Written by RE Donald — Beside the highway, lying in the sand and scrub of LA County, California, a bizarre discovery is reported to the Highway Patrol. It is the body of a young man, but what gives the officers pause for thought is that the corpse is frozen. Too cold even for an autopsy, the body offers no clues as to its identity or how it came to be abandoned.
Eventually, a barcode label found stuck to the sole of the The Iceman’s Nike training shoe links him to a Vancouver-based refrigerated meat truck driven by husband and wife team Ray and Sharon Nillson. Also working for Watson Transportation – run by the feisty Elspeth Watson – is Hunter Rayne. Rayne is a brooding former Royal Canadian Mountain Police officer. We are never really sure why he gave up the badge to become a trucker, but we suspect that it is because of his guilt at the death of a close friend.
Russell Kupka is the unsympathetic LA cop handling the investigation at the California end, regarding the Canadians as over-polite simpletons. He’s tempted to hand the case over to them just to clear his desk, but when he flies north he’s intrigued and irritated by the fact that Ray and Sharon have been arrested, but refuse to speak either to confirm or deny their involvement. The Iceman is identified as a journeyman musician whose girlfriends may have links to animal rights activists. Rayne uses his close links with serving RCMP officers to become involved in the investigation. Meanwhile, Kupka confuses his personal life with duty, as he gets closer to a key witness than is advised in the LAPD training manual.
The writing is direct and competent. The plot unfolds organically and author Ruth Donald gives little away before revealing quite a surprise in the final pages. The authenticity and conviction of the tale are supported by autobiographical features – there is much of Donald in the rumbustious Elspeth, and she admits on her blog that Rayne’s character is based on her late husband. The story has evidently been a work in progress since the mid-1990s, and therefore we should not be too puzzled when characters depart in search of a payphone rather than reach for their mobiles.
The main feature which will delight some readers, but possibly annoy others, is that the book is basically a long prose version of a Country and Western song. All the elements are there – trucks spinning through the night on endless highways, cute dogs, hand-tooled leather boots, lantern-jawed heroes who love unsuitable women, the simple values of truth and honesty, home-fries and neon-lit truckstops, fallen women and nasty cops. Indeed, with the greatest love and affection for the late, great Tammy Wynette, it is clear that Rayne’s own marriage is rapidly heading for a D-I-V-O-R-C-E.
It is all too easy to be overly smart and UK-cynical with books like this. Yes, we are more used to the darker sides of human nature being teased out in front of us, but this a straightforward and uncomplicated story, well-told and tightly edited. It may have something of the Marmite ‘love-or-hate’ quality about it, but Ice on the Grapevine is well worth having a look at.
Proud Horse Publishing
CFL Rating: 3 Stars