The Strode Venturer by Hammond Innes (1965)

It was only much later, much later, that I came to understand the crazy streak in him. It wasn’t a question of instability so much as a certain theatrical quality in his make-up. His was a volatile, flamboyant nature feeding on excitement, carried away by his enthusiasm, his delight in the grand gesture. I was cast in the role of ground tackle, an anchor to keep him from wrecking himself. (p.105)

The setup

March 1963. Commander Geoffrey Bailey (p.20) comes from a once wealthy family. His father owned the Bailey Oriental Shipping Line, they had a big house in Eaton Square, entertained nightly (p.15). Until the week in 1931 when the company was forced into bankruptcy and bought out by the ruthless Henry Strode and his shipping line. The boy Geoffrey was taken out of prep school and sent to a college for naval cadets from where he graduated into the Navy, serving for nearly 20 years. Then unhappy marriage to Barbara and the opportunities apparently presented by Britain’s entry into the European Common Market prompt him to leave the Navy and travel to London to seek work. But it is harder than he expected. And he finds himself drawn (mysteriously drawn, as so many Innes’ heroes are) to visit Strode House in the City, headquarters of his family’s nemesis.

Strode’s assistant led me quickly up the great staircase and as I passed my father’s portrait, wondering what the hell they wanted, I had a strange feeling that all my life had been leading up to this moment. I cannot explain it even now, this feeling of inevitability, the sudden certainty that my future was linked with the Strode Orient Line. (p.36)

It is very typical of Innes that the plot requires overlays of coincidence. The previous novel, Atlantic Fury, gives a good example of Innes technique: the protagonist, Donald Ross, is on a mission to find out whether a certain Major Braddock is in fact his long-lost brother Iain, presumed dead during the war. To find out he has to travel up to the Hebridean island of Laerg where Braddock has taken on a new command. But this island will turn out to be the setting for the naval disaster at the core of the narrative. But in another layer of meaning, Laerg is also the island the Ross brothers’ grandfather was brought up on and they both have a mystical feel for and where Donald has wanted to return and see for years. And – as if these aren’t coincidence enough, Laerg just happens to be the island where Ross/Braddock came ashore after surviving at sea on a life-raft after his troop ship was torpedoed – the scene of his transformation from Ross to Braddock, the place where he stole another man’s identity.

The Innes’ technique is to build up the text not only by linear narrative, but by laying coincidence upon coincidence until events take on an eerie significance because they are drawing on not one or two but three or four levels of meaning. After one or two such coincidences the reader is sceptical, but after three or four the force of the narrative persuades you to accept them as strange and eerie twists in reality.

Just so, in this novel, Bailey’s connection with the Strode family are multiply layered:

  • the Strode family patriarch, Henry Strode, ruined his father then bought up his bankrupt shipping line
  • Henry Strode’s family thus changed the shape of his life, forcing his parents to send him to a cheap naval college, and then into the Navy
  • by a far-fetched coincidence he happens to meet one of the siblings, Peter Strode the traveller, in the Persian Gulf, and spend an evening chatting and getting to know him
  • back in London looking for work he writes a letter to the Strodes asking to meet Peter; only when he visits Strode House does he realise the Peter Strode he met is the black sheep of the family, currently missing and the other Strode brothers employ Bailey to track him down – now he is working for the very people who ruined his family
  • later on, Bailey finds himself commanding the very boat – The Strode Venturer – with the very same (alcoholic) captain Deacon – from which his father jumped to his death in the sea
  • in the course of the story, the narrator (rather inevitably) falls in love with Peter Strode’s sister, Ida, providing a romantic/biological connection with his enemies
  • and in the climax Bailey helps Peter defeat his brothers in a boardroom coup, and becomes a leading director of the new managanese shipping firm, thus providing poetic justice on wicked old Henry: the son of the man he ruined is now running his company and sleeping with his daughter

This heavily coincidental but eerily convincing intertwinement of destinies is very Innes. If it weren’t for the dramatic, and very masculine, disasters which are at the heart of every Innes narrative, these frameworks of coincidences, often based on family ties and blood allegiances, arguably have more in common with more traditionally women’s fiction and soap operas.

Now, at a dryly described shareholders meeting, Bailey discovers not only that Peter Strode holds a deciding block of shares in Strode and Company, but also that he is missing, somewhere in the Indian Ocean. Strode & Co. have heard that Bailey met Peter once, by accident, in the Persian Gulf, so, on this shaky basis, they hire him to track the errant director down. Thus Geoffrey becomes witness to yet another of Innes’ protagonist’s ‘magnificent obsession’.

The plot

Big shipping line, Strode and Co. One of the legendary old founder’s sons, Peter Strode, has for years bummed around the Asian coast, seeking the good life. Latterly he has stumbled across the Maldive Islands and one particular atoll, Addu, which is trying to maintain its independence from the Confederation of the Maldives. He falls in love with their idyllic way of life and becomes determined to help them. So, much against the wishes of the London directors of the company, he uses the resources of his father’s shipping line to man an expedition to a remote volcanic island in the Indian Ocean which appears to have large stores of manganese ore, a valuable commodity which he plans to mine and sell to help ‘his’ islanders.

The narrator, Bailey, is also on this expedition, aboard The Strode Trader. Strode insists on confiscating sextants and charts, and steering the ship himself at various points to make sure nobody, not even the captain, knows the island’s location. They find the island, anchor and start shipping men and equipment out to it, commence drilling and digging and things go well for several days.

One day bad weather arises, a rainy squall, and the narrator decides not to take shelter in the overcrowded cabins on the ‘island’ but to take the rickety dinghy out to the ship anchored a mile offshore. As he leaves the lee of the island the sea gets choppy, the wind picks up and he starts to take on water but, much worse, he sees the ship he’s heading for, The Strode Trader has weighed anchor and is steaming away from him. Desperately he increases the revs on the dinghy and, helped by the waves swamping him from the stern, eventually crashes into the barge tied to the side of the ship. He leaps aboard the barge as the dinghy is crushed and destroyed, and is making his way forward, when a big swell knocks him off his feet and into the hold of the barge, where he regains consciousness some time later, bloody and half-drowned, and with no way out of the smooth-sided hold.

As if all this weren’t bad enough, he realises the main ship has run aground, as the storm continues to break over it and then – with a vast thunderclap – it is struck by lightning, not once but three times – it’s keel aground on the seabed is providing an earth to the lightning – and bursts into flames. There is the narrator, head wound and half-conscious, half-drowned, with no way of alerting the crew to his whereabouts, watching his one hope of safety burst into flames and burn.

Innes’ strength – wonderful sea descriptions

THIS is the kind of scene Innes conceives and describes with tremendous power. His descriptions of the most basic run-of-the-mill sea activity, of elementary sailing and navigating, resonate with the authority of a lifetime’s experience sailing the seas. But when his knowledge and experience are brought to bear in exceptional scenes like this (as in the storm scenes of Atlantic Fury) surely there is no-one who can match the depth and force of Innes’ imagination.

All morning clouds had been building up to the south of us, great convoluting mushroom growths standing like stacks along the horizon and constantly changing shape. Shortly after lunch the northerly breeze died away. It became suddenly very humid, and standing in the doorway leading to the foredeck, I could see a great toppling mass of cloud leaning over us. The sun vanished, huge raindrops fell singly, large as coins, and the surface of the sea began to dance as though struggling to reach up to the water still prisoned in the sky above. Lightning stabbed and instantaneous thunder clapped a great peal of noise onto the stillness; and then suddenly white water below the blackness of the cloud, a tooth-white line that grew broader and broader as it bore down on us until it stretched from horizon to horizon with the sea behind it all boiling. Then the wind hit us with screaming force and the ship heeled. (p.221)

You’ll be relieved to learn the ship survives the fire and, once the storm has passed, Bailey attracts the crew’s attention and is helped to safety, and the crippled ship limps back to the Maldives. But Bailey is furious that the Strode Trader‘s captain, Reece, turned tail and fled at the first sight of a storm, abandoning Peter Strode and the labourers on the atoll to their doom. The RAF send out Shackleton airplanes to search the area but there is no sign of the island. The official assumption is that the same volcanic activity which raised this couple-of-mile-long stretch of seabed above the surface, has sunk it again and Peter and his labourers have drowned.

Bailey catches the next RAF flight to Singapore and so back to London. Here, the completely different world of City firms and shareholder meetings are described with just as much thoroughness and attention to detail as the Indian Ocean scenes. Bailey, helped by Ida – Peter Strode’s sister – and a few accomplices, stand up to the Board of Strode and Company, blocking the takeover of the company by asset strippers, and ensuring that another ship is rigged and commissioned to go back out to find Peter Strode.

Sure the RAF has spent weeks flying quadrants over the presumed position of the ‘island’, but for the first time Bailey begins to wonder whether the Board back in London have conspired with the young captain of the ship which sailed away, to abandon Peter to his death, an inconvenience standing in the way of their bigger plan of liquidating the company and walking away with the loot.

Bailey flies to Aden to rendezvous with another Strode ship – The Strode Venturer – bound to take mail and supplies to the RAF station on the Maldives, equips it with the (alcoholic) captain Deacon who knows the area best, and then steams further south in search of Peter Strode and his ‘lost’ island. You might not be entirely surprised to learn that, after days of looking, they find him and it.

In this penultimate section a large strand of the book which I haven’t mentioned comes to fruition: namely Peter Strode’s obsession that the island not only be located, but also populated and officially claimed by his friends from the Adduan Republic. Bailey, on board the Strode Venturer, had heard radio reports of the approach of a small flotilla of Adduan dhonis or native boats. In the final pages we learn that a Royal Navy ship is nearby and steaming directly for them and so it becomes a race to see whether Adduans or Brits will be first to land, raise a flag, and claim the island.

In a happy ending, it is the Adduans, Peter’s friends. The Navy arrive a few hours later, accept the situation, land a small party for security, then the Adduans get down to loading the manganese ore into their boats to tranship to the Strode Venturer… and Peter Strode? His magnificent obsession finally fulfilled, his friends the Adduans in possession of this new land – he and Bailey go aboard the Royal Navy frigate… and sleep.

And the final pages conclude the saga of the boardroom struggle which has been running in parallel with the foreign narrative for the length of the book – one of the most sustained and factually accurate descriptions of boardroom battles that I know of. All the time he’s been out in the Indian Ocean his half-brothers Henry and George Strode have been manoeuvring to sell the company to asset strippers. Now, riding high on the triumph of his discovery of a new island as widely reported in the national press, Peter launches a boardroom coup which sees him join his shares with those of his sister, with Bailey and a couple of other sympathetic directors, to get old Strode’s brothers booted out of the company, and to re-structure Strode Orient to begin a major new venture, shipping raw manganese ore from the island. In other words, a business triumph!

And a few months later Geoffrey and Peter’s sister, Ida are married. And nine months later they fly out to Singapore so she can smash a champagne bottle against the prows of a new Strode Venturer as she is launched. Poetic closure.


Innes’ magnificent obsessives > delaying tactics

Innes characters all come across as more or less the same type of white middle-class professional men, often Army, Navy or merchant marine, sharing the same 1950s, late-British Empire values. Practical men living in a practical world. Yet the action always focuses around men who don’t fit into this mould, who have something extra, something mysterious and fascinating, a ‘magnificent obsession’ which drives the narrative. An aspect of this is that in other thriller novels the protagonist is clever and has a plan – or multiple plans – which are shared with us or which we enjoy deducing – and this process of deduction is part of the pleasure of the text.

In Innes books the Visionary, the Obsessive Protagonist, barely even has a plan – the captain of the Mary Deare beaches his ship so as to have evidence the owners intended to scuttle it; Kavan in Strange Land lies about his identity in order to get to the legendary silver mine; Saeton in Air Bridge will go to any length to test out his new jet engine; Braddock in Atlantic Fury wants to get to the island of Laerg to destroy the evidence of his crime; Peter Strode in this novel, is obsessed with finding his island full of valuable manganese ore – ‘only death would deflect him from his purpose.’ (p.146)

These are not cunning, fast-changing plans; they are idées fixes, obsessions. They are not susceptible to reason or argument or change. But in order to give the impression of tension, of thrill to the first halves of his novels, Hammond’s books all resort to the same strategy – having the magnificent obsessive not reveal their obsession, evade questioning, and so keep the narrator, and we the readers, guessing for as long as possible.

This, I think, explains the epidemic of delaying tactics and evasive answers which Innes makes all these Visionary characters use – the long silences, the character ‘withdrawing into himself’, answers cut off, conversations abandoned, the ‘little shrug’ which they’re all prone to.

The silence between us seemed to last a long time… He gave a little shrug… He wouldn’t tell me where the island was… He wouldn’t tell us what advice the old man gave us… He was worried about something but when I asked him about it he seemed reluctant to put it into words… ‘Then why didn’t you tell Reece that?’ ‘I don’t know.’ He shrugged peevishly… ‘What’s wrong,’ I asked. ‘Nothing,’ he snapped… Peter gave a little shrug… He let the silence run on, making no comment (148)… He sat for a long time without speaking (171)… He gave a quick little shrug (172)…

Anybody expecting the cunning plans and sleight of hands of the conventional thriller will be disappointed by Innes’ novels because there aren’t any. Instead you get:

  • detailed travelogue of interesting exotic places (vivid, well-written descriptions of places, peoples and boats)
  • a period of slow-paced prosaic processes and procedures – a trial or court martial or shareholders’ meeting (interesting, in a dry London boardroom kind of way)
  • a long period of wilful mystery and obtuseness and evasiveness (frustrating)
  • and then, the last fifty pages or so burst into thrilling description of intense physical challenges, disasters and survival (and as it’s the last bit you read, this visceral excitement tends to be your final – and redeeming – impression of the book)

This lack of conformity to modern thriller practice helps explain why The Strode Venturer is no longer in print and why I picked up my copy in a second-hand bookshop for just 10p. It’s worth much more than that for Innes’ vivid descriptive powers, especially of all and anything to do with his beloved sea.

The sun was falling now towards the west and I stayed there, watching the sparkle of it on the water until it sank into the sea and the sky turned fiery red, a flaming furnace glow dyed purple at the edges. Three pillars of cumulo-nimbus burned for a while, anvil-headed; the glow faded to a hard duck’s egg green and the first stars appeared. Then, suddenly it was night… (p.225)


The decline and fall of the British Empire

In its immediate predecessor, Atlantic Fury, Innes has the standard-issue, thriller-writer/man-of-action contempt for Whitehall bureaucracy and for the cynical hacks of the popular press. His protagonist has no political views and is only interested in the fate of the men he knows and his brother.

By contrast, The Strode Venturer is the first Innes book I can think of which contains direct and revealing comments on contemporary politics and culture. The general idea is that Strode and Company has gone downhill since its heyday in the 1930s when it was led by the fierce and ruthless Henry Strode. His several sons are pale copies of the original, and characters more than once lament that the company’s decline mirrors the decline of Britain itself and its Empire, once led by strong, ruthless men, now in the control of small, mean-minded men only interested in turning a quick profit.

  • Common Market – the hero’s whole predicament comes about because he quits the Navy in the hope Britain’s entry into the Common Market will create a surge in jobs – but General de Gaulle vetoed Britain joining in 14 January 1963 – ‘l’Angleterre, ce n’est plus grand chose
  • Declining Empire – ‘I’m talking now of the period between the wars. I don’t think we were conscious then that the Empire was slipping from our grasp, but the smell of decay was in the air, all the life blood of the country poured out in the trenches of that First World War and the men that were left, most of them of poor quality.’ (p.46, Strode’s ageing solicitor)
  • The era of Socialism and high tax signals the end of capitalism – ‘The power of the state is now so great that the gap between our brand of capitalism and Russia’s brand of communism is closing all the time.’ (p.24, George Latham, stockbroker)

Related links

1970s Fontana paperback edition of The Strode Venturer

1970s Fontana paperback edition of The Strode Venturer

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.

Atlantic Fury by Hammond Innes (1962)

There’s a frame narrative which announces immediately that this is to be a first-person account of a major military disaster at sea in which many lives were lost, which led to a Court Martial and a Board of Inquiry. So the main theme of the book is sketched out right at the start – there will be no suspense about this. The narrator, Donald Ross, is brother to one of the men involved in the disaster and makes it plain in the first few pages that he has read all the documents available and interviewed all the survivors plus the officials who made the fateful decisions – so this will be an eyewitness account but embedded, as it were, in official discourse.

The plot

There’s an Army missile testing base on the (fictional) island of Lairg off the Outer Hebrides. As part of cost-cutting in Whitehall, officials decide it should be abandoned for the winter rather than expensively provisioned. But the order to do so is delayed while a bad weather front moves in. This is unexpectedly intense, creating a disastrous storm which causes a landing craft with 50 or so men aboard to founder in heavy seas, lose power and be dashed to pieces against one of the island’s treacherous cliffs.

Some of the men manage to clamber up the cliff to a spine of rock isolated from the island and completely exposed. A couple of men make it ashore and back to the mostly-abandoned base where they radio for help. The first attempt fails, as a parachutist is simply blown out to sea to drown. The second attempt by helicopter fails, when the helicopter is itself hit by a treacherous downburst of wind which smacks it into the sea. The third attempt is by tug and relies on the heroism of a Major Braddock who swims to the cliff with a rope, and then of a Captain Field, formerly a mountain climber, who scales the cliff with the rope. Thus they are able to rig up a harness to bring the shipwrecked men to the main island, and thence away on the tug.

In all 53 men are lost, along with the landing craft, helicopter and a large amount of military equipment, in an intensely described and harrowing disaster.

The personal angle

However, as with many of Innes’ adventure yarns the main incident is intertwined with a complicated personal backstory. In this case, everything revolves round the narrator Donald Ross, who is at the centre of events both public and private.

