Sunday, February 23, 2014

Guest Blogger: Peter Guttridge--"Fiction in a Cold Climate."

The author wishing his face were warmer

A few weeks back we ran a post offering a guest slot every other Sunday to mystery writers who base their stories in non-US settings.  We think it a great way of introducing our readership to new experiences and places.   The response was overwhelming and we’re delighted to kick off the very first in our series of Guest Author Postings with this piece by the award winning, much admired, and humorous English novelist and critic, Peter Guttridge.

Peter wrote six comic crime novels (winning a Lefty for one of them), featuring the deadly duo of Nick Madrid and Bridget Frost, before he turned to the Dark Side with his gritty Brighton Trilogy­—although his definition of trilogy now encompasses five novels.  As crime fiction critic for the UK’s Observer newspaper for eleven years, Peter has read far more crime fiction than is healthy for anyone.  But, a glutton for punishment (or by now hopelessly sick in the head), he is in his second year as judge for the CWA John Creasey Dagger for Best Debut Novel.

Welcome, Peter.  And thank you.

I’ve been a traveller all my adult life, lucky enough to visit a number of exotic locations.  I travel more often than I write novels so ideas for novels set in any one of those locations are backing up in my notebooks.  My pathetic excuse is that I need to come up with titles of my novels before I can write them. My trip to Cambodia and Vietnam four years ago only paid fictional dividends when I found a title, Those Who Feel Nothing, last year.  My eleventh novel, it comes out in the summer.

I think the Arctic might be next, after a trip some months ago, even though these darn Scandinavians chiller writers have got there before me.

I only saw a tiny bit of the Norwegian Arctic – the Svalbard Archipelago, halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole – but it was enough to set my imagination roaming. 

The only town of any size on the archipelago - Longyearbyen (population 2,000) on Spitzbergen island - has a fantastic backdrop of two glacier tongues and all around town there are the evocative remains of abandoned coal-mining operations from the early years of the 20th century. 

The Graveyard--still in use--in Longyearbyen
Derelict wooden structures are everywhere

Insert your own tolling bell joke

Once a hotel now apartments

Plus you’re advised not to go much beyond the town boundaries because this is polar bear country.  Coal mines; a closed, cut-off community surrounded by dangerous animals.  Yes, yes.

But then my spy thriller juices began to flow when I went to Ny Alesund, 107km northwest of Longyearbyen, which claims to be the world’s most northerly, continuously inhabited civilian community.  (Population 30-150.)

It’s pretty bleak.  
You can see why tourists flock to Ny Alesund
Well, you're starting to...

But when the fog cleared the grey sea and sky took on a rare, if chilly beauty. 

That's more like it
You have to like grey though...

A mining settlement until the 1960s it’s now a scientific research centre with individual stations operated by a bewildering range of countries, including Japan, India, South Korean and China. (The Chinese station has two stone lions guarding its front door.)  

A little bit of home from home...

Here the danger from polar bears is more severe so men armed with rifles guard every path into town.

Not so armed guard at Ny Alesund (his rifle is on the table)

Shame nobody warned me about the Arctic tern.  The cute little bird nests on the ground beside the paths – and, as I discovered to my cost, attacks if you get too near.

A long sharp beak and a bald bonce don’t make a happy pairing and there’s little dignity in a 6’4” man slithering down an icy path, waving his arms in the air, chased by an angry bird wheeling round his head taking lumps out of him.  Hurts too.

An Arctic tern displayed similar behaviour in the next place on Spitzbergen I visited – Magdalene Bay – but I was wise to them by then. 

Tern Attack--angry bird in top left of picture

This bay is actually a fjord and sailing round the island to it the spy thriller juices still flowed as we passed Barentsburg, a gloomy looking Russian settlement occupied by some 500 Russian and Ukrainian coalminers. 


But when we dropped anchor in the spectacularly beautiful fjord eco-disaster/man against nature ideas started jostling in my head.

Arriving in Magdalene Fjord

Used by whalers since the start of the seventeenth century, Magdalene fjord is now uninhabited.  Because it is an area of great scientific interest and the ecology is fragile no more than twenty or so people are allowed on its narrow shore at a time.  

Ashore in Magdalene Fjord
That water was warm enough to swim in...sort of 

Which doesn’t mean the ship’s crew can’t temporarily install a few home comforts. 

Looks almost obscene in this pristine environment but it was fun at the time.

On shore, our men with rifles had found fresh polar bear prints near the beach.  At lunchtime I was making notes on the sun deck of the ship whilst waiting for my barbecued chicken to cook - one of the surreal things about being way inside the Arctic Circle was how warm it often was – when someone with binoculars shouted they could see a polar bear.

There's a polar bear coming down that glacier.

We all rushed to the side of the ship and focused our own binoculars.  Yup, there he was making his way down to – oh, this was interesting.  He was heading for our latest party of twenty on the shore, presumably regarding our fellow seafarers as a buffet lunch put on specially for him as a change from eating fish every day.

Told you

The party was oblivious to him.  As were the two riflemen, who were facing in the opposite direction.  Cue pantomime shouts of ‘He’s behind you!’  Eventually, our captain radioed through to the tender on the shore.  Then there was panic as the people on the shore could see the bear now – and that it was moving pretty quickly towards them.

Mere mortals may not approve of what I’m about to say but fellow-writers will, I’m sure, understand. 

Sadly, everyone got safely away. 

So watch out because my eco-disaster spy thriller featuring a whodunnit in a mining village a century ago and a contemporary murder mystery among a scientific community overrun by blood-crazed polar bears (and terns) – with, what the heck, a plague and a sinking cruise ship thrown in – is going to be a doozie.  I’ve even got a suitably mysterious possible cover image.  

Suitably vague, I think

Frankly, all I need now is a title. 

Sunday Guest Blogger—Peter Guttridge


  1. I smile every time I read your post because knowing your wit as I do, Peter, I'm sure the subliminal message in the placement of your photographs showing gray skies turning brilliant blue somehow involves a tern for the better.

  2. Welcome Peter! The Most Northerly Bar - catchy title to consider :)

  3. Great piece and sounds like a great trip! I can't wait for the book. Title? Well, if you bring in a bit of drug smuggling you could consider: He left no tern unstoned.

  4. Great photos Peter- is there no end to your talent??
    I thought I would say that as one good tern deserves another....

  5. Enough with the tern jokes already!

  6. Oh, rats, I missed my tern. I was still counting the shades of grey.

    1. Actually, I'm starting to enjoy this - and you introduce another creature too!

  7. Sorry, Peter, it's all my fault. Little did I realize my effort at humor would cause my compatriots to take a tern for the verse.

  8. Awesome post and beautiful photographs. I am glad to be able to live vicariously through your (cold) adventures. :)

    1. Thanks, Julia. It was an epic trip. The surreal thing was that I was aboard giving talks totally unrelated to the trip. 45 mins after the polar bear sighting I was spouting about The Great Train Robbery. Nobody was interested, including me...

  9. Please, everyone, stop the puns... I can't bear it any longer. Thanks, Peter! From one shiny-top to another, I feel your pain!!!

    (Just wait, Jeff, your tern is coming...)

    1. We shiny-tops must stand united - and wear thicker hats on occasion.

  10. no term puns from me! Beautiful photos, and I agree, the Most Northerly Bar has a lot of potential...

  11. Thanks Other Lisa - the photos kind of took themselves - all I did was point my camera.