Toward the end of The Tenderness of Wolves the part-narrator (I’ll come back to that) Mrs. Ross is afflicted by snow blindness. She discovers a body in the snow but cannot identify it “as my eyes cannot be relied on to tell the truth.” And there we have one of the essential points of this book: perception depends on the viewer. Since the short chapters are told from different points of view, we get widely variant interpretations of mystifying facts. One memorable section of the book has Mrs. Ross, the Indian William Parker and the young Scot Donald Moody visiting Hanover House, a Hudson Bay Company outpost fallen on hard times. The action is almost Jamesian — a puzzling incident is seen and misinterpreted. Doors close, voices whisper, explanations do not hold up. What the heck is going on here?
Let’s backtrack. The novel begins in Dove River, Canada (north of Toronto) in 1866. It’s remote and it’s cold. The personnel in Dove River divide into Anglos, some French and some Indians. Mutual suspicion reigns. A French trapper named Laurent Jammet is found dead, Mrs. Ross’s son Francis is missing.
There turn out to be two separate McGuffins, one an ivory tablet with what may be Indian writing on it, and one a cryptic tag of paper found in Jammet’s flour barrel. This is clever, but Stef Penney does something else very clever by having various mismatched parties head out on Francis Ross’s trail. This allows her to dole out essential information to some but not all of the concerned characters. The very nature of the original crime changes as the book progresses. Of course it’s a murder: but was it a robbery? A corporate crime perpetrated by the Hudson Bay Company? Or was a bundle of precious furs really at stake? And what ever did happen to those young Knox girls, lost in the forest so long ago? It’s a kaleidoscope of a novel, showing you different patterns every time you shake it.
Needless to say this would be annoying in the wrong hands but the characters are all strong, their interactions believable, the dialogue appropriate to the era. And it’s an interesting variation on the 21st-century mystery-writing dilemma. If we don’t feel comfortable restoring an order that never really existed (see Denise Mina) then what provides satisfaction to the contemporary reader? In this case, a few puzzles are solved. Perhaps some emotional bonds are mended. We have to be content with that.