Although a painter by trade, he was formerly in the Royal Navy and then Merchant Marine. Why on earth does he travel up to the Naval Station supervising the withdrawal from Laerg, at a rather unpropitious moment? Because the officer who has been sent to organise it, one Major Braddock, turns out to be his long-lost brother, Iain.

His brother had served in the Second World War but was always a wrong ‘un, given to fighting and brawling, and he struck an officer while on active service. He was being brought back by ship to face charges when that ship was torpedoed and sunk with almost all hands. Donald mourned and got on with his life. Now a Canadian businessman turns up on his doorstep: a distant relative of Braddock’s in Canada has died and left him a pile of money. But the businessman’s wife is set to inherit if Braddock can be excluded from the will. Therefore, the businessman has been snooping into Braddock’s history, and especially into the wreck of the ship he was on, and he has tracked down and interviewed a number of other survivors and now he is convinced that the criminal Iain Ross, escaping the wreck on a liferaft with half a dozen others, murdered Braddock and stole his identity in order to escape prosecution.

In a further twist it turns out that Donald and Iain were both born and raised in the Highlands, listening to stories of their grandfather’s life and exploits as a native islander on Laerg, in the distant days before radio, oil or many boats, when the islanders lived a harsh and isloated life. Donald’s always wanted to see it for himself and now he has the motivation to combine it with seeing his brother. He withdraws all his money from the bank and catches the train north.

It is under these rather contrived circumstances that Donald meets his brother – or is it? – who refuses to acknowledge him, insisting on the name Braddock, before hitching a lift on one of the landing craft which are working a schedule of sailing out to Laerg to take off men and equipment to a regular schedule. The weather is rough but he’s allowed to go because none of them know about the disastrous storm which is brewing.

Disaster and rescue

These are the circumstances which bring the civilian painter Donald aboard the landing craft which is so harrowingly dashed in the terrifying storm and then smashed onto the pitiless rocks, who then staggers back ashore the island, and who helps with the three rescue attempts.

Thus it is that, once all the survivors are back on the mainland, Donald witnesses the press hounding of his brother, the officer in charge of the evacuation who, despite his heroic role in the final rescue attempt, is made the scapegoat for the disaster.

And thus it is that, in the strange atmospheric epilogue to the main disaster narrative, both brothers find themselves drawn back to Laerg for the final act in the tragedy, where Braddock reveals that he is Iain Ross, but tells the true story of what happened on that liferaft 20 years earlier, and what the fate of the real-life Braddock truly was.

Sea descriptions

It takes a little while for the machinery of the narrative to get us there, but from about page 100 the description of the storm which wrecks the landing craft is breath-taking, awesome and terrifying. Innes was a sailor and this novel is up there with The Wreck of The Mary Deare and Maddon’s Rock for its grasp of the detail of seamanship. The text is threaded with intense and prolonged accounts of weather forecasting and meteorology, embodied in the well-worked-out character of Cliff Morgan, since the state of the weather is absolutely vital to the concatenation of decisions which lead to the disaster.

The account of the press victimising the wrong man and then of the court martial are reminiscent of the similar scenes in Maddon’s Rock where the narrator has to prove he didn’t mutiny to a court martial. There is something deeply reassuring, something very comforting about Innes’ pacing and about the way he devotes the same amount of effort to describing the details of the court martial as of the weather reports and sea conditions and build of the landing craft and and the geography and fauna of his isolated island.

But the last 50 pages of the novel make up a surprising and strangely tranquil climax to the plot in that, once Ross’s brother, Iain/Braddock, escapes from custody, Ross is so convinced he’ll make for the fateful island that he himself catches the first train north, buys a rubber dinghy and the necessary equipment, and then makes a ludicrously risky but evocative and beautifully described day and night’s voyage out to Laerg. Although he does meet his brother there, and all is revealed about what happened on the liferaft 20 years earlier (and it is not good), for me the human element (the slightly soap opera element) in the story paled, melted away, by contrast with the factual, accurate, rooted, super-real yet also romantic and symbolic voyage across the flat empty sea, then into the darkest night, and then into impenetrable fog, before he finds himself coming ashore into one of the island’s many secret caves, which is also the location of the novel’s dark secret.

This is a powerful and evocative novel, well-made from seasoned timber, redolent with story and reeking of the treacherous Atlantic waves like a Hebridean fisherman’s boat.

Related links

Fontana paperback cover of Atlantic Fury

Fontana paperback cover of Atlantic Fury

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.

Rubens and his Legacy @ The Royal Academy

This is a large exhibition in terms of number of items, but a vast one in terms of scope. It sets out to track the legacy of the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), one of the most influential of all western artists, and makes large claims for his impact on a wide range of genres and painters in every European country.

As it is setting out to demonstrate his impact and legacy, the majority of the pictures (and sketches and engravings) in the exhibition are not by Rubens; in some of the rooms it feels like only 3 or 4 out of 20 items are by Peter Paul (PP). Most of them are by the contemporaries or later artists who followed in his footsteps. It might be possible to misread the posters and publicity and feel a bit cheated…

Nonetheless, as the exhibition proceeds, its curators’ intentions are to some extent fulfilled, insofar as you do start to genuinely see Rubens’s influence – in composition and colour and treatment – in a growing number of the paintings by other artists. You begin to have an intimidating sense of the breadth and depth of his legacy. (And, from the enjoyment point of view, many of the works by other artists are masterpieces in their own right, a pleasure to see whatever the context.)

The audioguide (26 items, 50 minutes) claims that without Rubens, no rococo, no romanticism, no impressionism. Bold claim: is it justified?

Poetry

The exhibition is divided into six themes. By ‘poetry’, the curators mean landscape. Early on the commentary makes an amusing statement of national stereotypes. Apparently, English painters took from Rubens his techniques in landscape, the French were interested in his treatment of love and eroticism, the Spanish copied his Counter-Reformation religious drama, and Germans liked the virility and pathos of his paintings. Each conforming to type, then.

The exhibition starts with ‘the English theme’, Rubens’s treatment of landscape. We are shown a Rubens landscape with carters and are told that the left side of the picture is in moonlight, the right side in sunlight, impossible in reality, but adding drama to an otherwise mundane scene. Near it the curators hang similar subjects by the English landscapists Gainsborough, Constable and Turner, among others – notably Constable’s full-size oil sketch for The Haywain. Rubens dramatised landscape, the moonlight-sunlight being an example. Another popular one was showing a landscape just after a rainstorm has ended, leaving a brilliant rainbow behind. There’s a Rubens showing just such a post-storm rainbow – and then a number of examples showing how English artists copied him. Constable, in particular, explicitly praised Rubens composition and colour in his notebooks. (Apparently Constable is famous for his use of red and the commentary says he copied this from Rubens). The section on Constable reinforced the impression gained from the recent Constable exhibition of how artful and calculating an artist he was.

Rubens to one side, I enjoyed many of the works by other artists on show in this room, including a wonderful sketch by Gainsborough, The Harvest Wagon, notable for its handling of the human figures, a cartoon, Daumier-like precision of shape and line and action. Also – very English – for its modesty.

The Garden of Love

Like many of Rubens’ larger paintings, the hugely influential Garden of Love is drenched in allegory and classical models: the elaborate architecture, the flying putti, the statue of Jove, queen of the gods, squeezing water from her ample breasts. Beneath them, in their shade and protection, these flirting mortals are featuring in one of the first ever scenes of contemporary people enjoying leisure time outdoors. Previously it was gods or military heroes or landscapes with peasants. Here are real people – albeit well-off people – but still real contemporaries, wearing contemporary costume, flirting and partying in the open air.

Peter Paul Rubens  The Garden of Love, c. 1633  Oil on canvas, 199 x 286 cm  Museo Nacional del Prado. Madrid  Photo c. Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Peter Paul Rubens, The Garden of Love, c. 1633
Museo Nacional del Prado. Madrid

This painting bewitched the French painter Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) who went on to develop his own style of light-hearted love scenes set outdoors. The argument goes: Rubens invented Watteau who invented the fetes galantes, inaugurating the age of rococo art in France.

More examples of Rubens, such as Chateau In A Park, are set against numerous sketches and oil paintings by Watteau, including the wonderful La Surprise, as well as works by other 18th century rococo painters such as Jean-Honoré Fragonard.

Jean-Antoine Watteau  La Surprise: A Couple Embracing While a Figure Dressed as mezzetin Tunes a Guitar, 1718-19  Oil on panel, 36.3 x 28.2 cm  Private Collection  Photo: Private Collection

Jean-Antoine Watteau
La Surprise: A Couple Embracing While a Figure Dressed as mezzetin Tunes a Guitar, (1718-19)
Private Collection

Elegance

By which the curators mean portraiture. Rubens spent four years in Genoa (then a city made rich by trade in silks and fabrics) painting the wives of the richest bankers and merchants. The largest example of this period is the portrait of Marchesa Maria Grimaldi, and Her Dwarf – an ugly painting but, wow, the detailing of the gold cloth of her dress is amazing and lustrous in reality (reproductions completely fail to capture it). Note the classical columns (aren’t I classy) and the rich velvet curtain (aren’t I rich) and the bounding little dog (aren’t I sensitive).

The most direct influence of Rubens’s portrait style was on Anthony van Dyck, child prodigy and Rubens’s pupil, working directly under him in Antwerp before himself travelling to Genoa to make money. Van Dyck toned Rubens down, his portraits are cooler, more detached. In the Genoese Noblewoman and her Son, we have the classical architecture in the background and the luxury curtain (aren’t I cultured and rich) but the sitter is side on to the viewer, that much more self-contained, less revealing (aren’t I aloof). The boy is staring at us with the look of command and authority he is destined to grow into, and the dog is looking up at his future master. The thing is dripping with multiple layers of power and authority.

Sir Anthony Van Dyck  A Genoese Noblewoman and Her Son, c. 1626  Oil on canvas, 191.5 x 139.5 cm  National Gallery of Art, Washington, Widener Collection, 1942.9.91  Photo Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

Sir Anthony Van Dyck
A Genoese Noblewoman and Her Son, c. 1626
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Widener Collection

Van Dyck came to the court of Charles I (generally thought to have been the most genuinely cultivated of all British monarchs and who was rewarded for it by having his head cut off) and was knighted for his services to the crown and aristocracy. Van Dyck forged an image of Charles as the tall (he was short), wise (he was stupid), and authoritative (he alienated everyone who ever served him) ruler that he wasn’t.

The commentary made the striking claim that van Dyck invented the English gentleman which, if you’re familiar with his portraits of the English aristocracy, is at least plausible.

Back with PP, the exhibition is making the claim that Rubens is the father of the grand British portrait, and sets off to prove it by placing his huge portrait with dwarf opposite a selection of equally imposing portraits of rich people by Sir Joshua Reynolds, Sir Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Thomas Lawrence, portraitists to the British upper classes from the 1770s to the 1830s. The examples here – say, Elizabeth Lamb Viscountess Melbourne with her son – are very large like the Rubens originals, they keep an architectural frame and a drape, but they are less sumptuous and rich, the colour is drabber, and the background is, in line with the English fondness for landscape, a realistic slice of countryside, presumably the estate of this rich woman.

Or take Thomas Lawrence’s Portrait of Mrs Arthur Annesley, a big slab of classical architecture, but with quite an extensive view over the estate on the right, and the painting dominated by sweet little darling children, appropriate to the Age of Sentiment.

Power

The previous rooms feel like they’ve been warming us up for the heart of the exhibition, two rooms dedicated to Rubens’s work as a propagandist of genius. It is staggering to be reminded all over again of his achievements completely outside the realm of art, for Rubens was also a diplomat, a spy and an antiquarian – a figure famous across Europe. Rather as with The Garden of Love, mentioned above, his achievement in political painting was to integrate classical mythology with everday reality, in this case with accurate depictions of living contemporary rulers, and to set both in a convincing space and tableau.

His masterpiece is the series of massive 24 paintings showing the career of Marie de Medicis and her husband, King Henri IV of France. A room is dedicated to a small selection of the numerous preparatory sketches Rubens made, and to an enormous screen projecting a video compilation of the finished paintings which currently hang in the Louvre. They are overwhelming, brilliant, vast, powerful in conception and in their myriad of details

Peter Paul Rubens  The Triumph of Henri IV, 1630  Oil on panel, 49.5 x 83.5 cm  Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1942 (42.187) Photo c. 2013. Image copyright The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource / Scala, Florence

Peter Paul Rubens
The Triumph of Henri IV, 1630
Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1942 (42.187)

Also in the same room and given the same treatment is the immense roof of the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall, London, which can still be seen today. It is covered in its entirety by scenes painted by Rubens and commissioned by Charles I to depict the power and glory of his father, King James I of Britain. It, also, is a commanding series of images, though less overwhelming than the Medici ones – and its impact slightly spoiled for anyone who knows that the paintings were still not complete when Charles I was led from that very room onto a scaffold built along the first floor of the building, to be beheaded. Absolute Monarchy, English style.

Hundreds of painters copied the example Rubens set of lending mythological force and dramatic mises-en-scenes to the depiction of contemporary rulers, from the Sun King to Hitler. The results are splendid but may be the most antipathetic to English taste…

Compassion

Or at least that’s what I thought till I entered the 5th room, which is about religion. Rubens was a devout Catholic and painter to the Counter-Reformation authorities. Ah. The largest Rubens in the room is the altarpiece Christ On the Straw, in which I found all the faults I dislike about most Christian art (and which I loathed in the recent Veronese exhibition at the National Gallery) – sentimental, lachrymose, stagey, inauthentic and banal.

There were lots of copies of this image, or something like it, by numerous subsequent artists, from David Wilkie doing the Grand Tour to Vincent van Gogh (!). Maybe the only one I liked was another sketch by Gainsborough, Descent from the Cross (after Sir Peter Paul Rubens). Seems to me Gainsborough expresses compassion in the shape and flow of the composition – the agony is implied, unlike the Rubens original where the white operatic faces are white with extreme emotion, the eyes drenched with tears and turned imploringly up to an angel-infested heaven.

Violence

Hell Along with the sentimentalism it evokes around the story of the crucifixion, Christianity is also famous for the extreme violence of much of its imagery of revenge, and the weakest room in the exhibition is devoted to these images which take their cue from Rubens’ large and vividly imagined Fall of The Damned. Shame we couldn’t see the original, which is in a church in Germany to terrify the faithful. The engravings and copies here show the delight in a multitude of grisly physical tortures which always tickle the Christian imagination (Dante’s Inferno) but not the sense of falling into the picture and joining the devilish throng which the original was presumably designed to make you feel.

Rape The violence of the religious imagination is set by the curators next to the popular of myths and legends about the rape or abduction of women in classical mythology, which Rubens depicted repeatedly, along with his copiers and devotees – The Rape of Proserpina, The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus. These compositions are stagey, operatic, full of carefully arranged violence, at the centre of which are plump women with their clothes falling off. Various reviews mention how uncomfortable the British have been with elements of Rubens’s legacy, and I personally dislike this and the religious iconography, both, for shamelessly exploiting the viewer. With a landscape I feel my aesthetic sense is being appealed to. With a painting of Mary bursting into tears or scantily clad women being abducted by musclemen in armour I feel much baser emotions are being aimed at.

The Hunt Another room was dominated by Rubens’s very big painting of a Tiger, Lion and Leopard Hunt (1617) and around it hung works showing the way this scene – the full drama of the capture of a large, exotic, wild animal – was repeated with variations by painters like Eugène Delacroix and the Englishman Sir Edwin Landseer. It was Delacroix, apparently, who said: ‘Be inspired by Rubens, copy Rubens, look at Rubens.’

Lust

We arrive, exhausted with sensual overload, at the final room which has numerous paintings of scantily clad women being leered at, or just about to be seized by, a satyr. The women are notable for their large thighs, buttocks and bellies and relatively small breasts, as in the Pan and Syrinx of 1617.

Peter Paul Rubens  Pan and Syrinx, 1617  Oil on panel, 40 x 61 cm  Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, Gemaeldegalerie Alte Meister, Kassel  Photo: Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, Gemaeldegalerie Alte Meister/Ute Brunzel

Peter Paul Rubens
Pan and Syrinx, 1617
Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, Gemaeldegalerie Alte Meister, Kassel

The women are always painted as pink and light-skinned, symbolising their purity and innocence. The pans or satyrs are super-muscular figures, their sunburnt skins darkening towards their crotch, wherein lies the source of lust and the hellish pleasures which will buy their owners a one-way ticket to the Fall of Damned, mentioned above.

It was interesting to learn how Rubens used a variety of tints to create the appearance of flesh, including the use of blue or green tints to imply shadowed skin, next to unshadowed pink or white.

And it was interesting to see a roomful of works depicting the same subject by Watteau, Boucher, Renoir and Picasso – but whether this is due to Rubens’ influence or to the abiding interest in revealing the naked female body to the male artist’s male patrons and buyers, to the male gaze generally – is open to debate.

Certainly a room full of predatory, half-bestial men caught in the act of preying on exaggeratedly innocent, wide-eyed maidens left me feeling queasy and was maybe not the best final image to have of Rubens.

But this exhibition, exhaustive and exhausting, succeeds, and then some, in convincing you that Rubens was one of the most important and influential painters in western art.

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The Doomed Oasis by Hammond Innes (1960)

‘Come to the point,’ said Gorde impatiently. (p.151)

This is Hammond Innes’ longest novel to date, 336 pages in the Collins paperback edition. It is a slow-burning tale of oil prospecting on the politically sensitive border between sheikdoms in the Empty Quarter of Arabia, given flavour by the soap opera theme that the young man who travels out to Arabia and triggers the narrative is the bastard son by a Welsh serving girl of the posh Arab expert and obsessive oil prospector, Colonel Charles Whitaker.

