The Ice Shroud by Gordon Ell

Small town secrets and lies…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Detective Sergeant Malcolm Buchan has just been appointed to head up the CIB in the Southern Lakes district of New Zealand’s South Island, when the body of a woman is found in the frozen water of a river near the small town of Queenstown. The fact that the body is naked makes accidental death unlikely, so suddenly Malcolm finds himself with a murder investigation on his hands, and to make matters more complicated, he soon discovers he has a personal connection to the case. Being new to the area, Malcolm is happy when a local cop is seconded to his team – Sergeant Magda Hansen, transferred from Traffic. Their first task is to find out the identity of the dead woman…

This is a début novel, and was nominated for the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best First Novel in 2017. It’s a police procedural, well written in third person, past tense, with a strong plot and some excellent descriptive writing that brings the small town, set amid rugged landscape, to life. Both Malcolm and Magda carry some personal baggage, but neither is the tedious angst-ridden maverick of so much current crime fiction. Malcolm had previously served in the armed forces including tours of duty in Afghanistan, and is still affected by events that happened there. Magda is trying to balance her role as wife and mother with her ambitions for her career – ambitions which her husband doesn’t support. They are both likeable characters in this initial outing, and each have plenty of room to develop and grow further in sequels, if this is to be the first in a series.

As the plot develops, we discover that the dead woman was well known around town and had links to several of the prominent businessmen and local politicians. What’s not so clear is what was at the root of these links and why so many people seem to want to deny knowing her. Malcolm soon finds that this small community has many secrets, and it’s his job to get past the wall of silence and lies that the townspeople have thrown up. This is where Magda’s local knowledge is essential – as a police officer, she knows many of the people involved and understands the power structures within this small society.

I found this an intriguing story with an excellent setting. Queenstown is full of tourists in the summer months, but now, in the heart of winter, only the permanent residents are around, nicely limiting the potential suspects to a manageable number. Although this is his fiction début, Ell has apparently been a nature writer and photographer and this shows through in his excellent descriptions of the landscape and weather, and the isolated feeling of some of the scenes that take place in more remote parts of the territory. The underlying motive is interesting and stays within the bounds of credibility, and the police procedural aspects feel believable and convincing. As well as the two main characters, we meet the rest of the small team and again they have plenty of potential for future development.

Gordon Ell

The one weakness for me was that I found the ending a bit messy and not altogether clear. It felt a little rushed and, after all the convincing detective work throughout the book, relied a bit too much on luck in the end. There were perhaps too many extra strands, probably put in to provide some misdirection which indeed they did, but it meant all the various solutions were kind of delivered in a surge at the end, leaving me feeling a bit bewildered – all the answers are given but in a way that meant it took me a bit of time to work out which parts fitted together and which were separate from the main plot. But this was a small issue that didn’t have a big impact on my overall enjoyment of the book.

So in conclusion, a strong début that introduces some characters and a setting that I’ll be more than happy to revisit in the future. It’s not yet been published in the UK or the US, but hopefully it will be at some point. I’m indebted to Margot at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist for sending me her own copy – she was on the judging panel for the Ngaio Marsh Award and it was her spotlighting of the novel that first drew it to my attention. Thanks, Margot – greatly appreciated!

26 thoughts on “The Ice Shroud by Gordon Ell

  1. So glad you enjoyed this, FictionFan. I agree with you that Ell does a very fine job of depicting the setting and the atmosphere. To me, that was one of the real strengths of the book. I thought the police procedural aspects of the story were done well, too, and added to it. I’ll be really interested to see where Ell goes next with his fiction writing. In the meantime, thanks for the kind mention and link!

    • Yes, I though the setting was done excellently. I liked both the main characters too – they had enough of a story to make them interesting without veering into full-on angst mode. I hope he does do a follow-up, and I also hope his publishers hurry up and publish the book in the UK and US! Thanks again for sending me the book. 😀

  2. LOVE what I like to call “Pacific crime fiction” and all thanks to Campion’s Top of the Lake and Miss Fisher! I’m saving this one for my Summer break.

    • I think this is the first crime novel set in NZ that I’ve read, and I’m struggling to think if I’ve read any set in Australia. This one was a very good debut – if you manage to get hold of a copy, I hope you enjoy it!

