CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 5 . . . . October 6, 2017
The town of Port Ainslie, Muskoka, is usually a sleepy little tourist town managed by a very small local police force headed by Chief Maxine Benson. Though the extent of their duties are usually responding to noise violations, dogs off leashes and stolen generators, on a particular day in early June, they're faced with a murder. Having to involve the OPP from the nearby city of Cranston, Max is determined to solve the case herself despite the blatant lack of respect coming from OPP Constable Ronald Bouchard and his team.
Responding to a call from a local resident, Max and her deputy, Henry, are pretty sure they've found Robert Ross Morton strangled, frozen, and dropped into the ditch where the resident found him. Mr. Morton was reported missing a week earlier by his wife, Beth. Now it is up to Max to break the news to Beth Morton and hopefully get some more information regarding her husband's untimely death.
Beth Morton was previously married to Frank Higgs, and they shared an incredible house in Port Ainslie. Unfortunately, Frank Higgs drowned in their pool, leaving Beth a widow, all the money, and the stunning house. Within the year, Beth met and married Bob Morton. Bob divorced his wife and left his children to move to Muskoka and begin his life with Beth. Now, with Bob's death, Max is more than a little suspicious of Beth Morton.
When Max delivers the news to Beth and asks Beth to go with her to identify the body, Max notices that Beth is not acting at all like a grieving widow. Filing her nails on the drive, Beth also tells Max about her first husband's drowning death even though Max didn't ask her about it. After positively identifying Bob Morton's body, Max takes Beth home, but her suspicions continue to build.
The OPP report reveals that neighbours saw a 25 to 30-year-old man at the Morton house the night of Bob's disappearance, someone Beth identified as her brother, Stephen Carson. Again, looking for more information, Max takes a drive up to Beth's house to ask her a few questions about her brother's visit. During their brief conversation, Beth tells Max that her brother is an artist and travels a lot. He shows up periodically when he's down and out, but they only see each other once in awhile. While Max is looking around, she notices some of the paintings in the house, particularly one that is signed by Stephen, and on the underside there is the name of a gallery, as well as its address and phone number. With this new lead, Max leaves Beth's house and makes plans to travel to Toronto and hopefully find out more about Stephen.
At the gallery, Max speaks with Sandra Carson, who is working in the gallery. Max questions her about Stephen, but she is not able to provide a lot of information. While Max continues to look at the paintings, some of which are by Stephen, she puts two and two together and calls out Stephen Carson's name. To her amazement, it is Sandra who responds to the name! Stephen Carson IS Sandra! With this discovery, Sandra tells Max everything, including the fact that Beth has always been against her gender transition and the only way that Beth would even mildly accept Sandra was if she erased Stephen Carson's existence. Sandra denies being at the Morton's residence but mentions that the other man in the OPP report could have been one of Beth's many suitors, since she was known to entertain young men despite her marriage. She also mentions that, over a year ago, Bob Morton told her that Beth admitted to Bob that she actually murdered her first husband. Max figures that Beth mentioned Stephen Carson's name because no one would ever be able to find Stephen Carson, since he was now Sandra. So, who was at the house?
Max returns to the police station trying to figure out how to move ahead in the investigation. She asks for updates and besides some small instances, she learns that the generator that was reported stolen a few weeks ago, had been returned. This strikes Max as strange, and she drives out to the house to question Jack and Flo Brenner. They tell Max that their nephew, Ted Huffman, took the generator and then brought it back. The Brenners explained that Ted had some trouble in the past and that they didn't want him to have a criminal record. They let Ted stay with them awhile, but he started drinking heavily and even brought home a woman, so they kicked him out. Max asked what kind of vehicle he had, and they said a black Ford, one which matched the description of the vehicle at the Morton house the night of Bob's disappearance. The only place the Brenner's could suggest where Ted might go was an old sugar bush back in the woods. With this as her only lead, Max drives out to the sugar bush.
Arriving, Max happens upon a small shack with the black Ford pickup parked beside it. Shortly, Max sees a young man walking up from the creek - Ted Huffman. When Max confronts him, he gives up everything and tells a story about his intimate relationship with Beth as well as how he got caught up with her and helped with Bob Morton's murder. In the aftermath, Beth Morton's black widow nature finally catches up with her and this mystery is solved.
Reynolds' murder mystery is a well-crafted, fun jaunt through a fictional Muskoka (Port Carling) backdrop. The narrative combines the traditional murder mystery with more current creative twists including the link between the transgender Sandra Carson and the artwork of Stephen Carson. The quick pace of the storyline keeps the reader interested while the subtle hints maintain suspense. Of particular interest is the tension between the small town police force and the larger OPP. Though this could have been a strange secondary narrative in this text, Reynolds manages to successfully weave it throughout the story right to the conclusion. The dichotomy between Beth Morton's villainous, calculating character and her young lover's innocence that gets him caught up in a murder is dealt with in a mere few pages but still manages to be believable. On the whole, Murder Below Zero would be a great choice for any reader looking for an interesting, suspenseful story that has a neat and tidy ending.
Penta Ledger is a teacher-librarian at Gravenhurst High School in Gravenhurst, ON.