I realised then that I was buried. I was frightened. I fought upwards with my hands, gripped in a frenzy of terror. (p.93)
Neil Blair had a nice little family business before the War, running a local newspaper in Wiltshire. After three years in the Army he returned and set up a printing business in Exeter but that folded. One day, up in London, he bumps into a tough-minded man he knew in the Army, one Engles, who served with him for a while before moving into Army Intelligence, now back in Civvy Street and making films. Engles asks Blair if he wants to make money spending three months in Cortina in the Dolomites as a script editor on a new film production, with maybe some other duties thrown in. The main other duty is to report if he sees a beautiful Italian woman whose photo Engels gives him. Little does he suspect that this innocent invitation will draw him into a web of intrigue and murder etc etc…
Blair travels to Cortina, to the Tre Coci Pass and, here at the main hotel, meets some of the novel’s characters. He then takes the sledge lift with Joe up to the rifugia or guest house atop the Col da Varda where he encounters the other characters (listed below). Slowly he realises that something is afoot but it takes him 120 or so pages to begin to work out what. It all goes back to a German Captain Stelben who owned the rifugia after the War before being betrayed to the British Army and committing suicide in prison. Newspaper reports of the events mention a certain Contessa who is his partner. Blair recognises her as the woman in the photo Engels gave him; then recognises her in real life at the hotel at the foot of the mountain.
Now that Stelben is dead, this disparate group assembles from across Europe for the official auction of the old rifugia – to everyone’s surprise the bidding for this old hut goes exceptionally high. Why? What is its value? What is hidden there?
All these novels require a chase or pursuit or physically challenging incident to get the reader’s blood racing. Here, Mayne invites Blair for a supposedly innocent morning’s skiing. For a start, skiing in those days seems to have been more strenuous than in our time; it involves taking off the skis at various points to climb or walk across glaciers or up mountain sides to better positions. But it also turns out that Mayne has chosen a particularly treacherous ski run in order to get Blair skiing far faster than is safe and, suddenly leads him into a sheer cliff of snow and ice. Mayne avoids this at the last second but which Blair crashes right into.
The description of the early, innocent, stages of the skiiing expedition is interesting; the account of the dangerous ski itself is riveting; and the account of Blair’s fortuitous survival and of how he slowly, painfully digs himself out of the snow and finds his way back along the route in a howling snow-storm before collapsing just as the rescue party from the rifugia sights him, is involving and exhausting.
When he recovers Blair confronts Mayne with the accusation he tried to murder him, which Mayne blithely ignores, saying the whole thing was an unfortunate accident. Previously Blair’s room has been searched. And the night before he overheard two men out in the snow apparently discussing sabotaging the sledge-lift in order to kill someone, though he didn’t see who they were.
Blair now wonders if one of the people he overheard was Mayne who caught Blair eavesdropping and think that he – Blair – overheard more than he actually did. Was it this which inspired him to try and get rid of him on the treacherous ski journey? And so the suspicious circumstances and narrator’s uncertainty grow…
But it is only with the arrival of Engels himself, travelling up the sledge lift with the Contessa, that the scene is set for the Final Act in what turns out to have been a long and complicated criminal conspiracy.
It’s about Nazi gold. At the end of the War Captain Stelben was in the Gestapo and put in charge of a transfer of gold from an Italian bank north to Munich. He diverted from his orders and got his men to take the gold in crates up the sledge lift to the Col da Varda and there bury it in the foundations of the anti-aircraft guns which he knew were being built. Then he massacred the men with a machine gun. He then escaped in the confusion at the end of the War, holed up in Greece, before returning to Italy and buying the rifugia. However, he was betrayed and handed over to the British Army for interrogation during which he committed suicide.
He left a number of people with partial knowledge of the theft and hiding: his girlfriend, the ‘Contessa’ – in fact one of a troupe of dancing girls and courtesans; Valdini who at one stage was the Contessa’s lover; Mayne, the Irish-American who the Contessa also was indiscreet with; Keramikos who heard the story from the sole survivor of the massacre, a German corporal hiding in Greece.
