[Kate, a medical researcher, has taken a job at an Antarctic station, and is still settling in…]
[Kate] tried to get out every day if the weather permitted. Claustrophobia and cabin fever were real threats to mental and physical health.
She got up and put on her thermal T-shirt and long johns. She pulled on a pair of trousers over her long johns. She walked through the silent building to the boot room at the far end and put on her outdoor gear: first her thermally insulated overalls, then a thick fleece jacket. On top of the jacket went her green polar parka. She pulled a balaclava over her head a woolly hat on top of that. Finally she pulled on her mukluks, bulky boots with thick soles and cotton uppers that allowed your feet to breathe….
She pulled up the hood of her parka, took a breath to ready herself, and opened the door. Stepping outside was like being plunged into icy water. She climbed slowly down the stairs and looked around, blinking in the intense light. The undulating landscape stretched away like a frozen white sea. Ice crystals danced in the air and formed twinkling haloes round the sun.
commentary: The British explorer Robert Scott * (more on him below) said ‘Great God! this is an awful place’ about the Antarctic.
Nothing in Christine Poulson’s thrilling new book would make you argue with that verdict, and although her group of isolated workers in the ice have many modern devices and developments to help, nothing can take away the desolation and the dark, the cold and the danger.
Regular readers will know that I am a big fan of Chrissie’s books (and also a friend of hers as a result of our meeting online via the blog) – and this one is an absolute winner. It’s a fantastic crime novel featuring a small group of people stuck together in a small place, with some very nasty things going on. There is also a parallel strand of the story being played out back in the UK. And at the same time the book is very very informative on how an Antarctic research station works.
I actually questioned Chrissie closely to find out how she knew so much both about life in the Antarctic, and about the medical issues at the heart of the book – it seemed impossible that she could write so well and convincingly on these matters without direct experience, but she assures me it is all just her research, and the good fortune to meet some people who are experts.
She certainly has done a marvellous job.
Kate (who featured in the previous book, Deep Water) has taken a job at the Antarctic Research Station: once the plane has left she will be there for the next nine months, with no way out. There are ten people shut in together. That number is going to go down… as the tagline says, ‘snowbound with a stone-cold killer.’
The atmosphere at the base is very well-done – casual and interesting to begin with, and full of intriguing information such as that there are no viruses, no flu no colds, down there, because it is too cold for them to survive, and explanations as to how the food and cooking works. There are vivid descriptions of a group of people with very different personalities and lives, trying to get along together: watching boxsets and listening to music, or assembling for a splendid game of Monopoly. Then things start going seriously wrong. There is an absolute stunner of a scene where Kate (a doctor who is qualified but has never practised) has to perform an emergency operation – my own blood pressure was rising throughout. It resembled (and I have no higher compliment) the medical scenes in Christianna Brand’s Green for Danger.
The action alternates with developments back in the UK – something funny is going on concerning some key medical research, and there is a connection with the Antarctic station. Kate’s friends Rachel and Dan get caught up in this: a scientist has gone missing, there are ethical questions regarding work that may or may not have been plagiarized.
Altogether this is a marvellous book: beautifully structured, eerie and atmospheric, but also funny and very convincing.
Yet again, I make my complaint: why do some books get so much attention and publicity, while a great crime story like this one flies below the radar to some extent? Cold Cold Heart should be much better-known.
The top picture could be Kate on the ice – but is actually a photo from an Australasian Antactic expedition more than 100 years ago, from the State Library of New South Wales.
* Robert Scott was the leader of the British 1911-12 expedition which hoped to be the first to reach the South Pole, but actually came second. I found wonderful pictures of the British adventure online: the photos were taken by Hubert George Ponting, and are in the collection of the Library of Congress. I spent a fascinated half an hour just gazing at them, and chose the second and third pictures here to feature.
The ice picture is the Grotto iceberg – you can just see two members of the expedition in the mouth of it, to get the scale of it. The man with the pickaxe is Edgar Evans, one of those who died in 1912 on the way home.
There is an Antarctic angle to this book on the blog (though that's a slight spoiler): and the ethics of academic research feature in Dorothy L Sayers' Gaudy Night. Alistair MacLean was an exemplary writer of thrillers, and he wrote a number of frozen adventures (Arctic rather than Antarctic) of which Ice Station Zebra is the most iconic.
And you can find all Christine Poulson's other crime books on the blog, along with some cross-blogging adventures with her...