Book Review: John Leake’s Cold a Long Time

Award-winning author John Leake investigates a gripping Alpine mystery of deception, and botched forensics

A Cover-Up in the Alps

Three years ago, Vienna writer John Leake took a call from Bob and Lynda MacPherson. They told of the disappearance of their son, Duncan, and their frustrating, 20-year search to find out what happened to him. It was a Kafkaesque tale of bureaucratic obfuscation and obstruction that cost two more years to finally discover the truth behind the Duncan’s mysterious fate.

Intimate with the often fuzzy workings of Austrian officialdom from his investigation of the Viennese prostitute killer, Jack Unterweger, published as Entering Hades: The Double Life of a Serial Killer, Leake was drawn to the mystery.

“How strange that in our age of advanced forensic science, a young man’s mysterious and unnatural death at a popular ski resort had not been investigated”, he writes. Indeed, during his exhaustive search for the truth of what had happened to Duncan, the author was to often have reason to recall what a Viennese friend had once told him: “In Canada and in the States, you have your ‘freedom of information’, here in Austria, we have our ‘freedom of secrecy’.”

The story begun in August 1989, when Duncan MacPherson, a pro hockey player from Canada, had disappeared on a trip through Central Europe, on the way to starting a new life in the U.K. With no help from either the Austrian police or the Canadian consular service, his parents had driven all over the Alps looking for him, finally locating his car at the Stubai Glacier, a ski resort near Innsbruck.

At first, police officers the MacPhersons met on their investigative tour to Europe were confident that nothing happened to their son. Eventually, however, after many hours on Alpine roads searching for evidence of an unreported accident, Duncan’s parents stumbled across someone who had seen the hockey player heading up onto the Stubai Glacier, and it became clear that his car had been standing, unreported, in a more or less empty gondola station car park for 42 days.

Why had no one reported it? The next twenty years were to present the MacPhersons with many similar riddles. And when Duncan’s body was exposed by glacial melt in 2003 – slap bang in the middle of a small ski run, the only one that had been open on the day he disappeared – the mystery deepened and Tyrolean officialdom became ever more inscrutable.

The varied characters we meet along Leake’s tale share one thing: All seem to be hiding something. There are two unhelpful Gendarmes who saw no reason to photograph Duncan’s car; and the snowboard instructor who had entertained him in the Apparthotel Mutterbergalm; the girl at the ski rental shop who looked tense when asked for the shop’s log and the manager who claimed it had been “thrown away”. Nor did anyone mention the other man lost in a crevasse there exactly one year earlier.

As each hypothesis is examined, Leake follows new leads that keep  the story from becoming predicatable: Had Duncan been recruited by the CIA and sent across the (then) Iron Curtain? Who was the enigmatic Ron Dixon who Duncan was supposedly going to work for?

In the end, the truth was more banal, if nonetheless gruesome, and the focus switches to the immense cover up by the Tyrolean authorities. The evidence of police negligence and official malfeasance – including an autopsy not performed and the mysterious removal of Duncan’s jaws – to protect business interests will astound and outrage readers, even those already familiar with the Austrian concept of Freunderlwirtschaft.

Cold a Long Time
by John Leake
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