Andrews: In Cold Pursuit

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Sarah Andrews, In Cold Pursuit : A Mystery from the Last Continent. New York : St. Martin's Minotaur, 2007.336 pages.

This is a novel, a mystery/crime novel, by the author of the mystery series that features geologist Em Hansen, who appears in this book only through a few emails exchanged with young Valena Walker, graduate student in glaciology and heroine of this story. When the story opens, Ms. Walker is just arriving at McMurdo Station, the lucky recipient of NSF funding to work with famous scientist Emmett Vanderzee. Unfortunately, just as she is about to begin her research career—and the adventure of a lifetime—she learns that Vanderzee has been arrested on suspicion of murdering a journalist, and taken away by authorities. She's told she'll be shipped out as soon as there's room for her on a plane. She must find a way to extend her stay long enough to clear Vanderzee's name so she can do the research she came to do.

I had a little trouble accepting Valena as a fully credible detective in this plot, but she served other purposes quite well: as a young graduate student in geology "on the ice" for her first time, she can look about in wide-eyed wonder at the wonderland landscape of Antarctica, exclaim enthusiastically over all the interesting things she finds there, ask lots of questions about how the tightly knit community at McMurdo base operates as she's indoctrinated with rules and survival techniques, and explain to the occasional person who asks how her proposed work on deep ice-cores can add data to historic temperature records and shed light on climate change, not to mention serving as the plucky but imperiled heroine at the climax of the story.

The murder plot adequately serves its purpose of getting Valena moving about and learning new things, but the real reason to enjoy this book is for its unique travelogue view of Antarctica as seen through the eyes of a working scientist. The population of McMurdo Station, the American research outpost in Antarctica, is made up of scientists and dedicated support personnel who make the work of the scientists possible in such a harsh environment. Andrews directs her plot well enough to take the reader through some very interesting places and experiences on the ice.

Early on Valena make a visit with new-found friend "Cupcake" to the site of a supply hut, preserved as an historic artifact, that was part of Scott's expedition to the South Pole in 1902. Valena feel very close to the history and the adventure that had taken place there only a century before her visit.

One hundred years, thought Valena. Not much more than the average human lifetime. In all the lifetimes of the human species, great civilizations had arisen and fallen and been built again on all six other continents, but here in Antarctica, the touch of humanity was this new, a tiny foothold on an unimaginably large expanse of ice. This had been the last continent to be located, the hardest to reach, and by fart the most difficult on which to maintain even this fragile encampment. Less than two hundred years ago, there was no southern continent on world maps. In the 1770s, Cook sailed around a southern sea choked with ice but could only hypothesize that land lay beyond it. So obscuring was its veil of ice that land wasn't sighted until 1820, tantalizing yet unapproachable through a ship captain's spyglass.

Valena moved closer to the cliff to look off toward the Transantarctic Mountains, drawn simultaneously by emptiness and fulfillment and the fear that she would not make it to the continent itself but instead be sent home in an agony of frustration.

"Don't wander too close to the edge," said Cupcake. "That cross there? It's for this guy Vince somebody, who was the first man to die in McMurdo Sound. He fell off this cliff in the middle of a blizzard. They never found his body."

"I shall proceed with respect, then."

Cupcake pointed at the hug. "When you're done ogling the scenery, join me in there." [p. 40]

I give high marks to Andrews for her scienticity. Valena's enthusiasm for science gives her an excuse to exploit science moments whenever they turn up, which is rather frequently, but it all seems a credible part of her personality rather than just contrivance on Andrews' part. Valena also gives us her scientist's perspective precisely and accurately, thanks to Andrews' geoscience background.

Andrews' writing verges on the slightly too breezy for my taste, but that's just my taste and I'm sure others will delight in her casual voice and light touch. Regardless of that, there's plenty to satisfy mystery readers and plenty of digestible science backdrop to make this an interesting, entertaining, and unique reading experience.

-- Notes by JNS

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