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Veteran fisheries specialist uses Dutch Harbor as backdrop for debut novel

D. MacNeill Parker
Courtesy of D. MacNeill Parker
D. MacNeill Parker has spent over three decades in Alaska’s fishing towns. First, fishing commercially out of Kodiak, later as a state fisheries specialist.

D. MacNeill Parker has spent over three decades in Alaska’s fishing towns. First, fishing commercially out of Kodiak, later as a state fisheries specialist and as a trade journalist.

Parker recently retired to dry land, but she’s not hanging up her XTRATUF boots just yet. Her latest catch is a mystery novel, set against the backdrop of Alaska’s fishing industry.

Parker sat down with KUCB’s Theo Greenly to talk about her debut novel, “Death in Dutch Harbor,” and why former Unalaska Mayor Frank Kelty might not want to get too close to any crab pots.

You can learn more about Parker and "Death in Dutch Harbor" at the author's website,

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


Theo Greenly: Let's just talk a little bit about your background. How did you get into writing?

D. MacNeill Parker: Well, I actually graduated from college with a degree in journalism, and eventually it brought me to Alaska over 30 years ago. I began commercial fishing in Kodiak, Alaska. I fished there for a couple of years, I met my husband there, we were married there. Our kids were born in Kodiak, we loved living there. But that's how we first became involved in the fishing industry. When we started raising our family, I went back to journalism, and I wrote for all the trade journals on the West Coast, and Laine Welch and I did the Alaska Fisheries Report together on the radio. We also had a column called Fish Factor, which was published all around the state. Then I worked for the State of Alaska as a fisheries specialist, and we moved to Juneau. And then I worked in the industry as a manager with a fishing company and moved to Seattle, where I live now. So all of that is an expanse of about 30 years, so I'm no spring chicken. In fact, my debut novel is what I first wrote when I retired. I retired and I finally got to live my dream and write a book, and every minute of it was fun.

Greenly: That's great. That sounds like an exciting trajectory.

Parker: Where I was really lucky was I had this wonderful experience of three decades in the fishing industry, from many different points of view. I've been to all the fishing ports in Alaska. So what an opportunity in writing a book, to use that wonderfully colorful fishery world as a backdrop to a crime mystery.

Greenly: It certainly is a colorful world. And Dutch Harbor is a colorful place. Why did you choose Dutch?

Parker: There are several towns in Alaska, as you know, where commercial fishing is the lifeblood, the heartbeat that keeps these communities alive, but Dutch Harbor is different in a couple of ways. Number one, it's America's largest fishing port and has been for decades. And number two is that it truly is on the edge of civilization. There's not a hospital there. You have a wonderful school and gym and library and things like that, but really, it's a time machine that goes back in time, because you are so far. It’s an expensive and long plane ride to get to places that other people take for granted. And for me, it's really a time machine to a sort of a different sort of era where things are more rugged, where people are more reliant, they're more creative. And I thought that this would be an even more authentic background to have a crime novel and to have fictionalized people come alive. And it’s a place that people are always curious about.

Greenly: Do you remember your first time in Unalaska?

Parker: It was on the boat in which I met my husband. And we arrived there to get some equipment. It was on the Fourth of July, and we had the afternoon off and we were wandering around town and whatnot. And so I remember going into the Elbow Room and dancing my first dance with my husband there.

Greenly: Wow, first dance with your husband was at the Elbow Room. That is something, that’s great. The night could have gone another way, but it sounds like it was a fun night. Okay, let's jump ahead. Tell me tell me about the book.

Parker: It's a whodunit crime mystery set in Dutch Harbor. When two murders strain the police force there the police chief taps the local veterinarian to help him sort out some forensic information. Specifically, he asks her to help him figure out the cause and time of death for the two separate murders. He needs local involvement and all he's got is a veterinarian, and she reluctantly agrees. And her skills come in handy when she discovers the cause and time of death of a local drug addict who washes ashore with some sea lions out at the head of Captains Bay.

Greenly: I’ve got to ask if any of the characters are based on real people.

