Maddon’s Rock by Hammond Innes (1947)

Had we known then what Fate had in store for us, no military order ever devised would have sent us across that gangway on to the deck of the Trikkala. (p.14)

This is a good novel, slow and realistic and building up a persuasive sense of people, place and plight.

The novel is narrated by Corporal Jim Vardy. He is a fair-minded, honest, practical man. He gets on well with his working class men (Sill and Bert) and we learn a lot about his troubled engagement to the daughter of a traditional Army family which looks down on him. He comes from Falmouth and grew up sailing and is a natural on the water, which is important to the plot.

The plot

The novel opens in March 1945 as he and his men await in a vast hanger in Murmansk docks for a boat to take them back to Britain. He’s been in Russia showing the Red Army how to use the sights of guns we’d sent them.

Part one of the novel describes slowly, with great detail and vividness, how he and his two soldiers board the SS Trikkala, a Greek ship co-opted by the Ministry of War. They are bullied by a drunken Warrant Officer, Rankin; surprised when a pretty young lady, Jennifer Sorrell, joins the ship just before it sails; and slowly get used to the freezing weather, the snow and the high seas. But above all, over the next few days, he and his men discover and overhear things which make them uneasy, viz:

  • they are ordered to guard big crates which they’re told are full of aero engine spare parts – they discover they’re not; it’s a huge consignment of silver bullion
  • they overhear the captain saying he’ll shift watches to fix it
  • they overhear the captain and mate saying they’ll get Vardy’s bullying superior onto their side
  • they discover the planks in the lifeboats are loose, and that these very boats were being ‘maintained’ by the sinister mate the night before
  • they discover from the drunk chief engineer that even his own crew spread rumours that sinister captain Halsey was involved in piracy in the Far East
  • in the early hours of March 5 Vardy knows, from his seaman skills, that the Trikkala has changed course to sail away from the convoy it’s part of


So that when there is an explosion as if the ship has hit a mine, and the captain gives the order Abandon ship, and orders Vardy, his men and the girl into the very lifeboat whose planks they know are loose – Vardy refuses. He refuses and is followed by the girl and one of his men, Bert, to the afterdeck and begins untying one of the rafts located there; he prefers the open raft to the dodgy lifeboat. When the captain, first mate and their Warrant Officer approach them to force them into the lifeboat, Vardy draws his rifle and threatens to fire. He doesn’t know exactly what it is, but he knows something is wrong. As he is covering the baddies he is hit from behind and passes out.

He wakes on the raft along with Bert and Jenny. After he was hit they were all loaded aboard it by the crew. They watch the Trikkala‘s lights in the distance until they suddenly disappear and our guys assume she’s sunk. Some hours later they are picked up by a corvette in the convoy though they are not taken straight back to England. The corvette makes a detour to Iceland then to mid-Atlantic accompanying an American convoy, before arriving back at Falmouth, coincidentally Varden’s home town.

Here, he and Bert are astonished to be arrested and told they are charged with mutiny on the high seas, an offence which carries a possible death sentence.

Court martial and Dartmoor

Like everything else in the novel, Vardy and Bert’s court martial is described in full and convincing detail. It feels like it really happened. It turns out the boat carrying the captain, first mate, Rankin and a few crew survived weeks on the open sea and was picked up near the Faroes. Vardin and Bert secure a very able defence lawyer, and the scenes of his cross-examination of the witnesses are vivid and telling. But in the end the facts speak for themselves; Vardin disobeyed a clear order and threatened to shoot his superior officers. Not even the surprise appearance of Jenny, the pretty girl whose life he saved by persuading her to go on the raft not in the boat, and her evidence, can alter the verdict.

To his shock he and Bert are sentenced to four and three years imprisonment, respectively. There is further shock as the prison van takes them a route he slowly rcognises and then is confirmed as the road to Dartmoor, Britain’s bleakest, harshest prison.

Vardin then describes in slow sober persuasive detail what it was like to spend a year in Dartmoor prison: the other cons, the borstal boys, the screws, the soul-destroying work and the constant effort not to go mad. Only his letters to and from Jenny preserve his sanity.

Part two – revenge

Then, after a hard year in prison, he sees a newspaper article describing how the survivors of the Trikkala have formed a company and raised funds to try and salvage her. Once again Vardy’s suspicions are aroused and he becomes consumed by a desire to find out just what it was all about and, if possible, to have his revenge on the men who put him in gaol.

He and Bert take advantage of the old lags’ prison knowledge in order to break out of Dartmoor, to make an exciting and daring escape across moor and river in the best John Buchan tradition. They head north to where the salvage operation is assembling, corner and beat the truth out of a drunken Rankin – the Trikkala never sank but was beached on a remote island called Maddon’s Rock in a conspiracy by the captain and key crew members. Then they journey on to Scotland to meet pretty Jenny who agrees to loan them her boat – the 25-ton ketch Eilean Mor – and accompany them on their mission, to the storm-beaten hell which is Maddon’s Rock and on to the exciting climax to the novel.

And whilst we stood on that frozen deck, the Rock was waiting for us out there in the Barents Sea. Maddon’s Rock. I shall never forget that place. Milton’s blind eyes had never seen the desolation of those seas when he described his Hell. Torrent fire, dire hail, perpetual storms and parching air, yes – but out there, lit through the eternal night by the cold, groping fingers of the Northern Lights, is my idea of Hell; a restless tumult of waves tumbling in thunderous cascades across the reefs, climbing the cliffs of the Rock and pouring green along its flanks. And the Rock itself – living rock, as much a part of our earth as a green hill or a moss-grown bank, but here an island, thrust up out of the wrack of ocean – grey, bleak, sheened with ice and polished by the waters so that it is as smooth as the skull of a dead man. (p.15)

Prolepsis and anticipation

Most thrillers and adventure stories in the first person use authorial prediction – ‘If only I had known then what I know now…’ – to build up tension and anticipation. In this novel it strikes me that Innes uses it particularly well, repeatedly drilling home the mood of dread and fate – but in a completely different way from the melodramatic Gothic tone of The Killer Mine. There he was channeling Edgar Allen Poe to build up a rather hammy atmosphere of doom and horror.

