In the mid-19th century the North Pole was a mystery. Some believed that it was an island of basalt in a warm crystal sea. Explorers who tried to penetrate the real icy wastes failed or died. But after Sir John Franklin disappeared with all his men in 1845, serious efforts began to be made to find the true Northernmost point of the globe. Fergus Fleming's book is a vivid, witty history of the disasters that ensued. The new explorers included Elisha Kane, a sickly man and useless commander, who led his team close to death in 1854, and Charles Hall, a printer from Ohio. Hall made the mistake of taking an experienced crew, who refused to commit suicide for him. Their mutiny so enraged Hall that he died of a stroke, and some of his crew escaped south on an ice-floe. They were followed by the Germans, newly united and eager for their place in the ice, the Austro-Hungarians and the British, who in 1876 managed to get further than any other expedition, travelling over terrain later explorers considered impassable.
They left the field to the Norwegians, to expeditions organized by the American tabloid press, Swedish baloonists, aristocratic Italians and finally to the obsessive Robert Peary, who on one trip took his pregnant wife with him in order to set a record for the most northerly birth in history. He finally made it in 1909.