Mark Dalton rides again in “On Ice”, the third and final full-length novel which is now available free from Natural Resources Canada's FleetSmart program Mark Dalton is the trucker-private detective character created by author Edo van Belkom, and whose monthly adventures have appeared in Truck News and Truck West since 1998.
Van Belkom's serialized stories have earned him a wide following in the trucking community. Lynda Harvey, now-retired senior manager of NRCan's FleetSmart program, was also a reader of van Belkom's trucker-detective series and had an epiphany that the Mark Dalton character might be used as a pedagogical tool to explain the program's fuel-saving strategies.
Harvey's idea was to supply a full-length Mark Dalton novel free of charge to truck drivers, particularly owner-operators, who wouldn't have the time to attend FleetSmart's Smart Driver training session. She reasoned that the driver should be able to absorb the fuel-efficient driving tips imbedded in the novel, and afterwards take the 25 question quiz, available online from FleetSmart, and obtain the training certificate that way.
“She (Harvey) thought this would be the best way to reach people that don't have an opportunity to get classroom training,” says Nancy McEvoy of FleetSmart. “It would be a way to talk about fuel efficiency and really engage the drivers at the same time.”
Harvey approached van Belkom in 2004 about taking on this project, and the first book, Mark Dalton – SmartDriver 1: Highway Trucking, appeared in 2005 and has been reprinted several times. McEvoy estimates that more than 49,000 copies may have ended up in drivers' hands.
In the first novel, Van Belkom sets up the dynamic between the grizzled veteran, Dalton, and Jimmy, a know-it-all rookie, fresh out of driver school. Mark Dalton is asked to take along his dispatcher's nephew and “show him the ropes.” Jimmy may be new to the profession, but he's an enthusiastic newbie and has just taken the SmartDriver course. He's brimful of fuel-saving tips for his mentor Dalton, who doesn't let on, at first, that he knows a few things about saving efficiency, himself.
Relations are at first cool between Dalton and Jimmy after he picks him up at a truck stop in New Brunswick. Dalton won't even let Jimmy drive for the first while, but he slowly warms up to the young man as they travel across the country.
In typical Mark Dalton fashion, the former private eye can't keep his nose out of trouble. The two bond after they're witness to an attempted murder, hijacking, and eventually help the authorities break up a gang shipping stolen cars overseas.
Van Belkom is an award-winning and experienced writer, and with seamless expertise manages to weave FleetSmart's fuel-saving seminar and driving tips into the narrative while delivering an adventure story that's a real page-turner. The reader learns about progressive shifting and APUs while compelled to keep reading by the twists and complications in the action-packed story line.
A sequel novel, Mark Dalton – SmartDriver 2: Trouble Load, was published by FleetSmart in 2009. In this segment, Jimmy hears about a good-paying load going to California and convinces Dalton that the two should take it. This leads to an involvement with a sketchy shipper who they discover is smuggling contraband between Canada and the US.
Van Belkom throws in a few driving tips in this effort as well, but pays more attention to some of the issues around border-crossing and route planning in this novel. Their truck “Mother Load” breaks down on route, and the two are threatened at gunpoint before Dalton slams a trailer door on the two baddies.
The second book sets up the conclusion of the trilogy, Mark Dalton – SmartDriver 3: On Ice. Mark and Jimmy have put a very bad man in jail who has extensive connections in the criminal underworld. He puts the word out that he wants Dalton and his partner eliminated. As it turns out, the hit man is a trucker as well who does “enforcement jobs” as a sideline.
The RCMP intercept Mother Load at an inspection station in British Columbia. They tell Dalton and Jimmy that there is a contract out on their lives, and the police suggest they make themselves scarce and take on a job on the ice roads in the Northwest Territories where they are unlikely to be discovered.
The Mark Dalton series has appeared more than 45 times in Truck News and Truck West, and van Belkom can never be faulted for lack of research. He even has a bit of experience driving trucks, but when he needs background material he likes to go directly to the source.
While researching the On Ice novel, van Belkom flew to Yellowknife to see things first hand. It was only 30 below Celsius during the three days van Belkom visited but he got to take a ride on the ice road and talk to some of the people involved.
Ice road truck driving is a fascinating vocation, both to the public and truckers alike. The first season of the Ice Road Truckers television series was filmed in Canada and stirred up a lot of interest among viewers because of the exotic and extreme nature of the job.
But van Belkom takes issue with the glamorous and unrealistic portrayal in the TV series. “The television show would have you believe that there's a lot of danger involved in the job,” he says. “But having been there myself, I can tell you that safety is the primary concern, and these roads have a very good safety record. Very rarely a truck might break through the ice but that's usually in a service vehicle or plow at the beginning or end of the season. The biggest danger for drivers on the ice road is probably falling asleep at the wheel.”
Dalton and his sidekick attend an ice roads training session before they can begin hauling. The two are told about the dangers of exceeding the speed limit and the shock waves that can occur between rigs running too close together. But attention to detail is what makes van Belkom's writing authentic and come alive.
Leaving a truck running 24/7 hours in frigid temperatures might seem anathema to the SmartDriver program, but van Belkom explains that winter trucking in the far north is an entirely different world. “Keeping the trucks running and getting the loads delivered is paramount,” he says. “The season is only six weeks long, and the drivers might forgo some considerations of fuel economy to get the loads delivered on time.”
Needless to say, Mark Dalton survives this adventure and turns the tables on the hit man. But for fans of the detective-turned-trucker the ending will probably come too soon. What is amazing is that van Belkom has managed to reach so many drivers through three short novels, and impart so much information.
“I can honestly say that I'm the only writer who has had two bestsellers published by the Canadian government,” adds van Belkom.
According to FleetSmart's Nancy McEvoy, the three novels are charting new territory. “The feedback has been incredibly good, both at trade shows we've attended and online” she says. “In all my experience in government I've never seen another department try something like this. This is really break-through stuff.”