Murder on the Last Frontier, by Cathy Pegau

16 Feb

Some time ago, the inestimable Miss Bates talked about this novel. I made a mental note that it sounded very interesting, so when the opportunity presented itself, in the form of a sale, I snagged it.

Then it languished in the TBR Cordillera of Doom for months, until I realized it fit the theme for SLWendy’s TBR Challenge for February, as I had not read anything by Ms Pegau yet.

I have only one warning for this book: it is not, strictly speaking, genre romance. There is no HEA, or even HFN. It is, however, a well written historical mystery, with romance elements.

Murder on the Last Frontier, by Cathy Pegau

Two things this novel has going for it from the get go: it’s set in the Alaska Territory during the Prohibition, and the heroine is a journalist and suffragette in her mid-twenties.

Charlotte Brody may be single, but she’s not an innocent, cossetted, naÏve little thing–which is crucial to me given what she does. But I’m getting ahead of myself. This is the first in a series (three titles currently out).

Blurb:

There’s many who feel the Alaska Territory is no place for a woman on her own. But Charlotte Brody, suffragette and journalist, has never let public opinion dictate her life choices. She’s come to the frontier town of Cordova, where her brother Michael practices medicine, for the same reason many come to Alaska – to start over.

Cordova is gradually getting civilized, but the town is still rougher than Charlotte imagined. And when a local prostitute – one of the working girls her brother has been treating – is found brutally murdered, Charlotte learns firsthand how rough the frontier can be. Although the town may not consider the murder of a prostitute worthy of investigation, Charlotte’s feminist beliefs motivate her to seek justice for the woman. And there’s something else – the woman was hiding a secret, one that reminds Charlotte of her own painful past.

As Charlotte searches for answers, she soon finds her own life in danger from a cold-blooded killer desperate to keep dark secrets from seeing the light of day…

Starting over is the main theme for most of the characters we meet in Murder on the Last Frontier. However, the other side of the coin (wherever we go, there *we* are) is just as important. Charlotte herself realizes this fairly early in the novel.

She has come to Cordova, leaving an outwardly comfortable life at her parents’ wealthy Yonkers house, because she doesn’t fit there. In truth, she and Michael never fit, but as Charlotte has matured, the confinements of that life have grown to chafe more and more. She is allowed to write feminist pieces, she’s allowed to support suffragist causes, she’s allowed to report on abuse and violence against women–but she is allowed a career and personal freedom only up to a point; even then, her own behaviour has to be above reproach.

When something happens that makes the situation unbearable for her, Charlotte follows where her brother had led, all the way across the continent to Alaska. As added benefit, this is a good professional opportunity for her: show the sophisticated women of New York how women live in the wilds of the last ‘uncivilized’ bit of the country.

A slight tangent here: I confess that at first I found Charlotte’s feminism to be too loud, too modern, but that was mostly my issue, not the story’s. As I read on, I realized something that, I feel, is often glossed over in our complaints over too many ‘modern’ heroines in historical romances. These women, loud and opinionated and dissatisfied with the status quo, had to have lived in much higher numbers than the few names that we know today. Otherwise, we would still be living in the same restrictive society they lived in. Change doesn’t come because a handful of people makes noise. Change comes when more people than not, demand it. And even then, it’s always slow, and it’s always hard won.

Upon arriving in Cordova, Charlotte finds that the close bond she once shared with Michael is strained by secrets on both sides, as well as the natural distance of adulthood. Between the fiancée he hasn’t told anyone home about, and said fiancée’s distaste for Charlotte’s opinions, beliefs and profession, things between the siblings are just a tad awkward.

Charlotte is a great heroine, because she is complex, like actual people are. She is still coming to terms with her own issues; she has impulses that are sometimes wise, and sometimes not so much–and she’s not always able to tell the difference. Even when she can, she doesn’t always do the sensible or wise thing. Not because she is stupid or simple, but because, like real people, she is reacting both to what is happening, and to what she feels about what is happening.

Only a handful of the secondary characters are fully developed, but that fits both the premise and the timeline; after all, Charlotte herself has just met all these people, and the story is told exclusively from her (third person, thank goodness) point of view, over the course of a few days.

Regardless of Charlotte’s feminism and profession, it’s natural, between the time period and the story she is following, that most of her interactions in town are with women. The Lutheran pastor’s wife and daughter. The madam and her ‘girls.’ The mayor’s wife. Charlotte’s landlady. I truly enjoyed her interactions with each of these women, not only because I could relate very much with Charlotte’s thoughts and feelings, but because the growth of these relationships felt organic both to the story and to the people involved. Such as, say, Charlotte’s impatience towards the prim and proper behaviour expected of her by her brother’s fiancée, and her growing respect and liking for Brigit, the madam.

Of the male characters, only Michael and Deputy Marshall Eddington are fleshed out, but again, this fits–they are, after all, the only two men with whom Charlotte interacts to any meaningful degree during this time. And while I liked Michael, I was charmed by James Eddington.

I mentioned above that there is no HEA, no HFN. There is, however, a flirtation and the beginning of friendship, and something even more precious on both sides: trust.

On the mystery, there were enough disparate threads/red herrings to make the reading interesting, even though a couple of things were, I think, a bit too obvious, too early on. Obvious enough, at least, for me to guess some of the answers, though I was wrong on some specific points.

I look forward to the other two Charlotte Brody stories already out, and wish Ms Pegau much success with the series. Murder on the Last Frontier gets a 7.50 out of 10.

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