Dead Men

  • Richard Pierce
  • Overlook Press
  • 256 pp.

Obsession threads throughout this debut novel centered on the doomed Terra Nova Expedition.

Reviewed by Arthur Kerns

Who said literary works tend to be boring? This debut novel by Richard Pierce proves a poetically written narrative can also be riveting and engrossing. Dead Men is the story of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated race to the South Pole. Arriving at his destination on January 17, 1912, Scott learned that the Norwegian, Roald Amundsen, had planted his flag there 33 days earlier. Returning north to his base, Scott and the four members of his party perished by starvation only 11 miles away from food and fuel. Scott and two others, Bill Wilson and Henry “Birdie” Bowers, were found frozen in their tent by Apsley Cherry-Garrard and other members of the expedition. They buried their comrades under a snow cairn in the tent where they had found them.

A century later we meet Birdie Bowers, an accomplished artist, named by her parents after their distant relative who died with Scott. She meets by chance Adam Caird, an older, introspective, computer wizard who drinks and smokes too much. He becomes obsessed with this erratic, spiteful chameleon of a girl (any prospective mother-in-law’s nightmare) who is obsessed with solving the mystery of how and why Scott and her namesake died.

In first-person present tense, the author presents Adam’s point of view, revealing the man’s growing infatuation with Birdie and his growing fascination with the tale of the Scott expedition. This provides the main narrative thread of the story. Adam’s obsessive feeling for the ever-bizarre-behaving Birdie provides much of the tension. At the halfway point of the story, the urge arises to throw the book at Adam, who has put up with more than a reasonable person should. Interspersed throughout the novel, we hear, now written in third person, the voices of Scott’s widow, Cherry-Garrard, Amundsen and others. The effect is haunting.

The author does a splendid job describing the Antarctic.  The reader feels the oppressive bone-chilling weather weighing on the explorers as their feet crunch on the ice and bend against the relentless bitter wind. That Antarctica resembles a desert — one must constantly drink water — and is an endless wasteland, with a strange hold on the people who stay there—come as surprises.

Just when the relationship between Birdie and Adam seems doomed, both begin to change in degrees. They begin to rely on each other and both develop as their love grows, but not without setbacks. She convinces Adam to accompany her to Antarctica to find Scott’s lost tent. That way she tells him she can solve the mystery. He uses his computer background to track where the tent might have drifted on the ice pack over the past one hundred years. They travel to New Zealand to convince authorities to help them in their search. They succeed and fly to the vast frozen continent.

This novel is a modern love story, but also a tale of strong comradeship among the polar explorers. Birdie and Adam’s relationship provides the spine of the narrative, but the words of the characters from the past hauntingly speak of love, regret, pain and guilt. Polar expeditions exact a human toll. When Birdie and Adam arrive on the snow-capped continent they realize the fear that comes with meeting the whimsical, violent natural force known as the South Pole. In their search for the answer to the mystery of why Captain Scott failed to return to his base, they encounter the same sounds, songs and spirits that haunted the doomed explorers and survivors. This part of the book is a ghost story, but very understated.

The idea of obsession runs throughout. Birdie is obsessed with discovering her namesake’s grave and solve the riddle of why he died with Captain Scott when they had only 11 miles to go. Adam is obsessed with Birdie and trudges on in his effort to gain her love. Scott is obsessed with being the first person at the South Pole. Cherry-Garrard is obsessed with the thought that he was responsible for the death of his leader and the four other men. He also hears the voices and the songs.

This is not a lengthy novel and the author uses every word, sentence and verbal image to craft and layer his themes. This is a love story, a historical novel, a polar expedition and a ghostly tale. From an initial improbability, page after page draws the reader in.  As the author’s first effort at full-length fiction, it is a notable success. I highly recommend this novel.

Arthur Kerns’ award-winning short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies. In addition to an espionage thriller set on the French Riviera, he has completed a mystery loosely based on an unsolved 1929 murder of an FBI agent in Phoenix. Elizabeth Kracht of Kimberley Cameron & Associates, San Francisco, represents his work.

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