The story is a first-person narrative told by the Welsh solicitor, George Grant, who sets out to investigate the young man’s subsequent death and who becomes the reluctant eyewitness to the story’s key developments and tragic denouement.

The plot

Like many a movie, the book opens in a court where staid solicitor George Grant is called on to give the evidence which will decide the fate of the man in the dock, a ‘national hero’, a ‘global figure’, who is on trial for murder. So what led up to this scene?… cue shimmering film effects and travelling-back-in-time music…

1. Escape to Saraifa Well, it all began four years earlier when Grant is called to a house in Swansea where he finds that a 19-year-old boy, David Thomas, who’s escaped from Borstal, has returned to the family home and hit his father so severely that he’s caused a fatal stroke. It quickly emerges that the assault took place because the boy has discovered he’s not the man’s son at all; all this time both his ‘parents’ have lied to him – and he is actually the bastard son of the legendary adventurer and oil prospector in Arabia, Colonel Charles Whitaker, who they used to refer to as ‘Uncle Charles’.

Grant has been called in because his firm handles the monthly payments that come from Whitaker’s bank in Bahrain to the mother’s account – maintenance, or guilt money. When the ‘father’ dies as a result of his blows, David is arrested – but promptly escapes police custody to arrive, wet and injured, in Grant’s office where, against his better judgment and all his professional training, Grant helps the boy stow away on a ship bound for Arabia.

Old Captain Griffiths likewise takes pity on this intense, unhappy young man, allowing him passage on his ship and helping smuggle him ashore in Arabia, where he’s collected by his father’s men. The last Grant hears is a letter saying that David’s met his scary father, Colonel Whitaker (beak nose, patch over one eye, feared by his men, close confederate of the sheikh) and is beginning courses in oil drilling, with a view to helping him with his prospecting.

2. Enquiries of an executioner Three years later Grant is shocked to receive a letter saying David is missing, presumed dead, in the Empty Quarter of Arabia. During that time Grant had become the UK solicitor for Colonel Whitaker, receiving funds from all kinds of business and sheikhs, before disbursing them to buy the equipment for a major oil prospecting expedition. Whitaker is obsessed with the quixotic idea that the profitable Saudi oil seams carry on into the small sheikdom of Saraifa. The shocking news that David is dead is confirmed by an obituary in The Times. And then Captain Griffiths turns up in Grant’s office with a package a harassed David had given him before his fateful, final mission, to be delivered to Grant by hand.

Is David really dead? How did he die? Was he murdered? Was he about to make a great discovery? Who was he working for? —- Trying to answer these questions is the motor of the plot driving Grant to meet and interview as many people connected with the events as possible for the middle 200 pages of the book.

The package contains a last will and testament – for David senses he will die on his last prospecting mission – along with a pledge to drill in specified locations on the Saraifa-Hadd border, which David hopes Grant can force the CEO of the oil company he and his father work for – GODCO – to sign. To make that happen Grant will have to fly to Arabia…

3. The Empty Quarter

Grant flies out to Bahrain and encounters various players including the cool, calculating Erkhard, MD of GODCO in his high-rise office. Tricky and evasive, he nonetheless convinces Grant that the company did everything it could to mount a search & rescue operation for David, but found nothing. Grant goes on to the hospital to meet David’s twin sister, Susan, a nurse working out there. He meets an Italian journalist Ruffini, who is rooting round looking for a story. He meets Sir Philip Gorde, the GODCO boss, who refuses to sign David’s document requesting drilling at key locations, which Grant has been instructed to present to him.

To explain why, Gorde flies Grant over the desert to see the locations, to show him they are on the politically sensitive border between Saraifa and Hadd, players in a centuries old blood feud. But to Gorde’s own surprise, from the plane they see a team drilling illegally and land on a gravel stretch of desert to quiz them. The drilling is being led by one Entwistle, who had met and respected David and now is, unofficially, following up David’s hunch about the oil on the border.

Grant’s dialogue with Entwistle is made up of characteristic Innes evasions.

Entwistle hesitated… ‘It isn’t easy to explain,’… he hesitated… Entwistle hesitated… He hesitated… unable, apparently, to put it into words… Again the hesitation… (pp.149-50)

When Grant gets to ask Entwistle whether he thinks David is still alive there is more evasion.

He hesitated… ‘What are you suggesting?’ I asked. ‘He hesitated…. ‘I don’t rightly know,’ he muttered… (p.153)

4. The doomed oasis

To Grant’s horror, Gorde flies off leaving Grant with Entwistle and his drilling crew in the middle of the desert, and five minutes later they’re attacked by armed bedouin. They flee in the Land Rover and drilling lorry and, after an arduous journey across desert sand and gravel, arrive at the much-mentioned Saraifa oasis, where they are promptly arrested by the ruler, sheikh Makhmud. He is very angry that they’ve been drilling on the border as it could trigger a war with the neighbouring Emir of Hadd. A tense counsel of the bedou elders is interrupted when  one of the precious water pipes to the village, the falajes, fails and Entwistle makes a quick getaway in the Land Rover. Should Grant go with him?

‘I don’t know’, I said. I didn’t know anything for certain… He hesitated. (p.166)

Grant meets Khalid, the son of sheikh Makhmud and, as usual, the encounter is marked by hesitation, non-communication, evasion.

There were many things I wanted to ask him but this didn’t seem the moment. (p.170)

There was a moment then when he hesitated as though about to tell me something…. he replied ‘I don’t know.’… before I could question him he had drawn back… (p.172)

And then, finally, he meets the mysterious and legendary Charles Whitaker. He lives in a few rooms in a large empty mansion in the village and, it turns out, has the same conversational style as every other Innes character.

He didn’t say anything… He made no comment… He shrugged… the silence between us hung heavy as the thick night air… ‘It’s not easy to explain. You don’t understand the situation.’

What is clear is that: the little sheikdom of Saraifa, a castle and village based in an oasis, is under constant attack from the sands of the desert. It is only protected by a line of thorn trees and it only produces dates and rice etc thanks to an ancient system of falajes or water pipes, bringing water some thirty miles from the mountains. There used to be dozens but they have fallen into disrepair, now there are only six, and the men from Hadd are sabotaging these last ones, threatening to destroy all of them and, with them, Saraifa itself, if the illegal drilling continues.

There is a confusing scene where Erkhard flies in and appears to agree with Whitaker that the company will drill the disputed location – this leads sheikh Makhmud to organise a massive celebration feast, described in detail. But then Gorde arrives and, in front of everyone, tears the agreement up. In light of the blowing up of the falaj and some other violent exchanges, Gorde says neither his company nor any other will take the risk of triggering a war. He stalks out and the atmosphere turns very ugly as the jubilant Arabs give vent to their frustration. Whitaker returns to his half-empty palace. Grant returns to the isolated turret room the sheikh had allotted him. Crowds gather in the village square and are harangued by hotheads, and appear to go off and blow up one of the westerner’s airplanes. Grant is afraid.

5. The Quicksands of Umm al Samim

Now GODCO has definitively sworn off drilling on the border, Whitaker tells Grant he wants to liquidate all his assets in the UK and do the drilling out on the border himself as a freelance – although he knows he risks being murdered by Hadd’s men. Grant gets into a Land Rover driven by Whitaker’s servant to leave Saraifa  but they reach the village square only to be blocked by armed men and Grant is returned all over again to his room in the turret.

In this tense atmosphere Grant is brought before the sheikh’s son, Khalid, who tells him David is alive. David’s mysterious disappearance/death was a set-up. The previous 200 pages, and all of Grant’s investigations so far, have been for nothing, based on a false premise.

Before that can sink in Khalid’s bodyguards whisk Grant into a Land Rover and they set off on a journey to Whitaker’s oil drilling rig thirty miles south. Here they learn that Whitaker has ordered his team to pack up and set off to drill on the dangerous border (leaving this reader to ask: why didn’t they quiz Whitaker about this back in Saraifa? Why don’t they simply order the drilling crew not to move?).

From there they drive at speed to a friendly village, Dhaid, and have barely been greeted by the hairy old sheik and his ragamuffin crew, before Khalid receives the message that the men of Hadd are massing for an attack on Saraifa, the doomed oasis. Khalid must return to his father – but he insists that Grant must change into native garb and be taken by a guide who doesn’t speak English into the remote quicksands of Umm al Samim, for this is where David is hiding out. Crikey.

Why did David fake his own death?

Khalid explains that he and David cooked up the idea of David’s disappearance for the publicity, to get it reported in the press, to bring pressure to bear on the oil company to drill in the contentious locations and encourage the British government to secure the disputed territory for Saraifa. (What a silly plan.) But it has completely failed: Gorde, the head of the oil company has expressly banned the drilling, war with the men of Hadd now looks inevitable, and the British government is (wisely) refusing to get involved – the exact opposite of everything David hoped for.

Khalid tells Grant he must go on this mission to find David and a) bring him back to be reunited with his father, to persuade him to call off the drilling b) then go to the British Political representative in Bahrain and beg for men and guns to defend Saraifa from the men of Hadd and their allies.

— Innes’ description of Grant’s journey through the desert and then across the treacherous quagmire of Umm al Samim is powerfully evocative. Around this stage of the book the longeurs which had dogged Grant’s quest for David begin to be replaced by more frequent and vivid descriptions of the desert, the harshness of bedouin life, a mounting sense of violence and impending tragedy.

Disaster

And then – very quickly, in the space of twenty pages – the situation and mood are turned upside down. As David and Grant ride their slow camels back towards Saraifa they learn that the men of Hadd have already attacked the doomed oasis. First they find the neighbouring village, Dhaid, full of wobegone refugees cowering behind the walls. Then they come to Saraifa itself, where all the falajes have been blocked, there is no drinking water, and the desert sands are blowing freely across the date gardens.

They ride out to the first watering hole where they discover the wreckage of a battlefield. Here Khalid and his men were ambushed by the men of Hadd and massacred, rusty old rifles against modern automatic weapons. All the bodies have been half-eaten by hyenas. David finds Khalid’s body, buries it with tears in his eyes, then swears vengeance on the men of Hadd.

They ride on past scattered corpses and out into the desert until they come upon Whitaker who is setting up his mobile drilling at the contentious locations, regardless of the consequences. Grant witnesses the reunion between son and the father who thought he was dead, and it is not a happy one. David is mystified as to why Whitaker is bothering to drill at all since, in David’s mind, the drilling was always about generating oil revenue to pay to restore the falajas and save the oasis. He is appalled to realise that for Whitaker it is just about confirming his lifelong theory that the oil is here, and about money. He has done a deal with the Emir of Hadd, got his approval to drill, and will pay him a commission.

David, thirsting for revenge, begs his father for men to help him carry out an attack on Hadd but Whitaker (sensibly) refuses. Whitaker asks Grant to help him make David see sense. In his turn, David asks Grant to come with him and help with his attack. Almost without realising it, Grant agrees with the latter and, along with four Arabs, they set off on camel-back for Hadd. —More evocative descriptions of the desert by day and night. And an atmosphere of real threat and tension.

The small team arrive at Hadd by night. David blows up its three wells (ha! revenge for Saraifa!) then they climb the old fort which backs onto the town. The battle – or more accurately, siege – which forms the climax of the novel, has begun.

6. Fort Jebel al-Akhbar

By this stage the novel has become gripping. Maybe it’s the introductoin of the visceral excitement of war and bloodshed – but it’s also the sense that the various strands of the plot are reaching a climax: Grant’s long association with David, which gives their relationship its depth; and David’s enmity with his father; all overlaid by his thirst for revenge for the killing of Khalid and the strangling of Saraifa, the doomed oasis.

David, Grant and their Arabs hold out in the commanding tower for days. They snipe at anyone trying to fix the wells. They successfully repulse every attack, sometimes with grenades. Three Land Rovers arrive with boastful Arab warriors and they immediately destroy two of them.

Under cover of dark, David encourages Grant to escape, blacked out, dressed as a bedouin, hiding against rocks as another wave of attackers climb the hillside. Grant stumbles across the attackers’ camels, steals one and heads west in the hope of coming across the tracks to Whitaker’s camp. —More convincing, and terrifying, descriptions of the pitiless desert.

By fluke, Grant makes it to Whitaker’s camp and his news angers the old man: he has helped set the Emir against him just as his dreams of drilling were coming true. Whitaker is torn between grief at the inevitable death of his son and hatred of him for scuppering his lifelong ambition.

The incident has been reported and one Colonel George for the British Army drops by to ensure Whitaker and his men are alright. He is accompanied by Ruffini, the snooping Italian journalist Grant first met in Bahrain. Lucky. Grant briefs Ruffini who flies out with Colonel George and manages to smuggle the story out to the British press. The next day it is dominating the national papers and a question is asked of the Foreign Secretary in the House. David’s siege has become an international incident. Over the next few days David is cast, by a jingoistic press, as a national hero. Grant watches all these developments with amazement.

Colonel George had radioed one of his patrols, led by a Captain Berry, to collect Grant and take him back to Bahrain but they divert to the border with Hadd and then, after a few days, the fuss in the press not going away, they are ordered to proceed to Jebel al-Akhbar to broker a deal.

Captain Berry and Grant are given safe passage by the Emir up the hill to the fort and meet David, more dead than alive, wounded and parched with thirst. He refuses to leave. He doesn’t trust the Emir not to assassinate him, and he thinks with a few more days holdout the British government will be forced to intervene and save Saraifa. Berry and Grant leave him some water and bandages and return to keeping a watching brief with their platoon of troops on the Saraifa-Hadd border.

Next thing they see a posse of the Emir’s men ride by in the direction of Whitaker’s drilling – then several hours later, riding back with Whitaker. The Emir is forcing Whitaker to confront his son and make him surrender.

Hours later Berry and Grant and the men hear a single shot ring out from the distant hill. They receive radio instructions that the government is brokering David’s surrender and a helicopter flies into the mountain top to bring him out. Ruffini the journalist is there to record the scene as the semi-conscious David is brought down to Berry’s camp, just enough time to whisper hello to Grant, before being flown on to hospital in Bahrain.

The Emir rides out to the camp in the dignity and simplicity of bedouin dress on a camel and harangues the British troops: they care nothing for the deaths of innumerable Arabs, but maybe they will mind the death of a white man. And one of his Land Rovers roars up and deposits the body of Colonel Whitaker onto the sand, shot in the face.

Did David shoot him? Is he a national hero or a national disgrace? Ruffini promises to write up a version that the Emir’s men treacherously murdered Whitaker, and Grant is full of hope. But Whitaker’s old friend and sparring partner, Sir Philip, says it is Grant’s fault for smuggling David out here in the first place, a dockside water-rat, a criminal wanted by the police, a rough illegitimate boy who had vowed to kill his father, one of the finest Arabists of his generation, a legend in the Peninsula, and a hero. It is all Grant’s fault.

Which is true? Which version will prevail?

Back in court

And so the narrative returns to the opening scene, a court room where Grant has been called to give evidence for the prosecution against David Thomas. The preceding 300 pages amount to a summary of his evidence, what he saw and experienced and witnessed. What will the court decide…?


Innes’ ‘secrets’

The ‘secrets’ at the core of these Innes novels of the later 1950s are often pretty trivial:

  • In The Wreck of The Mary Deare the crew were ordered to sink the ship as part of an insurance scam, but the captain managed to keep her afloat and beach her on rocks near the Scillies. That’s it. But it takes the narrator about 200 pages of painful obstructions and evasive conversations to prise this out of the ship’s captain.
  • In The Land God Gave To Cain Three engineers survive crash landing in the wilds of Labrador, where one goes mad and tries to kill the other two, one of whom just about survives, escapes and hushes it all up. The narrator, a radio ham in England, picks up a radio signal from the murderer, left out in the wastes, a week after he was officially dead – that’s the puzzle or mystery – and it takes him 200 pages of interviewing innumerable evasive and obstructive company officials and eyewitnesses before he gets to the (unsatisfyingly simple) truth.

Innes only manages to spin 200-page novels out of these thin scenarios by having everyone in them appear slow on the uptake and have long, fruitless conversations in which they refuse to ‘spit it out’. Everyone is evasive about everything. In the 1950s this might have passed for the creation of ‘pace, tension and intrigue’ but tastes have changed. We expect a modern thriller to be cleverer than the reader, to outwit us with multiple levels of deceit, layers of duplicity which are slowly peeled away to reveal something truly shocking or dazzling.

Instead, for the majority of this book, as in the previous two, I experienced a growing sense of frustration as every conversation consisted of evasions and hesitations. Not for any cunning and clever reasons but simply for Innes to create a false sense of tension and spin things out.

It’s made worse because the real explanation is obvious so early on in the novel – when David’s death is reported I thought it was a bit pat and convenient, so it came as no surprise 200 pages later to realise he isn’t dead at all. The only thing that puzzled me was, Why? And the revelation that it was a publicity stunt to push the company into signing a legal commitment to drill at the contentious locations just seems ludicrous, a ludicrous failure to understand how multinational oil companies work.

Evasions and frustrations

A classic example is the conversation between the solicitor Grant and David’s twin sister, Susan, out in Arabia. Almost every one of her replies for about five pages of dialogue is hesitant, evasive, reluctant – and, doubling the frustration, part of it is her recounting a conversation with her brother in which he had been hesitant and evasive.

But since we, the readers, know that the plot boils down to David and his father disobeying oil company policy and drilling for oil in a politically sensitive region, the evasions seem unnecessary, willed and wilful, only there to delay and retard the plot, to inject a factitious sense of intrigue into a situation which is relatively simple.

