The Wreck of the Mary Deare by Hammond Innes (1956)

After that I was conscious all the time of the dinghy behind us. I can see it still, like a deadly water-beetle crawling after us across the sea, everlastingly following us through an unreal miasma of fog; and I can hear the creak of the rowlocks, the dip and splash of the oars. And I can see Patch, too, his set face leaning towards me and then pulling back, endlessly moving back and forth as he tugged at the oars, tugged till his teeth were clenched with the pain of his blistered hands, until the blisters broke and the blood dripped on the oars – hour after wretched hour. (p.216)

This is a really gripping and exciting adventure story. If I were to recommend one Hammond Innes novel to anyone who hadn’t read him, this would be the one.

The plot

It’s a first-person narrative told by John Sands. He is skippering a yacht, the Sea Witch, across the Channel with three friends, when they are nearly run down by a vast cargo ship, the Mary Deare. A few hours later, in daylight, they spot it becalmed west of the Channel Islands. Coming closer they see the lifeboats have all been launched, their ropes trailing down the sides into the sea. In a reckless moment Sands gets his friends to sail right up to the side of the steamer, manages to grab a rope and haul himself aboard. The mystery begins.

Part one – the wreck

He goes from one end to the other of the ship finding everything eerily quiet and abandoned. He reads the ship’s log in the empty bridge, the letters in the captain’s cabin and so on. All very well done and spooky. Suddenly he hears footsteps, faint and faraway, and tracks down the haggard, exhausted master of the ship, Patch.

Through Patch’s rambling narrative and from the log, Sands pieces together the story: the Mary Deare, a decrepit wreck of a cargo ship, is shipping cotton and old aero engines from the Andeman Islands to Antwerp, then was going on to Newcastle to be broken up. But the voyage has been dogged by disaster. Successive storms kept flooding the holds. Then the original captain, Taggart, died and was replaced by Patch. More storms and Patch slowly realised the mate Higgins was in a conspiracy to sink the ship. The owner of the shipping line, Dellimare, was lost overboard. The radio was put out of action in a fire. Then Patch was lured down into a hold and knocked unconscious, while the conspirators among the crew persuaded all the others to abandon ship. By the time Patch escaped he found himself the only man aboard.

Sands decides it’s time to leave but he has left it too late. A gale has whipped up and, try as they might, his friends can’t get the Sea Witch into position without risking smashing her against the huge ship. They say they’ll rendezvous at St Peter Port and  sail off, and Patch hauls Sands back aboard. He is trapped on a massive ship which is slowly sinking. He and Patch try to get the engines working again and there are terrific scenes of them taking it in turns to stoke the furnaces with coal.

In fact, the opening hundred pages of the novel are wonderfully atmospheric and gripping, with keen descriptions of the sea, the gale and storm, the huge ship foundering, the terrifying sense of abandonment, the claustrophobic scenes stoking the furnaces down in the engine room. All the time Sands finds it almost impossible to get a straight answer out of Patch, who is shattered, distracted, elusive. And it is his bad-tempered refusal to talk plainly which dictates much of what happens next.

Without telling Sands his plans Patch uses the ship’s remaining power to navigate deliberately into the heart of the Minkies, the treacherous reefs off the French coast. He runs the ship aground among the reefs, then they take to an inflatable dinghy, float for a while and are picked up some hours later by coastguards on the lookout for survivors. The ship’s crew has already been rescued, the newspapers have the story, the authorities interview Patch and Sands who, for the first time, meets the hulking aggressive mate, Higgins, who Patch blames for everything.

Part two – the enquiry

The middle section of the novel is devoted to a long, realistic and thorough account of the official enquiry which is held into the fate of the Mary Deare at the request of the insurance company. The court, its procedures and its officials, especially the barristers, are described in minute and convincing detail, emerging as characters in their own right.

Innes uses this setting to skilfully reveal aspects of the events which occurred before Sands stumbled across the ship, going back to the formation of the company which had bought the Mary Deare for its ill-fated last voyage. Because the narrator is biased in favour of Patch, having seen the character of the man under stress as they spent those last 12 or so hours trying to keep the ship afloat, he is inclined to favour Patch’s evidence and discount the evidence of the ship’s crew and owners. However, Innes gives Sands a friend – Hal – accompanying him throughout the enquiry and, through his eyes, we can see how Patch fails to make key points which Sands and we, the reader know about. Through Hal’s eyes we see the evidence slowly mount up against Patch, creating the strong impression that it was he who wrecked the ship.

This is crystallised when the court hears the account of how Patch lost another ship, ten years earlier in his career. Rumours at the time suggest he wrecked it for money, rumours which ruined his career and made it impossible for him to get another captaincy. This blot on his career, combined with all the testimony against him, begins to make Patch look like the guilty man. That night he is seen drinking heavily in pubs of Southampton (where the enquiry is taking place) and doesn’t show up in court next day.

In any case, the enquiry is called off with the dramatic news that French coastguards have sighted the Mary Deare still afloat. Sands returns to the yacht he and his friend Mike are refitting in a dock at Lymington determined to get on with his life when he and Mike are astonished to see Patch swimming out to them and clambering on board.

