As we hunker down into the long dark of an English winter, it’s the perfect time to review a book that broke my reading drought last time round. There was something about the first lockdown that froze my brain. Its numb misery stopped me from drawing sustenance from a lifelong reading habit. Then months later, I got my hands on an ARC of HUMAN RESOURCES, a psychological thriller set in the icebound continent of Antarctica. A masterly sequel to Robin Trigg’s debut novel, NIGHT SHIFT, it blends urban sci-fi with a crime story’s breathless suspense, all set in the world’s most unforgiving landscape. Just the kind of winter’s tale to thaw out my imagination from its Covid induced cold-storage. You might consider stowing it in your own bunker for the months ahead.
Is Australis a near-future utopia in the world’s last wilderness, or an Antarctic gulag for slave labour that’s been harvested with the collusion of both the omnipotent Company and corrupt national governments? When dissidents start turning up in train loads to the half-built city in the ice, sabotage and bio-terrorism erupt alongside a nasty spate of murders. The serial killer favours an ice-cutter. Then the city’s security team discover that someone has liberated a batch of ‘biothieves’ from a Company lab; devices which scan and store the bio-signatures of anyone who’s accessed a locked door. ‘It’s a skeleton key … nothing is secure.’ The city’s ruling Committee know that the bio-spheres and mines of Antarctica are the ‘last hope’ of a humanity beleaguered after ‘the Resource Wars.’ That’s a cauldron of pressure building for the Head of Security, Anders Nordveldt. No wonder he drinks a lot of coffee and paces the mean streets in his downtime.
If you come to Robin Triggs’ HUMAN RESOURCES as a standalone crime novel with sci-fi twists, you’re in for a treat. It’s the perfect lockdown novel, even better when read on a ‘datapad’. I came to it having relished the first in the series, NIGHT SHIFT. The brooding atmosphere of a city built almost entirely underground contrasts with breath-taking glimpses of the wilderness that encases it. Anders has watched this city burrow into the ice from Day One and he alone knows how to navigate its above-ground maze of squat concrete bunkers. But he also has an eye for its bleak beauty: ‘To be beneath that crushing sky, the horizon that went on forever, clear and unpolluted, like nowhere else on Earth… I was a lone human in a dead city, king of a silent land.’ Once again, Triggs mines the unique qualities of this ice-bound setting, with its harsh industrial quarters and cramped human society. Like a petri-dish breeding paranoia and claustrophobia. It features a multi-national, diverse cast of characters in a place that’s struggling to become a new country. Always they are overshadowed by the faceless bureaucracy of the Company, with its dodgy contracts and threat of ‘indentured servitude for any breach of contract’. The alleged black-ops agents from Human Resources might be an urban legend – or they might be Anders’ worst nightmare.
Every great crime series needs its flawed but worthy detective to anchor the intricate plotting in a human crisis. Anders Nordvelt, at 34, may be younger and rawer than a Wallander or Vera, but he has that obsessive capacity to ‘worry at’ a case until clues are gleaned, whilst battling with vulnerabilities that threaten to overwhelm him. Anders is the perennial outsider, a child of dissidents who were hunted down by the Company before it raised him in its orphanages. He’s a believer who desperately wants to prove himself loyal. Yet, as a survivor of the NIGHT SHIFT and the abuses of Human Resources’ infamous Psych programme, Anders has more reasons than most to know that there may be something rotten within the state of the Company. As the City’s Committee are wont to remind him, he’s been over-promoted and got the job ‘because no-one knew what to do with me.’ His careful, solid detecting can only take him so far and this loner has an obvious weak spot. Like an institutionalised relic from a Boys’ Home, he is awkward and painful around his attractive new sergeant, Cass Jones. Triggs’ writing is never better than when teasing out the complexities of his hero’s struggles with grief, conformity and a stubborn, fractured identity.
Ultimately Anders proves too tenacious and when a body turns up in his own apartment, he finds himself on the run in that soul-less city. This gives Triggs the chance to deploy its urban-industrial noir to full effect as the plot accelerates to a vicious showdown. The novel’s conclusion left me hungering for more of both the protagonist and his ice-bound city. Happily, I read on the author’s blog that the third book of the trilogy is soon to be submitted to publisher, Flame Tree Press. This reader is rooting for Anders to get his day under that wintering sun.
HUMAN RESOURCES will officially be published on Tues. 10th November. But you can pre-order direct from Flame Tree Press, or your nearest indie-bookshop (yes, they’ll deliver!).