DARK WINTER by WILLIAM DIETRICH (2001, Warner Books, 388pp) ∗∗∗
Blurb: At America’s base at the South Pole, 26 “winterovers” complete the yearly ritual of waving good-bye to the “last plane out,” then summon their energies for that season’s battle with constant darkness, total isolation and murderous cold that can dip well beneath 100 degrees below zero. Little does the group guess that in succeeding days and weeks, they’ll be tested not just by unimagineable weather extremes, but by a murderer intent on gradually eradicating them. Jeff Lewis, as the latest to arrive, becomes the chief suspect when staff members begin to go missing. But he’s hardly alone in attracting suspicion. As the death toll mounts and the camp’s communication with the outside world is all but extinguished, the fault lines that always lie below the surface of any co-operative effort split open. As hysteria develops and scientific jealousies, romantic entanglements and class bitterness intensify the friction, the polar habitat itself – a football-field-sized dome holding temperatures at tolerable levels – becomes compromised. What’s left is a stark choice: root out the psychological contaminant, stop the murderer and the dissent he has sewn, relearn co-operation – or slide down a dark tunnel of everlasting cold.
The Antarctic setting is the star of this book. Dietrich has a feel for the isolation and absolute cold and having personally visited the location, the author is very capable at desribing the environment in which this psychological mystery is set. There are problems though. Dietrich spends a good third of the book establishing the setting and introducing his large cast of twenty-six characters. This slows the pace to a crawl in the book’s early sections and less patient readers may abandon ship. But, once the murders begin the pace quickens. The McGuffin is a priceless rock from a meteor, which has been disovered in the ice and becomes the motive for the murders. The characters all have their own reasons for being at the Pole and their suspicion of Lewis, as a late addition to the party, coincides with knowledge of the meteor becoming public and the first of the deaths. Howeber, as the murders increase, credibility becomes stretched. This is ultimately something that would make a passable movie adpatation – with its references to John Carpenter’s The Thing, betraying its inspiration of an isolated group gripped with paranoia. As a book it is diverting enough, despite its uneven pacing.