A closed circle mystery
The closed circle mystery is a specific genre of detective fiction, in which a limited number of suspects all have the means and motivation to have committed the murder which starts the action. There is no specific murder here; or, rather, there are quite a few murders but all carried out during the War and it is not a murder which needs a solution, but the precise whereabouts of the Treasure.
In this respect, maybe it is more like a buried treasure-pirate story – except that there are so many Nazi gold plots that ‘hidden Nazi treasure’ is probably as large a genre as ‘country house mystery’, eg Desmond Bagley’s debut novel, The Golden Keel also, as it happens, set in Italy.
The novel explores in some detail the immediately post-War world of skiing, with its cable cars, sledge lifts, popular resorts and bars, refuges high up in the mountains as well as skiing terms and techniques. Is this the earliest adventure novel to take skiing as its central subject? It’s certainly the earliest one I’ve read which features not one but two thrilling ski rides, chases and murders.
- Neil Blair: innocent first-person narrator.
- Derek Engles: Neil’s Battery Commander in 1942 before he transferred to Intelligence. A dashing, exacting officer, it was in this capacity that Engles interviewed Captain Stelben and got some of the story of the hidden gold but not all. When he read a newspaper story about Stelben’s suicide it revived his interest and he sends Blair to be his eyes and ears until something definite crops up. When the Contessa and others arrive in Cortina it prompts him to come himself. In many ways Engles is the hero of the story, and Blair is the Nick Carraway to Engles’ dashing Gatsby figure, the rather naive bystander, witness, only survivor of the débâcle on the mountain top and its reluctant chronicler.
- Joe Wesson: cameraman: a ‘fat sluggish ape’, completely innocent of the various goings-on around him.
- Edoardo Mancini: biggest hotelier in Cortina, former sportsman run to seed.
- Aldo: apelike waiter in the rifugio, the ski house atop Col da Varde in the Dolomite mountains.
- Anna: flirtatious barmaid in the rifugio.
- Kapitan Heinrich Stelben: Nazi officer who stole bank gold he was entrusted with and buried it atop the Col da Varda; he was captured soon after the War and interrogated by Engles, but escaped, adopting a new identity and buying the Col da Varda, before being captured a second time and committing suicide. Now the property is to be auctioned…
- Contessa Forelli: previously known as Carla Rometta, a dancer and courtesan who attached herself to Stelben during his post-War life but has thrown in her lot with Valdini, whom she devastatingly revenges.
- Stefan Valdini: ‘a dirty little Sicilian gangster’, one-time lover of the Contessa. Keramikos murders him, prompting her fiery revenge.
- Keramikos: a visiting Greek, revealed to have been a Nazi agent; turns out Engles is more interested in him and the crimes he committed against British forces in Greece, than in the gold.
- Gilbert Mayne: Irish but well-travelled, particularly in the States; revealed to be a British deserter become gangster who stole the deceased captain Mayne’s identity: he holds everyone up in the rifugia shoots Valdini and beats up the Contessa before meeting a horrible death.
Innes is at pains to distinguish between the fiery passionate Italians and the cold, stiff English.
‘I wonder whether you will understand. You English are so cold.’ (p.63)
‘You are so English, my dear – so delightfully English…’ Her expression as she said this was the equivalent of sticking out her tongue at me and my English ideas. (p.66)
This is similar to Eric Ambler who, in almost every one of his pre-War novels, has one character or another laugh at the English, at their political naïveté, their cold manner, their gaucheness in affairs of the heart. Since these books were written to be popular, one can only assume this was a widespread feeling the English held about themselves.
The movie – Snowbound
The book was almost immediately made into a film, Snowbound, released in 1948, directed by David MacDonald and starring Dennis Price, Stanley Holloway, Mila Parély, and Herbert Lom. It is, apparently, not so good, which explains why it isn’t even available on DVD nor on YouTube.
- The Lonely Skier on Amazon
- Closed circle mystery Wikipedia article
- Hammond Innes Wikipedia article
- Independent obituary
- New York Times obituary
- Hammond Innes book covers on the Bear Alley website
Hammond Innes’ novels
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.