Crime Scene: ANN TURNER Out of the Ice; LA LARKIN Devour. Reviewed by Karen Chisholm
Two Australian thriller writers have each set their latest novels amid the beauty and danger of Antarctica.
Antarctica is one of the planet’s last great wilderness areas – for some, a place ripe for plundering, for others, an area that must be protected.
Ann Turner’s Out of the Ice uses the point of view of environmentalist Laura Alvarado to reveal both the wonder and the threats within this amazing landscape:
Penguins the size of small children, plump black and white bodies, robust little wings, propelled out of the sea and flew high into the pack ice, chattering wildly beneath an Antarctic sky so vast and pale and clear it looked like it might shatter at any moment.
Alvarado’s brief is pretty simple – to prepare an Environmental Impact Assessment for the abandoned, and rather sinister, whaling station Fredelighavn on South Safety Island. Originally established by Norwegians, the station has been strictly off limits to all humans for some time, but there has been recent interest in opening it as a museum. The rapidly abandoned settlement is eerily intact – right down to food in the cupboards and linen on the beds in some houses. It’s frozen in time in a frozen place:
The buildings stretched around us reminded me of Burano, a colourful village on an island I’d visited when I went to Venice years ago … These houses of Fredelighavn were similar, luminous in rich plum, fragile pink, deep sienna, pale blue, indigo, orange, yellow and ochre …
On my right was a tiny bedroom containing a single bed covered in a thick blanket with a pink woollen crocheted rug on top. Lovingly handmade and not so lovingly left behind. A flea-bitten Steiff teddy bear lay propped on the pink pillowslip; one eye was missing, and the other glassy eye stared out accusingly, as if it blamed me for its abandonment.
The setting is wild, beautiful and the site was abandoned hastily, in a peculiar fashion, as if somebody had always intended to return but never had. Which makes the small signs of recent human activity harder to pick up at first glance and difficult to fathom; the place is more than a little off-putting and not easy to access. These signs, combined with increasingly unexpected events, eventually have Alvarado and her colleagues realising there’s something deeply amiss in this part of the world.
Carrying an enormous amount of personal baggage, Alvarado is a complicated and fragile person in her own right. Her two closest colleagues are considerably more comfortable with their lives – something which comes back to haunt her later in the book. Interestingly – and perhaps happily for a woman with such a chequered personal history with men – her companions are female: her friend and colleague Kate, and her boss Georgia. The friendships and relationships of these women work, although the males in the story perhaps don’t fare quite so well – particularly when we start working our way into the personal aspects that are dotted throughout the book.
As with Turner’s debut novel The Lost Swimmer, in Out of the Ice she’s created a very flawed, human and fragile central character. As was also the case in the earlier novel, any doubts the reader may have about character motivation are more than compensated for by the evocative and simply stunning sense of place. The locations leap from the page – whether they are the human habitats (occupied and deserted) or the wildlife colonies. The sense of the wildness and danger provided by the location more than compensates for any slightly misdirected sense of human threat.
Both of Turner’s novels show distinct similarities in that their sense of place is so strong, their central characters are not straightforward and often not immediately likeable, and the threats are well-executed and creepily evil.
LA Larkin’s Devour is much more of a traditional thriller in concept and execution. Investigative journalist Olivia Wolfe’s world is one of big stories, hair’s-breadth escapes from danger and fearless reporting on the worst of human excesses. Larkin is also a dab hand at setting a scene:
On the flat, featureless ice sheet, katabatic winds swoop down the mountain slopes, whipping up ice particles and hurling them at a solitary British camp. The huddle of red tents, blue shipping containers, grey drilling rig, and yellow water tanks are so tiny on the vast expanse of white, they resemble pieces on a Monopoly board.
While much of the action in Devour centres around the exploration of two sub-glacial lakes and a race between the British and the Russians to discover what lies beneath, Wolfe starts out in Afghanistan, pursing a story that will continue to haunt her for a long time to come:
Olivia Wolfe’s head slams into the passenger window, dislodging the scarf that conceals her Western features, as the dented Toyota Corolla – Kabul’s favourite car – bounces out of a pothole. Hastily covering her head, she fails to notice she is being watched by an old, bearded Mesher in a black turban standing at the roadside, who raises a mobile phone to his ear.
The outcome of this assignment is enough to make anyone question her vocation – Wolfe’s contact is shot dead in front of her, she has a tight escape from the clutches of a dreaded terrorist, and discovers a big threat looming for a major Western city. She also returns home to a stalker and a hacked phone and laptop, meaning her every move is being followed and interfered with by a shadowy figure who doesn’t become any clearer until the end of the novel – presaging the plot for the next book in the series, one hopes.
Despite all the complications at home, Wolfe’s next assignment is in Antarctica, following the story of a suspicious death and the ongoing sabotage of the British camp involved in drilling Lake Ellsworth.
Larkin says in the acknowledgements that the character of Olivia was inspired by American journalist Marie Colvin, who died in the bombardment of Homs in Syria in 2012, along with French photojournalist Rémi Ochlik. Wolfe is undoubtedly a fearless journalist, with sometimes scant regard for her own safety but with a big heart and great compassion. Along with the threats and yet another close personal shave, she finds a bit of romance that isn’t overplayed and is nicely problematic.
In these two novels the idea that the Antarctica is the great unknown – gloriously beautiful and dangerous beyond belief – is played out in two very different scenarios. Both are thrillers in style with considerable personal elements and romantic entanglements built in. In both stories the threat is not immediately to Antarctica itself, but is facilitated by the remoteness, and the difficulties of working and living in that environment. In Devour the plot is absolutely classic thriller – big threat/big risk/big effort to prevent; in Out of the Ice the motives are much more base, self-serving and therefore decidedly nasty.
Despite the different scenarios being played out, though, both novels paint a picture of a glorious continent – worth protecting, capable of taking humans to the very outer edges of their capacity – both perilous and enthralling.
Ann Turner Out of the Ice Simon & Schuster 2016 PB 368pp $29.99; LA Larkin Devour Hachette PB 2016 416pp $29.99
Karen Chisholm blogs from http://www.austcrimefiction.org, where she posts book reviews as well as author biographies.
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