One hundred years ago, Robert Falcon Scott and four other men left the other members of the Terra Nova expedition to Antarctica and set out to claim the South Pole. When they arrived there on 19 January 1912, they discovered that the Norwegian explorer Roald Admundsen had beaten them to it by a mere matter of days. Neither Scott, Wilson, Bowers, Oates or Evans survived the arduous trek back to their comrades.
A century later in London, a young artist Birdie Bowers, named by her parents in honour of their famous and tragic relative Henry `Birdie' Bowers, is obsessed with finding the tent in which the frozen remains of Scott, Bowers and Wilson were discovered and buried a short time after their deaths. The tent was located just eleven miles from a food depot. Birdie believes that the answer to the mystery of why Scott couldn't reach this safety lies buried in the ice with him. His diary and those of the other men had been rescued but they didn't provide the answers Birdie seeks, just tantalising glimpses of five men descending into their fate.
Adam Caird is the man who has fallen in love with Birdie, a woman he has taken upon himself to rescue and love and so escort to the other side of the world. Neither of them were looking for love and both find it difficult to speak its language but, as they prepare for their expedition to the South Pole, they learn as much about each other as they do about the men they are trying to find. When they finally reach Antarctica and face true isolation and real danger, they realise how impossible it would be to survive without the other.
For life, love, fear and death are the themes of Dead Men. Removed from society and civilisation, in the white out of a snow storm and with the threat of six months of frigid darkness, Scott and his men, as well as Birdie and Adam, have to face something quite primeval about their existence and place in the world.
Dead Men contains several voices. In large part, we have the present tense first person narrative of Adam, revealing to us his feelings for the younger and extraordinary Birdie as well as his increasing fascination for Scott and his men. The only distraction for me were Adam's frequent tears. In addition to his story we have pieces from the past, told in third person, as we observe the discoverers of the remains of Scott, the other men of the Terra Nova expedition waiting for rescue from the ice, Roald Admunson, Scott's wife and so on. This variety of perspectives, times and continents provides a rich depth for the mystery.
There is also another presence at work here and it's the one that exerts the pull on the lives and fate of the men who explore this ice wasteland as well as those of the people left behind or follow in their footsteps.
Dead Men grips in more ways than one. It is a historical puzzle but it is also a polar adventure, a love story, a horror story and a ghostly tale. It challenges the conventions of what one can expect from a historical mystery - Dead Men is not an action thriller nor is it a conventional romance. It is, however, poetically told and I was as moved by it as, at times, I was frightened. It's a gentle, relatively short and well-written tale focusing on characters past and present with whom we quickly become involved. We many not know much about the previous life of our narrator, Adam, or too many details about the men from the past such as Cherry but the quality of the prose means we know all we need to with a skilful brevity.
Dead Men is a debut novel by Richard Pierce and it is an excellent one. His meticulous research into the story of Scott's last expedition shines through, as does the dangerous, cold splendour of Antarctica and the adventurous spirit of the men who strove to conquer her. This review is from a review copy.