Saturday, November 17, 2012

Ice Station Zebra



I was tempted to use a picture of the movie, but reason prevailed

I've always had a fondness for Alistair MacLean.  My father would return home from work in Dublin City centre and leave his wool coat steaming in the hall.  There was a second hand bookshop near the train station and he would stop off on Fridays and special occasions and buy a handful of paperbacks. The rules of the game were as follows, if I'd been good, I would be directed after dinner that "You might find something interesting, if you look in my coat."

If reports were bad, these might mysteriously disappear. A little personal reconnaissance before the appointed hour was acceptable, but woe betide the Kinch minor that tried to snaffle one before his time.  MacLean, Captain W.E. Johns, Richard Jeffries, Rosemary Sutcliff and a variety of boy detectives features a great deal. Henty was bigger and only came solo, as there was a limit to what Dad's pockets would hold.  Curiously enough, I don't recall ever getting Ice Station Zebra.

The tale on the face of it is simple enough, there has been an accident at a British Antarctic Base and a US Navy Nuclear Submarine is dispatched to help.  On board is Dr Carpenter, a mysterious Englishman, who is tasked with discovering what exactly occurred at the station.

As is traditional in an Alistair MacLean nothing is quite as it seems. Dr Carpenter, who is also a narrator, is revealed as steely eyed secret agent demonstrates the typical MacLean virtues of immense physical endurance, dogged determination and deeply cynical humour.  There is no sex or romance in the story and comparatively little violence as the most brutal struggles of the book are pit man against the landscape. The nuclear submarine USS Dolphin is a prominent character in the action, this is not a techno-thriller in the Clancy mould.  MacLean is far more interested in men than machine. This is a relatively short book, I read it over a day. It is also an old fashioned story in that it is one where things happen. There is precious little time for reflection or character development, not when there are Reds to outwit and icy tundras to cross.

In a strange way Ice Station Zebra has more in common with classic Christie mysteries like "Murder on the Orient Express" and "Ten Little Indians" then the bullet laced thrillers of our own day.  The hero must solve a puzzle against the clock while trapped with his array of suspects. Ultimately despite his brute strength, weapons and the exotic locale, Dr Carpenter must resolve things the old fashioned way, by thinking.

And for those of you who like that sort of thing, this is exactly the sort of thing that you like.

18 comments:

  1. That's a great picture you paint of Fridays in the Kinch home. A memory to cherish.

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    1. Into my heart an air that kills
      From yon far country blows:
      What are those blue remembered hills,
      What spires, what farms are those?

      That is the land of lost content,
      I see it shining plain,
      The happy highways where I went
      And cannot come again.

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  2. So a oldie buta goldie eh?

    Ian

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  3. Fine post, Conrad. Really great images being conjured up there. I thought it was a terrific read - really suspenseful and a great atmosphere. I think I read it when I was 18. I also really liked "HMS Ulysses" and "When Eight Bells Toll", whichI read about the same time.

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    1. I haven't read HMS Ulysses which I think is considered one of his best - I must get around to it. Better organise that 26 hour day.

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    2. Good reading taste indeed Mr Kinch.... and to Sidney's excellent suggestions I would also add the inestimable "Guns of Navarone"

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  4. Conrad Kinch,

    The plot of the book was based on an actual 'secret' operation, Operation Coldfeet. John Bassett ran a game based on it a COW2012 and I was lucky enough to be able to take part.

    All the best,

    Bob

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    1. Interesting - I've been going over the old nuggets looking for Cold War material. I knew about Coldfeet, but I'd say it was a challenge to make a game of it.

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    2. Not really I've run a version of it just using the info in Nugget and a few other books. You should give it a go yourself.

      http://spprojectblog.wordpress.com/2012/08/16/operation-cold-feet/ is my take on things.

      Cheers,

      Pete.

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    3. http://spprojectblog.wordpress.com/2012/08/16/operation-cold-feet/
      is my take on the game based on the Nugget article and a few books I picked up. It's easy enough to do, you should definitely try it yourself.

      Cheers,

      Pete.

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  5. Nice post. This comment will lessen the "improving" average of your comments today, I fear, but you would expect that. I was intrigued to know why your dad's coat steamed in the hall. I can imagine his horse steaming in the hall, and certain dads of my acquaintance are known occasionally to have been steaming themselves, but a coat - no.

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  6. P'shaw nonsense Foy, you always add tone.

    Dad's coat was a very thick herringbone twill. He still has it and I've worn it occasionally. It is incredibly warm, but it absorbs liquid like a camel that's just heard last orders. The hat stand and coat rack were just by a radiator, consequently Dad's cold and wet coat would after a few minutes begin to steam.

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  7. For some reason I never read any Alistair MacLean, but it was always a good sign it would be a good story if his name was associated with a movie. (heresy maybe? oh well, I enjoyed the movies) :P

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    1. The movies are different, but also good. You can't beat The Guns of Navarone at Christmas.

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  8. I recall reading Ice Station Zebra when I was about twelve and thrilling in horror to the descriptions of the charred bodies in the burned out huts once our hero finds the half burned out research station. It was a great read, one of IM's best. I think you put it well when you compared this novel to Agatha Christie. IM got a lot of mileage out of his formula of a small group with a traitor/killer concealed in the midst. The film, while atmospheric in parts, missed the essence of the book completely.
    A very appealing glimpse into what sounds like a charmed childhood. Thanks for it.
    MP

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  9. I used to work for WHSmith in the 60's/70's, and remember the rush of new titles in September (just in time for Xmas) when all the popular authors brought out there 'annual'. I read 'Where Eagles Dare' in proof copy and got extremely confused with all the plot twists. Completely lost rack of which side the Burton character was supposed to be on.

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  10. Hi CK,

    Excellent post old chap and for my own enjoyment I really liked Where Eagles Dare - "Broadsword calling Danny Boy" - and the aforementioned Guns of Navarone.

    Classic stories and the films were pretty good as well - the soundtrack to 'Eagles' being, in my opinion, suitably Wagnerian.

    All the best,

    DC

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