Today’s read begins on an ominous note. Research scientist Flora Mitchell is opening up her remote cottage to get some much needed work done in the run up to getting investment for her latest cancer cure research. Of course there is no Wi-Fi and the phone signal is dire, so we all fear the worst when later that night she hears a cat’s cry outside and opens the door to investigate… But our predictions remain unchecked for quite a while, as the narrative takes us to Katie Flanagan who is off to a remote research station in the Antarctic, for 8 months, to take over someone’s work into the effects of darkness and isolation on the human body, as well as act as a back up medical officer. Yet there too are early signs of something being amiss, such as the inexplicable accident of her predecessor… Tying these two narratives together is patent lawyer, Daniel Marchmont and his family, who are friends of Katie and Daniel is also soon professionally roped in to look at Flora’s research. As Flora’s planned time away draws to a close, alarm bells start ringing, not just for Daniel, but also back in Antarctica where many practical jokes have been taking place, along with articles going missing, including a scalpel… The reader begins to realise how serious things are when within the “Antarctic” narrative we read the line: ‘The killer watched the two women over the rim of his glasses as they chatted and laughed together.’ It seems he is waiting for the sun to set, as the dark Antarctica winter sets in, ‘Darkness was his friend. He could afford to wait for the perfect opportunity and this time there must be no mistake.’ At this point, only the reader, knows that within the Antarctic base, of the 10 people there, one is a killer. Yet there is no escape, no quick-fix way of getting home and where can you run to in the harsh unforgiving environment of Antarctic?
It is very hard to decide what to comment on first, but then I often find that is the case when you read a book you really enjoyed. It doesn’t help that the more I enjoy a book, the more my brain drifts into high pitched noises, as opposed to cool collected thoughts. But I will give the latter a go, mainly because I don’t think anyone wants to read a review of a former. Not even sure how I would type it, but I digress…
If I had to categorise this book I would say it was a thriller whodunnit. This book has plenty of action and drama, (more anon), but it is also driven by a puzzle/mystery which has to be solved. I would say the reader begins by figuring out the “Why,” slightly ahead of the characters involved, but when it comes to the “How,” which is of the most importance within the “Antarctic” narrative, I would say the characters have an edge on the reader, though the reader is brought up to speed soon enough. I particularly enjoyed how the detecting characters go about breaking down or piecing together alibis. The “Who” is the final question to be answered and is the most difficult one to solve, as Christine Poulson is very good at obfuscating the identity of the guilty party, not least by having all of the suspects have the same gender. She definitely gets the little grey cells going, as you try to assess what they all say and do and whether they can be connected to the crimes. As the characters try to rule other people out, the reader is left wondering who can truly be classed as above suspicion. In addition, when it comes to the puzzle aspect of the story, at some points in the narrative, I was reminded of Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table, in the way board games are used within the plot – as a means of assessing character, but also as a way of checking alibis.
This book is a first for me, being the first (mostly) Antarctic set mystery that I have ever read. Now unusual settings can be used quite poorly and gimmicky, being nothing more than a name for the blurb or title to draw in readers. However, this is not the case here where the Antarctic setting is utilised brilliantly. Its’ claustrophobic and trapped nature raises the stakes several notions when it comes to the building up of tension. The difficulties such an environment presents, makes its way into all aspects of the plot and in particular the investigation that needs to take there. It is easy to tell that Christine has done a great deal of research, using realistic dilemmas to heighten the drama. One mistake writers can make when it comes to the inclusion of their research into their novels, is to info dump, sometimes even paragraphs to pages at a time. Once more though Christine avoids this pitfall and I was impressed with how she infused her narratives with the relevant information and details. In particular with the Antarctica narrative the details and information is very much delivered through Katie’s own experiences and difficulties with adjusting to the environment the problems it presents.
Having three narrative strands is a popular structural device in modern crime fiction, yet I think Christine uses it to very good effect and as the book progresses each strand becomes more firmly linked to the others. The emphasis on the Antarctic strand and the phasing out of an earlier strand all added to this. Personal drama also has its place in this story, but I valued how Christine didn’t allow it to overwhelm the plot, carefully appropriating the right amount of emphasis on the personal pain of characters. With a healthy cast of characters this was definitely a wise move, as I’m not sure a reader could comfortably become emotionally embroiled in the private pain of 10+ characters, if it was too protracted or become too intense for all of their individual difficulties. However, one surprise for me in terms of emotional investment, was with a non-human character; namely Marmaduke the cat. His role in the story is well-conceived by Christine, providing a far more involving way of considering one of the earlier strands of the story.
Lastly, as with all good books with brilliant endings, there is nothing I can say about its’ denouement which wouldn’t spoil it, other than to say that Christine definitely concluded on the right note. Though of course my final comment of the review has to be the urgent advice to go to your nearest bookshop or library and procure this book with all due haste.
Calendar of Crime: February (8) Month related item on the cover