The Tenderness of Wolves is set in the wilds of 19th-century Canada, in a society of trappers, voyageurs and Indians that's already familiar to me from Margaret Elphinstone's Voyageurs. It's a murder mystery, as is clear from the very first page: Laurent, a reclusive Frenchman, is found jugulated and scalped, and suspicion falls upon Francis, the adoptive son of Mr and Mrs Ross, who's coincidentally gone missing.
Mrs Ross (this is how she thinks of herself) is a character of considerable depth: she's spent time in a lunatic asylum, and she understands human nature, and power games, better than anyone else realises. Her husband, Angus, doesn't understand her especially well: it's debateable whether she has any friends. She finds allies, however: Moody, the young Company agent who's sent to investigate, and Parker, half-Indian trapper who may have been in business with the murdered man. Thomas Sturrock, who has a reputation for tracking missing persons, arrives in town. Who will he follow?
I prepare to go into the wilderness with a suspected killer. What's worse, a man I haven't been properly introduced to.
Everything, everyone, in this novel seems connected by an intricate web of hinted backstory. Many lives touched by Francis' flight, by Laurent before his death, by Mrs Ross and Parker as they attempt to solve the crime, by Moody as he discovers new evidence concerning the disappearance of two girls, years before, by Sturrock as the secret of his famous failure (the Seton girls again) is gradually revealed. Things happen, too, because of Francis and Laurent and Mrs Knox and Sturrock. A Norwegian woman flees the refuge she sought after her husband's death. A mysterious bone tablet of immense significance is lost and found. Laurent's legacy endures even as his secrets are revealed.
Some secrets are carried to the grave. Some secrets never come to light at all. Not every death can be explained, not every survival will make sense. The wolves of the title may be more tender than the humans who encounter them. Or they may be wolves in sheeps' clothing.
(One of Laurent's secrets, which isn't only his, seemed ... wrong for that culture and society. Not what happened but how it was regarded by the protagonists and by others.)
This book received considerable publicity for its marvellous depiction of the Canadian wilderness, since the author has never visited Canada. (In the trade we call this 'imagination'.) I'm not entirely convinced. It feels accurate, and engaging, and credible: but I missed the surprising observations, the unique off-kilter perspectives, that come from life.
There are also times when I felt the grammar was getting away from me. A lot of the novel's written in first-person present tense, and combining that with past-tense flashbacks gave rise to some sentences that needed unravelling.
A pacy read, though the ending's quite open -- and bleak, in a sense, as Brokeback Mountain.