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CrimeTime article: where location is a killer

January 28, 2017

I really enjoyed writing this article for Crime Time on ‘Where Location Is A Killer.

Here is the full article:

Antarctica is a beautiful, savage, unforgiving host to the few thousand temporary residents who arrive each summer. She will mess with your head. She will push you to your limits, testing your endurance and courage. Her ever-changing moods may leave you stranded in a deadly blizzard. She will seal you in a frozen tomb if you don’t pay her the respect she deserves. And yet, I would go back to her in a heartbeat.
Antarctica is an absolute gem of a location for a thriller. Characters are immediately in jeopardy because life on the icy continent is about survival. Antarctica an ever-present adversary. It’s easy to isolate my hero too: in Devour, Camp Ellsworth is a thousand kilometres from the nearest habited station. Antarctica has no law enforcement (the exception is McMurdo station which has US Marshalls) so you can’t just pick up the phone and dial 999.
Even a resilient and resourceful central character like Devour’s Olivia Wolfe, who has cut her teeth reporting from war zones and is used to surviving harsh environments, is well and truly out of her comfort zone in Antarctica. And that’s before I have introduced sabotage, murder, and the arrival of a Russian scientific team who are not what they seem.
The premise of Devour was inspired by a real British expedition to Antarctica in 2012, led by Professor Martin Siegert. Their aim was to drill down through three kilometres of ice to reach a sub-glacial lake, cut off from the rest of the planet for thousands of years. Siegert and his team believed that in that lake they would find microbial life that had survived in total darkness. Sadly, the team’s hot-water drill failed before they could reach the lake. In Devour, however, my fictional scientific team succeeds, and samples of this ‘extremophile’ are brought to the surface, with unexpected and devastating results.
I went to Antarctica to research Devour and a previous thriller, Thirst. It was not only an amazing experience but it helped me understand how Antarctica can affect you physically and mentally. It also inspired me to create characters not originally conceived for the books. One such is Vitaly Yushkov. I would never have created him if I hadn’t boarded an ex-Russian scientific research vessel and set off for Antarctica clutching my English-Russian phrase book.
In the last ten years, there has been a wave of brilliant Arctic crime fiction and thrillers and I’m a big fan of Arctic Noir. Yet, to this day, very few are set in the colder, windier, and more isolated South Pole. Kim Stanley Robinson was a trail blazer in 1997 with his novel Antarctica, then came Matthew Reilly’s Ice Station and James Rollins’ Subterranean (1998). Since then, the Arctic has become the icy location of choice for crime fiction. I suspect that as Antarctic travel gets easier, more thrillers will be set in this dangerous and thrilling location. Perhaps we have the makings of a new sub-genre, Antarctic Noir? Let me be the first to put up my hand and say, I’m in!

You can purchase Devour from 26 January in the UK at leading book stores and online: Amazon UK, Waterstones online

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Who is you favourite thriller character?

Who is your favourite thriller character?

Jack Reacher? Dr Kay Scarpetta? Will Trent? Dr Tony Hill?

Let me introduce Olivia Wolfe, a new and different thriller hero, in this extract from Devour:

