Arctic town in 24-hour darkness: perfect spot for a murder mystery

As with many of the best ideas, I came across the Soviet coal mining town Pyramiden by accident, whilst researching ancient Egypt

The  abandoned Russian settlement and coal mining community of Pyramiden on Spitsbergen, Svalbard, Norway. Photograph: Arterra/UIG via Getty Images

The abandoned Russian settlement and coal mining community of Pyramiden on Spitsbergen, Svalbard, Norway. Photograph: Arterra/UIG via Getty Images

 

It is hard to picture a large part of our planet being untouched by the sun’s rays for three months of the year. But this is what happens in the Arctic coal mining town of Pyramiden, where my second novel The Reluctant Contact is set. In simple terms the reason is, in winter, the top of our planet pivots away from the sun on Earth’s north-south axis, to such a degree that in the Arctic circle the sun doesn’t appear above the horizon line. No sunrise or sunset. Just permanent night. The heady atmosphere that 24-hour darkness conjures is one of the reasons I chose it as the location for a novel involving a murder mystery, cold war spies and a fiery love affair.

Writing a story set in this frozen and permanently darkened place presented an unexpected challenge. Normally, when your characters go outside during the day, there’s a lot that doesn’t have to be explained. In The Reluctant Contact, for much of the novel, when characters walk outside during so-called daylight hours, they are met by the sight of a night sky. Finding new and inventive ways to describe this was one of the hardest tasks I had, as well as deciding how often the reader needed to be reminded of this fact.

As with many of the best ideas, I came across Pyramiden by accident, whilst researching ancient Egypt. A photo of a bust of Lenin below a snow-covered, pyramid-shaped mountain, caught my eye. Reading further, I was intrigued by the notion of a Soviet mine in Norwegian territory, and to discover that it was the northern-most permanent human settlement in the world. The idea for my first novel The Good Italian came about in a similar way, after I saw photos of Italian Art Deco buildings in Italy’s former colony Eritrea. It wasn’t planned as such, but both novels have one major thing in common; the main characters are ordinary people living under totalitarian regimes. Fascism in The Good Italian, and Soviet communism in The Reluctant Contact. Both ideologies were in theory at opposite extremes of the political spectrum, but they shared an uncomfortable number of similarities, not least in their treatment of perceived enemies at home.

The Reluctant Contact is set in 1977, 12 years before the fall of the Berlin wall. A period, under the leadership of Leonid Brezhnev, which is often referred to as the “big sleep”. It was a time when there were few true communist ideologues left and corruption was rife. This individualism is embodied in the novel’s lead character Yuri, chief engineer of the mine, whose main desires are personal survival and a trouble-free life. It is said of ex-KGB officer Vladimir Putin and his generation that for them the tragedy in the collapse of the Soviet Union was not the end of communism, but the loss of Russian power and prestige. Something Putin has been trying to recover ever since.

This novel is a work of fiction but much of the background is based on fact. There were KGB personnel stationed at Pyramiden at the time; not surprising since the Cold War was still in progress, and Norway was a member of Nato. The coal-mining towns on Svalbard were the Soviets’ little patch of the West. They were allowed to work in the region under the Svalbard treaty; also known as the Spitsbergen Treaty. It was signed in 1920 as part of the Versailles negotiations after the first World War. It gave Norway sovereignty over the archipelago, while also granting any citizen of the signatory countries the right to live and work there. Of all the signatories, the Soviet Union was to take the fullest advantage of this clause. They established two mining communities on Svalbard; Pyramiden and another further south, Barentsburg.

At its height, Pyramiden had a thousand inhabitants – coal miners, scientists, farmers, school teachers and secret service agents. The Soviets poured money into the town, using it as a showcase window of what life supposedly was like behind the Iron Curtain. The mine had its own cinema, sports centre, swimming pool and library. It was so well catered for that the two-year contracts to work there were much sought after. It is a starkly beautiful place, sitting beside the lake-like Billefjorden, with the majestic Nordenskjold glacier facing it from the opposite shore. There are disadvantages to living there of course; in winter it’s completely cut off from the outside world when the fjord freezes over. After the sun disappears the temperatures can drop to as low as -25C. And hungry polar bears are regular visitors to its streets.

A scene from Maze, the prison escape film written and directed by Stephen Burke
A scene from Maze, the prison escape film written and directed by Stephen Burke

Due to deadlines and the task of trying to earn a living in the arts, I was writing The Reluctant Contact at the same time as I was making the feature film Maze, about the 1983 Maze prison escape, which I wrote and directed. This is not a way of working I would recommend. However, there was certainly some beneficial crossover. While the film and the novel are very different, both share themes of deception, betrayal, prison-like environments, and the desire for escape. Approaching these subjects from different angles, and through diverse characters, gave me fresh perspectives on each project and added, I hope, a greater depth to both.

Stephen Burke: As with many of the best ideas, I came across Pyramiden by accident, whilst researching ancient Egypt
Stephen Burke: As with many of the best ideas, I came across Pyramiden by accident, whilst researching ancient Egypt

The end for the community in Pyramiden started with the fall of communism. Finding itself suddenly thrust into an unforgiving capitalist world, the coal mine struggled to be commercially viable. Another contributing factor was a terrible loss of life experienced by the ex-Soviet towns on Svalbard. On the morning of August 29th, 1996, Vnukovo Airlines Flight 2801, chartered by mining company Arktikugol, crashed on its approach to Longyearbyen airport. All 141 people on board, mostly mine workers and their families, were killed. Within two years the remaining Pyramiden residents had packed their bags for the last time and the mine was shut down.

The abandoned town is now left much as it was, except with no human inhabitants and the buildings in a state of gradual decay. It’s open to tourists for part of the year, and has become a regular stop for Arctic cruises. By the way, Ireland is also a signatory to the Svalbard treaty – and any Irish person can go and live there, should they wish to. If permanent night doesn’t attract you, the opposite occurs in summer when Earth pivots the other way, and the Arctic region enjoys 24-hour sunshine.

I was writing The Reluctant Contact at the same time as I was making the feature film Maze, about the 1983 Maze prison escape, which I wrote and directed
I was writing The Reluctant Contact at the same time as I was making the feature film Maze, about the 1983 Maze prison escape, which I wrote and directed

For various reasons, I did not manage to travel to Svalbard or Eritrea when I was researching the two novels. This did not bother me too much. Since both stories are set in the past, I did not expect to find the same conditions still existing now. While it is not always a choice, many authors work in this way. I particularly like Stef Penney’s description of her methods as “zero-carbon research”. Eritrea, despite its ongoing problems, is somewhere I would love to visit one day. Having just agreed an option with a production company for the TV drama rights of The Reluctant Contact, I may get to see Pyramiden sooner than anticipated.
The Reluctant Contact is published by Hodder & Stoughton. Maze is on nationwide release in Irish cinemas