Robin Trigg’s chilly crime novel, NIGHT SHIFT, borrows its name from Antarctica’s six months season of darkness. ‘The cold hit me like a hammer. But never had I taken such an unpolluted breath.’ More intense than the icy embrace of this wilderness are the claustrophobia and close-quarters social dynamics facing the crew of Australis mining base. But that’s okay. They’ve all been carefully screened by HR’s Psych team back at company HQ, to check they can meet the challenges of the isolation and the long night. Their newly appointed Security Chief, Anders Nordvelt, a last minute replacement, makes up the magic number of 13 hands. What could possibly go wrong?
The front cover of NIGHT SHIFT promises a murder in the ice and this crime thriller doesn’t disappoint. Given the setting, I had intimations of the 50s sci-fi film, The Thing From Another World. But although Trigg’s story has touches of sci-fi and horror, it’s primarily a whodunnit. Think of what Agatha Christie achieved with And Then There Were None, set in the confining space of a remote island. Then multiply the isolation and menace by a factor of ten. The plot twists may not be as tightly knotted as Christie’s but Night Shift is more of a psychological thriller which sifts questions of identity and community as closely as clues to guilt. For me, that made it more immersive. I thought it deepened the emotional intensity and thematic layering of the story.
Surprisingly, beyond a few set pieces, we spend little time in the snow. It’s the bleak industrial setting that Triggs deploys to maximum advantage. This man-made shelter is all artificial lighting, concrete walls and metal furniture. Its inhabitants are at risk from a well-established Antarctic condition known as Wintering Over Syndrome, ‘caused by stress, social isolation and a lack of natural light. It can lead to cognitive impairment, hallucinations, insomnia and depression.’ This surely plays a part in the escalating crisis. Between avalanches, mining explosions and equipment sabotage, the crew have nowhere to go but their concrete bunker. As the body count rises, the paranoia levels go off the chart. Eventually the physical privations drive the survivors into a single basement. But their psychological walls have been closing in relentlessly from that last sunset onwards.
The ticking heart of this tense thriller is the new man on the block, our first-person narrator, Anders Nordvelt. In a tightly welded crew, he’s the outsider. Anders is an intriguing choice for the role of ‘detective’, although he does hoard a second edition of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes amongst his few possessions. Earnest yet fractured, younger than most of the crew at 32, he’s the product of a dysfunctional childhood. He has pretty much memorised his previous Psych reports: ‘Textbook case … has trouble forming relationships … Low self-esteem.’ Alienated from his family, Anders is desperate to fit in and prove himself loyal. But as the newcomer on the base, he’s everybody’s scapegoat. Since the crew’s troubles apparently started after his arrival, in their eyes he’s the prime suspect. And yet, as the Security Chief, he’s the one tasked with solving the murder.
Not only the lives of 13 people are at stake. Like his multi-national workmates, he’s operating in a fallen world where The Company has taken over from the collapse of nation states and global economies. What’s left of civilisation is relying on the coal and oil they pull out of the ground. ‘What’s to dislike about the Company?’ Anders argues. ‘They’ve given us so much, rescued us from the chaos of the Resources Wars.’ Back comes the objection from Maggie, the hydroponics specialist: ‘We live in a giant bureaucracy, no room for any dissenting voices.’ This hits a nerve for Anders. His father was a Dissenter, hunted down and imprisoned by the Company, and Anders was raised ‘in the blocks’ of an institutional orphanage. ‘Come through the Company system, right?’ his new boss sneers on his arrival. ‘Never seen how the real world works.’
The novel is framed by a private company memo. from an Operations Executive. It presents Ander’s report as ‘the disturbing story we’ve managed to piece together surrounding the events of the long night.’ But his first-person account is no clinical summary – it immerses us in his stress and keeps us rooting for him. Like Anders, we are forced to scrutinise every one of the 13 inhabitants of Australis as a potential suspect. Even the ones he forms closer attachments to. Yet he finds himself wondering whether there might be a ’fourteenth man’, somewhere out on the ice, preying on the crew. After all, there are outbuildings and special hi-tech gear that enable them to survive. ‘The green-coated figures … barely looked human in their face-masks and body-hugging warmsuits – more like lizards than people… It was like I’d arrived on some foreign planet. The warmsuits and the winter weather made monsters of us all.’
This lurking mystery adds another dimension of creepiness to the story. Arguably, Triggs could have mined the sci-fi and horror elements further. But there is potential for these to be expanded in the promised sequel. You may not be completely blindsided by the surprise twist at the end but it is a satisfying and cathartic resolution to the narrative. The strength of NIGHT SHIFT lies in the toxic atmosphere of suspicion, the complex dynamics of a well-drawn ensemble cast and the vulnerabilities and tenacity of its protagonist. So it’s good news that Triggs’ sequel, Human Resources, has been snapped up by Flame Tree Press. Count me in for the next shift. Provided I pass the Psych tests, of course.
NIGHT SHIFT, Robin Triggs, Flame Tree Press, 2018