Not getting away with highway murder
October 23rd, 2019
When you a read a whodunnit all the way to the end, it’s gotta be good. If you want someone to enjoy it as much as you did, you hand it to ’em and say as little as possible.
Take R.E. Donald’ Yellowhead Blues, for example—please. As the fifth installment of the Hunter Rayne Highway Mystery series—all set in B.C.—it’s a down-home whodunnit that features places such as Valemount, Horsefly, Little Fort and Yreka.
(Geographically-challenged readers might need to be told the Yellowhead Highway is a major thoroughfare that connects the B.C. coast with Alberta and was named after Tete Jaune, a blonde Metis guide who led HBC traders through a pass from Jasper in 1825.)
Donald’s mystery again features former RCMP homicide investigator, Hunter Rayne, who now works as a long distance trucker. With his 1991 Freightliner dubbed The Blue Knight, Hunter diligently supports his ex-wife and two daughters in Burnaby.
The suicide of Hunter’s PTSD-ridden RCMP colleague and best friend (officially, he was supposedly cleaning his gun) has turned tough guy sleuth into a loner since he left the force in 1992. Sitting alone in his rig traversing thousands of miles of highway every week is his ongoing therapy.
Our reluctant hero is diligently guiding his load along the Yellowhead, just west of the Rockies, in 1997, when a good-natured, French Canadian cowboy named Leon flags him down. There’s a skittish horse on the road with a bloodied saddle, so, ever the Good Samaritan, Hunter parks his eighteen-wheeler, and helps.
Leon knows a lot about horses. He’s got two of ’em in his horse trailer. With Leon’s faithful hound Blue, the two men mount up and search for the severely injured rider who must have fallen from his mount.
Deep in the bushes, with dog’s help, they discover the missing rider has been shot in the back. By the time they get the shooting victim to the highway and into cel phone range, he has died. Turns out he’s a not particularly likeable, Alberta-based businessman who dabbles as a ranch owner on weekends.
The first cop on the scene is a rookie from the local Valemount detachment, Bianca Morrison, who reminds Hunter of one of his daughters who is studying Criminology at SFU. The male paramedics on the scene don’t take her seriously. Hunter knows all the ropes; he protects her as best he can. And here we get our first clue as to what this mystery is really all about – relationships.
As the former cop and the rookie cop proceed to work together, both equally sure that the Quebecois cowboy Leon has been wrongly charged with the murder, R.E. Donald’s handling of each interrogation, each social interaction, is unerringly skilful and wise. She not only nails the male chauvinism within the force; she provides subtle evocations of Hunter’s feelings towards his daughters.
This whodunnit is as much a whydunnit. Turns out the Alberta businessman was engaged to a far younger woman who was out riding with him. She was claiming virgin status, seemingly lost in her own Pretty Woman fantasy. Her nasty brother who works on the ranch would only benefit if the marriage occurred. So, could the rancher’s offspring from a previous marriage be suspects?
You don’t want to give away the plot and so you end up saying R.E. Donald is a woman who lives on a south Cariboo ranch. She took writing courses at UBC. Her five murder mysteries are self-published. Her late husband was a trucker. She herself worked in that industry for decades, so her trucking stuff is credible. But that’s not the primary appeal of the writing. The sensitive characterizations throughout keep the reader hooked.
Hunter zig zags to southern California and north to Prince George to undertake his enquiries; Constable Morrison keeps her amorous boss at bay while gaining the trust of the former bride-to-be in order to unravel her pathetic past; the weakest aspect of this tale is how Leon is charged with the crime.
You know a novel is working when you are disappointed when it ends—not because you find the resolution unsatisfying but because you would prefer to remain in the company of the two central characters.
The fact that this novel is self-published should be irrelevant. For decades the most successful work of Canadian fiction worldwide was Stephen Vizcenzey’s In Praise of Older Women, originally self-published.
All such titles from non-government-sanctioned outlets are generally dismissed as anathema by powers-that-be, nearly all of which are severely prejudiced against self-publishers.
Probably 99% of readers are so programmed into accepting the offerings of conventional large publishers (who have a stranglehold on what gets reviewed because the biggies have enough economic clout to pay for precious advertising and marketing) that they aren’t aware of the extent to which their choices are being limited.
In an ideal world, Canada Council and other agencies would provide some means for established publishing houses to pick up and promote obviously marketable gems such R.E. Donald’s series; currently there is zero incentive for them to do so.
by Alan Twigg