  3. Aaaarrrrgggh! The ending is what makes a book truly satisfying. Oh well. This book at least has a lot going for it. Love the premise! I might give it a shot.

    • Yes, it was a pity about the rushed ending but I’m sure it’s something he’ll get better at in future books. Otherwise there’s a whole lot to like in this one!

  4. This one sounds interesting. I’m sorry the ending fell flat, but since this is Mr. Ell’s first novel, perhaps he can learn from that and write a stronger sequel (if that’s his intent). We all have to start somewhere and sadly, really GOOD editors are hard to find!

    • Yes, I’m sure he’ll get better at the endings in future novels and otherwise there’s lots to like in this one. I do hope they publish it in the UK and the US soon, even if only in Kindle versions. It seems a shame not to capitalise on his nomination for the Ngaio Marsh awards…

  5. I think this sounds great, but guess I’ll have to be patient as I don’t see a copy in any of my usual haunts. Hopefully, will be published in the US or UK soon? Do you know?

    • I don’t know, Kay – I couldn’t find any info on a publishing date. It’s a shame because it got a little flurry of reviews when it was nominated for the Ngaio Marsh award and yet most people reading the reviews couldn’t actually buy a copy…

  6. Good to hear you enjoyed your visit to New Zealand despite the slightly messy ending – it sounds as if this is another author whose interests/profession are used well within his writing – it is a shame that so many of these books don’t speedily wing their way to the UK

    • Yes, indeed – a very promising debut even with the rather rushed ending. It’s a shame his publishers haven’t put out at least a Kindle version in the UK and US – he could probably have capitalised on getting nominated for the Ngaio Marsh award…

  7. One of the most interesting things about debut novels that you like, but still have some niggling problems with, checking out the next novel and seeing if the author has corrected the problems. I find rushed conclusions to be one of the things that bothers me in an otherwise engrossing experience.

    • Yes, it’s one reason I actually quite like to jump into a series at round about book 4, when the author has hopefully learned from experience. It’s very rare for the first book to be perfect, and when it is, it usually means book 2 will be disappointing. So a 4-star read for book 1 always tempts me to read book 2…

  8. Oh this sounds like a perfect crime novel. And I totally agree with you that detectives of late seem to be overly complicated-their inner lives start to crowd out the mystery and crime-solving at hand, which is sort of annoying.

    • An excellent debut, for sure! Yeah, I like to know a little bit about the detectives but mostly I want the focus to be on solving the crime rather than on their personal problems…!

  9. Thanks FF for this introduction to a local author! I’ve been meaning to read more NZ based fiction, including crime, and this book by Gordon Ell was on my radar. The Queenstown setting appeals; it is a popular town in a beautiful setting, and actually receives lots of visitors summer and winter (skiing). It seems that this may be the only fiction book published by this NZ publisher; their back catalogue has NZ non-fiction titles, including many of Ell’s. As Ice Shroud book is in our local library, I will get it out with many thanks for your recommendation 🙂

    • Oh, I hope you enjoy it! Ah, I wasn’t sure whether Queenstown was real, or a fictional town set in a real place. It’ll be interesting to see how the book version matches up to the real town, then. I loved his descriptive writing about the more remote parts of the area too. Maybe the publisher isn’t really geared up to do international publishing, then, but it seems a shame not to capitalise on him being shortlisted for the Ngaio Marsh award…

  10. Thanks to Alfred Hitchcock, whenever I think of a body in the river, I think of his 1970s movie Frenzy in which we follow both the killer and the good guys. It’s some dark humor that I think you would appreciate.

      • I thought it was going to be a murder/detective movie. It kind of is, but then we occasionally follow the murder. He’s both menacing and a dunce at times. I laughed. I looked into it more and found that the movie is based on a book: Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square by Arthur La Bern (1966).

        • It looks fun! Loads of Hitch films seem to have been based on books, though he quite often changes them dramatically. I’ve added it my watchlist so now it’s just a matter of me actually getting around to watching it… 😀

    • Thank you! 🙂 Yeah, other than this, I can only think of one collection of short stories – not crime – that I read a couple of years ago. Maybe not many NZ books get published abroad, which would be sad…

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