Saturday, September 3, 2016

Alistair MacLean’s Ice Station Zebra

Ice Station Zebra is in my view one of the very best of Alistair MacLean’s thrillers, published at a time (1963) when he was at the peak of his powers. It not only benefits from superb use of classic MacLean settings it’s also one of his most cleverly plotted novels.

A radio message has been picked up from Drift Ice Station Zebra. Drift ice stations, temporary bases located on ice floes or ice islands that slowly drift through the Arctic Ocean, have been used extensively by the Russians and other nations for various kinds of scientific research. During the Cold War both the Soviet Union and the US used them also for intelligence-gathering purposes. The fictional Drift Ice Station Zebra is a British station ostensibly involved in meteorological research.

The radio message is garbled but it is clear that something has gone very wrong and that the nineteen men at Zebra are in desperate trouble. The problem is that drift ice stations do not stay in the one place and nobody knows the current precise location of Ice Station Zebra. British, US and Soviet aircraft have been unable to locate the station. The new US nuclear submarine Dolphin has been despatched from its Scottish base on a rescue mission. The Dolphin’s ability to sail beneath the ice cap gives it a better chance than even the most powerful icebreakers of finding the station.

Just before the Dolphin sails its captain, Commander Swanson, is informed that he will have a passenger. The passenger is a British civilian. This is contrary to all US naval regulations but the passenger, a Dr Carpenter, has authorisation at the very highest levels. Commander Swanson is bewildered and suspicious - why should a civilian doctor be sent when the Dolphin has its own very competent ship’s doctor? Dr Carpenter’s story is that he has particular expertise in treating the effects of extreme cold but Swanson knows quite well that the US Navy has plenty of doctors with that kind of expertise. He is sceptical of Carpenter’s explanation.

And Dr Carpenter, who is both the hero and the narrator of the tale, makes it clear to the reader that Swanson’s scepticism  is more than justified. Dr Carpenter’s story is a complete fabrication. So what exactly is Carpenter doing on board the Dolphin? That is something we will not discover until the end of the book.

The voyage is eventful to say the least. What should have been a relatively straightforward mission of mercy turns out to be frighteningly dangerous. Nothing is quite what it appears to be and a major surprise awaits Commander Swanson and his crew when they reach Ice Station Zebra. And the surprises, and the dangers, are far from over. 

The novel was inspired by a number of real life incidents during the Cold War. MacLean’s spy thrillers were general fairly realistic - he avoided the flights of fancy that writers like Ian Fleming indulged in. 

This is not only a wonderfully entertaining spy story it’s also satisfyingly complex. While MacLean did not attract the kind of critical adulation that was directed towards writers like Len Deighton and John le Carre books like Ice Station Zebra show that at his best he deserved to be taken a good deal more seriously than he was. 

Dr Carpenter is not quite an unreliable narrator but he is certainly economical with the truth. He not only conceals things from Commander Swanson but also from the reader. The narrator does not actively mislead us - he simply chooses not to reveal certain things. He is not being dishonest - he makes it clear to us that he is not telling us the whole truth. This was a technique MacLean used in many of his best novels and he used it with great skill. It’s done particularly well in this book.

One of the things that makes MacLean’s spy fiction unusual is that more often than not the underlying structure of his novels is that of the classic detective novels of the golden age. This is very much the case here. It has in fact a scrupulously fair-play mystery plot. And at the end of the book the hero brings all the suspects together before revealing the identity of the criminal and then explaining how the crime was committed and how he solved the mystery - this is all done exactly the way Hercule Poirot would have done it. In fact, just as in so many of Poirot’s cases, MacLean’s detective knows the identity of the criminal well before the end of the book but he cannot reveal this because he does not yet have proof.

The resemblance to classic detective fiction is even closer - both Drift Ice Station Zebra and the USS Dolphin serve the same purpose as a country house in a detective story - they limit the number of suspects and they prevent any of the suspects from leaving the scene. This is a classic golden age detective story, but with a spy background and some superb and highly suspenseful action set-pieces added. The result is a true (and remarkably successful) hybrid of the mystery and thriller genres.

MacLean also gives us quite a lot of technical details about nuclear submarines, but these are not mere info-dumps - some are actually vital clues.

The 1968 movie Ice Station Zebra is an entertaining but very loose adaptation. It’s worth a look.

Ice Station Zebra is MacLean at the top of his form and it’s a terrific spy mystery thriller. Very highly recommended.


  1. One of my favorites of his books, too. Great stuff.

  2. This sounds great and I will have to look for a copy. I have seen the movie and would like to watch it again after reading the book.

    1. Tracy, the movie is great fun in its own way (and Rock Hudson makes a surprisingly excellent submarine commander). But the book is superior in every way - it's a book in which MacLean's approach to the thriller genre works to perfection.

  3. Agreed about the movie. It's an okay movie, taken on its own, but as a film version of the book it falls short of the mark.

    The book is great, one of MacLean's very best. I'd definitely rank Night Without End and The Last Frontier ahead of it, but after that it's up there.

    1. Christian, I think Night Without End is my absolute favourite.

  4. At his best and even at his just a bit less than his best, I always preferred MacLean over Fleming and others. Thank you for such a well done review. Recently, I started rereading MacLean and am enjoying him just as much now as I did over 30 years ago!

    1. I like Fleming but I'm inclined to agree with you. As thriller writers go it doesn't get much better than vintage MacLean. I find it odd that MacLean never got the kind of critical attention that Fleming got. Of course the critical attention wasn't always favourable but at least Fleming got noticed while critics rarely deigned even to acknowledge MacLean's existence.

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