The Killer Mine by Hammond Innes (1947)

If I had been told as I strode over the mist-shrouded road to Penzance, that I was walking straight into a terrible mine disaster – not only that, but into a pitiful story of madness and greed that involved my own family history – then I just should not have believed it. (p.22)

A little biography

Innes was born in 1913. His first novel was published in 1937, his last in 1996, so his career spanned two-thirds of the twentieth century. Whereas his contemporary Eric Ambler (b.1909) focused on what could loosely be called ‘spy’ novels, which always have a political aspect and often involve shady East European governments, Innes’ novels are more straightforward ‘adventure’ stories. In Innes an innocent and unsuspecting everyman character is thrown into a dangerous and threatening situation. Like Ambler, his writing career was interrupted by the War. He started out manning an anti-aircraft gun before moving on to edit Army newspapers in various theatres of war abroad.

The Killer Mine

This is Innes’ second peacetime novel. It has a strong Gothic feeling being a) set among the ruins of an abandoned Cornish tin mine and b) with a sub-plot about family madness, suicide and murder. Jane Eyre in a tin mine.

Other Innes protagonists have been nicely middle class, for example Kilmartin the barrister in The Trojan Horse. The protagonist of this one, Jim Pryce, is a great bear of a man who deserted in the face of the enemy in the Italian campaign at Monte Cassino. He runs off and finds work with Italians in lignite mines. Now, after two years slaving away, he has saved enough money to buy a black market passage back to England.

But things are rough, criminal, lowdown and nasty from the start: the crooked captain Mulligan swindles Pryce out of his last remaining money for setting him ashore, a disagreement which leads to a fight and Pryce being knocked unconscious, then waking in the surf after being flung onto an empty Cornish beach.

Things continue badly as he makes his way to the contact who wrote to him in Italy promising to fix him up with a job and accomodation. He arrives at the moment that this man, David Jones, is being treated for a gunshot wound received in a fight with coastguards. These Revenue men had boarded the boat he was using to bring contraband alcohol to England but the boat had been booby-trapped. When the Revenue opened the hold it blew up, killing coastguard and crew, leaving Jones the only survivor and, incidentally, leading to a criminal investigation and the threat of the police closing in on the gang.

The wounded Jones takes Pryce to an old abandoned mine workings, Wheal Garth, and there, in the dark and isolated house, in the midst of a howling storm, Pryce meets the father and son duo – the Manacks – who own and operate the mine and who are at loggerheads about its future. The father is convinced he has found a vast lode of tin which will make their fortunes and revive the Cornish mining industry. The son, Captain Manack, wants to blow a hole at the end of a mine shaft which leads out under the sea in order to create a more secure underwater route via which his regular smuggling ships can offload their cargo.

It is Captain Manack who has hired Pryce to help perform this operation and the timeframe of the novel is the two or three days during which Pryce supervises the other miners in blasting through the rock face above the end of the shaft, up towards the sea bed. The idea is that this will then flood the shaft, creating a hole through which the contraband cargo will be lowered onto a kind of underwater rail system and then hauled inland and above the water level, into the heart of the mine where it can be easily reclaimed and stored.

Pryce doesn’t want to do it. He wants to get away from the wretched house and this crazy job, but Manack locks up his money and threatens to give Pryce up to the police. As a deserter he would be liable to a long prison sentence. When pushed, Manack pulls a gun on him. So Pryce is trapped until he can complete the job.

Gothic madness

BUT – as if this situation wasn’t dodgy enough, Pryce discovers a monumental family coincidence which fuels the Gothic and eerie tone of the book.

His father had emigrated to Canada, taking him with him as a four year-old boy, but had always spoken lovingly of his Cornish roots and it is these family memories which have prompted Pryce to return. Now he slowly unravels the family secret: that his mother abandoned his father and himself to run off with the older Manack. But Manack refused to leave his current wife, forcing Jim’s mother to become a mistress; and even when Manack’s wife did die, Manack married someone else, keeping Jim’s mother on in the humiliating role of housekeeper.