The conspiracy

By now, and despite Patch’s obstinacy and obfuscation, Sands has pieced together the master narrative behind the plot: Patch is convinced the owners of the Mary Deare are crooks; the small company which owned it had recently been taken over by a big-time operator in the Far East; the ship’s manifold said it was carrying a cargo of hundreds of unwanted fighter plane engines back to England; but for four crucial days the ship was moored alongside the company’s only other ship in Rangoon river; Patch thinks the engines were switched to the other ship which then sailed behind the ‘Bamboo Curtain’ ie the engines were sold to the communist Chinese. The Mary Deare was supposed to sail west and be sunk somewhere convenient; hence the presence of the company owner on board to make sure the plan was carried out; but they reckoned without the alcoholic captain Taggart who, for sentimental reasons, was determined to make it home to his dear sweet daughter in England; they reckoned without the first mate going sick and being replaced by Patch; and they reckoned without Patch’s almost unhinged determination not to let a second ship of his be wrecked. The conspirators thought Patch would be a drunken pushover; in the event he turned out to be an immoveable stumbling block. Eventually, the conspirators among the crew, led by Higgins, set fire to the ship, sabotaged the radio, knocked Patch out in the hold and abandoned ship trusting it would sink.

But it didn’t. And that was where Sands entered the picture, all innocent of this complicated situation and the history of everybody’s motives, especially the haunted determination of captain Patch not to lose another command. Now Patch is driven by one obsessive desire – to get back out to the Mary Deare, caught on the treacherous reefs of the Minkies, and to prove that what happened to her was no accident.

Part three – the Minkies

Against the advice of his partner Mike, Sands agrees to take Patch out on their yacht to the wreck of the Mary Deare. But even as they weigh anchor and begin to motor out of the harbour (late at night), they become aware of a powerful motorboat entering. Suddenly suspicious, they turn off their motor and glide out under sail but not before they’ve glimpsed that the motorboat is captained by the brutal First Mate Higgins and two of the surviving crew. Mike and Sands debate outsailing them down the coast and putting into the next available harbour – but the presence of Patch would go against them – they might be charged with harbouring a fugitive. This, along with the close emotional bond Sands has formed with the obsessive captain, makes them decide to go out to the Deare – and so into the violent and tense climax of this thrilling book.

The final 40 or so pages are a gripping and gruelling description of Higgins’s motorboat chasing Sands’s yacht across a stormy Channel. It covers days of accidents and adventures during which the human protagonists are stripped of all resources and reduced to the level of animals barely clinging to life. For dawn brings a thick fog and in it the yacht and motorboat collide, sinking both. Both crews get into rowing boats and there follows a numbingly detailed and drawn-out test of endurance as they chase each other into the treacherous white water among the reefs of the Minkies. Here, at low tide, they moor to reefs and hide shivering on seaswept rocks, before their boats are eventually staved in by the seas and they walk and swim and then, with no food and no strength, supported only by their life jackets, feebly paddle south to where they think the Mary Deare must be.

Even when Sands and Patch reach the derelict hulk, Innes still has a few plot twists up his sleeve. But the real point is that by this stage the reader has accompanied the characters into a no-man’s-land of hunger and fever and freezing cold sea water and weakness and lack of sleep. In this extremity of human endurance, the broken beached ship assumes a horrifying and allegorical power. Nothing that dramatic actually happens aboard the ship but the writing makes these final scenes, as the Mary Deare founders deeper and deeper in the stormy seas and the characters reach the ends of their tether, incredibly powerful and moving.

Conclusion

In many of his other novels the quality of obsessiveness is structurally required to make the plot happen and, although you go along with it for the sake of the story, deep down it feels contrived and implausible: for example, The Killer Mine wouldn’t have been a killer mine at all if it hadn’t been for the quite mad behaviour of old man Mannock; or in Air Bridge, there would be no plot if it weren’t for the obsessive behaviour of Saeton who ends up stealing and murdering and lying to achieve his dream of building the new-design aero engines.

Here in Mary Deare there is the same structural feature, ie there wouldn’t be much plot if captain Patch just told the enquiry the truth and argued it out the legal way: but he is a man driven, haunted by the great failure which ruined his life, and determined to prove himself justified, whatever the cost. And somehow, in this novel, this plot device – the man obsessed whose obstinacy creates and prolongs perilous situations – transcends itself: it becomes a truly magnificent obession and combines with Innes’ fast accurate style and his profound knowledge of the sea and sailcraft, to give the novel a real depth and imaginative power.

The movie

The critics recognised Wreck as marking a new peak in Innes’ writing and so did Hollywood, who snapped it up. In 1959 they released a movie version starring an ageing Gary Cooper as the haunted, obsessed captain, and a fresh-faced Charlton Heston as the salvage man who gets caught up in the conspiracy. Interestingly, the script was adapted from the novel by English thriller writer, Eric Ambler.

Related links

1968 Fontana paperback edition of The Wreck of The Mary Deare

1968 Fontana paperback edition of The Wreck of The Mary Deare

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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  1. The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1959) | Tim Neath - Visual Artist

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