She paused there… ‘Dedicated to what?’ I asked… but she couldn’t tell me… she gave a slight shrug… she didn’t answer for a moment… she hesitated… She paused, at a loss for words… I asked her what it meant but all she said was… ‘I don’t know,’ she said… she didn’t answer for a while… she shrugged… ‘I don’t know’… She didn’t seem to want to talk about it, for I had to drag it out of her… She admitted it reluctantly… she hesitated.. ‘I can’t explain’… she couldn’t put it into words… ‘He wouldn’t tell me anything’… ‘Now?’ She shook her head. ‘I don’t know…’ she shook her head… she shrugged… ‘I don’t know…’ (pages 123-130)

Similarly, when Grant meets David, blackened and seared by six weeks hiding out in the desert, you’d have thought he’d be desperate to explin the situation and find out what’s happened in his absence. But the scene is marred by Innes’ characteristic slowness and evasiveness.

His voice faded and once more he was staring out into the void… He didn’t say anything for a long time, sitting there lost in thought… He said it with deep bitterness and afterward was silent for a long time… (pp.233-235)

‘What happened?’ I asked him.
‘Nothing,’ he replied tersely. And after that he sat for a long time without saying a word. (p.251)

If Raymond Chandler is the king of quickfire repartee, Innes is the master of long, slow, slack, evasive and frustratingly inconclusive dialogue. How I wish I had a pound for every time a character shrugs, or hesitates, or says ‘I don’t know’.

Shellfish

There’s a physical concomitant to these evasions which is the tendence of all the characters to perform the same psychological act of turning in on themselves, withdrawing from the conversation, or looking off into the distance. It’s something I noticed a lot in The Land God Gave To Cain and it’s here in spades. This would be fine if there was anything interesting they were pondering or looking at – but they aren’t.

He had withdrawn into his own thoughts. (p.178)

He didn’t say anything. He seemed suddenly to have withdrawn into himself. (p.181)

Colour

On the other hand, Innes is good at local colour. As the plot becomes more Arab, as the westerners get left behind and Grant enters the world of the desert Arabs, the ‘plot’ may be spurious, but the text of the novel really picks up pace and intensity from Innes’ vivid description of Arab clothes and appearances, speech and customs, and the changing face of the vast and terrifying desert.

We travelled all that night without a break. The moon turned the desert to a bleak, bone white, and in the early hours a mist came up and it was cold. By then I was too tired to care where I was going and only the pain of the saddle chafing the inside of my thighs, the ache of unaccustomed muscles, kept me awake. The dawn brought a searing wind that whipped the mist aside and flung a moving cloud of sand in our faces. Lightning flashed in the gloom behind us, but no rain fell – just the wind and the driving sand particles. (p.225)

His prose is clear and functional, isn’t it? Devoid of the class-conscious grammatical correctness of Graham Greene’s prose, it is lucid and easy to read. There are no obstacles to quick comprehension and it is this ease of absorption, it is the speed you can read it at, which compensates, especially in the final section of the novel, for the frustrations of the first half of the plot.

As you put the book down it is the quick vivid descriptions of battle in the desert, along with the gathering sense of danger as Grant gets sucked into the siege on the hill, which ultimately outweigh the shortcomings of the earlier human interactions, so that overall I found it a rewarding, memorable and moving book. But I can see why nobody tried to make it into a film. And also why, like so many other Innes books, it is now largely unread.

Related links

Original Collins hardback cover of The Doomed Oasis

Original Collins hardback cover of The Doomed Oasis

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.

Travels With My Aunt by Graham Greene (1969)

I was sunk deep in my middle age. All the same I laid my head against aunt Agatha’s breast. ‘I have been happy,’ I said, ‘but I have been so bored for so long.’ (p.256)

This is quite a long (260 pages), slow, calm, easy-going comedy, very relaxed, very funny, very enjoyable.

Greene’s periods

Looking back over Greene’s career to date, it falls into roughly three periods:

  • the hyper-production of rackety thrillers and entertainments in the 1930s
  • the classic period from the Blitz to the mid-1950s when his tortuous private life and the refinement of his writing and structuring skills helped him write the Big Three: The Power and The Glory, The Heart of The Matter, The End of The Affair (and his most successful films eg The Third Man)
  • and then, from the mid-1950s, a less intense, more comic tone begins to emerge: in the outright comedies Our Man In Havana and Loser Takes All, or mingled with tragic elements in A Burnt-Out Case and The Comedians

In this book you have the sense that the intense emotion and unhappiness and Catholic guilt which produced the tragedies of Matter and Affair have burnt themselves out leaving a kind of calmness and equableness, an acceptance of life’s absurdity and that – new for Greene – life might actually be for enjoying rather than an arena for tormenting oneself and others.

The plot

Henry Pulling is a middle-aged, retired bank manager. He never married, he has no children. He lives in a nice suburban house in Southwood, grows dahlias and attends the Conservative club every Tuesday night. At the funeral of  his agèd mother, into his life sweeps the powerhouse which is his unconventional Aunt Augusta. Immediately she reveals that Henry is not his mother’s son, he is the son of a woman his father impregnated but wouldn’t marry, but his ‘mother’ stepped in to marry his father and raise him. This shocking revelation is still sinking in as aunt Augusta takes Henry to her flat above a pub and introduces him to a large, virile black from Sierra Leone named Wordsworth, who he slowly realises is his aunt’s lover. How unconventional, how 1969, how very unlike the dull life of his own parents.

But aunt Augusta is bored and restless, subjecting Henry to an unstoppable torrent of stories about her outrageous escapades during a long eventful life. She drags him down to Brighton to look up an old friend Hatty with whom she proceeds to reminisce at length about their days in a traveling circus and then working for a fraudster who set up a church for dogs (!)

Aunt Agatha then conceives a grander scheme and commands Henry to accompany her on a trip on the Orient Express to Istanbul. They meet a young American woman who bemoans her rich, indifferent parents and introduces Henry to the pleasures of ‘pot’. At the Italian stop aunt Augusta meets the son of the one great love of her life, Mr Visconti, before they continue on to Turkey where, to his astonishment, Henry realises his aunt has been smuggling gold bullion in her luggage, with a view to investing with crooks. Their hotel room is visited and searched by the ageing Colonel Hakim (maybe it’s a common name, but maybe this is an affectionate nod to the Colonel Hakim who appears in several of Eric Ambler’s classic pre-war thrillers). The police have uncovered the whole plan and are prosecuting the Turkish end but have no evidence against Agatha who stands up to their search and questioning with old-fashioned British sang-froid.

The Turkish authorities do, however, deport them on the next flight back to London. Henry doesn’t hear from his aunt for several months and settles back down into the peacefully watering his dahlias, chatting to the colonel next door, and wistfully remembering the one possible love of his life – Miss Keene, daughter of one of his best customers at the bank, who he came within an ace of proposing to 25 years earlier, and who still writes wanful letters to him from South Africa where she emigrated, with a permanent undertow of sadness at what might have been.

It’s as if he faces two alternative futures: replying to Miss Keene’s sad letters, inviting her to return to Southwood, to the sound of the bells of the local church, the dahlias, the annual fete; or his aunt’s amoral world of adventures, of foreign lovers, smuggling and criminal exploits, con-men, fraudsters and fun.

In Part Two of the novel he receives a letter from his aunt informing him she is in South America and never plans to return to England, commanding him to sell her flat and all its contents, apart from a handful of items including a framed picture, and fly to Buenos Aires. After a little hesitation he obeys, then finds a message to take a boat up the river to Asunçion in Paraguay.

All kinds of sinister characters are aboard the boat and Henry is astonished to meet Wordsworth, his aunt’s black lover, in the middle of nowhere: he is loyally following aunt Agatha but heart-broken that she has abandoned him for the Italian. For at Asunçion, Henry discovers that aunt Augusta has been reunited with the famous Signor Visconti, the great love of her life of whom she has told so many stories. Unfortunately, he seems to have fallen on hard times and Agatha has spent all her money bailing him out. Initially Henry thinks this is a colossal mistake and that the crook Visconti has absconded with the money and left his aunt impoverished.

There is a flicker of trouble from an American named Tooley (who it slowly emerges is CIA) and who points out that Visconti was a war criminal, and a burst of definite trouble when Henry blows his nose on a scarf aunt Augusta lent him, a red scarf she’d given him to wear on the Paraguay national day, and it turns out he’s just blown his nose on a scarf of the national colour of the ruling party outside their party headquarters. He starts a small riot, is beaten up and is lucky to escape with his life, ending up in gaol. The CIA man Tooley visits Henry in gaol and fixes his release, in exchange for which he wants Henry to broker a meeting with aunt Augusta and Visconti.

At this meeting Visconti hands over a priceless sketch by Leonardo da Vinci which he nabbed during the War when he was working closely with the Gestapo to ‘export’ Italy’s art treasures. In exchange Tooley agrees to drop US harassment of him. At first deeply sceptical of Visconti, who is not at all the tall elegant man he’d imagined but a short fat bald man with bad teeth, Henry slowly comes to like him and, after his aunt and Visconti hold a grand party for everyone who is anyone in Asunçion – the chief of police, the head of customs, leaders of all the poliical parties – Henry realises that, with the right bribes to the right people, they can probably make a real success of the ‘export-import’ business they’ve been discussing ie smuggling whiskey and cigarettes at a massive profit.

The big house they’ve bought is now grandly furnished, aunt Augusta is happily in love, the money starts rolling in and Henry takes his place using his bank manager expertise as head accountant for the new crime syndicate. It is only a detail or afterthought that he finds the body of poor Wordsworth, Augusta’s abandoned black lover, in the large gardens, where he had (presumably) been bumped off by Visconti’s bodyguard. His death is unlamented, there is no mention of a funeral, even.

Right up to the end Henry has been hankering after returning to Southwood and domesticity. But in an abrupt paragraph on the last page we leap 6 months into the future, after the Grand Party, to discover that Henry has made his decision, choosing his aunt, adventure and Life!

Style

The hippy girl they meet on the Orient Express, on her way to Istanbul and then on the hippy trail to Kathmandu, introduces Henry to pot and mentions acid. Back in England he hears Beatles songs drifting through open windows from radios.

But in fact the style of the first-person narrator, Henry Pulling, sets its face against 1969, and is deliberately staid, old fashioned and conventional.

Greene’s prose style is not great: it is nearly always concise and efficient but, if it occasionally rises to sudden aperçus, descriptive or psychological insights, it just as often appears a bit slapdash and clunky. His OK style of the 30s and 40s has lived on into another age, and I wonder if the germ of the plot came as much from the insight that his style was out of date, as the notion that his character was; as if the lead character is less a human being than an embodiment of old-fashioned grammar, syntax and vocabulary come to life.

Related links

The movie

The novel was made into a movie, released in 1972 and dominated by an over-the-top performance from Maggie Smith, for some reason pretending to be Winston Churchill.

Greene’s books

  • The Man Within (1929) One of the worst books I’ve ever read, a wretchedly immature farrago set in a vaguely described 18th century about a cowardly smuggler who betrays his fellows to the Excise men then flees to the cottage of a pure and innocent young woman who he falls in love with before his pathetic inaction leads to her death. Drivel.
  • The Name of Action (1930) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Rumour at Nightfall (1931) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Stamboul Train (1932) A motley cast of characters find out each others’ secrets and exploit each other on the famous Orient Express rattling across Europe, climaxing in the execution of one of the passengers, a political exile, in an obscure rail junction, and all wound up with a cynical business deal in Istanbul.
  • It’s a Battlefield (1934) London: a working class man awaits his death sentence for murder while a cast of seedy characters, including a lecherous HG Wells figure, betray each other and agonise about their pointless lives.
  • England Made Me (1935) Stockholm: financier and industrialist Krogh hires a pretty Englishwoman Kate Farrant to be his PA/lover. She gets him to employ her shiftless brother Anthony who, after only a few days, starts spilling secrets to the seedy journalist Minty, and so is bumped off by Krogh’s henchman, Hall.
  • A Gun for Sale (1936) England: After assassinating a European politician and sparking mobilisation for war, hitman Raven pursues the lecherous middle man who paid him with hot money to a Midlands town, where he gets embroiled with copper’s girl, Anne, before killing the middle man and the wicked arms merchant who was behind the whole deal, and being shot dead himself.
  • Brighton Rock (1938) After Kite is murdered, 17 year-old Pinkie Brown takes over leadership of one of Brighton’s gangs, a razor-happy psychopath who is also an unthinking Catholic tormented by frustrated sexuality. He marries a 16 year-old waitress (who he secretly despises) to stop her squealing on the gang, before being harried to a grisly death.
  • The Confidential Agent (1939) D. the agent for a foreign power embroiled in a civil war, tries and fails to secure a contract for British coal to be sent to his side. He flees the police and unfounded accusations of murder, has an excursion to a Midlands mining district where he fails to persuade the miners to go on strike out of solidarity for his (presumably communist) side, is caught by the police, put on trial, then helped to escape across country to a waiting ship, accompanied by the woman half his age who has fallen in love with him.
  • The Lawless Roads (1939) Greene travels round Mexico and hates it, hates its people and its culture, the poverty, the food, the violence and despair, just about managing to admire the idealised Catholicism which is largely a product of his own insistent mind, and a few heroic priests-on-the-run from the revolutionary authorities.
  • The Power and the Glory (1940) Mexico: An unnamed whisky priest, the only survivor of the revolutionary communists’ pogrom against the Catholic hierarchy, blunders from village to village feeling very sorry for himself and jeopardising lots of innocent peasants while bringing them hardly any help until he is caught and shot.
  • The Ministry of Fear (1943) Hallucinatory psychological fantasia masquerading as an absurdist thriller set in London during the Blitz when a man still reeling from mercy-killing his terminally ill wife gets caught up with a wildly improbable Nazi spy ring.
  • The Heart of The Matter (1948) Through a series of unfortunate events, Henry Scobie, the ageing colonial Assistant Commissioner of Police in Freetown, Sierra Leone, finds himself torn between love of his wife and of his mistress, spied on by colleagues and slowly corrupted by a local Syrian merchant, until life becomes intolerable and – as a devout Catholic – he knowingly damns himself for eternity by committing suicide. Whether you agree with its Catholic premises or not, this feels like a genuinely ‘great’ novel for the completeness of its conception and the thoroughness of its execution.
  • The Third Man (1949) The novella which formed the basis for the screenplay of the famous film starring Orson Welles. Given its purely preparatory nature, this is a gripping and wonderfully-written tale, strong on atmosphere and intrigue and mercifully light on Greene’s Catholic preachiness.
  • The End of The Affair (1951) Snobbish writer Maurice Bendrix has an affair with Sarah, the wife of his neighbour on Clapham Common, the dull civil servant, Henry Miles. After a V1 bomb lands on the house where they are illicitly meeting, half burying Bendrix, Sarah breaks off the affair and refuses to see him. Only after setting a detective on her, does Bendrix discover Sarah thought he had been killed in the bombing and prayed to God, promising to end their affair and be ‘good’ if only he was allowed to live – only to see him stumbling in through the wrecked doorway, from which point she feels duty bound to God to keep her word. She sickens and dies of pneumonia like many a 19th century heroine, but not before the evidence begins to mount up that she was, in fact, a genuine saint. Preposterous for most of its length, it becomes genuinely spooky at the end.
  • Twenty-One Stories (1954) Generally very short stories, uneven in quality and mostly focused on wringing as much despair about the human condition as possible using thin characters who come to implausibly violent endings – except for three short funny tales.
  • The Unquiet American (1955) Set in Vietnam as the French are losing their grip on the country, jaded English foreign correspondent, Thomas Fowler, reacts very badly to fresh-faced, all-American agent Alden Pyle, who both steals his Vietnamese girlfriend and is naively helping a rebel general and his private army in the vain hope they can form a non-communist post-colonial government. So Fowler arranges for Pyle to be assassinated. The adultery and anti-Americanism are tiresome, but the descriptions of his visits to the front line are gripping.
  • Loser Takes All (1955) Charming comic novella recounting the mishaps of accountant Bertram who is encouraged to get married at a swanky hotel in Monte Carlo by his wealthy boss who then doesn’t arrive to pick up the bill, as he’d promised to – forcing Bertram to dabble in gambling at the famous Casino and becoming so obsessed with winning that he almost loses his wife before the marriage has even begun.
  • Our Man In Havana (1958) Comedy about an unassuming vacuum cleaner salesman, Jim Wormold, living in Havana, who is improbably recruited for British intelligence and, when he starts to be paid, feels compelled to manufacture ‘information’ from made-up ‘agents’. All very farcical until the local security services and then ‘the other side’ start taking an interest, bugging his phone, burgling his flat and then trying to bump him off.
  • A Burnt-Out Case (1960) Tragedy. Famous architect Querry travels to the depths of the Congo, running away from his European fame and mistress, and begins to find peace working with the local priests and leprosy doctor, when the unhappy young wife of a local factory owner accuses him of seducing her and fathering her child, prompting her husband to shoot Querry dead.
  • The Comedians (1966) Tragedy. Brown returns to run his hotel in Port-au-Prince, in a Haiti writhing under the brutal regime of Papa Doc Duvalier, and to resume his affair with the ambassador’s wife, Martha. A minister commits suicide in the hotel pool; Brown is beaten up by the Tontons Macoute; he tries to help a sweet old American couple convert the country to vegetarianism. In the final, absurd sequence he persuades the obvious con-man ‘major’ Jones to join the pathetic ‘resistance’ (12 men with three rusty guns), motivated solely by the jealous (and false) conviction that Jones is having an affair with his mistress. They are caught, escape, and Brown is forced to flee to the neighbouring Dominican Republic where the kindly Americans get him a job as assistant to the funeral director he had first met on the ferry to Haiti.
  • Travels With My Aunt (1969) Comedy. Unmarried, middle-aged, retired bank manager Henry Pullman meets his aunt Augusta at the funeral of his mother, and is rapidly drawn into her unconventional world, accompanying her on the Orient Express to Istanbul and then on a fateful trip to south America, caught up in her colourful stories of foreign adventures and exotic lovers till he finds himself right in the middle of an uncomfortably dangerous situation.
  • The Honorary Consul (1973) Tragedy. Dr Eduardo Plarr accidentally assists in the kidnapping of his friend, the alcoholic, bumbling ‘honorary consul’ to a remote city on the border of Argentina, Charley Fortnum, with whose ex-prostitute wife he happens to be having an affair. When he is asked to go and treat Fortnum, who’s been injured, Plarr finds himself also taken prisoner by the rebels and dragged into lengthy Greeneish discussions about love and religion and sin and redemption etc, while they wait for the authorities to either pay the ransom the rebels have demanded or storm their hideout. It doesn’t end well.
  • The Human Factor (1978) Maurice Castle lives a quiet, suburban life with his African wife, Sarah, commuting daily to his dull office job in a branch of British Security except that, we learn half way through the book, he is a double agent passing secrets to the Russians. Official checks on a leak from his sector lead to the improbable ‘liquidation’ of an entirely innocent colleague which prompts Castle to make a panic-stricken plea to his Soviet controllers to be spirited out of the country. And so he is, arriving safely in Moscow. But to the permanent separation with the only person he holds dear in the world and who he was, all along, working on behalf of – his beloved Sarah. Bleak and heart-breaking.
  • Monsignor Quixote (1982) Father Quixote is unwillingly promoted monsignor and kicked out of his cosy parish, taking to the roads of Spain with communist ex-mayor friend, Enrique ‘Sancho’ Zancas, in an old jalopy they jokingly nickname Rocinante, to experience numerous adventures loosely based on his fictional forebear, Don Quixote, all the while debating Greene’s great Victorian theme, the possibility of a doubting – an almost despairing – Catholic faith.
  • The Captain and The Enemy (1988) 12-year-old Victor Baxter is taken out of his boarding school by a ‘friend’ of his father’s, the so-called Captain, who carries him off to London to live with his girlfriend, Liza. Many years later Victor, a grown man, comes across his youthful account of life in this strange household when Liza dies in a road accident, and he sets off on an adult pilgrimage to find the Captain in Central America, a quest which – when he tells him of Liza’s death – prompts the old man to one last – futile and uncharacteristic – suicidal gesture.

