Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. This week, we’re continuing our special look at the finalists for this year’s Ngaio Marsh Award for Best First Novel. Today, let’s turn the spotlight on Gordon Ell’s The Ice Shroud.
Detective Sergeant (DS) Malcolm Buchan has recently moved from Dunedin to head the Criminal Investigation Bureau (CIB) in the Southern Lakes District of New Zealand’s South Island. He’s just gotten started in his new job when the body of an unknown woman is found frozen in a river not far from Queenstown. The police are called in, and Buchan and his second-in-command, Magda Hansen, lead the investigation team. On the surface, it looks as though the woman might have committed suicide by jumping from a nearby bridge. But if that’s so, why is the body nude, especially as it’s winter?
Soon enough, the woman is identified as Edie Longstreet. She lived locally, and, together with Linda Priestly, she owned a lingerie shop called Figments. As Buchan and the team begin to look into the victim’s background, they find several possible leads.
One has to do with the business. A look at the records suggests that the shop wasn’t overly successful. And, yet, Edie lived well enough, and didn’t seem to be short of money. When the team discovers a cache of drugs, a whole new set of possibilities comes up.
Then there’s the victim’s personal life. Her ex-husband, football player Callum Dickson, doesn’t claim to know anything about the murder. But the team can’t take him at his word, and he could have more than one motive. There’s also the fact that Edie had several lovers. She enjoyed Queenstown’s nightlife, and had her share of companionship among the tourists. So, as the team traces her last days and weeks, the members also try to find out who she’d been seeing during that time. Then, too, there’s Edie’s own personal history. The team can’t ignore her family members.
As the investigation continues, we also get to know the different people who own Queenstown businesses. That network is important, since it’s a small community, and everyone knows everyone. Buchan and the rest of the team know that the motive might be found among the relationships Edie had with other business owners in the area. But that aspect of the investigation is hampered by the fact that this is a very tight-knit community – often called The Gang – that doesn’t want the police meddling in local affairs. More than once, Buchan finds himself up against some wealthy and well-placed local leaders.
Little by little, the team members peel away the layers of Edie’s personal and professional life. As they do, we learn that she was much more complex than anyone really knew. In the end, the team finds out who killed her and why, and that complexity plays its role in the case.
This is a police procedural. So, the team learns the truth through gathering evidence, interviewing people, looking into financial records, and so on. Readers also get a ‘behind the scenes’ look at the way the team functions. On the one hand, there’s not a lot of backbiting and sabotage. Readers who dislike dysfunctional police teams will be pleased to know that, more or less, the team functions well. That’s not to say there’s no tension, though. For instance, it comes out that Magda Hansen very nearly got the job that Buchan now has. There are other small issues like that, too. Still, that sort of internal drama, if you will, isn’t a major part of the story.
Most of the novel is told from Buchan’s point of view (third person, past tense). So, we learn a bit about him – including the fact that he knew the victim. He had a relationship with her which ended, quite amicably, when he did military service in Afghanistan. His tour of duty turned out to be traumatic, and he was only too glad to return to a quiet life in New Zealand. Now, his relationship with Edit comes back to haunt him as he debates how much, if anything, to share with his colleagues. We learn about this part of his past (and a little about Edie’s personality) through flashbacks that are woven through the narrative.
The story takes place in the Queenstown area of New Zealand’s South Island. It’s a mecca for tourists, offering both summer and winter sport. It’s a beautiful area, and Ell makes that clear. The terrain is rugged, though, and sometimes quite unforgiving, and Ell makes that clear, too. As one example, the place where Edie’s body is discovered is too inaccessible for most vehicles. So, the team will have to use winches, wetsuits and harnesses to retrieve the body.
The Ice Shroud is the story of a small New Zealand tourist town, the people who live there year-round, and the impact on everyone when one of them is murdered. It’s also the story of the work the police do to find out who’s responsible. It features a detective sergeant who’s trying to settle into his new responsibilities, and a victim with a complicated history. But what’s your view? Have you read The Ice Shroud? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 18 December/Tuesday, 19 December – Red Herring – Jonothan Cullinane
Monday, 25 December/Tuesday, 26 December – Harriet Said – Beryl Bainbridge
Monday, 31 December/Tuesday 1 January – The Right Side – Spencer Quinn