Zero-Degree Murder
by M. L. Rowland

Berkeley Prime Crime, 2011. ISBN 978-0-425-26366-2.
Reviewed by Judy Alter
Posted on 03/11/2014

Fiction: Thriller

This is a classic thriller, a story of the hunted and the hunter. The reader knows almost from the beginning who the hunter is but the intended victims only slowly figure it out. The setting is a search and rescue mission in the mountains of southern California—ultimately during a blizzard. Gracie Kinkaid is sent out with fellow SAR member to search for a lost hiking party, one of whom is a famous British movie star. Gracie tracks, while Steve Cashman forges on ahead. The weather is worsening—cold moving in. They find blood and then, down a canyon, the missing movie star who cannot remember what happened but has a broken or badly sprained ankle and cannot be moved without enough people for a litter. None of the small party of four are around.

Shifting points of view add to the tension.

Mostly the reader is with Gracie and Rob the movie star, but some sections shift to Diana, a young actress who recognizes another member of the group and is almost irrationally terrified. Diana takes off on her own, hiding off the main trail so she will not be found. Then there's Joseph, Rob's personal trainer who turns out to be a skilled killer, the kind of man who enjoys killing—slowly. He is older and not as able to stay immobile for hours as he once was, but he is actively plotting his murders. Finally, there's Ralph, the SAR team leader who stays in the headquarters trailer, anxious because he hears nothing from his team and because, though widowed and older, he really cares about Gracie.

Because they are out of range of radio contact, Cashman leaves to find service and report that they've found the actor. Gracie expects him back within three hours at the most, but the hours stretch into two days and the dawn of a third. She is left alone with Rob, and she is worried ... okay, scared to death.

If it weren't for Gracie's extensive survival skills she could be the heroine of an amateur sleuth mystery. She is dissatisfied with herself, has no life, and builds prickly emotional walls to protect herself from involvement with other people. But she knows how to build a fire, how to construct a shelter, has basic EMT skills, and, above all, how to make sure she and the person in her care survives.

Rob is not, as she expects, a puffed-up egotistic actor. Instead he's down to earth in a quirky British way and the repartee between the two of them is one of the most outstanding parts of the book. Forced to share a sleeping bag for warmth, Gracie warns him that "I'm not getting naked or anything," to which he replies "Pity."

Eventually they become close, not just physically but also emotionally. Passages that fuel the tension mix with passages of nervous waiting and conversations between Rob and Gracie, as they explore each other's personalities and limits, draws the reader into their life stories.

Meanwhile, Joseph is out there looking for them; he too is skilled at survival and tracking. Which one will triumph? Which one will even survive? No spoilers here, but it doesn't turn out quite as you'd expect. M. L. Rowland apparently is thoroughly familiar with SAR operations so that reading this book is a lesson in survival and innovation. Did you know that you can survive for a long time without food but not water? That when you're hungry MRE tastes pretty good? So, as Rob finds out, does watery weak tea without milk.

If you like tension and the outdoors and you like to be scared as you read, this is the book for you. Good news for fans: this is the first in a planned Search and Rescue Mission Series. Gracie apparently has lots more people to save. Through this adventure she has softened and grown emotionally so she should be even better the next time around.

Read an excerpt from this book.

M. L. Rowland was born and raised in Michigan. For twelve years she was part of a SAR team in the mountains of southern California and certified by the State of California. She has searched for children, hikers, snowboarders, bikers and criminals. A political activist, naturalist, and environmentalist, she is also a painter and an avid traveler. She lives with her husband and their chocolate lab at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Range in south central Colorado. Visit her website.

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