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Ice Station Zebra by Alistair McLean

Posted by RB Kollannur on September 11, 2012


Note: This review is part of a weekly book review column that I write for City Journal, an English newspaper based in Thrissur, Kerala.

Published on 09/09/2012

Publisher – HarperCollins; Year of Publication – 1963; Pages – 392; Cost at the time of purchase – Rs. 150

Ice Station Zebra is a book that evokes a childhood memory. It is one of the few books that I had read in school and liked, that I reread a decade later and still liked. Written by Alistair MacLean, it is an espionage thriller with a mix of adventure and a dash of mystery.

The story starts off with an adventure – a race against the clock to rescue intrepid scientists trapped in the open ice of the Arctic with no communication. They were part of a British meteorological team stationed near North Pole to study the weather. The plot thickens as a Russian icebreaker and an American submarine race against each other to reach the British ice station.

But as they head north, more is revealed.

The station was a covert listening post, part of an anti missile defence against Russia, and there are suspicions of foul-play in the sudden peril of the station. The departure of the Russian icebreaker towards the station only enhances these suspicions. After a hair-raising voyage beneath the Arctic ice, the submarine finally reaches the ice station. But all is lost. The station is gutted by fire leaving many dead. Was it arson or just an accident? With inclement weather conditions, the chances of survival for both the remaining scientists and the sailors are decreasing with time.

The novel builds momentum early, starting with the high speed and nervy chase. But it is able to sustain this momentum till the end as more keys to the story are slowly opened. There is an overhanging feel of the traitor in the midst as more people die under accidental circumstances. Once the submarine reaches the Arctic the story turns it to a classic whodunit novel with a closed loop of participants and suspects.

The Cold War era background adds to the interest. The Cuban missile crisis was very much in everyone’s memory and the race between US and Russia was about to peak. Written before the moon landing, spy satellites and anti missile defence systems were not as common as they are now. So, covert operations like the one described in the book were very much relevant.

While Ice Station Zebra acts well as a mystery and adventure thriller, there are some issues with the narration. This was the last book by MacLean to have a first person narrator, but it is his unreliable narration that helps the mystery sustain itself till the end. While the book comes off as excellent, the window dressing done takes some of the credit away.

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One Response to “Ice Station Zebra by Alistair McLean”

  1. […] Published on 26/08/2012 25) Liar’s Poker by Michael Lewis – Published on 02/09/2012 26) Ice Station Zebra by Alistair McLean – Published on […]

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