Repetition and excess in the fiction of Hammond Innes

1. Repetition

Quite often in Hammond Innes’ novels the same situation recurs repeatedly or with minor variations. This gives the books the effect of the classic nightmare where no matter how hard you struggle you can’t escape.

For example, in Killer Mine there is a long sequence where the hero is lured deeper into the mine by the mad old owner until he is lost and doomed to die. He is only saved by the loving servant girl. But she’s barely guided him back to the surface before he has to go back down into the mine to finish the work he’s being paid for, which leads to the intense climax of the book when the mine is flooded. My point is that the reader has barely recovered from the nightmarishly claustrophobic descriptions of the first sequence before he is plunged into the nightmarishly claustrophobic descriptions of the second, almost identical one. The repetition is odd, from a logical narrative point of view, but it does create a kind of irrational claustrophobic fear.

In The Angry Mountain the overwrought hero feels himself surrounded and trapped by his horrific past (imprisonment and the amputation of his leg) and by its living embodiments – Maxwell, Hilda Tuvak, Reece and Shirer – who seem to be pursuing him from Czechoslovakia to Milan, to Naples, to the villa on the mountainside and on to the climactic scenes in the monastery of Santo Fancisco. In particular, the evil Dr Sansevino keeps re-appearing, each time reawakening the protagonist’s sweaty nightmares of being trapped and tortured.

Similarly, in Air Bridge, the overwrought hero’s memories and experiences follow the same recurring pattern which he can’t escape from: his WWII bomber crash-landing, imprisonment, escape, finding an airfield and stealing a plane – then in peacetime stealing planes, being nearly caught, escape – then, at Membury, effective imprisonment in the airfield, until there is a dramatic crash – then stealing the plane on the Airlift, which nearly crashes – then being blackmailed and trapped by Saeton – then being abandoned at the derelict airfield in the Soviet Zone – then being effectively imprisoned by the RAF authorities when he makes it back to Gatow. At each point the memories of stealing, crashing, imprisonment and escape close in on him and make a cumulatively powerful imaginative impact on the reader.

There is a linear narrative to Hammond Innes’ thrillers; but there is also this circling, enclosing, smothering repetitiveness.

2. Excess

Innes’ novels regularly transport the reader from normal life into a tricky situation, which itself becomes perilous, and then is carried on into a sequence of evermore nailbiting crises. You feel exhausted. You feel the wheel has gone full circle, and the narrative has reached a kind of natural conclusion. But it is a characteristic of Innes’ novels that they then continue, beyond what you thought was shatteringly sufficient, into new zones of melodrama and tension. Thus:

When the hero of The Lonely Skier has escaped the shootout on the mountain top, the burning down of the chalet and fled with bullets pinging round him, finally reaching the safety of the town below, I was exhausted. He had escaped. Phew. But Innes pushes the narrative one step beyond by making him get up and retrace the journey of his colleague, Ingles, figuring out how he got his fatal wound and reconstructing the massive avalanche which was responsible for his death, adding a sixth act of further tension and fear.

In the Blue Ice the reader follows the sea journey to Norway, the various chases and shootouts in the whaling station, and then the long gruelling trek and ski across country which leads to the climax where all the main characters arrive at an isolated frozen mountain hut and there there is another shootout. Enough already. But Innes pushes the characters (and the reader) beyond exhaustion into another ski chase across the mountains to within sight of the eponymous Blue Ice – where two of the main characters meet their grisly end.

In the White South the characters are marooned on the Antarctic ice, only to realise their camp is being crushed by icebergs moving towards them. They only just survive by leaping onto a ridge on one of the icebergs, and subsist in two armed and opposing camps until they realise they have to set off to find the survivors of the whaling ship or starve. There follows a long gruelling trek across the ice in which one of the most sympathetic characters dies of starvation and exhaustion, before they finally find survivors who have sufficient food to revive them. Harrowing enough, the reader feels. But Innes pushes it one step beyond, by then detailing the voyage all the survivors have to make in small lifeboats across hundreds of miles of stormy sea to the small island of South Georgia. Not all of them make it.

In The Angry Mountain you feel the narrator has been harassed enough after being arrested by the security police in Czechoslovakia, then hounded in Milan, chased to Naples, and up to a remote villa where his worst nightmares come true and the woman he thinks loves him turns out to be a drug addict blackmailed into luring him to the hideaway of the doctor who tortured him during the war! Just when you think the situation can’t get much more intense, Mount Vesuvius erupts and the entire novel is transformed: everything which went before pales into insignificance as the characters now desperately scrabble not only to survive, but to rescue the hostages the mad doctor has trapped up in the ruined monastery. There is a long, nailbitingly intense sequence of entrapments, imprisonments and daring escapes even as the molten lava demolishes buildings around our heroes. As the sympathetic characters are all finally freed just ahead of the building collapsing, the exhausted reader sinks back, replete with thrills and spills. But then it emerges that disparate lava flows have now joined up further down the hill to surround and cut them off. The characters make their various ways back to the same villa where the original revelations occurred only a few hours earlier, though it seems like months, so much has happened! But even this is only the start of a final and more intense struggle for survival, with another hair-raising, last-minute escape attempt.

Same in Air Bridge, where the long, detailed account of manufacturing the new air engines – with the accompanying personal dramas which make up the first half of the novel – is swept away in the second half of the book as Fraser is blackmailed into pretending to crash an airlift plane and flying it back to England. Which is itself swept away by his feverish need to return to Germany to find and save his colleague, Tubby, who fell out of the plane after a fight. Fraser forces Saeton to drop him in the area where Tubby fell, and then battles winter conditions in the wild – exposure, hunger and exhaustion – to find him, only then to have to walk, dodge Soviet patrols and angry German lorry drivers, back to the safety of the British base. That’s enough for one book, I am exhausted. But then Innes has his hero escape from hospital, still badly wounded and suffering from exhaustion, and makes him link up with his on-off German girlfriend, and risk a truck journey deep into the Soviet Zone to arrive back at the farmhouse where Tubby lies sick – only to find the maniac Saeton has beaten them to it, which leads to a shootout in the frozen woods around the farm. That definitely feels like enough, but then Fraser, wounded in the arm, losing blood and close to passing out, has to fly the plane out of the Soviet Zone and do a guided landing in an intense rainstorm back at the Allied base.

It is a consistent element of Hammond Innes’ novels that they take the situation as far as you think it can possibly go; and then take it one or two nailbitingly intense scenes further.

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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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