Don’t judge a book by its cover.
Bet if you look in the Book of Quotations for this saying, you will find the cover of The Tenderness of Wolves as the illustration. Upon being lent this book, nothing about it appealed to me. Not the odd title. Not the somewhat muted, depressing cover with wolves staring out at me. Not the back cover blurb describing a woman traipsing over the 1860’s Canadian wilderness to track a killer. AND to be perfectly honest, not an author who seemingly shares my name (Stephanie), but blasphemes it by spelling it with an F rather than PH. Yeah, yeah. I know that last reason is bonkers, so I am relieved I can do penance for it by giving this book a good review. I enjoyed it on several levels.
First, there is the story, which features a mystery within a mystery. It opens with fur trader Laurent Jammet found dead in his cabin. The incident once again reminds settlers in the small town of Caulfield of their vulnerability and reignites tensions and memories of a long-ago incident when two young girls went missing without a trace. This time a 17-year-old boy is also missing and considered the prime suspect; however, Jammet’s life was not an open book, and though many think this is an open and shut case, the possibilities of who may have wanted him dead increase. As the story unfolds, this mystery intertwines with that of the two young girls’ earlier disappearance and makes for a good whodunit.
Another compelling facet of the plot is the backdrop of 19th-century Canadian society with the delicate, distrustful balance among settlers, fur trading companies, and Canadian Indians. Ms. Penney sketches a vivid picture of the tensions among the avaricious trade companies, whose only goal is killing animals for furs; the Native Canadians, marginalized and used in their own land while trying to preserve a way of life; and the European settlers, who are betwixt and between. One gets a distinct feeling for the historical period and how life must have felt on all sides.
Then there are the characters, most with obscured motivations, which lends suspense. The dead man himself is shrouded in mystery, a French trapper who lives in Caulfield, but is really not part of the close knit community. Mrs. Ross is certain her troubled son is not the killer, and as she heads into the Canadian wild to find him, her unusual past is revealed in flashbacks. Other suspects are the charming but slippery Tom Sturrock, who led the search for the two girls years ago and is now after a mysterious object Jammet promised him, as well as Parker, a Canadian Indian who also has ulterior motives for helping Mrs. Ross find her son. Finally, there is the young Hudson Trade Company employee who wants to do his job, but isn’t sure whom or what to believe.
Notwithstanding a good mystery, and well-honed characters, there were aspects of the book that confused me from the very beginning. First, so many characters were introduced so soon that I had a devil of a time keeping them straight. Several times I found myself whispering: Wait? Who the hell is he again? It took a while and I finally got people straight, but not easily and not without several backtracks. My second confusion was also character driven. I have no idea how many characters peopled this book, but believe me, there were a whole passel of them. Way too many IMO and some who really seemed quite unnecessary. I found myself thinking that the addition of yet another character with a piece of the puzzle was a less creative, clumsy way of solving the mystery.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book immensely, recommend it wholeheartedly, and look forward to more from author Stef (with an F) Penney.