Furthermore, Pryce discovers from Kitty, the reluctant maid of the house, in her final years his mother was kept imprisoned in the small attic room of the creepy old house with its barred windows and locked door. Everyone was convinced she had gone mad. Mad because she is found wandering the cliffs after someone had pushed the legitimate lady of the house, Manack’s second wife, down an abandoned mine shaft. Everyone, including Pryce’s distraught mother, too dazed to remember the event, assumes she did it out of jealousy, that she is a murderer.

Only once, when the door was left unlocked, does Jim’s mother scribble a quick note to her wronged husband and escape out of the house and make to the headland where she throws herself off the cliffs to her death. This haunting note is given to Pryce by the servant Kitty, and upsets him for days.

Gothic The text is full of premonitions of doom, of hints and allusions to this dark and Gothic family history. Pryce is not only menaced by men with guns in the present, but by these memories of madness and suicide from the past. As narrator he repeatedly drops heavy hints about destiny, doom, the thread of fate, the fatal legacy of the killer mine and so on.

But like the ruined mine shafts which honeycomb the cliffs, Pryce’s family story goes on to reveal fresh convolutions and complicatoins. Towards the end of the novel he realises that

  • his mother wasn’t a murderer: that old man Manack murdered his own wife to inherit her shares in the mine, and that he blamed Pryce’s distraught mother who was so upset that she acquiesced in her own incarceration
  • that Manack cleverly provided the opportunity for her suicide because she, too, owned some shares in the mine

In other words, that old man Manack has killed two women in his megalomaniac quest to gain complete control of the mine. It is he who is stark staring mad. And it is he who escapes from the house to precipitate the final, catastrophic dénouement of the novel.

Underground chases

Like Bond movies, all these thrillers have to include exciting chases: in The Trojan Horse it is Kilmartin’s flight through the sewers of London; in Wreckers Must Breathe it is the escape in the U-boat which is depth-charged by an RN ship; in The Lonely Skier it is the long dangerous ski chase which ends with the hero almost being killed.

Here in The Killer Mine there is the long sequence where Pryce follows old man Manack deeper and deeper into the honeycomb of disused mine shafts, imagining he is following him towards some secret. Only slowly does it dawn on him that he has been deliberately lured and then trapped underground to face a hideous death by starvation and thirst. Pages dwell on the horror of his fate until – not too surprisingly – he is, fortunately, rescued. By Kitty with whom, by this stage, he is falling love…

Disused mines

In Wreckers Must Breathe the German U-boat station is built out of a disused Cornish mine and the novel features vivid descriptions of descents into its ancient tunnels; same setting as The Killer Mine.


Like Ambler, Innes was politically left-wing and this view is dramatised, not always convincingly, in the mouths of some characters:

His eyes blazed at me across the fire. ‘What are laws? They’re not made by the men who starve. They’re made to protect the moneyed class. they’re my enemies, aren’t they? Well, aren’t they?’ (1973 Fontana paperback edition, page 40)

