From the Bookshelf: Outpost cool setting for thriller

Posted: Thursday, September 22, 2005


  "Murder Below Zero," by Ron Lovell

"Murder Below Zero," by Ron Lovell

Murder Below Zero: A Tom Martindale Mystery

By Ron Lovell

Published by Penman Productions

246 pages


$14 (softcover)

Bad guys, bad vibes, bad luck and bad weather all harass the characters in Ron Lovell's new novel, "Murder Below Zero." Its action centers on a scientific expedition, gone horribly wrong, along the coast of the Beaufort Sea.

The protagonist and narrator, Professor Thomas Martindale, was supposed to be the project's chronicler and publicist. Instead, he finds himself cast in the roles of lightening rod, intended victim and, ultimately, dismayed survivor.

Martindale is the alter ego of Oregon writer Ron Lovell, also a former journalism professor. This is the fourth book Lovell has written about Martindale's misadventures but the first to venture north.

Lovell is on unfamiliar turf here, but he conjures up convincing descriptions of mood as well as scenery. Here is Martindale talking about his first view of the polar ice pack:

"We fanned out along the railing to gaze at the ice as if it were some exotic creature in a zoo. What hit me first was the color —an almost translucent blue/white that reminded me of a diamond. Looking at the unending expanse made me fantasize for a moment that I was in a desert, a desert where the usual unendurable heat had became unendurable cold. In the horizon at the end of the spectacular vista, the curvature of the earth stood out against the sky.

"As the ship sped along just skirting the ice pack, I had the sensation of being on the edge of a dangerous abyss, where one false move would send me end over end to my death. I shuddered and pulled my parka more tightly around me."

That spooky reverie is about the last quiet moment in the book. The fictional professor attracts trouble with his nosiness, sarcasm and knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Although the book's cover describes it as a "mystery," Lovell's storytelling has more in common with Tom Clancy than Agatha Christie. He reveals his murderers early and ramps up the rest of his story with rough language, military action, covert government operatives and a mounting death toll.

Trouble rears its head from the first. Martindale discovers too late that he's shipping out for a month in close quarters with an old flame, a drunk, an odious rival and a thick-headed, tyrannical boss. He's warned to watch his back before he even reaches the arctic. The expedition (ostensibly to evaluate sea-ice conditions and tag whales) is an ill-begotten jumble of hidden agendas and personality conflicts, and it only gets worse.

The group travels by air to Canada's Mackenzie River Delta, then boards a U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker for a couple weeks of ice sampling and in-fighting, before being deposited on Herschel Island, a speck of land near the Yukon-Alaska border. Unpleasant surprises pop up along the way, most importantly the addition of three shady Russian supposed-biologists to the venture.

The author is skilled at ratcheting up suspense while moving Martindale and company into deeper and deeper doo-doo. Nasty revelations and dashed hopes terrorize the expedition members and keep readers turning the pages.

One interesting sideline is Martindale's interest in arctic history. He refers to events at Herschel Island in 1897, when a freak early freeze trapped a fleet of Yankee whaling ships in the ice. The author folds into his modern tale admiring references to Barrow trader Charles Brower and to Captain Michael Healy of the territorial Revenue Cutter Service.

Lovell dishes out a mix of academic sniping and crude violence. He avoids the niceties of political correctness, for the most part portraying the group's gays as immoral butt-grabbers, the token Native as a bootlegger and the Russians as corrupt, cynical villains. His plot echoes Cold War sentiments, which he strives to update with murky references to international Islamist terrorists and Chechen separatists. But then, no character comes across unblemished, even Martindale.

Despite their flaws, or perhaps because of them, some secondary characters come across as two-dimensional. Painted in broad strokes, the villains are so villainous they lack any subtlety or sympathy. Some expedition members remain nearly invisible until the author trots them out to make a convenient but unexplained statement or scene. One character, Susan Foster, seems to be in the book only to annoy Martindale. Lovell sprinkles the book with unanswered questions and dangling tangents about these people.

Given his work as a journalism professor, it is a surprise that Lovell did not polish his manuscript more. He writes well, but one more edit would have gone far to flesh out characters, smooth rough spots, clarify ambiguities and avoid minor glitches.

"Murder Below Zero" is escapist entertainment aimed at fans of masculine thrillers. Even if it does not move smoothly, it moves with enough speed and unpredictability to generate plenty of excitement.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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