Ice Station Zebra

Several years removed from his late-1950s peak (The Guns of Navarone, The Secret Ways, Night Without End), Alistair MacLean turned out another gem with 1963's Ice Station Zebra. Intricately plotted, richly detailed, it rewards the determined reader with an elaborate, satisfying tale. Don't undertake this one lightly, though — it's not the type of airier, slambang story to which he resorted in his later years. It reminded me of eating a piece of dense pumpernickel bread: extra work for the teeth and jaws, but a fine experience anyway. If you don't mind giving your brain an enervating workout, plunge right in. (Note: A movie version starring Rock Hudson and Ernest Borgnine was released in 1968; see my review here.)


Plot keypoints

A weather monitoring crew stationed in the Arctic has suffered a catastrophic fire, leaving every man dead or badly hurt. Hurtling toward a planned rescue comes the cutting-edge U.S. Navy nuclear submarine Dolphin. Its captain, Commander Swanson, has been ordered — against his better judgment — to allow mysterious British physician Neil Carpenter on board for the journey. As the Dolphin races on beneath the polar ice cap, a deadly surprise awaits its crew, foreshadowing other shocking developments at their destination.



  • The plot develops slowly but surely, with long dramatic passages being interrupted unpredictably by enemy action. The protagonist/narrator repeatedly cautions that we don't know the real story behind the events leading up to the deadly fire and urgent rescue; MacLean takes his own sweet time laying out red herrings before filling us in at the last moment.
  • MacLean clearly put tremendous effort into drawing the fine details of every scene, from submarine operations to Arctic climatic challenges. While it's a bit of a slog getting through some of those descriptions, they provide a realistic background for the desperate events.
  • The protagonist is no superhero — merely[?] a highly trained intelligence operative. Also, he's all business; we are spared the type of thinly penciled love story that can detract from MacLean's narratives.
  • This may not be to everyone's taste, but I enjoyed the climactic scene in which the protagonist gathered all the main characters together to reveal which of them was the murderer. It harkened back to classic English drawing-room mysteries. (A similar scene was handled far worse in Bear Island.)



  • Any regular MacLean reader will have a good guess about the criminal whose identity is revealed in the above-mentioned scene. (Is he the only one, though?)
  • If you're claustrophobic or bothered by icy weather, you may not enjoy a tale that takes place almost entirely aboard a submarine or in the harsh Arctic climate.



This deeply drawn tale is like a classic-literature version of the punchier Night Without End, another story of treachery in an inhospitably cold region. Your tastes will determine which one you prefer, but I found both of them well worth the hours.



(9 out of 10)