We’re on top of Mt Everest when the novel kicks off. Neil Quinn is a high-end tour guide who takes rich people up, clicks their snap at the summit, and takes them down—usually alive. But this time, with his young client falling unconscious, Quinn loses his ice axe, and it becomes a long walk back through hostile, freezing terrain. But it gets worse once he gets down.
To begin with, the French owner of the tour company Quinn works for is unhappy—in fact, he turns out to be quite a true-blue psychopath.
Then there are investigations into the death of the client, who was an American citizen but whose body ended up on the Chinese side of the mountain, making it an international matter.
Henrietta Richards, a Kathmandu-based Miss Marpleish freelance expert on mountaineering expeditions, is tasked by diplomatic contacts to probe the case and underhand stuff surfaces, including threats to Quinn’s life and career.
Farthing’s book is an interesting comment on how the entire Mt Everest-climbing business is being commercialised to death—and here this relevant theme gets more in-depth treatment than in the recent blockbuster movie Everest.
Thereby lies the novel’s undisputable strength. The author is a seasoned climber who knows his mountaineering, having almost made it to the Mt Everest summit himself and also climbed Mt Kilimanjaro, Mt Matterhorn and a slew of other peaks—experiences that perhaps will result in more thrillers of the same kind.
Unfortunately, onto this perfectly fine story is grafted an unnecessary parallel Nazi plot about an Austrian mountaineer’s adventures in the years before World War II. It is perhaps loosely inspired by Heinrich Harrer’s Seven Years in Tibet. Harrer was part of a team sent out by Hitler to conquer the Himalayas in order to prove the Übermensch nature (supermanness) of the Germans. As you can imagine, this plot gets pretty potty.
In particular, the dubious sense of history that is revealed in the minute details—such as a scene is set in Andhra Pradesh in 1939 when the state of that name was only born in 1953—makes me cringe on behalf of the publishers.
Not unexpectedly, the two storylines, though 70 years apart, converge and get tangled as noodles on a bad hair day, and I find myself missing the good old thrillers of the generation of Len Deighton and Alistair MacLean who knew how to turn pulp into literature.
So while the contemporary narrative of commercial mountaineering and its challenges, told with occasionally biting irony, stands well by itself, I unfortunately found myself skimming most of the Josef-the-noble-Nazi passages, given how their dullness slow down the action.
For a debutant, Farthing is otherwise fairly deft when it comes to creating suspense, despite the heavy-handed prose and a text peppered with stereotypical characters and not so subtle info-dumps. Then again, a thriller about mountaineering Nazis doesn’t exactly require subtlety, just enough of gun powder and muscle power to keep the adrenalin pumping.