The Comedians by Graham Greene (1966)

She laughed and held me still and kissed me. I responded as well as I could, but the corpse in the pool seemed to turn our preoccupations into comedy. The corpse of Dr Philipot belonged to a more tragic theme; we were only a sub-plot affording a little light relief. (p.57)

The Comedians is Greene’s longest novel (287 pages in the Penguin edition) and among his most enjoyable. The tone is equable, the style concise and expressive, the text relatively unblemished by the Catholic despair and bucket theology of his other novels, and there is a steady flow of deft descriptions and urbane ironies which, although they intertwine with some gruesome scenes, on the whole keep a slight smile permanently hovering on the reader’s lips.

Plot

It’s narrated in the first person by  a middle-aged Englishman, Brown, the owner of a hotel in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. He’s been in the States for three months and the novel opens with him aboard a tramp steamer puffing to Haiti, accompanied by a handful of other guests: Mr and Mrs Smith the American evangelists for vegetarianism; the loud and probably fake Englishman ‘Major’ Jones; a travelling pharmaceutical salesman; and a mournful black man named Mr Fernandez. Brown, Smith and Jones – the narrator comments on the comic unlikelihood of these notorious aliases appearing together, and that sets the tone…

As soon as he arrives in Port-au-Prince, Brown re-enters the adulterous relationship with Martha, wife of a South American ambassador. And he returns to the hotel, the Trianon, which he had built up into a 5-star operation and compulsory stop on every well-heeled tourist’s itinerary – until, that is, Papa Doc’s reign of terror destroyed the tourist trade, until his staff were roughed up by the thuggish Tontons Macoute, until he himself abandoned it to flee to the States a few months earlier.

Haiti, Papa Doc Duvalier and the Tonton Macoutes

Dr Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier was elected president of Haiti in 1957 on a populist and black nationalist platform. After a coup attempt against him in 1959 he sacked senior Army staff and created an alternative police-cum-militia, the terrifyingly ill-disciplined, cruel and sadistic Tonton Macoute. They routinely raped and beat to death anyone who got in their way. As he got older Papa Doc went mad. He turned against the head of the Tontons who went on the run. When Papa Doc was told the fugitive Tonton had turned himself into a black dog, Duvalier ordered all black dogs in Haiti be put to death. Duvalier ordered the head of an executed rebel to be packed in ice and brought to him so he could commune with the dead man’s spirit. Peep holes were carved into the walls of the interrogation chambers, through which Duvalier personally observed Haitian detainees being tortured and submerged in baths of sulphuric acid.

Haiti under this grotesque regime is the macabre setting of the novel. It is not so much a country as a nightmare come to life, a place of perpetual fear.

Comedians

Despite – or because of – all this, the central idea of the novel is that we are all comedians on the great stage of life. In very appealing chapters the narrator tells us about his early life being educated at a Catholic boarding school in Monte Carlo. He had a flair for theatre and it was while made-up for a play that he absconded to gamble in the famous Casino and drew the attention of a middle-aged woman who seduced him and took his virginity. When the Fathers discovered it all, he was expelled. His mother was a great self-dramatist and liar, who routinely changed her name and image and had sent him away to school to free herself for her numerous roles. On the rare occasions he sees her leading up to her death, she is permanently on stage.

I knew very little of her, but enough to recognise an accomplished comedian. (p.76)

So he is an actor, from a line of actors, inclined to think we are all just passing players caught up in the great farce of Life. This theme was strongly present in Greene’s previous novel, A Burnt-Out Case, which descended, at its climax, into absurd farce; here the theme is brought home repeatedly as we witness various characters acting out roles on the grim stage of Papa Doc’s theatre of the absurd. And commenting on it.

‘I remember looking at him one night on the boat from America – it was after the ship’s concert – and wondering, are you and I both comedians?’ (p.133)

‘They can say that of most of us. Wasn’t I a comedian with my verses smelling of Les Fleurs du Mal, published in hand-made paper at my own expense?’ (p.133)

The ambassador said, ‘Come on, cheer up, let us all be comedians together. Take one of my cigars. Help yourself at the bar. My Scotch is good. Perhaps even Papa Doc is a comedian.’ (p.134)

The ambassador said, ‘We mustn’t complain too much about being comedians – it’s an honourable profession. If only we could be good ones the world might gain at least a sense of style. We have failed – that’s all. We are bad comedians.’ (p.134)

‘For Christ’s sake,’ Martha said in English as though she were addressing me directly, ‘I’m no comedian.’ (p.134)

There was not a false note in her voice; she was perfectly at ease, and I thought of her anger when we talked of comedians, although now she proved to be the best comedian of us all. (p.140)

Adultery

I’ve recently read novels by Eric Ambler, Hammond Innes, Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley, Len Deighton, Peter O’Donnell and Adam Hall, and the novels by Greene are the only ones which feature adultery – not only feature it, but make it a central strand of the plot. I mentioned to my son that the plot of the novel I’m reading is about a middle-aged man having an affair which makes him unhappy, and he said, ‘Not another Graham Greene?’ Quite.

It is his signature tune. Adultery – miserable adultery – is the motor of The Heart of The Matter, The End of the Affair, The Unquiet American and A Burnt-Out Case. From Norman Sherry’s exhaustive biography of Greene we learn that miserable adultery was the almost permanent condition of his private life after about 1940. And so here, in this novel, there are numerous scenes where the lovers (Brown the narrator and Martha, the ambassador’s wife) meet and torment each other with recriminations, guilt, or shabby sex. And the narrator generously shares with us his many insights into the wretched nature of affairs – though thankfully not nearly as intensely, or so drenched in the Catholic guilt, as those which overflow The Heart of The Matter and The End of The Affair.

If a husband is notoriously blind to infidelity, I suppose a lover has the opposite fault – he sees it everywhere. (p.48)

Time was needed for a home as time was needed to turn a mistress into a wife. (p.49)

This is one of the pains of illicit love: even your mistress’s most extreme embrace is a proof the more that love doesn’t last. (p.49)

Sooner or later one always feels the need of a weapon against a mistress. (p.130)

Maybe Greene acquired a reputation for being cosmopolitan, a sophisticate, a man of the world, because a) he travelled widely, and confidently set his novels in a fascinating variety of countries b) he emigrated and lived in the south of France, then Switzerland c) but maybe most of all because he displayed what was then, in the late 50s and 60s, a Continental openness about sex and adultery.

In which case the pose has dated. There is something not liberating but coercive about his continual assumption that adultery is the common condition of all marriages, that infidelity is inevitable.

The Society of Jesus is used to unsettled bills; it works assiduously on the fringes of the aristocracy where returned cheques are almost as common as adulteries. (p.59)

Brown’s affair with Martha dominates this long novel. It provides a central spine to a text which also includes observations about political dissidents and comic sub-plots about Mr and Mrs Smith, the American vegetarians, and the misadventures of the mysterious ‘major’ Jones. The affair is brought under the aegis of the central conceit that we are all ‘comedians’ by being routinely presented as farcical – Brown and the ambassador’s wife drive all round the city trying to find somewhere safe and discreet to have sex and are continually interrupted, by her son, by the Americans, by the Tontons.

It is nonetheless lowering that a great writer can devote such a large percentage of his pages to describing pretty much the same the kind of squalid, hopeless, miserably unhappy affairs which made such a wreck of his own life.

Everything was just as before. After ten minutes we had made love, and after half an hour we had begun to quarrel. (p.50)

Sex

From the start of his career Greene was unsqueamish about / very interested in, writing about sex. I was surprised by the reference in one of the 1930s novels to young couples masturbating each other under the protection of raincoats on park benches or deckchairs. Or by the crudeness of a phrase in The End of The Affair where Bendrix describes his feeling when he is with Sarah, with her ‘or in her’. Or him casually referring to her crying out at orgasm. Same here. It is 1966 and London is swinging but there is no joy whatsoever in Greene’s description of a black woman getting down on her knees, her head on the ground, pulling up her skirts to be taken by a Tonton thug. Or the queue at Mère Catherine’s brothel. Or the protagonist Brown screwing the ambassador’s wife in the cramped back seat of her Peugeot.

Once I had looked out of my window at two in the morning. There was a great yellow moon and a girl was making love in the pool. She had her breasts pressed against the side and I couldn’t see the man behind her. She didn’t notice me watching her; she didn’t notice anything. (p.51)

Some of the younger writers emerging in the 1960s seem to have enjoyed sex. Not Greene, for whom it is a pitiful physical urge, to be sated with illiterate whores in the stable-like brothel or in cramped rooms above a Syrian grocer’s shop.

Hamit watched me, ironic and comprehending. I remembered the stains we had left on his sheets, and I wondered whether he had changed them himself. He knew as many intimate things as a prostitute’s dog. (p.134)

Depth and description

Tedious though the affair with a married woman which forms a major thread of the novel may be, there is much pleasure to be gained from the rest of the book: in his account of his boyhood, of his escapades at the Monte Carlo Casino, how he was thrown out of the Catholic seminary and then made his way in the world, first bluffing his way through a variety of kitchen jobs then selling bogus art for the gullible to invest in. It is a rich, interesting and amusing backstory.

Similarly, his distant relationship with his grande dame of a faking mother is urbane and entertaining, as his brief acquaintance with his mother’s young black lover, Marcel, is urbane and upsetting (Marcel hangs himself after the narrator’s mother dies – it is a first, I think, for a Greene narrator to have to admit that someone else is more despairing and unhappy than he is). Away from the boring affair, the protagonist’s character is one of the most imaginative and filled-in of any Greene hero.

The detailed infilling of his biography is matched by the depth and thoroughness of Greene’s depiction of Papa Doc’s terrifying Haiti: the electricity failing, the demoralising poverty, the appalling physical disfigurements of the beggars, the casual beatings-up or rapes, the pomposity of the smoothly lying Ministers, the trip to the ruins of the new capital, Duvalierville, being built high up and pointlessly in the dry mountains, the dark sunglasses of the moody and violent Tontons.

As travelogue, capturing the grim atmosphere of a weird time and place, the novel is a triumph.

Greene the lecturer

A regrettable but central element in Greene’s style is the wish to lecture and pontificate. His novels are full of would-be quotes and ‘insights’ into human nature, which are nearly crisp enough to adorn a teenage t-shirt or a coffee mug in the office kitchen. They sound good, they have a plausible rhetoric of wisdom but, in my opinion, evaporate as soon as you reflect on them.

Cynicism is cheap – you can buy it at any Monoprix store – it’s built into all poor-quality goods. (p21)

Cruelty’s like a searchlight. It sweeps from one spot to another. We only escape it for a time. (p.162)

I read the message again now; I thought it movingly phrased… And he had died for her, so perhaps he was no comédien after all. Death is a proof of sincerity. (p.253)

What the manic-depressive Greene means by this last phrase is that suicide is a proof of sincerity. The Norman Sherry biography shows that he was obsessed with suicide and on various occasions threatened to kill himself unless his mistresses did what he wanted. The whining tone of the jealous lover comes to the fore in the last 50 pages of the novel when the narrator becomes irrationally consumed with jealousy, suspecting his mistress is sleeping with the con-man Jones who he has helped find political asylum in the embassy.

This drives the dénouement of the novel: the conman ‘Major’ Jones is caught out trying to hoodwink the régime, and comes to Brown’s hotel for asylum. Brown drives him down to the boat they arrived on and there is a comic scene when the Tontons arrive, Jones hides, and the captain in his nightgown has to face up to them. When the captain refuses to let him stay on board, Brown has to smuggle him off the boat again and has the bright idea of driving him to his mistress’s embassy.

Not only is Jones made welcome there, but he becomes the life and the soul of the party, becoming friends with the ambassador, his little boy, and even Brown’s mistress. –Earlier in the novel one of the former guests at Brown’s hotel, disgusted by the régime, says he is heading into the hills to set up an armed resistance. The narrator makes it perfectly clear he thinks this is a ridiculous waste of time which can only end badly. The so-called resistance are one more set of comedians, jokers on a gruesome stage.

Now Brown conceives the rather nasty idea of taking ‘Major’ Jones at his own word (he’s always bragging about his heroics in the War) and smuggling him up to the resistance in the hills – thus conveniently removing him from the embassy and from what his silly jealousy imagines to be the arms of his mistress.

The journey itself involves lying to the Tontons, who have already beaten him up once – and capture would lead to a bad beating or worse. The rendezvous with the resistance is arranged for an isolated cemetery, among the voodoo gravestones – a gruesomely atmospheric setting – but, inevitably, goes wrong.

Unusually for Greene – and an indication of the just-about comic intention of the novel – the major protagonist does not die (unlike the key figures in Heart of The Matter, The Third Man, End of The Affair, The Quiet American, A Burnt-Out Case). Instead, although the Tontons do intercept them, the scene cuts suddenly and unexpectedly to the Dominican Republic across the border a few weeks later. Turns out the resistance saved him and Jones and then smuggled them across the border. The nine-day journey was quite an ordeal – twenty-five years earlier Greene might have described it in excruciating detail rather in the style of The Power and The Glory, which amounts to a 200-page-long gruelling journey.

But instead, we jump to the lightly comic scenes of Brown safe and sound in the Dominican republic where he has the good fortune to bump into Mr Smith the American evangelist for vegetarianism and even his mistress, whose ambassador husband has been expelled from Haiti. After desultory end-of-the-affair conversations with the mistress, the kindly American fixes him up with a job as assistant to the monosyllabic funeral director we first met on the ferry to Haiti, in the opening pages, and that’s that.

Everything: Papa Doc’s Haiti with its absurd new capital built of concrete; Brown’s dreams of running the best hotel in the Caribbean; his affair; Jones’s lies about his military record; the resistance (12 men and three rusty machine guns)’s fantasies about overthrowing the regime. All bitter farce. We are all comedians.

Verbal felicities

The text is a rich interweaving of themes and ideas, some of which (the local description) I prefer to others (the preaching, the adultery). But the thing I really enjoy about Greene is the small verbal affects which crop up throughout the text. Greene is no Chandler, he is not a flashy stylist. Most of his prose is limpid, clear and uncoloured. Concisely effective, occasionally clumsy. But that makes the metaphors and similes, the moments of colour, when they do occur, all the more vivid. A lot of the pleasure of the novel comes from the sharp asides, ironic touches and deft comparisons it displays on almost every page.

[Petit Pierre] giggled up at me, standing on his pointed toe-caps, for he was a tiny figure of a man. He was just  as I remembered him, hilarious. Even the time of day was humorous to him. He had the quick movements of a monkey, and he seemed to swing from wall to wall on ropes of laughter. (p.44)

A man in a torn shirt and a grey pair of trousers and an old soft hat which someone must have discarded in a dustbin came trailing his rifle by its muzzle to the door. (p.47)

‘I have known your mother many years. I have a great respect…’ He gave me the kind of bow with which a Roman emperor might have brought an audience to an end. He was in no way condescending. He knew his exact value. (p.69)

We quarreled. I told her [her son] was a spoilt child, and she admitted it, but when I said that he spied on her, she was angry, and when I said he was getting as fat as his father, she tried to slap my face. I caught her wrist and she accused me of striking her. Then we laughed nervously, but the quarrel simmered on, like stock for tomorrow’s soup. (p.91)

The sun was almost vertically above us now: splinters of light darted here and there from the glass of the hearse and the bright brass-work of the coffin. The driver turned off his engine and we could hear the sudden silence extending a long long way to where a dog whined on the fringes of the capital. (p.122)

The Duponts were sitting on the verandah with the little boy, and all three were eating vanilla ices with chocolate sauce. Their top hats stood beside them like expensive ash-trays. (p.126)

‘Good-night.’ I put a false friendly hand on his head and ruffled his tough dry hair. My hand smelt afterwards like a mouse. (p.137)

On my right were a line of wooden huts in little fenced saucers of earth where a few palm trees grew and slithers of water gleamed between, like scrap-iron on a dump. An occasional candle burned over a small group bowed above their rum like mourners over a coffin. (p.141)

He handed the revolver to the second officer. ‘You will give it him,’ he said, ‘at the foot of the gangway.’ He turned his back and left the officer’s black hand floating in mid-air like a catfish in an aquarium. (p.216)

For me, this is what a writer should do – not the quotable quotes about love and faith and sin and despair – nor the rather heavy-handed deployment of a dominant theme (we are all comedians on the great stage of life) – but this, the skilful deployment of language to uplift reality and illuminate the reading mind. It is in these apt and expert turns of phrase that Greene, for me, is truly religious, taking the water of mundane life and transforming it into the wine of literature.