Here the prolepsis/anticipation do something different. They genuinely sound like the bitter comments of a man whose life has been ruined. They are less about creating melodramatic suspense and more about adding depth to the very believable character of Vardin and giving verisimilitude to his struggle to set down his story. It sounds like the efforts of a man who is not used to writing, attempting to tell his story in the logical order, with comments on how his views and personality changed, bitter reflections on how his life might have been different, if only…

I am not going to dwell on the time I spent in Dartmoor. It is only an interlude in the story and has no real bearing on what happened later, save that it toughened me mentally and physically. I doubt whether, without that period in Dartmoor, I should ever have had the guts or desperation to do what I eventually did. (p.107)

The class system

The novel contains a sort of sketch of the notorious British class system. Not among the main characters: the crew of the Trikkala  and Vardy are functions of the story; they stand outside a description of Britain or its class structure; they are pawns in the plot, men enacting the drama. It’s in the secondary characters that Innes gives, as it were, an incidental view of the system, namely:

Working class Vardy likes one of his soldiers, cheeky Cockney Bert Cook, and comes to value his cheerfulness, on the life-raft and then in prison. He quickly takes to Bert’s poor, downtrodden but warm and kindly wife when she visits him in prison.

Mrs Bert was a solidly built, angular woman with a rollicking sense of humour that shook the walls of that wood-lined room. She might have been a barmaid or kept a winkle stall in her youth. But now there was only the faintest trace of the buxom Cockney beauty she had once been. She was worn with work and cares. But beneath the wrinkled skin and faded clothes was a warmth that did me good. It was the warmth of a friendly nature that seemed to expect the worst from a hard world, accepted it and triumphed over it so that you felt in her that flood of good-neighbourliness that is the spring of happiness. (p.101)

Middle class The warmth of Bert’s working class milieu contrasts sharply with Vardin’s troubled relationship with his fiancée, the haughty Betty. She comes from an ‘old Army family’ who are all disappointed that Vardin is only a corporal, who push him to apply for a commission and then brusquely abandon him when he is court-martialled. They represent the pushy and rather contemptible bourgeoisie.

Upper class Then there is the surprisingly conservative portrait of Jenny and her father, clearly from an old Scottish family, owning a fine house overlooking the sea, staffed by servants, neither of them appearing to do any work. It is this privileged, work-free background which allows Jenny to become such an expert sailor and to drop everything to sail with Vardin to Maddon’s Rock. Her father, in particular, is portrayed very favourably as a natural aristocrat, a true gentleman, enjoying his wonderful meals from the produce of his own farm, fine local whisky, not worried that Vardin is on the run from the police, trusting he is right, calmly entrusting his only daughter to his care with a firm handshake. ‘A gentle-voiced man with bright twinkling blue eyes and white hair.’ (p.101) Reminiscent of Evelyn Waugh’s embodiment of the patrician virtues in Guy Crouchback’s kindly father in his Sword of Honour trilogy.

Dramatis personae

  • Corporal Jim Vardy: narrator
  • Warrant Officer Rankin: drunk bully Warrant Officer in charge of Varin and his men, who is persuaded to join the conspiracy to ‘sink’ the Trikkala. After Vardy and Bert escape from Dartmoor they make their way to Newcastle, board the salvage tug and beat the truth out of him.
  • Captain Halsey: small mad captain of the Trikkala given to quoting Shakespeare, rumoured to have been involved with sinkings in the Far East, mastermind of the scheme to beach the Trikkala then return later and claim to have ‘salvaged’ her. Vardy discovers a scrapbook in his cabin revealing he was a Shakespearian actor wanted for burning down his own theatre for the insurance who then fled the country and reinvented himself abroad. A wrong ‘un, through and through.
  • Jennifer Sorrel: escapee from a German prison to Russia, she finds herself aboard the Trikkala returning to England, is persuaded to join Vardin on the raft when the Trikkala ‘sinks’, supports Jim at his court martial, writes to him in Dartmoor prison, lends him her boat to sail to Maddon’s Rock on the condition she can come, too.
  • Jenny’s father: a Scottish laird and gentleman.
  • Sills: one of the privates under Vardin’s command. Drowns in the sabotaged lifeboat.
  • Bert Cook: private under Vardin, he follows him onto the raft, is rescued and returned to England and court martialled and sent to Dartmoor with him. When he finds out Vardin is planning to escape he insists on coming too.
  • Mac: Jenny’s loyal engineer, who taught her everything about ships, there isn’t an engine in the world he can’t strip down, fix and rebuild etc. Mac accompanies them on the fantastic voyage to Maddon’s Rock and, when the Eilean Mor is smashed to pieces by the stormy surf, it is Mac who gets the rusty old Trikkala‘s engines working. One in a long line of Scots engineers from Kipling’s McAndrew to Star Trek’s Scotty. And they are always comedy complaining:

‘But dinna blame me if the whole engine-room falls oot through the bottom of her. She’s no’ jist oot of the yards, ye ken. Ye canna afford to take liberties wi’ a ship in this condition.’ (p.216)

Related links

White Circle pocket edition of Maddon's Rock

White Circle pocket edition of Maddon’s Rock

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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