Antarctica is a beautiful, savage, unforgiving host to the few thousand temporary residents who arrive each summer. She will mess with your head. She will push you to your limits, testing your endurance and courage. Her ever-changing moods may leave you stranded in a deadly blizzard. She will seal you in a frozen tomb if you don’t pay her the respect she deserves. And yet, I would go back to her in a heartbeat.
Antarctica is an absolute gem of a location for a thriller. Characters are immediately in jeopardy because life on the icy continent is about survival. Antarctica an ever-present adversary. It’s easy to isolate my hero too: in Devour, Camp Ellsworth is a thousand kilometres from the nearest habited station. Antarctica has no law enforcement (the exception is McMurdo station which has US Marshalls) so you can’t just pick up the phone and dial 999.
Even a resilient and resourceful central character like Devour’s Olivia Wolfe, who has cut her teeth reporting from war zones and is used to surviving harsh environments, is well and truly out of her comfort zone in Antarctica. And that’s before I have introduced sabotage, murder, and the arrival of a Russian scientific team who are not what they seem.
The premise of Devour was inspired by a real British expedition to Antarctica in 2012, led by Professor Martin Siegert. Their aim was to drill down through three kilometres of ice to reach a sub-glacial lake, cut off from the rest of the planet for thousands of years. Siegert and his team believed that in that lake they would find microbial life that had survived in total darkness. Sadly, the team’s hot-water drill failed before they could reach the lake. In Devour, however, my fictional scientific team succeeds, and samples of this ‘extremophile’ are brought to the surface, with unexpected and devastating results.
I went to Antarctica to research Devour and a previous thriller, Thirst. It was not only an amazing experience but it helped me understand how Antarctica can affect you physically and mentally. It also inspired me to create characters not originally conceived for the books. One such is Vitaly Yushkov. I would never have created him if I hadn’t boarded an ex-Russian scientific research vessel and set off for Antarctica clutching my English-Russian phrase book.
In the last ten years, there has been a wave of brilliant Arctic crime fiction and thrillers and I’m a big fan of Arctic Noir. Yet, to this day, very few are set in the colder, windier, and more isolated South Pole. Kim Stanley Robinson was a trail blazer in 1997 with his novel Antarctica, then came Matthew Reilly’s Ice Station and James Rollins’ Subterranean (1998). Since then, the Arctic has become the icy location of choice for crime fiction. I suspect that as Antarctic travel gets easier, more thrillers will be set in this dangerous and thrilling location. Perhaps we have the makings of a new sub-genre, Antarctic Noir? Let me be the first to put up my hand and say, I’m in!
L.A. Larkin’s latest thriller, Devour, is published by Constable in January 2017. Larkin also writes humorous mysteries as Louisa Bennet (Monty & Me, Avon Books)