I picked up White for a Shroud on my recent jaunt to the frozen north (well, Yorkshire). I was sold the instant I saw the brilliant dust jacket by one Denis McLoughlin, sadly a bit grubby.
Red Rock is a hard town in the north of Michigan, home to Andrew Brant, a local man who left to become a newspaperman and returned to become proprietor, editor-in-chief and lead journalist of the Red Rock Reporter.
It’s 20 below and getting colder as the novel opens. The snow is so deep that paths have to be carved into it by a plough, shops build makeshift storefronts for the tunnels to their doors, and characters are forever digging themselves into and out of buildings. Just walking around is taxing. Most of the residents opt to stay in the bar until it’s safe to leave. Unsurprisingly, drunken incidents abound.
Business at a standstill apart from the saloons, where lumberjacks, millhands, fishermen and loafers drank cheap whiskey and fought gory fights… a hodge-podge of Swedes, Poles, Finnlanders, French-Canadians, Scots and Irish, each breed hating all the others when they had nothing better to do than sit and hate…
The town’s chief industry and biggest employer is the paper mill run by Brant’s friend John Macfarlane, which would be the perfect place for a murder:
Chips from the logs that came after would polish the knives and obliterate bloodstains. Flesh, bones and clothing would be absorbed in the thousands of gallons of pulp and acid.
And when Brant drops in on Macfarlane after hours, he thinks he has interrupted just such a murder. He finds his friend unconscious by the machinery, a streak of blood on the conveyor belt, and no sign of the plant’s unpopular manager Crane. Macfarlane says he doesn’t remember killing Crane, but to be honest doesn’t much mind if he has. In fact it’s difficult to see why the tough businessman Macfarlane ever hired Crane. He knows nothing about paper mills, and on top of that is ‘a city man, with a smooth way of acting and talking that did not sit well with the workers over whom he was placed’. And now Crane is nowhere to be seen.
Macfarlane trusts Brant not to give him away, and Brant complies, but mainly because he can’t believe his friend capable of murder.
Meanwhile, the town’s sheriff Ed Worth is not used to the subtleties of murder mysteries. Here he is on a previous case…
‘Remember when Indian Steve chopped off his partner’s head with an axe?’ He’s doing life in Marquette. One or two lumberjacks tried to fight with axes after that, but I whipped the daylights out of ’em and it kind of went out of fashion.’
… but he has a sense of professionalism which means he has to pursue the case to the end, before the snow melts and the state authorities find him with an unsolved death on his hands. Brant and Worth join forces to investigate.
Soon there are other suspects for the murder of Crane – if indeed he has been murdered – and the case is complicated by the violence, heavy drinking, and casual anti-authoritarianism of this rugged town (not to mention Brant hiding inconvenient evidence).
For a sheltered Brit, the most interesting aspect of this book are Cameron’s descriptions of daily life in a snowbound town. Just leaving the house is arduous.
He lowered his head against the wind and began the bitter journey toward the paper mill. It was like walking along the floor of an icy lake, sinking to his hips in ooze with every step. There would be stories in the papers in the next few days about farmers who had died between their barns and their houses, motorists who had frozen in their card, children who had lost their ways and would ever return home.
The combination of ice and murder make for some gruesome discoveries as the killings continue. Cameron seems to have enjoyed writing these bits, and gives some vigorous descriptions of the various frozen corpses.
This is a book about loyalty, which drives most of the characters and gives them real warmth and humanity, despite the two-fisted machismo displayed by most of them (the female characters are regrettably in the wives-and-daughters mode).
Loyalty also gives rise to an oddly Wodehousian romantic subplot in which Brant has to pretend to be marrying his attractive assistant reporter Carol ‘Scoop’ Johnson (who is actually in love with him) in order to – oh, whatever, I’m not sure it fits the book, or the town, particularly well.
To sum up: The writing has pace, the characters are likeable, and the setting is fascinating – definitely a book to look out for.
Details on Don Cameron’s career as a mystery writer are thin on the ground. He seems to have published six books between 1939 and 1947 (this was his last book), mainly featuring a scientific detective named Abelard Voss, so White for a Shroud was a bit of a departure. It may have been based on his own early career as a reporter in Michigan and Canada. Cameron had a second career as a writer for DC, working on Batman, Superman, Aquaman, and creating the long-running character Liberty Belle.
Final destination: A keeper
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.