BEHIND THE BOOK: ED IFKOVIC

North to Alaska: Researching RUN COLD: An Edna Ferber Mystery

Even as a small boy in rural Connecticut, Alaska fascinated me. In fact, I believe I still own one-square-inch of that enormous and mysterious state. Back then, the late 1940s and early 1950s, my brother, sister, and I often huddled on winter nights by the Zenith console radio in the family parlor, and we listened to Sergeant Preston of the Yukon. Thrilled by the calamitous sound effects that blasted through the speakers—the howling night wind and the eerie baying of the menacing wolves—as well as the dramatic mushing of Preston’s faithful husky King—I shivered as I imagined the vast, endless stretches of ice and snow. One day I discovered in the back pages of some comic book or maybe a boys’ magazine an advertisement for the sale of one-square-inch of Alaska. That’s right—one tiny speck of snow, somewhere up in the Arctic Circle. I’ve forgotten the amount I sent in—probably a buck, maybe less. Probably my whole weekly allowance. But at one point I received a certificate (I hesitate to call it a land deed) that named me the proud possessor of Alaskan territory. 

This was, to be sure, the early 1950s when Alaska was a territory, an icebox of igloos and Eskimos rubbing noses and ailing old folks set adrift on ice floes, but I followed all the debate in the press that resulted in Alaska becoming our forty-ninth state. When I started researching my Edna Ferber mysteries, I was determined to use Alaska as a setting because Ferber had been strong advocate for statehood, had traveled there multiple times, and, in fact, her ICE PALACE (1958) was touted as the “UNCLE TOM’S CABIN of Alaskan Statehood.” Perhaps a little hyperbolic, this designation startled even Ferber herself, but the notion still appeals to me.

But as I began my research into what would be Ferber’s last novel—she was already in her seventies—I found myself stymied: there was too much variety to gather into a mystery. The salmon industry, the search for gold, the fur trade, minority rights, the debate over statehood, the proximity of the Soviet Union. On and on. Strangely, this was also Ferber’s problem, as she recalled in her memoirs—fascinated by the sheer abundance of Alaska, she threw everything into the novel, creating a plodding travelogue and forgetting to flesh out her characters. I did the same thing. Two novels got nowhere with Annette and Barbara, both editors sending me cautionary notes that said diplomatically that I had not captured Alaska. No mystery there. My Alaska was a tepid 1950s pastel cocktail bar on Second Avenue or glib businessmen in bolo ties with cigars and swagger. And then Annette reminded me—she who had spent a childhood in Alaska—that Alaska in the 1950s was still frontier: saloons with swinging doors, sourdoughs with gold nugget necklaces, persistent dreamers under the unrelenting midnight sun. Folks headed out into the wilderness and disappeared into the crevasses. Lives were lost in the surrealistic delirium of the aurora borealis. Although Fairbanks touted itself as modern—after all, there were skyscrapers there, the delight of small Indian kids who rode the elevators up and down—the city itself still had one large step planted in the hardscrabble past. Suddenly I found my focus.

Of course, I read everything I could find on this mysterious Alaska, but what really galvanized my vision was the colorful world of anecdote and folklore and tales of dark violence. The Athabascans of Fort Yukon also enthralled me, and I discovered obscure memoirs and articles written by fur traders and missionaries and the Indians themselves:  a rich vein of incredible memory. Old magazines, circa 1900, periodicals like Outlook and Scribner’s, had articles that chronicled intrepid souls from the Lower 48 who ventured into the Arctic Circle. Nuggets of pure narrative gold, as it were. In the John King Bookstore in downtown Detroit I came upon a privately printed pamphlet, dog-eared and stapled, that took me back into the missionary schools in Fort Yukon and the suppression of revered Indian values. The frontier came alive, the realization that in the 1950s, despite the veneer of sleek cocktail bars of a new Alaska, Fairbanks still pulsated with rhythms that echoed from the old goldmine days, not so distant a memory for many old-timers. And as the trappers and prospectors and wandering loners drifted down into Fairbanks, often old crippled men now, they brought with then not only fantastic stories but also long-held grievances, angers, and the desire for revenge. Perfect for the mystery writer—there is always a good murder at the end of such a history.

And there, suddenly and thrillingly, was RUN COLD

My last Edna Ferber mystery, the tenth, the book has a special place in my heart. It’s the product of a joyous collaboration of writer and passionate editors. It’s the mystery I wanted to write in the first days after the initial Ferber, LONE STAR.  Writing the Ferber mysteries has been a wonderful journey for me. I can remember sending off the first chapters of LONE STAR and nervously waiting for an editor’s response. 

When I received a contract, I was overjoyed—I’d been waiting for a moment like this all my life. Over the successive years, as I worked on other Ferbers, emails sailing back and forth with Annette and Barbara, days of frustration, days of elation, days of triumph, I came to realize something important: the back-and-forth give-and-take editorial process taught me how to “write.” A strange statement perhaps, given that I had been writing for years. In fact, I once taught Creative Writing. But I realized that Annette and Barbara got me into the bones of a story, got me to tweak the edges of my imagination, and ultimately gave me confidence in my written words. There can be no greater gift for a writer. And now, ten books later, ending the series, I’m left with a bittersweet feeling. I accomplished what I wanted to do with the Ferbers—I wanted to capture the sweep and weight of her life though dressed up in murder and mayhem. She might cringe at the idea, but I don’t. Edna Ferber, largely a forgotten American writer now, served me well, and I hope I honored her. 

Her ICE PALACE was her last novel, the fiction that allowed her to capture the far-flung reaches of the America she loved. RUN COLD, I believe, is a fitting conclusion to the series, the septuagenarian trudging through snow in the pursuit of truth and justice.  Sort of like Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, in fact. Seekers after truth in the icebound territory. Echoes from my own childhood. After all, I still maintain that I own a dot of that wonderful landscape.