The movie

Greene, who had seen about a dozen of his novels turned into movies by this stage, and who famously wrote the screenplay for the classic film The Third Man, himself adapted this novel for the big screen. Directed by Peter Glenville and starring Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Peter Ustinov and Alec Guinness, it should have been brilliant – but it looks rather bad, and can’t have been helped by the bloated running time of two-and-a-half hours.

Related links

1970s paperback edition of The Comedians, illustration by Paul Hogarth

1970s paperback edition of The Comedians, illustration by Paul Hogarth

Greene’s books

  • The Man Within (1929) One of the worst books I’ve ever read, a wretchedly immature farrago set in a vaguely described 18th century about a cowardly smuggler who betrays his fellows to the Excise men then flees to the cottage of a pure and innocent young woman who he falls in love with before his pathetic inaction leads to her death. Drivel.
  • The Name of Action (1930) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Rumour at Nightfall (1931) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Stamboul Train (1932) A motley cast of characters find out each others’ secrets and exploit each other on the famous Orient Express rattling across Europe, climaxing in the execution of one of the passengers, a political exile, in an obscure rail junction, and all wound up with a cynical business deal in Istanbul.
  • It’s a Battlefield (1934) London: a working class man awaits his death sentence for murder while a cast of seedy characters, including a lecherous HG Wells figure, betray each other and agonise about their pointless lives.
  • England Made Me (1935) Stockholm: financier and industrialist Krogh hires a pretty Englishwoman Kate Farrant to be his PA/lover. She gets him to employ her shiftless brother Anthony who, after only a few days, starts spilling secrets to the seedy journalist Minty, and so is bumped off by Krogh’s henchman, Hall.
  • A Gun for Sale (1936) England: After assassinating a European politician and sparking mobilisation for war, hitman Raven pursues the lecherous middle man who paid him with hot money to a Midlands town, where he gets embroiled with copper’s girl, Anne, before killing the middle man and the wicked arms merchant who was behind the whole deal, and being shot dead himself.
  • Brighton Rock (1938) After Kite is murdered, 17 year-old Pinkie Brown takes over leadership of one of Brighton’s gangs, a razor-happy psychopath who is also an unthinking Catholic tormented by frustrated sexuality. He marries a 16 year-old waitress (who he secretly despises) to stop her squealing on the gang, before being harried to a grisly death.
  • The Confidential Agent (1939) D. the agent for a foreign power embroiled in a civil war, tries and fails to secure a contract for British coal to be sent to his side. He flees the police and unfounded accusations of murder, has an excursion to a Midlands mining district where he fails to persuade the miners to go on strike out of solidarity for his (presumably communist) side, is caught by the police, put on trial, then helped to escape across country to a waiting ship, accompanied by the woman half his age who has fallen in love with him.
  • The Lawless Roads (1939) Greene travels round Mexico and hates it, hates its people and its culture, the poverty, the food, the violence and despair, just about managing to admire the idealised Catholicism which is largely a product of his own insistent mind, and a few heroic priests-on-the-run from the revolutionary authorities.
  • The Power and the Glory (1940) Mexico: An unnamed whisky priest, the only survivor of the revolutionary communists’ pogrom against the Catholic hierarchy, blunders from village to village feeling very sorry for himself and jeopardising lots of innocent peasants while bringing them hardly any help until he is caught and shot.
  • The Ministry of Fear (1943) Hallucinatory psychological fantasia masquerading as an absurdist thriller set in London during the Blitz when a man still reeling from mercy-killing his terminally ill wife gets caught up with a wildly improbable Nazi spy ring.
  • The Heart of The Matter (1948) Through a series of unfortunate events, Henry Scobie, the ageing colonial Assistant Commissioner of Police in Freetown, Sierra Leone, finds himself torn between love of his wife and of his mistress, spied on by colleagues and slowly corrupted by a local Syrian merchant, until life becomes intolerable and – as a devout Catholic – he knowingly damns himself for eternity by committing suicide. Whether you agree with its Catholic premises or not, this feels like a genuinely ‘great’ novel for the completeness of its conception and the thoroughness of its execution.
  • The Third Man (1949) The novella which formed the basis for the screenplay of the famous film starring Orson Welles. Given its purely preparatory nature, this is a gripping and wonderfully-written tale, strong on atmosphere and intrigue and mercifully light on Greene’s Catholic preachiness.
  • The End of The Affair (1951) Snobbish writer Maurice Bendrix has an affair with Sarah, the wife of his neighbour on Clapham Common, the dull civil servant, Henry Miles. After a V1 bomb lands on the house where they are illicitly meeting, half burying Bendrix, Sarah breaks off the affair and refuses to see him. Only after setting a detective on her, does Bendrix discover Sarah thought he had been killed in the bombing and prayed to God, promising to end their affair and be ‘good’ if only he was allowed to live – only to see him stumbling in through the wrecked doorway, from which point she feels duty bound to God to keep her word. She sickens and dies of pneumonia like many a 19th century heroine, but not before the evidence begins to mount up that she was, in fact, a genuine saint. Preposterous for most of its length, it becomes genuinely spooky at the end.
  • Twenty-One Stories (1954) Generally very short stories, uneven in quality and mostly focused on wringing as much despair about the human condition as possible using thin characters who come to implausibly violent endings – except for three short funny tales.
  • The Unquiet American (1955) Set in Vietnam as the French are losing their grip on the country, jaded English foreign correspondent, Thomas Fowler, reacts very badly to fresh-faced, all-American agent Alden Pyle, who both steals his Vietnamese girlfriend and is naively helping a rebel general and his private army in the vain hope they can form a non-communist post-colonial government. So Fowler arranges for Pyle to be assassinated. The adultery and anti-Americanism are tiresome, but the descriptions of his visits to the front line are gripping.
  • Loser Takes All (1955) Charming comic novella recounting the mishaps of accountant Bertram who is encouraged to get married at a swanky hotel in Monte Carlo by his wealthy boss who then doesn’t arrive to pick up the bill, as he’d promised to – forcing Bertram to dabble in gambling at the famous Casino and becoming so obsessed with winning that he almost loses his wife before the marriage has even begun.
  • Our Man In Havana (1958) Comedy about an unassuming vacuum cleaner salesman, Jim Wormold, living in Havana, who is improbably recruited for British intelligence and, when he starts to be paid, feels compelled to manufacture ‘information’ from made-up ‘agents’. All very farcical until the local security services and then ‘the other side’ start taking an interest, bugging his phone, burgling his flat and then trying to bump him off.
  • A Burnt-Out Case (1960) Tragedy. Famous architect Querry travels to the depths of the Congo, running away from his European fame and mistress, and begins to find peace working with the local priests and leprosy doctor, when the unhappy young wife of a local factory owner accuses him of seducing her and fathering her child, prompting her husband to shoot Querry dead.
  • The Comedians (1966) Tragedy. Brown returns to run his hotel in Port-au-Prince, in a Haiti writhing under the brutal regime of Papa Doc Duvalier, and to resume his affair with the ambassador’s wife, Martha. A minister commits suicide in the hotel pool; Brown is beaten up by the Tontons Macoute; he tries to help a sweet old American couple convert the country to vegetarianism. In the final, absurd sequence he persuades the obvious con-man ‘major’ Jones to join the pathetic ‘resistance’ (12 men with three rusty guns), motivated solely by the jealous (and false) conviction that Jones is having an affair with his mistress. They are caught, escape, and Brown is forced to flee to the neighbouring Dominican Republic where the kindly Americans get him a job as assistant to the funeral director he had first met on the ferry to Haiti.
  • Travels With My Aunt (1969) Comedy. Unmarried, middle-aged, retired bank manager Henry Pullman meets his aunt Augusta at the funeral of his mother, and is rapidly drawn into her unconventional world, accompanying her on the Orient Express to Istanbul and then on a fateful trip to south America, caught up in her colourful stories of foreign adventures and exotic lovers till he finds himself right in the middle of an uncomfortably dangerous situation.
  • The Honorary Consul (1973) Tragedy. Dr Eduardo Plarr accidentally assists in the kidnapping of his friend, the alcoholic, bumbling ‘honorary consul’ to a remote city on the border of Argentina, Charley Fortnum, with whose ex-prostitute wife he happens to be having an affair. When he is asked to go and treat Fortnum, who’s been injured, Plarr finds himself also taken prisoner by the rebels and dragged into lengthy Greeneish discussions about love and religion and sin and redemption etc, while they wait for the authorities to either pay the ransom the rebels have demanded or storm their hideout. It doesn’t end well.
  • The Human Factor (1978) Maurice Castle lives a quiet, suburban life with his African wife, Sarah, commuting daily to his dull office job in a branch of British Security except that, we learn half way through the book, he is a double agent passing secrets to the Russians. Official checks on a leak from his sector lead to the improbable ‘liquidation’ of an entirely innocent colleague which prompts Castle to make a panic-stricken plea to his Soviet controllers to be spirited out of the country. And so he is, arriving safely in Moscow. But to the permanent separation with the only person he holds dear in the world and who he was, all along, working on behalf of – his beloved Sarah. Bleak and heart-breaking.
  • Monsignor Quixote (1982) Father Quixote is unwillingly promoted monsignor and kicked out of his cosy parish, taking to the roads of Spain with communist ex-mayor friend, Enrique ‘Sancho’ Zancas, in an old jalopy they jokingly nickname Rocinante, to experience numerous adventures loosely based on his fictional forebear, Don Quixote, all the while debating Greene’s great Victorian theme, the possibility of a doubting – an almost despairing – Catholic faith.
  • The Captain and The Enemy (1988) 12-year-old Victor Baxter is taken out of his boarding school by a ‘friend’ of his father’s, the so-called Captain, who carries him off to London to live with his girlfriend, Liza. Many years later Victor, a grown man, comes across his youthful account of life in this strange household when Liza dies in a road accident, and he sets off on an adult pilgrimage to find the Captain in Central America, a quest which – when he tells him of Liza’s death – prompts the old man to one last – futile and uncharacteristic – suicidal gesture.

Where Eagles Dare by Alistair MacLean (1967)

From the cable-car station on the lower slopes they had an excellent if distant view of the fire. ‘Are you responsible for this?’ she asked.
‘It was a mistake,’ Smith explained.
‘Yeah. His hand slipped,’ Schaffer added.
‘You two should audition for a turn on vaudeville,’ Heidi said dryly. (p.100)

This is cracking schoolboy entertainment, MacLean at the top of his game, delivering a cleverly-thought-out, thrill-a-minute page-turner, complete with a wise-cracking double act of tough guy heroes.

The plot

It’s 1944. US General Carnaby was flying to a rendezvous with the Russians and other Allies in Crete when his Mosquito airplane was shot down in Bavaria. Bad news, because the General carries in his head the most detailed plans for Operation Overlord, aka D-Day, of any man alive. He’s almost certainly been taken to the nearby Gestapo Headquarters at the notorious Schloss Adler, the Castle of the Eagle, an impregnable fortress where he’ll be tortured into telling what he knows and wrecking the D-Day operation. That’s why British Army Intelligence have assembled, within 24 hours, a team of six men with in-depth experience of working behind enemy lines, to rescue him.

Leading the team is Major John Smith, ‘the best agent in Europe’ (p.49), supported by a laconic American OSS officer, Lieutenant Morris Schaffer, and the novel opens with a gripping scene as their lumbering Lancaster bomber flies through an impenetrable blizzard in order to parachute the six onto a remote plateau on the side of the Weissspitze mountain. From here they will trek down into the valley of the Eagle Castle, penetrate it, and rescue Carnaby.

From the start things go wrong, with Sergeant Harrod, the radio operator, found dead tangled in his parachute. Bad luck. Except Smith finds an excuse to go back to his body later, and confirms his hunch: Harrod’s neck was broken by a blunt instrument. And in the zero visibility of the blizzard, on the cliff-side, someone tries to pull away the rope Smith needs to get down the mountain. One of the men is a traitor!

And who is the young woman the flight instructor went to the back of the plane to fetch out of hiding once the six commandos had jumped, and who followed them out? After they’ve landed in the snow, discovered Harrod is dead, and got themselves half-way down the mountain, Smith makes an excuse to leave the others, during a rest period, and sneaks back to meet her.

She is Mary Ellison. Turns out she is also an intelligence agent and they have worked together in Italy. Now he gives her instructions: she has a new German identity. She is going to pretend to be the distant cousin of Heidi, from the bierkellar in the village, who frequently cleans and serves up in the castle. The buxom Heidi, trusty barmaid in the Zum Wilden Hirsch pub, turns out to be our longest-established spy in Bavaria. There are always staff shortages inside the castle, so she’ll get Mary a job there. Once inside, Mary will provide help for Smith and Schaffer to carry out their mission. Rendezvous at the Wilden Hirsch; Heidi will be expecting you.

In the pub

Once down in the village, the soldiers strip off their snow smocks to reveal German uniforms. They dump their stuff in the locked-up railway station then stroll confidently through the village among the hordes of other Alpenkorps, to a cluster of pubs, lovely and warm amid the Alpine snow. Smith selects the Wild Deer and they go into the raucous, smoke-filled boozy bierkellar, confidently order drinks and mingle with the throng. While she serves him, Smith is able to tell Heidi the barmaid that Mary has arrived and will join her soon: the plan is on.

But in the midst of the pub scene, when things are just starting to make sense, the Gestapo suddenly enter, enforcing silence on the drunken crowd of German soldiers, and demand to know who the foreign spies are. Surprisingly, Smith stands up and indicates himself and his colleagues. Thus the five Brits are bundled into two cars and driven off. Looks bad for our heroes. But Smith manages to hijack the car he and Schaffer are in, seizes their guns then turfs the Germans out into the snow, and then runs the car off a cliff into the nearby lake, before doubling back to the castle with Schaffer.

This incident, crucially, means they are separated from the other three guys who parachuted in with them, and who have been taken into German custody.

Up by cable car

Just what is the plan, anyway? First Smith and Schaffer will, at great peril, smuggle themselves into the Schloss by climbing onto the roof of one of the cable cars that go swinging up towards the castle as part of the Luftseilbahn or aerial cableway. Just as it pulls into the top station, they both leap onto the sloping roof overhanging the station entrance, providing a literal cliffhanger moment as Smith’s knife lodges in the wooden roof but Schaffer’s breaks and he begins to slip down towards the edge, towards the 300 foot fall to the rocks below. Cut to a close-up of Smith’s hand reaching out and grabbing Schaffer’s. He pulls him up and they manage to scrabble up onto the flat part of the roof! ‘I owe you one, buddy.’

Mary, having made it up to the castle and passed the various security checks, has been shown to her quarters which – handily – overlook this very roof. She pays out a rope attached to her bed, not unlike Rapunzel in the fairy tale letting down the rope for our heroes to swarm up it and – they are inside!

In the Gold Hall

They make their way to the grand ‘Gold Hall’ where they find Carnaby being questioned by senior Nazis – Colonel Kramer, Deputy Chief of the German Secret Service, and Reichsmarschall Julius Rosemeyer, Wehrmacht Chief of Staff – watched by the three commandos who parachuted in with them. Aha. Just as Smith suspected, all three of them are traitors.

Smith and Schaffer are just in time to witness the corny, stock WWII scene where the Germans regret that, since Carnaby will only give his name, rank and serial number, the enemy officers are forced to use ‘harsher measures’ ie a sexy female Nazi approaches with a tray of hypodermic syringes – the serious interrogation is about to begin.

It’s at this point that Smith steps forward – not to shoot, but to first incapacitate Schaffer (Thump! ‘Sorry, lootenant’), then calmly put his gun down and perform a massive double bluff. Since he is fluent in German (of course) and a terrific actor (naturally) he manages to persuade the assembled German officers that he, Smith, is one of their own most senior agents, and that the three double agents who are sitting quaffing brandy with them, they in fact are the real British agents. They obviously protest but Smith brings to bear an array of proof, including a midnight phone call to one of the Gauleiters of southern Germany, who cheerfully tells them that, ‘Yes, Smith is one of ours’ (since Smith has assiduously been posing as a German double agent for this man for two years).

The crux comes when Smith persuades the officers that the only way to know for sure whether the Doubtful Three are British or German agents, is to get them to write down the names and details of all the German agents and networks in Britain. Then they can compare their lists against the master one Smith brandishes in front of them. Aha. At last, the penny drops for the reader. This is the point of the entire operation – nothing to do with D-Day. It is all an elaborate double or treble bluff designed to get details of the Nazi spy networks in Blighty.

The guilty three are thus compelled to write down all these details under the watchful eye of Smith and the Deputy Chief of the German Secret Service and the Wehrmacht Chief of Staff. BUT, once they have finally finished, Smith seizes his gun again, throws another to Schaffer, and stands revealed as the real British agent. Ta da! Fooled you all. Now we have the names of all the Nazi spy networks in Britain!

