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Dark Winter    by William Dietrich order for
Dark Winter
by William Dietrich
Order:  USA  Can
Warner, 2002 (2001)
Hardcover, Paperback, e-Book

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The polar ice caps have fascinated me since I read Alistair Maclean's Ice Station Zebra and, more recently, Matt Reilly's Ice Station. The latter is set in Antarctica as is Dark Winter, but there the resemblance ends. Dietrich's thriller takes a more thoughtful (and realistic) approach to its murder and mayhem. He focuses on the stresses experienced in an isolated and inaccessible community, 'a pimple on the vastness', when its members realize that they have a murderer in their midst.

You can tell that the author has been there. He presents his remote setting in authoritative detail ... 'Imagine an infinite sheet of paper. No, not infinite, because the curve of the earth provides a kind of boundary. Except that the horizon itself is foggy and indistinct with floating ice crystals, suspended like diamond dust, so that the snow merges without definition into pale sky.' The protagonist is Jed Lewis, the fingie who arrives on the last plane before the long, dark winter closes in on the twenty-six inhabitants of Amundsen-Scott research base.

Jed is an ex-oilman, a geologist who quit his last job over concern about its environmental impact. He's a misfit, looking for a place to belong, and has also been tasked with the assessment of a meteorite found by the senior scientist at the base. Another newcomer, psychologist Robert Norse, is there on a NASA study of the impact of prolonged isolation on a small group of men and women. The space program will have to deal with similar issues in manned space exploration ... 'The Pole is like a spaceship, NASA hopes. Communal. Also confined, hostile, and dark.'

Instead of making the connections that he desired, Jed quickly comes under suspicion, first of theft of the five million dollar meteorite, and then of murder. The group avoids him, aside from Doctor Bob, and Ice Cream Abby Dixon, the 'resident computer nerd' to whom Jed is attracted. Of course, he has to investigate. The story evolves slowly along with flashbacks to a mysterious mountaineering expedition, which seems headed for some degree of disaster. Additional deaths follows the first, the group's hostility towards Jed escalates dangerously, and the murderer is only revealed in an explosive climax.

The science is interesting, details of polar customs like the Three Hundred Degree Club fascinating (rather them than me!), the protagonist appealing, and the mystery compelling. The combination makes for a great read.

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