisher as he pursues his desperate mission. Fisher himself is by turns philosophical, funny, annoyed and depressed. His is a complex character: he charms the reader, despite his shabby frowsiness, lack of self-respect and fatalistic approach to how his life has turned out, because fundamentally he is honest, showing an integrity that no-one else in the novel can match.
The plot of Dead of Winter is ingenious: I thoroughly recommend this novel if what you’re looking for is a page-turner. What appeals to me even more is Gerri Brightwell’s clear prose and the deftly-observed characters that she creates. If you decide to read it, you won’t be disappointed.