Friday, November 4, 2016


THE ICE SHROUD by Gordon Ell (Bush Press, 2016)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

When a woman's body is discovered frozen in the ice of a river near the alpine resort of Queenstown, Detective Sergeant Malcolm Buchan faces both a mystery and a moral dilemma. The identity of the nude woman is critical to the motives and manner of her murder, and Buchan is personally involved. So are a number of locals, from ski bums to multi-millionaire businessman. Newly appointed to head CIB in the Southern Lakes district, Buchan hunts the killer through the entanglements of corruption and abuse that lie barely below the surface of the tourist towns. 

While this is a debut crime novel, it isn't the author's first book. Ell has a long, distinguished resume of photographing and writing about New Zealand flora, fauna, and history. He's published a large number of non-fiction books, and his love (and eye) for nature clearly comes through in this crime novel set among the rugged landscapes and tourist hotspots of New Zealand's Southern Lakes region. For the non-Kiwis, we're talking about a region that was used in several ways as a shooting location in the Lord of the Rings movies.

Ell adroitly makes the transition from non-fiction nature writing to murder mysteries, infusing his tale with a great sense of place, but also delivering when it comes to intriguing characters and plotlines. I was drawn in well early on, and found myself devouring the book in large chunks in less than a day, even though I was pretty busy at the time with other matters. Ell has a smooth, easy-reading style that flows well, steadily building depth to the characters and story as the pages quickly turn.

Detective Sergeant Buchan has an abrupt introduction to his new role leading the CIB team in rural Otago, called to a scene with a half-frozen body in a river ravine, spotted by traumatised tourists on a jet boat trip. Suicide? Or something more sinister? Either way, it's bad news for Buchan, who knows the dead woman, a ghost from his past life in Dunedin, but doesn't share that with his colleagues.

Sergeant Magda Hansen has seen death at road accidents, but not this kind of thing. She's not sure what to think of the case, or the enigmatic 'new boy from Dunedin' who's now her boss.

As Buchan and his team try to find out how the dead woman ended up in that remote ravine, they cross paths with some very powerful locals, the kind of people that feel their wealth and influence are of utmost importance, and whatever they do behind closed doors is no business of anyone else.

So in a way, THE ICE SHROUD is a bit of a modern Kiwi take on a classic British village murder mystery, with the working class coppers prying into the lives of the wealthy elite, being stymied for reasons that might or might not have anything to do with the crime at hand. Plenty of suspects, red herrings, and secrets. Tense business and personal relationships bubbling beneath the surface - although here that's not only among the cast of suspects, but the police themselves.

Overall, Ell's first crime novel is a heartily enjoyable one, that takes readers into a gorgeous part of New Zealand, and also into the hearts and minds of his intriguing heroes.

I certainly hope we'll see more murder mysteries from Gordon Ell in future.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features for leading publications in several countries. He has interviewed more than 170 crime writers, discussed crime writing at arts and literary festivals in Europe and Australasia, on national radio, and is a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson


  1. Ooh - thanks for the recommendation. I hadn't seen it but will add to my TBR list!