It’s December and snowing. Their progress is slow as they dodge haggling shoppers, bicycles, wooden carts, ancient cars and overburdened, skeletal donkeys. Street vendors in thick coats call out to passers-by, offering pomegranates, eggplants, carrots, cauliflowers, nuts and spices, freshly butchered meat, birds in cages, hot green tea in urns. Cars honk, brakes screech, men shout, chickens squabble. Behind the stalls, ramshackle shops compete for custom. One sign in English and Pashtun, offering a ‘Modern Gym’, is riddled with bullet holes. She’s not surprised; foreigners are not welcome. Snowflakes settle on sand sand-coloured shattered shops and homes, and the slouching, weary shoulders of a people at war too long. Winter hides the beige city’s wounds. But it does not heal them.
Wolfe spots a woman in a head-to-toe pale blue burqa, accompanied by a man she expects is the husband. This is the first woman she’s seen in the street.
‘Blue Bottle,’ says Shinwari.
He glances at Wolfe and grins, but continues to lean over the steering wheel, as if somehow this will make the car go faster. She’s heard that derogatory term before, back in her foreign correspondent days when she accompanied the allied troops into war. The troops coined the expression ‘Blue Bottle’.
‘Where are all the women?’ she asks.
Accelerating around two boys pushing a bicycle, the horizontal cross bar laden with a bag of wheat they intend to sell, Shinwari then swerves across oncoming traffic to turn left up a mountain road, on either side of which are box box-shaped homes that appear to be carved into the sandy hillside. Children pick through the rubbish littering the slopes below.
‘I don’t like this,’ Shinwari says. ‘One road in and one road out. Very dangerous.’
Her ‘fixer’ of many years, Shinwari negotiates their way through road blocks and no-go zones, offering bribery and banter to officials and warlords alike, so she gets her interview. She trusts his judgement but this one is worth the extra risk.
‘I have to do this.’
Shinwari shakes his head. The car lurches and the chassis scrapes across exposed rock. Wolfe fidgets in her seat and clicks the stud of her tongue piercing against her teeth. Earlier on she was freezing – the car’s decrepit heating system gave up the ghost years ago. But now, as her heartbeat quickens, she is stifling in her long brown Afghan dress.
‘Her husband is not there? You are certain?’ Shinwari asks, his voice shaky.
‘He’s in Tajikistan.’
Shinwari peers through the filthy windscreen as he searches for the right address, the lethargic wipers fighting a losing battle.
‘If Ahmad Ghaznavi knows you’ve been asking about him, this could be a trap.’
‘Shinwari.’ She turns to face him. ‘I know what I’m doing. You know that, right?’
‘Yes, yes,’ he replies.
‘Going after Colonel Lalzad was just as dangerous. We exposed him for the torturer and killer he is. That’s why he’s now in a British gaol. Because of us.’ She squeezes his shoulder. ‘But he’s still running his organisation from prison and word is the drugs are funding an Isil terror cell in the UK.’
‘So why you see Ghaznavi’s wife?’
‘Ghaznavi is Lalzad’s right right-hand man in Kabul. He gets the drugs to England. Nooria Zia says she knows how the drug money reaches the man behind this British cell and who he is.’
Shinwari’s forehead is slick with sweat. ‘But why does she help you?’
‘She hates him. He raped her at fourteen. When she went to the police, she was convicted of the moral crime of being raped. Had his son in Kabul’s Women’s Prison. I did a story, remember? You got me the interview.’
‘Yes, yes, but this is big risk for her.’
‘Let me finish. Ghaznavi’s first wife only gave him daughters, so he pressured Nooria into marrying him, legitimising his son. She wants to be free of him.’
Shinwari nods his understanding and focuses on the narrow road. A hairpin bend. Fewer houses. A steeper climb.
‘You always thank me,’ he says. ‘Other journalists, they use me and leave. I thank you.’
‘Any time, mate.’
He scans the street. The houses are bigger, better built.
‘That one,’ Shinwari says, nodding at a mansion that is about as out of place as exposed cleavage is in Afghanistan.
‘A poppy palace. Of course,’ Wolfe says.
Shinwari whistles through his teeth.

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Heir apparent to Michael Crichton : Devour review, The Guardian UK

January 24, 2017

Over the moon that Devour is included in Barry Forshaw’s round-up of The Best Recent Thrillers in The Guardian (UK edition – 19 January 2017). Even more delighted to be described as ‘heir apparent’ to Michael Crichton.

Here is what it says:

“Quotidian logic is similarly challenged in LA Larkin’s Devour (Constable, £8.99), with investigative journalist Olivia Wolfe fetching up in a frigid Antarctica where something ancient and malign has been hidden beneath a frozen lake for millennia. Unearthing long-buried secrets may lead to Olivia saving just one life – or unleashing Armageddon. This is the kind of unlikely but tense scenario that the late Michael Crichton specialised in; it seems that in Larkin he has an heir apparent.”

You can pre-order you copy of Devour here. It goes on sale in the UK from 26 January 2017.

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Feature in SHOTS: Antarctic expedition inspired Devour

January 23, 2017

I am delighted that SHOTS magazine published my feature on how an Antarctic expedition inspired the story in Devour.

I’m in an Antarctic blizzard – a white-out. The ferocious wind whips up ice particles and hurls them around me. The air is so thick, I cannot see the horizon, my feet, or even my hands. It’s -10°C, which is positively balmy by Antarctic standards, but the wind chill makes it feel more like -30°C. I am disoriented and dizzy: my sense of balance, challenged. It is like being inside a white golf ball that’s on the move. I start to panic even though I know I am with people who will guide me to safety. Yet I have heard so many stories about experienced Antarctic expeditioners dying in whiteouts, slowly freezing to death because they cannot find their way to shelter, discovered days later with very few clothes on because, in the latter stages of hypothermia, victims feel as if they are over-heating, and, no longer able to think clearly, take off the garments that might otherwise save their lives.

What I am experiencing will fuel the opening chapter of my latest thriller, Devour.