Dramatis personae

  • Jim Pryce: British Army deserter and miner, brought to England by crooks who promise him his freedom once he’s carried out some mining work in their disused mine-cum-smuggling operation.
  • Captain Mulligan: two-timing captain of the ship which smuggles Pryce from Italy back to England
  • David Jones: Welshman and crook who first writes to Pryce in Italy, offering him passage to and work in England. Responsible for blowing up a coastguard ship and killing its crew of customs officers which brings the police down on their trail, a  thread which adds to the sense of danger and urgency among the cast – though it is not the police who precipitate the final disaster.
  • Captain Manack: son of old man Manack, he runs the booze smuggling operation, head of the old pub-cum-house named Cripples’ Ease where the action is set, and it is his plan to blast open to the sea one of the underground shafts, thus creating a clever underwater passage for smuggled goods, preferable to the current difficult and too-obvious method of landing them by boat on exposed beaches.
  • Manack Senior: obsessed for decades with gaining total control of Wheal Garth mine, he correctly discovers there is plenty of tin yet to mine in her and has a megalomaniac fantasy of re-opening the mine and reviving the entire Cornish mining industry of his youth. In this he is contradicted by his son who wants to flood the very gallery where the tin is in order to create an underwater smuggling route. Pryce witnesses several fierce arguments between them but has no idea how mad the old man is until it is too late. ‘Stark madness stared out of those pale eyes. (p.167)
  • Ruth Nearne: Pryce’s mother who left her husband for love of Manack Senior who proceeded to humiliate her, persuaded her she was mad and engineered her eventual suicide.
  • Bob Pryce: the narrator’s father. After his wife left him he took his young son abroad and raised him in various mining comunities around the world.
  • Kitty: housemaid in Cripples’ Ease, herself part of the Gothic plot. After Manack’s first wife dies, he remarries but not Pryce’s mother, instead a glamorous society woman. This woman is Kitty’s mother but since she is often absent living the high life, Kitty is actually raised by and loves Pryce’s mother. It is Kitty’s glamorous mother who everyone believes was murdered by Pryce’s mother, who everyone, as a result, thinks is was mad. As the real story emerges, Kitty and Pryce form an alliance, fall in love and, at the dramatic climax of the book, help to save each others’ lives and escape from the underground catastrophe. Kitty is described in physical detail unusual for books of this time: ‘Her eyes sparkled and I knew she wasn’t angry. She was a big girl, but well proportioned with firm breasts that thrust at the cotton of her blouse, so that I could see the outline of her nipples.’ (p.65) In the last pages they set off together for a new life abroad 🙂
  • Friar: one of the deserters Captain Manack has had clearing out the Mermaid Gallery preparatory to the final blasting.
  • Slim Matthews: the other deserter Captain Manack has had preparing the Mermaid Gallery.
  • Cripples’ Ease: the old pub-cum-headquarters of the smuggling gang: a place of ill omen, dark shadows, with a small light from the madwoman’s attic at which haunting faces regularly appear.
  • Wheal Garth: the tin mine where the novel is set, which old Manack has murdered to gain complete control of, which he lures Pryce into the deepest bowels of intending him to die there, and where the final catastophe takes place. It is The Killer Mine both because it inspires mad old Manack to murder, but because it ends up killing almost everyone connected with it.
  • Come Lucky: neighbouring mine, open to the sea and above Wheal Garth: old man Manack blasts this mine in order to flood Wheal Garth and kill everyone in it.

Mining terminology

  • adit: horizontal entrance to an underground mine
  • cross-cut: a tunnel driven from one seam to another through or across the intervening measures
  • gallery: a horizontal passage in an underground mine
  • raise:  a minor connection from a lower level to a higher level in a mine
  • stoping: extracting ore from underground
  • stull: a round timber used to support the back or sides of a mine
  • winze:  a minor connection between different levels in an underground mine

It didn’t seem there could be any world, but this nightmare maze of tunnels creeping tortuously through dripping, slime-covered rock. (p.145)

The fear I had felt down there in those twisting galleries, the sense of being lost, the darkness – it was all like some ghastly nightmare. I could not believe that it had really happened. It was as though I had just woken up. It just didn’t seem real. (p.162)

Related links

Cover of The Killer Mine

Cover of The Killer Mine

Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines leads to him being hunted by an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land. The book features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute shootout on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a tough woman journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm – Gripping thriller based on Innes’ own experience as a Battle of Britain anti-aircraft gunner. Ex-journalist Barry Hanson uncovers a dastardly plan by Nazi fifth columnists to take over his airfield ahead of the big German invasion.

1946 Dead and Alive – David Cunningham, ex-Navy captain, hooks up with another demobbed naval officer to revamp a ship-wrecked landing craft. But their very first commercial trip to Italy goes disastrously wrong when his colleague, McCrae, offends the local mafia while Cunningham is off tracking down a girl who went missing during the war. A short but atmospheric and compelling thriller.
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it at a remote island in the Arctic circle in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complex enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig has to lead his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the owners’ conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose quest for independence he is championing.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this one convinced he can prove his eccentric and garbled theories about the origin of Man, changing Ice Age sea levels, the destruction of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up an invitation to visit a rancher’s daughter he’d met in England. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his treacherous past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle. It’s all mixed up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, whose last surviving son is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational and business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has hit the rocks near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyds of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Sequel to Isvik. Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cruse is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to fly a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. There are many twists, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is Ward’s scheme to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, whose existence was discovered by the sole survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a novel, which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania on the very days that communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu is overthrown, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller, before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s adventure stories for boys as Cruse and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started. A convoluted, compelling and bizarre finale to Innes’ long career.

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