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Frozen Beach Reads

Frozen Beach Reads

Polar pulp fiction that delivers just the right chills
By Eva Holland
Aug 25
From the August 2015 Issue

The Canadian Arctic has long been a favourite setting for American authors of paperback novels—you’ll find some of the North in everything from Harlequin romances to the early work of L. Ron Hubbard, before he founded the Church of Scientology. (His 1938 novel, Arctic Wings, is about a Mountie who’s framed for murder in a remote outpost called White Bear Landing.) We tested three more recent thrillers set in the North—and whether they get things right.

Bones are Forever


Kathy Reichs writes the “Bones” novels about the gory adventures of forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan, who solves crimes by examining decayed human remains. (The hit TV show Bones is also based on the series.) After a 2011 visit to the NorthWords Festival, Reichs decided to set her next book in Yellowknife—and the fact that she’s actually been to the North shows: while investigating a string of infanticides, Brennan stays at the Explorer Hotel, visits the Gold Range and the Book Cellar, mingles with ex-associates of diamond magnate Chuck Fipke, and even winds up deep inside the abandoned drifts of Giant Mine. Aside from the fact that everyone in Yellowknife is wearing parkas with their hoods up in mid-June, its geographical details generally ring true. It’s also fast-paced (if grim at times, given the nature of the crime) and a gripping read.



Arctic Drift


Clive Cussler’s recurring hero, Dirk Pitt, is a government bureaucrat—of all things—who directs America’s fictional National Underwater and Marine Agency, NUMA. His aquatic adventures have taken him all over the world, and in Arctic Drift he ventures into the icy emptiness of Canada’s Arctic archipelago. The story is complicated, kicked off by a series of murders and unexplained deaths along the B.C. coast. There’s intrigue in Washington and Ottawa, politicians and industry bigshots conniving over the economic fallout of accelerating climate change, and some speculative fiction about the fate of the Franklin expedition thrown in for good measure. There are some occasional factual missteps about the North, and Canada in general (for instance, there’s a reference to “the province of Nunavut”), and the language Cussler deploys can be hackneyed here and there (“Summer noted his rugged features and shaggy hair as he approached but sensed a measure of grace in his wide, dark eyes…”). But the plot carried me along through to a satisfying conclusion.



White Plague


Joe Rush is a newly divorced, troubled Marine who can’t forget the things he’s seen and done. When a state-of-the-art U.S. nuclear submarine has an emergency in the High Arctic, and is set adrift in the no-man’s-land between Alaska and Russia, Rush is called in to help. The resulting narrative weaves together completely concrete, present-day concerns—Russian and Chinese interests in the Arctic, set alongside North America’s relative dearth of icebreaking and military capacity there—with a (hopefully!) more far-fetched yarn about a deadly virus released from the melting sea ice. I found our protagonist a little off-putting at first—the haunted, grizzled warrior is not my favourite archetype—but the story pulled me in. And it turns out I already knew some of the author’s other work: “James Abel” is a pseudonym for Bob Reiss, a journalist who’s worked extensively in the Arctic, and he competently brings to life the self-contained world of an icebreaker in action.