Antarctica is the coldest, windiest and, surprisingly, driest, place on Earth. The lowest natural temperature ever recorded at ground level was at Antarctica’s Vostok Station – a chilly −89.2 °C. Because of the severity of its climate, people working there face real danger every day. Their isolation is extreme. If they need urgent assistance, it may take months before a ship or plane can reach them. It is the perfect place to set a thriller – characters under pressure even before I introduce sabotage and murder. On top of this, the fascinating scientific research conducted in Antarctica fuels my imagination.

It will come as no surprise to people who have read my thrillers that I am a big fan of Michael Crichton. Often it is scientific developments that inspire my stories: discoveries that fascinate, and, sometimes, horrify me. I follow the exploits of the British Antarctic Survey and the Australian Antarctic Division. I keep in touch with scientists who work there. I read New Scientist and National Geographic. One day, in 2012, I discovered a British expedition was going to an extremely remote part of Antarctica to drill down through three kilometres of ice to reach a sub-glacial lake. Evidence suggested there was life in the buried lake that had been cut off from the rest of the world for possibly a million years.

I was hooked. What a great premise for a story: heroism, adventure, danger and the possibility that bringing such a life form to the surface might have catastrophic consequences. After all, these micro-organisms had never had contact with mankind, or the world we have created, so how could anyone be certain that they posed no threat?

I contacted the team, headed by Professor Martin Siegert. I discovered there are four hundred lakes buried beneath Antarctica’s massive ice sheets and very little is known about their contents, except that geothermal heat from the Earth’s core has kept them liquid and that life forms known as ‘extremophiles’ are possibly existing in total darkness beneath the ice. Siegert’s team was attempting to reach Lake Ellsworth – believed to be the size of Lake Windermere. They would need to fly to Union Glacier, land on an ice strip, cross the Ellsworth Mountains and transport by tractor-train a total of 100 tonnes of equipment. They had developed a unique hot water drill, water sampling probe and sediment corer: all ground-breaking stuff.

I asked Professor Siegert if he had concerns about the safety of bringing these microbes out from their icy tomb. He explained that they would be taking the utmost care to ensure their security. He also explained that his team was taking great pains to avoid any contamination. A Russian team had already attempted to drill down to Antarctica’s sub-glacial Lake Vostok, but there had been controversy because they had used contaminants such as anti-freeze.

As a thriller author, all I could think of was what if these extremophiles could not be contained as easily as he suggested?

I met with Professor Siegert, in a Bristol coffee shop in 2013, shortly after he had returned from his mammoth undertaking at Lake Ellsworth. Sadly, lack of fuel to power the generators prevented them from reaching Lake Ellsworth, but as he explained, this kind of pioneering research seldom succeeds first time. ‘We’ve learnt a lot of lessons. How the equipment works and how to operate a deep field site, and with those lessons we will… regather ourselves… and hopefully plan a second return season.’ (Source: )

The information Professor Siegert generously shared with me was very helpful. But, it was my first-hand experience of Antarctica that enabled me to bring Antarctica to life on the page. It gave me the chance to feel, hear, see, taste and smell Antarctica. And, boy, do those penguin colonies smell! I learned Polar survival techniques, crevasse rescue, even how to sew up a wound. I discovered that there is no police force or military presence in Antarctica (except for McMurdo which has US Marshalls). So if your life is in danger, you are on your own, mate! Fortunately, Antarctica is the only continent in the world where there has been no recorded murder.

But in the fictional world of my thriller, the central character, investigative journalist Olivia Wolfe, arrives at Camp Ellsworth to discover that one of the team has been murdered, and very quickly her life is in danger. But Wolfe is resilient and resourceful, and used to extreme environments. She has reported from war zones in Afghanistan, Iraq and The Crimea. She’s been trained by a retired detective to defend herself using martial arts: a combination of Jiu-Jitsu and everyday objects as weapons. These self-defence techniques were demonstrated to me by a friend and martial artist in my back garden, including the use of a key chain swung upwards to cut an assailant’s face and stun him, which Wolfe uses in Afghanistan. Later in the novel, Wolfe will fire a Glock 19 semi-automatic pistol. Having never fired one myself, I went to a rifle range and learned how to use one, because I wanted Wolfe’s experience to come across as authentic.

Towards the end of 2016, I once again met with Professor Siegert at the Royal Geographic Society in London. I was delighted to learn that he is planning a new expedition to Antarctica, this time targeting a different sub-glacial lake. The mission is the same: to discover new life.

I wonder what he will find down there. Friend or foe?

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