BUT – Unfortunately, the senior Gestapo man in the castle, von Brauchitsch, has had his suspicions about the lovely Mary ever since accompanying her up in the cable car earlier that evening. Now he appears in the door and says in a cod Nazi accent: ‘Nobody move. Drop ze veppons,’ at which Smith instinctively turns and the Nazi shoots his gun out of his hand, breaking several fingers. From now on Smith is a wounded hero, bleeding from his hand and only barely able to pull off a whole string of heroics through superhuman courage and determination – like teenage boys everywhere would love to.

BUT – a moment later there is a soft woman’s voice: ‘Nobody move. Put down that gun, von Brauchitsch.’ It is Heidi, our longest-serving agent in southern Germany, who followed the Nazi along to the hall. Wow! How many thrills can MacLean pack into this cartoon narrative?

Smith and Schaffer tie and gag the Germans, lock the hall and gather the three traitors up, roped together (they’re going to be brought back to Blighty to stand trial). Thus begins the long sequence of their escape from the castle complete with lots of shooting and Schaffer setting off gelignite booby traps around the castle. Bang! There goes the radio room. Boom! There goes the courtyard. Crash! There goes the archive room, full of papers, and before you know it, the Nazis are running round like a ransacked ants’ nest, allowing our guys to make it back to that roof above the cable car station.

Cable car heroics

This is the famous sequence which defined both the movie and the novel and MacLean milks it for all it’s worth. Our heroes don’t just make their escape from a burning castle set on a vertiginous volcanic plug via a commandeered cable car – first of all there has to be a fight on a cable-car roof. For the three traitors they’ve been hustling through the chaotic castle and who they’ve carefully manhandled down into the (apparently empty) station, now slug Schaffer, grab his machine gun and jump into a down-bound car. Smith, realising what’s up, at the last minute leaps from the roof of the cable car housing – which slopes over the cable car entrance into the castle – down onto the slippery icy top of the car carrying the three traitors down to safety.

There follows a nail-biting sequence in which they shoot up through the roof with Smith dodging bullets. Then, as Smith slips and his legs dangle over the edge, down over the precipitous drop to the rocks below,  one of the traitors grabs hold of his legs, while the other one climbs up out a window and onto the slippery, frozen roof. And all this while Smith has only one good hand (remember the other one being injured in the Gold Hall?) What a legend!

Although you know it’s twaddle it is still terrifically exciting. You laugh but also shiver when the baddie who’s climbed up onto the car roof points his machine gun at the utterly defeated Smith, does a little baddie gloat (‘Not so clever now, eh, Smith?’) just as one of the pylons supporting the cable car looms up out of the darkness. ‘Behind you,’ says Smith, ‘Yeah, sure,’ says the baddie, then looks round and just has time to shriek before he is crushed against the massive steel pylon, his lifeless body then plummeting to into the depths below. What could be more satisfying to the teenage boy imagination?

The bus chase

More? Of course there’s more. They are nearly at the bottom station when they feel the car stop and begin to reverse. The Germans back up in the castle have obviously stormed the upper station (they had locked and barred its steel doors) and now they jump into the snowdrift. But not before Schaffer has thrown some gelignite on a short fuse into their car. Boom! That was the second cable car. No way down for the Jerries on the castle.

Our guys sneak through backstreets to the big shed they’d discovered way back in the early part of the novel, before they were arrested in the pub. Inside is the big yellow postal bus with an enormous snow plough attached at the front. What a stroke of genius. This allows MacLean to have Smith smash it through the padlocked doors of the barn, then drive it like a maniac through the village – swerving to smash a whole series of parked Jerry motorbikes, before roaring out to the road across the lake – where the troops in the nearby barracks open fire, and then a Tiger tank fires several armour-piercing shells harmlessly the length of the bus.

But what about the lorries, cars and motorbikes which have been scrambled to chase our heroes? Have our guys turn a corner and rattle over the rickety old wooden bridge over the swollen river; Schaffer jumps out and attaches some of his endless supply of gelignite to the pillars. So just as he scrambles back into the bus and it pulls away, and just as the first Jerry car hits the bridge – BOOM! Up it goes.

The payoff

They had radioed for help from the castle radio before everything went up in flames. Now a Mosquito, fastest plane in the world, cruises in to land at an auxiliary airfield where Smith has parked, flashing the bus’s lights. Across the strip they run and into the plane, which doesn’t even stop, but turns and takes off. Success!

And here comes the final one in the book’s long stream of twists and double-guesses. For the man who commissioned the entire escapade back in London, has flown in with the Mosquito, Colonel Wyatt-Turner. And it is only now, in the plane roaring back through the Alps, with his exhausted companions slumped around him, that Smith reveals the biggest secret of all; Wyatt-Turner, senior figure in British Intelligence, is himself a double agent. ‘You’ll never live to tell it,’ he sneers, suddenly lifting his Sten gun to point at Smith. ‘Pilot! Change your course to land at Lisle’ (in German-occupied France). ‘Not so fast,’ smiles Smith. ‘We suspected you all along. This whole operation was planned with a view to snaring you (and the other spies and networks).’ (‘Thanks for telling me, bud,’ quips Schaffer.)

Wyatt-Turner pulls the trigger of the Sten gun pointing at Smith. Nothing happens. Smith takes the firing pin out from his own pocket. ‘Yes, we made sure you’d have that gun. I thought it best to take precautions.’ ‘I’ll be tried for treason, won’t I?’ says Wyatt-Turner. ‘And hanged?’ He opens the plane door and steps out into mid-air. And that’s it. The last twist, the last revelation in this densely plotted adventure.

Smith shuts the plane door and snuggles up next to Mary. For them the war is over, their covers are blown and so no more active service. Everyone snuggles down for a safe flight back to Blighty.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

The odd thing is, it’s a comedy. MacLean’s prose style is terrible and his facetious tone often grates, but the novel comes alive whenever Smith and Schaffer are alone together to do their double act, Schaffer the morose Yank worried that Mrs Schaffer’s little boy is never going to get home, referring throughout to Smith as ‘boss’, while Smith is all understated Limey irony.

‘I thought it was horses you were scared of?’ Smith said mildly.
‘Horses, Dobermann pinchers, you name it, I’m scared of it. All it’s got to have is four feet.’ He looked gloomily at the burning station. ‘I’d have made a rotten vet.’ (p.93)

It was written in 1966-67, a time of comedy thriller double acts, of buddy movies, of two guys wisecracking their way through perilous adventures.

‘Ready when you are boss.’
‘That’s now. I have my bearings. First left, down the stairs, third left. The gold drawing-room. Where Colonel Kramer holds court. Complete with minstrels’ gallery.’
‘What’s a minstrels’ gallery?’ Schaffer enquired.
‘A gallery for minstrels.’ (p.111)

It is a cartoon, a boy’s own wartime adventure, but of its genre it’s a masterpiece.

The movie

Apparently MacLean was commissioned by his neighbour in Switzerland, Richard Burton, to write a war movie he could take his son to, and that’s what gave him the idea to write something full of thrills and spills. Fascinatingly, he worked on the screenplay and novel simultaneously, and it’s interesting to compare the two. The movie ditches some of the complexities of the book in favour of far more bangs from Schaffer’s gelignite, and far, far more German being shot. Whereas in the book Smith makes a point of going back to untie the German radio operator that they’d tied up, once the castle gets burning – in the movie scores and scores of Germans are cut down like nine-pins by Clint Eastwood’s inexhaustible Schmeisser machine gun.

The movie was made and released within a year of the book (1968) and was a box office hit, partly because of the presence of Burton at his craggy best, alongside the gorgeous young Clint Eastwood, but also helped by the spectacular Alpine scenery and the cracking score from Ron Goodwin, both on display in the opening sequence.

Credit

Where Eagles Dare published by William Collins Sons and Co Ltd in 1967. All quotes from the 1986 Fontana paperback edition.


Related links

The first 22 Alistair MacLean novels

1955 HMS Ulysses Gruelling war story about a doomed Arctic convoy.
1957 The Guns of Navarone Herioc war story about commandos who blow up superguns on a Greek island.
1957 South by Java Head A motley crew of soldiers, sailors, nurses and civilians fleeing Singapore endure a series of terrible ordeals in their bid to escape pursuing Japanese forces.
1959 The Last Frontier Secret agent Michael Reynolds rescues a British scientist from communists in Hungary.
1959 Night Without End Arctic scientist Mason saves plane crash survivors from baddies who have stolen a secret missile guidance system.
1961 Fear is the Key Government agent John Talbot defeats a gang seeking treasure in a crashed plane off Florida.
1961 The Dark Crusader Counter-espionage agent John Bentall defeats a gang who plan to hold the world to ransom with a new intercontinental missile.
1962 The Golden Rendezvous First officer John Carter defeats a gang who hijack his ship with a nuclear weapon.
1962 The Satan Bug Agent Pierre Cavell defeats an attempt to blackmail the government using a new genetically engineered supervirus.
1963 Ice Station Zebra MI6 agent Dr John Carpenter defeats spies who have secured Russian satellite photos of US missile bases, destroyed the Arctic research base of the title, and nearly sink the nuclear sub sent to rescue them.
1966 When Eight Bells Toll British Treasury secret agent Philip Calvert defeats a gang who have been hijacking ships carrying bullion off the Scottish coast.
1967 Where Eagles Dare Six commandos are parachuted into snowy South Germany to rescue an American General who has the plans for D-Day and is being held captive in the inaccessible Schloss Adler, the Eagle’s Castle. Except this is merely a cover for a deeper mission – and the pretext for a ripping yarn chock-full of twists, turns and nailbiting excitement.
1968 Force 10 From Navarone Three of the heroes from Guns of Navarone parachute into Yugoslavia to blow up a dam and destroy two German armoured divisions.
1969 Puppet on a Chain Interpol agent Paul Sherman battles a grotesquely sadistic heroin-smuggling gang in Amsterdam.
1970 Caravan to Vaccarès British agent Neil Bowman foils a gang of gypsies who are smuggling Russian nuclear scientists via the south of France to China.
1971 Bear Island Doctor Marlowe deals with a spate of murders aboard a ship full of movie stars and crew heading into the Arctic Circle.
1973 The Way to Dusty Death World number one racing driver Johnny Harlow acts drunk and disgraced in order to foil a gang of heroin smugglers and kidnappers.
1974 Breakheart Pass The Wild West, 1873. Government agent John Deakin poses as a wanted criminal in order to foil a gang smuggling guns to Injuns in the Rockies and planning to steal government gold in return.
1975 Circus The CIA ask trapeze genius Bruno Wildermann to travel to an unnamed East European country, along with his circus, and use his skills to break into a secret weapons laboratory.
1976 The Golden Gate FBI agent Paul Revson is with the President’s convoy when it is hijacked on the Golden Gate bridge by a sophisticated gang of crooks who demand an outrageous ransom. Only he – and the doughty doctor he recruits and the pretty woman journalist -can save the President!
1977 Seawitch Oil executives hire an unhinged oil engineer, Cronkite, to wreak havoc on the oil rig of their rival, Lord Worth, who is saved by his beautiful daughter’s boyfriend, an ex-cop and superhero.
1977 Goodbye California Deranged muslim fanatic, Morro, kidnaps nuclear physicists and technicians in order to build atomic bombs which he detonates a) in the desert b) off coastal California, in order to demand a huge ransom. Luckily, he has also irritated maverick California cop, Ryder – by kidnapping his wife – so Ryder tracks him down, disarms his gang and kills him.

A Burnt-Out Case by Graham Greene (1960)

‘At the end you find you haven’t even got a self to express. I have no interest in anything any more , Doctor.’…
‘When a man comes here too late the disease has to burn itself out.’ (p.46)

‘Querry may be also a burnt-out case,’ the doctor said… [Burnt-out cases are] the lepers who lose everything that can be eaten away before they are cured.’ (p.110)

Plot – part one

A mysterious figure trying to escape his past life has taken the river boat as far as it will go into the heart of Congo. He gets out at the end of the line, where there is a leper colony. It is Querry, a (supposedly) world-famous religious architect, whose picture was on the cover of Time, and who built a number of churches in the modern style. Now he gets permission to stay at the local Catholic seminary and gets to know the Superior, the various fathers, and Dr Colin who runs the leproserie – a clinic for the many local lepers.

It quickly emerges that Querry is at the end of his tether, having left both his mistress and his architectural practice. He no longer feels a vocation, he no longer feels desire, he feels nothing, he wants nothing. He sits around and chats about the meaning of life and how to get the generators working, with the Superior, with the various priests and with Dr Colin, who he develops a wary friendship with. They are both lapsed Catholics.

Catholicism

Of course, this being Greene, almost all the characters are Catholics who, therefore, all start talking at the drop of a hat about divine and earthly love, who worry about their rosaries or whether God is watching or whether they should or shouldn’t attend mass, etc. The immediate earnestness with which they debate these ‘Big Questions’ seems so remote and alien in the age of sexting and 50 Shades of Grey. I think of black and white TV programmes from the early 1960s with Malcolm Muggeridge and a bishop earnestly debating the Question of Faith, or some such. At one point, the exchange:

‘Remorse is a kind of belief.’
‘Oh no, it isn’t.’ (p.76)

made me laugh out loud. He’s behind you. Yah boo. Love is hate and God is pity but pity kills and man killed God but God kills man every day, but man kills God in  his image every day, blah blah blah. Along with much harping on Greene’s favourite theme that love is dangerous, it demands victims, that pity can kill, that all the supposed virtues lead to their opposites. Well – if you read Norman Sherry’s biography of Greene, you see that they often did for Mr G, forever entangled in the tortuous affairs with numerous women he ‘loved’ and wounded. But not necessarily for everyone else…

‘Liking is a great deal safer than love. It doesn’t demand victims.’ (p.82)

Etc. I’ve written elsewhere about Greene the preacherman. As I read the leisurely discussions about ‘the vocation of saints’ and ‘the true meaning of love’ between Querry and the Superior, Dr Colin and Querry, and the Superior and the priests, and the priests and Querry, it occurred to me that Greene might have liked the Catholic church, apart from all the other reasons (like being saved and going to Heaven) because it gives you endless opportunities to pontificate.

The scope for preaching is vast and the system much larger and more coherent than the inadequate Anglicanism he was raised in. Much larger, much more intense, much more blood and pain and suffering and sacrifice, very appealing to a suicidal adolescent or a depressive young man. And, once you’re in, there is literally endless scope to ravel out vast skeins of verbiage and rhetoric, scores of pages, entire books, from its infinitely varied, easily disputable and garish theology.

From a purely practical point of view, if you are a writer struggling to support a family (and various mistresses and prostitutes) and are paid by the word, then having troubled characters explore the voluminous entrails of Catholic theology is an extremely attractive and practical strategy for generating copy. Is extreme humility just, in fact, an inverted form of extreme pride? Aha, good for a short story. Is the truest love the one which denies its own expression? Aha, might work up into a full novel. Repeat ad infinitum

‘You are a man of humility.’ ‘If you knew the extent of my pride…’ (p.91)

‘If you feel in pain because you doubt, it is obvious you are feeling the pain of faith…’ (p.92)

‘Perhaps a man can be judged by his rashness.’ (p.99)

‘Behind all of us in various ways lies a spoilt priest.’ (p.110)

‘We none of us really know ourselves.’ (p.111)

‘Perhaps it’s true that you can’t believe in a god without loving a human being or love a human being without believing in a god.’ (p.114)

‘Sometimes I think that the search for suffering and the remembrance of suffering are the only means we have to put ourselves in touch with the whole human condition.’ (p.122)

‘Love is planted in man now… Sometimes, of course, people call it hate.’ (p.124)

Suburban

This might have blossomed into some kind of existential meditation on life and death, on the developed and undeveloped world, on psychological illness (ennui) juxtaposed with the appalling symptoms of the physical ailment, leprosy, on the nature of colonialism in Africa.

But in Greene’s hands it becomes strangely suburban. The nearest town, Luc, is meant to be hundreds of miles away along disintegrating roads and yet we are quickly introduced to small-town, gossipy colonial life there, complete with raffish Monsignor (‘you may kiss my ring’), the insufferably self-centered Rycker – owner of a palm oil factory – and his poor young wife who he alternately tyrannises and wheedles into bed with him, the short, pompous governor and his wife, fussing about drinks at their cocktail parties. Before he knows it, Querry, who had hoped to find peace and anonymity in the depths of the jungle, is the nearest thing to a ‘celebrity’, his every move reported in the tiny world of unhappy colonists.

George Orwell notoriously pointed out that the basic plot of The Heart of the Matter (police inspector has affair with younger woman) could have taken place in Surrey, not Sierra Leone. Here, also, although it is very hot and there are ‘boy’ servants (and lepers) everywhere, the plot could actually be reset in any remote part of the British Isles where a jaded man goes to escape his success but ends up becoming the subject of local gossip. Viewed from another angle, it could almost have been an Ealing comedy, starring Alec Guinness as the unassuming architect.

Comedy

In fact, there are numerous moments of quiet comedy scattered through the text. Loser Takes All and Our Man In Havana marked a new ability for comedy in Greene’s work, a new maturity – if we define maturity as the ability to laugh at the world’s absurdity rather than be adolescently tortured by it.

Father Jean was tall, pale, and concave with a beard which struggled like an unpruned hedge. He had once been a brilliant theologian before he joined the Order and now he carefully nurtured the character of a film-fan, as though it would help him to wipe out an ugly past. (p.83)

And there’s a tension in this text between the melodramatic finale Greene forces on it and the numerous small ironies he quietly records between the characters, along the way.

Descriptions

The pace of the first half of the novel is as slow as the wide, muddy river which flows past the leproserie, allowing plenty of time for some wonderful descriptions.

