It's an archetype right out of a 1950s Western: The scalped body of a white man is found, and a search party sets out to track down the murderer.
Only there are a few differences in Stef Penney's debut novel, The Tenderness of Wolves. For one, the searchers are heading out into the Canadian winter, not the desert Southwest. For another, John Wayne isn't along for the ride. The party consists of the chief suspect's mother, another man arrested for the murder, and ... an accountant.
Penney, who previously wrote and directed short films, won the Costa Award (formerly Britain's Whitbread Award) for Novel of the Year. Although outwardly a murder mystery, "Wolves" is actually an elegiac musing on the nature of isolation – what one character calls "the sickness of long thinking." It's an affliction all the characters are battling in one form or another.
When Mrs. Ross's teenage son doesn't come home, she heads over to neighbor Jammet's cabin to see if he might have seen the boy. Instead of help, she finds the fur trader's body. After she reports the crime to the local magistrate, Andrew Knox, he comes up with the obvious answer, much to Mrs. Ross's disgust. "It must have been an Indian outlaw, Knox says. Scott [a local shopkeeper] agrees: no white man could do something so barbaric. I picture his wife's face last winter, when it was swollen black and blue and she claimed she had slipped on a patch of ice."
The twin settlements of Dove River and Caulfield sprang up in the 19th century, when 1.5 million immigrants came to North America from Scotland. "Despite being so crammed into the hold of a ship that you thought there couldn't possibly be room in the New World for all these people ... the land swallowed us up and was hungry for more." Perhaps surprising to modern readers, who view 19th-century settlers as a far hardier breed, violent death isn't shrugged off in Dove River, where every human represents a buffer against the elements. Knox, for one, is appalled by what he finds in the cabin. "In the past few years several people have died of old age, of course, of fever or accident.... But no one has been slaughtered, defenseless, in their stockinged feet. He is upset by the victim's shoelessness."
Before Jammet's murder, the biggest tragedy had been the disappearance years' earlier of Knox's nieces, who went berry-picking and never came back. Mrs. Ross is afraid her adopted son, Francis, is going to vanish as utterly, and her husband, Angus, refuses to waste his time looking for the boy.
After men arrive from the Hudson Bay Trading Company, they take over the investigation. Francis, who still hasn't come back from his fishing trip immediately attracts suspicion – until one of the more brutal company members gets distracted by a half-Mohawk, half-English trapper, named William Parker. He locks Parker in a shed and tries to extract a confession out of him. After Parker escapes, he and Mrs. Ross head off into the wild to find Francis, followed by two company operatives: a short-sighted accountant named Donald Moody and his protector, Jacob, who once stabbed him during a rugby game. On their travels, an ancient bone artifact several of the characters long to possess, a secret cache of valuable furs, and the fate of the missing girls get wrapped into the mystery.
Penney allows Mrs. Ross a fair bit of deadpan humor, as when she and Parker begin their search. "I prepare to go into the wilderness with a suspected killer. What's worse, a man I haven't been properly introduced to." Or Mrs. Ross's observations about another neighbor who enjoys looking down on the Scottish mother: "She considers herself a well-traveled woman, and from each place she has been to, she has brought away a prejudice as a souvenir."
Unfortunately, Penney herself indulges in some stereotypes about the "noble savage" that would have been more at home in a bodice-ripper. (Just once, I would love to have the hawk-like native American tracker turn to the gutsy, middle-aged pioneer woman and say, "Listen, lady, I'm really flattered, but you're just not my type.") And some of the more fascinating characters, such as Knox's conflicted magistrate and a journalist-turned-tracker who knew the dead man, disappear from the novel so utterly, not even Parker could track them down.
In the end, while the mystery comes to a satisfying resolution, what stays with a reader is Penney's evocation of a wild and lonely land and the tough-minded humor of a woman who's learned to survive in it. When first confronted with the endless "sharp-scented silence," Mrs. Ross gives in to a bout of hysteria. "The thought that, however loudly I screamed, only the wind would answer, could not be pushed away. Still, if the idea was to find peace and quiet, we had succeeded." It's that last sentence that makes her a heroine for the history books.
• Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.