by Greg Rucka, Steve Leiber (Oni, 2001)

U.S. Marshall Carrie Stetko is hunting a murderer in what has to be the most desolate place on Earth outside of Death Valley. It would seem that a place that's too cold even for penguins would hardly be the setting for murder, because when you think of Antarctica, you think of Howard Hawks' and John Carpenter's version of what usually happens "down there" (The Thing). This time, though, it's more like Insomnia than anything about invaders from another world. Apparently, miles upon miles of ice and snow have a rather unique effect on the human mind.

That's just what Carrie Stetko was counting on when she came down there to forget a very troubled past. Instead, she finds herself in the middle of a homicide when one member of a team drilling for samples turns up with his head bashed in and another member of the team is missing.

This is really more of an action story with two unique twists, the first being the choice of location, a vast wilderness that one woman sees as more of a refuge than a hellhole; the second is having two strong women as the protagonists. Carrie Stetko is the agent assigned to the case, while Lily Sharpe is the British agent who wants to know what the drilling team had stumbled on that was reason enough to kill someone. Together they race to find the killer before 90 percent of the personnel on the base ship out at the seasonal change into six months of darkness.

The best aspects of the story are the art and the interplay between the two women. Setting the story in Antarctica makes for an interesting twist on what would have been a rather familiar theme, while allowing the two leads to be women puts it a grade above standard cop stories. Visually speaking, Antarctica is little more than a vast expanse of monochromatic bleakness that suits the black-and-white art perfectly. Leiber is an excellent artist who can match the content of the frame or panel to the moment, whether it's a dream sequence or an action shot. Every image, even ones where the only thing taking place is conversation, is a reminder of the intense struggle for survival.

Carrie Stetko is the definitive hard-boiled noir hero, right down to the alcoholism she battles, the loneliness she is desperately fending off, and the nasty, overbearing superior officer who makes her already difficult life quite hellish. Lily Sharpe is the stoic Brit who provides an excellent foil to Carrie's impulsive, angry nature. Distrust quickly turns to mutual respect as they try to beat the clock. It's not just a murder investigation; it's a potential international incident which neither woman can handle individually. They need to trust one another if they are going to survive, let alone crack the case. At the end of the book, it seems that something more than trust is developing between them but Rucka wisely leaves it somewhat ambiguous, a good tactic since this taught, tense how-dunnit should allow its story to be the star of the show.

Fans of Queen & Country will like this moody little thriller, if for no other reason than that Lily Sharpe closely resembles Tara Chace, as she should. According to Rucka, Sharpe was actually supposed to have been Chace but he put her in Whiteout instead.

Whiteout was made into a film with Kate Becksinsale as Stetko. Sharpe's character was made into a male lead, which seems to have been one poor choice among many, as the movie only scored a 2 percent with Rotten Tomatoes. Read the novel but do yourself a favor and don't bother with the movie.

review by
Mary Harvey

20 August 2011

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