Parker: Absolutely not. I was very meticulous about that. I didn't want anybody to feel as if they were being portrayed in the book. But I did tell Frank Kelty that if he wanted to be the mayor that's described there, he could be. So I guess Frank is the mayor. But only if he wants to be!

Greenly: Could we get you to read an excerpt?

Parker: Yeah, so let me lay the groundwork for your listeners. This excerpt is taken from the first chapter near its end. The protagonist Dr. Maureen McMurtry is a local vet, and she's just returned to Dutch. Aboard the plane she has been asked by her pal, Kate, who is a marine mammal biologist, to accompany her to Captains Bay to track down sightings of dead sea lions. When they reach the beach they find two dead sea lions, both of them shot, and the doc calls the police chief. So that's where we are.

“By the time police chief St. George and his two deputies drove out to the head of Captains Bay, the two women on the beach had already examined the carcasses of both sea lions. Maureen held up the lead slug she’d extracted and offered it to the chief. ‘I found bullet wounds in both animals, looks like it might be a thirty-aught-six.’

The chief wore a bulky police parka over jeans. He held out a gloved hand. She dropped the bullet in his palm and watched him roll it around there. When the chief looked up at her from beneath a wide brim Western hat, his mouth was pressed shut. Maureen had learned that meant he was thinking and wanted to get it right before he spoke. ‘I'd like you to remove all the bullets and give me an estimate on time of death.’ He hadn't asked her to take a scalpel to anything before, so the query was measured. Sure she was a veterinarian, but he had to ask. “Can you do it Maureen?’ The city council had hired Ray St. George as its police chief five months earlier. Like most remote Alaskan communities, the town didn't have a medical examiner, and unless the community was lucky enough to have an appointed coroner to determine cause of death, the state police expected all evidence, including unexamined corpses, to be sent to Anchorage for forensic analysis. Dutch Harbor didn't have a coroner, and its lone doctor worked at the hectic clinic. Chief St. George had learned quickly that once the state police took possession of a body, they also took possession of the investigation, often leaving the local police out of the loop. To Ray St. George, a retired Army investigator, this protocol was unacceptable. ‘Can you do it?’ he asked again, watching her get her medical kit back in order. The chief had three inches on Maureen, making him about six feet tall. His face was clean shaven, his graying hair clipped short. His posture made you want to stand up straighter. She could tell by his expectant face that he was waiting for the wheels to turn in her head. ‘Let me think about it,’ she said. The sea edged closer and the surf shot foam their way. The chief pointed toward the tideline. ‘Look for shell casings, ' he said to the deputies. ‘And there may be more animals washed up on the beach. I want to collect as much as we can before the tide takes it away.’ Maureen joined Kate who has already begun to walk the tide line. They were almost to the river when the roving flashlight beams landed on another mound of seaweed. Kicking away clumps of kelp, a hideous odor rose to scorch their nostrils. Half buried in the sand lay a sneaker attached to a white foot. It turned away from a twisted leg. Its bruised skin exposed like a warning. Maureen knelt beside it and began to strip away the seaweed until she uncovered a shoulder. Following its sloping angle, she found strings of long hair that clung to a scalp like seaweed to a rock. The turned head revealed the nose ridge of a man. Maureen hollered down the beach, ‘Chief, over here hurry!’ Their flashlights bobbing, the chief and his deputies loped their way to the spot where Maureen and Kate shone their lights. The chief knelt down. He reached for the man's shoulder and rolled him over. Looking up was someone they all recognized. The chief turned to Maureen. ‘Can you do it?’ he asked.”

Greenly: That's got me wanting to turn the page. Where can people find the book?

Parker: Well, at the usual places such as Amazon. It’s Death in Dutch Harbor by D. MacNeill Parker. You can just find it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, the usual places.

Greenly: Well, thank you so much, it was great talking.

Parker: I really appreciate the opportunity, Theo. I hope people out there love the book and I will follow up to see if I can make it available locally. And yeah, I miss Dutch Harbor. It’s a lovely place.

Theo Greenly reports from the Aleutians as a Report for America corps member. He got his start in public radio at KCRW in Santa Monica, California, and has produced radio stories and podcasts for stations around the country.
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