On the other shore the great trees, with roots above the ground like the ribs of a half-built ship, stood out over the green jungle wall, brown at the top like stale cauliflowers. The cold grey trunks, unbroken by branches, curved a little this way and a little that, giving them a kind of reptilian life Porcelain-white birds stood on the backs of coffee-coloured cows, and once for a whole hour he watched a family who sat in a pirogue by the bank doing nothing; the mother wore a bright yellow dress, the man, wrinkled like bark, sat bent over a paddle he never used, and a girl with a baby on her lap smiled and smiled like an open piano. (p.27)

The plot – part two

I don’t know why critics say Greene is political when he is entirely personal. Congo, where this novel is set, achieved independence in the year the novel was published, 1960. The lead-up to this momentous achievement must have been intricate and fascinating. None of this appears in the novel, only a few passing references to ‘riots in the capital’, which could be any capital, anywhere.

No, alas, after the slow amiable conversations of part one, part two descends quickly into a bedroom farce which Greene then forces to become some kind of tragedy.

Part two (the novel is actually divided into six parts, but very clearly falls into two halves) begins with the arrival of a fatuous (and fat) journalist named Montagu Parkinson, who has been alerted to Querry’s presence by the histrionic, self-dramatising Catholic factory owner, Rycker, back in Luc. Parkinson has looked Querry up in the files of his magazine and uncovered some dirt, mainly about past affairs and mistresses. Like Greene himself.

After a week or so he departs but a month or so later Querry hears that Parkinson has published the first of a sensational series about the successful architect who gave it all up to minister to lepers in the jungle, a Saint, a Figure For Our Times etc. Disgusted, Querry drives the long distance to give Rycker a piece of his mind, in fact to thump him. But he finds him ill in bed and his pretty young wife quickly confides how unhappy she is and she fears she is pregnant. Somehow Querry finds himself driving her off into Luc that night with a view to visiting a doctor the next day to get a confirmation, or not, of the pregnancy. He gets them seperate hotel rooms. She can’t sleep so he tells her a long parable about a young man who believes in an invisible king (a transparent allegory of his own Catholic faith). Next day they bump into the ubiquitous Parkinson, but Rycker turns up, enraged, histrionically convinced his wife has run off to have an affair with Querry. This is such rubbish, Querry simply walks away.

Several days later the priests at the seminary have a little party to celebrate putting the roof-tree onto the new school building Querry has designed for them. There is a heavy rainstorm with (Gothic) thunder and lightning. In the middle of all the bangs and flashes, the priests get a call from the convent down the road that Rycker’s wife, Marie, has arrived there, exhausted, after 3 days on the road alone. She is insisting not only that Querry is her lover, but that she is pregnant by him!

Ridiculous! Querry goes to talk to her but realises she is quite ready to lie her pants off because it will get her away from the husband she hates and, ultimately, back to Europe where she longs to return.

As the thunder and lightning crash around the seminary, the priests are discussing whether Querry can be allowed to stay with them – since there will inevitably be scandal, boosted by the vile journalist Parkinson – and Querry is brushing it off and discussing divine and earthly love and which building they need to build next with Dr Colin – when the infuriated, histrionically Catholic, ‘wronged husband’ Rycker arrives, blundering about in the tropical rainstorm shouting Querry’s name and waving a gun around.

Farce or tragedy

Go on. Guess what happens next. Rycker shoots Querry dead. How did you guess? Oh yes, because it was crashingly inevitable. — Greene is so aware that a novel which could have offered fascinating insights into Congo on the eve of independence or about the treatment of leprosy and medicine in the developing world or about one man’s quest to escape the world – has turned into yet another novel about adultery, just like The Heart of the Matter and The End of The Affair, and a rather ludicrous one at that, that he has one of the priests point out that it’s all a bit like a French farce.

Rycker made for the door. He stood there for a moment as though he were on stage and had forgotten his exit line. ‘There isn’t a jury that would convict me,’ he said and went out again into the dark and rain…
[Father Jean said] ‘…It’s a little like one of those Palais Royal farces that one has read… The injured husband pops in and out.’ (p.190)

Quite. Greene visited some amazing places at just the right historical moment – London during the Blitz, Freetown 1942, Vienna 1948, Vietnam 1952, Cuba 1955, Congo 1959 – and sets novels in each of them. But novels of adventure? Novels of profound political insight? Novels which shed light on the great movement of post-colonial independence which swept the world in the decades after World War Two? Nope. Novels about unhappy upper-middle class professional men who steal other men’s women or have their women stolen by other men. The key characters are always Greene-proxy – woman – other man.

If only Greene could have devised a comic resolution to what is in so many ways a straightforward comic situation. But no. Bang bang. ‘The horror the horror,’ Querry dies quoting Kurtz from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness… actually he doesn’t, his dying word is the 1950s existentialist buzzword, ‘absurd’. But just quoting the buzzword of fashionable existentialism doesn’t make your entire work an existentialist novel. It is too urbane, too relaxed, right up till the end too untroubled for that.

Envoi

With crashing inevitability there is a final conversation between the Superior and sad Dr Colin designed to make us empathise even more with the tragic hero.

‘They would never have left him alone.’
‘Who do you mean by “they”?’
‘The fools, the interfering fools, they exist everywhere, don’t they? He had been cured of all but his success; but you can’t cure success, any more than I can give my mutilés back their fingers and toes. I return them to the town, and people look at them in the stores and watch them in the street and draw the attention of others to them as they pass. Success is like that too – a mutilation of the natural man.’ (p.197)

Poor Graham. Rich, successful, famous. Wives, mistresses and lovers coming out of his ears. Still so unhappy. Still such a grievance against the world.

In the end the plot boils down to a farcical joke: middle-aged philanderer is shot down by the jealous husband of the one woman he hasn’t bedded. Bitter irony. Life isn’t fair. The world is absurd. Geddit?

Style

All that said in criticism of the plot and the bucket theology, the novel is very pleasurable to read. His style, though not flashy or ostentatious, is dry and suave. Greene had been writing novels for 30 years by this stage. He knows how to achieve a host of little effects by juxtaposing people’s thoughts or words with their opposite in reality or other people’s minds, sly little dramatic ironies to be found on every page.

You almost feel the bucket Catholicism is part of a contractual obligation he feels required to deliver in each novel; whereas it is the ‘wisdom’ embodied by these small verbal strategies, the sense they give of listening to a man of the world, who is alert to all the little comedies of social life, of being alive and alert to human ironies, which is the real pleasures of the text. Not even the characters, as such, but the words that create the characters, and the way they move and dance against each other.

After reading Modesty Blaise and the Quiller spy novels, it was an enormous relief to read a text which is so sophisticated, urbane, reflective, mature.

Related links

Greene’s books

  • The Man Within (1929) One of the worst books I’ve ever read, a wretchedly immature farrago set in a vaguely described 18th century about a cowardly smuggler who betrays his fellows to the Excise men then flees to the cottage of a pure and innocent young woman who he falls in love with before his pathetic inaction leads to her death. Drivel.
  • The Name of Action (1930) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Rumour at Nightfall (1931) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Stamboul Train (1932) A motley cast of characters find out each others’ secrets and exploit each other on the famous Orient Express rattling across Europe, climaxing in the execution of one of the passengers, a political exile, in an obscure rail junction, and all wound up with a cynical business deal in Istanbul.
  • It’s a Battlefield (1934) London: a working class man awaits his death sentence for murder while a cast of seedy characters, including a lecherous HG Wells figure, betray each other and agonise about their pointless lives.
  • England Made Me (1935) Stockholm: financier and industrialist Krogh hires a pretty Englishwoman Kate Farrant to be his PA/lover. She gets him to employ her shiftless brother Anthony who, after only a few days, starts spilling secrets to the seedy journalist Minty, and so is bumped off by Krogh’s henchman, Hall.
  • A Gun for Sale (1936) England: After assassinating a European politician and sparking mobilisation for war, hitman Raven pursues the lecherous middle man who paid him with hot money to a Midlands town, where he gets embroiled with copper’s girl, Anne, before killing the middle man and the wicked arms merchant who was behind the whole deal, and being shot dead himself.
  • Brighton Rock (1938) After Kite is murdered, 17 year-old Pinkie Brown takes over leadership of one of Brighton’s gangs, a razor-happy psychopath who is also an unthinking Catholic tormented by frustrated sexuality. He marries a 16 year-old waitress (who he secretly despises) to stop her squealing on the gang, before being harried to a grisly death.
  • The Confidential Agent (1939) D. the agent for a foreign power embroiled in a civil war, tries and fails to secure a contract for British coal to be sent to his side. He flees the police and unfounded accusations of murder, has an excursion to a Midlands mining district where he fails to persuade the miners to go on strike out of solidarity for his (presumably communist) side, is caught by the police, put on trial, then helped to escape across country to a waiting ship, accompanied by the woman half his age who has fallen in love with him.
  • The Lawless Roads (1939) Greene travels round Mexico and hates it, hates its people and its culture, the poverty, the food, the violence and despair, just about managing to admire the idealised Catholicism which is largely a product of his own insistent mind, and a few heroic priests-on-the-run from the revolutionary authorities.
  • The Power and the Glory (1940) Mexico: An unnamed whisky priest, the only survivor of the revolutionary communists’ pogrom against the Catholic hierarchy, blunders from village to village feeling very sorry for himself and jeopardising lots of innocent peasants while bringing them hardly any help until he is caught and shot.
  • The Ministry of Fear (1943) Hallucinatory psychological fantasia masquerading as an absurdist thriller set in London during the Blitz when a man still reeling from mercy-killing his terminally ill wife gets caught up with a wildly improbable Nazi spy ring.
  • The Heart of The Matter (1948) Through a series of unfortunate events, Henry Scobie, the ageing colonial Assistant Commissioner of Police in Freetown, Sierra Leone, finds himself torn between love of his wife and of his mistress, spied on by colleagues and slowly corrupted by a local Syrian merchant, until life becomes intolerable and – as a devout Catholic – he knowingly damns himself for eternity by committing suicide. Whether you agree with its Catholic premises or not, this feels like a genuinely ‘great’ novel for the completeness of its conception and the thoroughness of its execution.
  • The Third Man (1949) The novella which formed the basis for the screenplay of the famous film starring Orson Welles. Given its purely preparatory nature, this is a gripping and wonderfully-written tale, strong on atmosphere and intrigue and mercifully light on Greene’s Catholic preachiness.
  • The End of The Affair (1951) Snobbish writer Maurice Bendrix has an affair with Sarah, the wife of his neighbour on Clapham Common, the dull civil servant, Henry Miles. After a V1 bomb lands on the house where they are illicitly meeting, half burying Bendrix, Sarah breaks off the affair and refuses to see him. Only after setting a detective on her, does Bendrix discover Sarah thought he had been killed in the bombing and prayed to God, promising to end their affair and be ‘good’ if only he was allowed to live – only to see him stumbling in through the wrecked doorway, from which point she feels duty bound to God to keep her word. She sickens and dies of pneumonia like many a 19th century heroine, but not before the evidence begins to mount up that she was, in fact, a genuine saint. Preposterous for most of its length, it becomes genuinely spooky at the end.
  • Twenty-One Stories (1954) Generally very short stories, uneven in quality and mostly focused on wringing as much despair about the human condition as possible using thin characters who come to implausibly violent endings – except for three short funny tales.
  • The Unquiet American (1955) Set in Vietnam as the French are losing their grip on the country, jaded English foreign correspondent, Thomas Fowler, reacts very badly to fresh-faced, all-American agent Alden Pyle, who both steals his Vietnamese girlfriend and is naively helping a rebel general and his private army in the vain hope they can form a non-communist post-colonial government. So Fowler arranges for Pyle to be assassinated. The adultery and anti-Americanism are tiresome, but the descriptions of his visits to the front line are gripping.
  • Loser Takes All (1955) Charming comic novella recounting the mishaps of accountant Bertram who is encouraged to get married at a swanky hotel in Monte Carlo by his wealthy boss who then doesn’t arrive to pick up the bill, as he’d promised to – forcing Bertram to dabble in gambling at the famous Casino and becoming so obsessed with winning that he almost loses his wife before the marriage has even begun.
  • Our Man In Havana (1958) Comedy about an unassuming vacuum cleaner salesman, Jim Wormold, living in Havana, who is improbably recruited for British intelligence and, when he starts to be paid, feels compelled to manufacture ‘information’ from made-up ‘agents’. All very farcical until the local security services and then ‘the other side’ start taking an interest, bugging his phone, burgling his flat and then trying to bump him off.
  • A Burnt-Out Case (1960) Tragedy. Famous architect Querry travels to the depths of the Congo, running away from his European fame and mistress, and begins to find peace working with the local priests and leprosy doctor, when the unhappy young wife of a local factory owner accuses him of seducing her and fathering her child, prompting her husband to shoot Querry dead.
  • The Comedians (1966) Tragedy. Brown returns to run his hotel in Port-au-Prince, in a Haiti writhing under the brutal regime of Papa Doc Duvalier, and to resume his affair with the ambassador’s wife, Martha. A minister commits suicide in the hotel pool; Brown is beaten up by the Tontons Macoute; he tries to help a sweet old American couple convert the country to vegetarianism. In the final, absurd sequence he persuades the obvious con-man ‘major’ Jones to join the pathetic ‘resistance’ (12 men with three rusty guns), motivated solely by the jealous (and false) conviction that Jones is having an affair with his mistress. They are caught, escape, and Brown is forced to flee to the neighbouring Dominican Republic where the kindly Americans get him a job as assistant to the funeral director he had first met on the ferry to Haiti.
  • Travels With My Aunt (1969) Comedy. Unmarried, middle-aged, retired bank manager Henry Pullman meets his aunt Augusta at the funeral of his mother, and is rapidly drawn into her unconventional world, accompanying her on the Orient Express to Istanbul and then on a fateful trip to south America, caught up in her colourful stories of foreign adventures and exotic lovers till he finds himself right in the middle of an uncomfortably dangerous situation.
  • The Honorary Consul (1973) Tragedy. Dr Eduardo Plarr accidentally assists in the kidnapping of his friend, the alcoholic, bumbling ‘honorary consul’ to a remote city on the border of Argentina, Charley Fortnum, with whose ex-prostitute wife he happens to be having an affair. When he is asked to go and treat Fortnum, who’s been injured, Plarr finds himself also taken prisoner by the rebels and dragged into lengthy Greeneish discussions about love and religion and sin and redemption etc, while they wait for the authorities to either pay the ransom the rebels have demanded or storm their hideout. It doesn’t end well.
  • The Human Factor (1978) Maurice Castle lives a quiet, suburban life with his African wife, Sarah, commuting daily to his dull office job in a branch of British Security except that, we learn half way through the book, he is a double agent passing secrets to the Russians. Official checks on a leak from his sector lead to the improbable ‘liquidation’ of an entirely innocent colleague which prompts Castle to make a panic-stricken plea to his Soviet controllers to be spirited out of the country. And so he is, arriving safely in Moscow. But to the permanent separation with the only person he holds dear in the world and who he was, all along, working on behalf of – his beloved Sarah. Bleak and heart-breaking.
  • Monsignor Quixote (1982) Father Quixote is unwillingly promoted monsignor and kicked out of his cosy parish, taking to the roads of Spain with communist ex-mayor friend, Enrique ‘Sancho’ Zancas, in an old jalopy they jokingly nickname Rocinante, to experience numerous adventures loosely based on his fictional forebear, Don Quixote, all the while debating Greene’s great Victorian theme, the possibility of a doubting – an almost despairing – Catholic faith.
  • The Captain and The Enemy (1988) 12-year-old Victor Baxter is taken out of his boarding school by a ‘friend’ of his father’s, the so-called Captain, who carries him off to London to live with his girlfriend, Liza. Many years later Victor, a grown man, comes across his youthful account of life in this strange household when Liza dies in a road accident, and he sets off on an adult pilgrimage to find the Captain in Central America, a quest which – when he tells him of Liza’s death – prompts the old man to one last – futile and uncharacteristic – suicidal gesture.

Late Turner @ Tate Britain

Contemporaries thought Turner had gone mad. Even his biggest fan, art critic John Ruskin, wasn’t keen on the paintings from his last 5 years up till his death in 1851. However, we – 160 years later and after the Impressionists and so many other weird art movements, after Art has been delcared dead and risen from its death-bed so many times – we look back with nostalgia on the idyllic landscapes you can just about discern in many of his paintings and the simple yet endlessly surprising pleasures of oil paintings.

The main challenges to enjoying Turner’s art isn’t, then, the treatment, which is old hat for a 21st century viewer. It’s the opposite, it’s the over-familiarity of his paintings. His greatest hits like The Fighting Temeraire or Rain, Wind and Speed are very familiar from posters and the ‘Turner Affect’, the blurring of sunlight through fog or mist or steam or rain obliterating the line between sea or land and sky to create a great yellow-white fantasia, has been done thousands of ways since. He himself began its over-exposure by doing the same trick again and again in the paintings here.

J.M.W. Turner, Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway 1844. Copyright The National Gallery, London

J.M.W. Turner, Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway 1844. Copyright The National Gallery, London

And this is the other challenge – the sheer volume, the scale of Turner’s output. The audio guide explains that he left over 30,000 sketches in his sketchbooks, not counting all the watercolours and a huge number of preparatory and finished oil paintings.

He left everything to the nation and the collection eventually found its way to the museum which became Tate Britain. From one perspective, then, this wasn’t a very challenging exhibition to mount: the curators just had to move the paintings from the Clore Gallery to the Exhibition rooms. They then organised it by subject matter: travels scenes from Europe; historic and mythological subjects; sea and whaling etc. (The audioguide highlights the considerable effort which as in fact gone into curating the show, including the restoration of many pieces and the discovery of new sketches.)

The challenge to the viewer is trying to establish some rules of thumb to help you survive the bombardment of paintings, so many of which display the Turner Affect, but very few of which really gel or work. Why not? Why do the ones which work work?

Rule 1 – Forget almost everything with human figures in Turner was rubbish at painting people. Almost all the historical and mythological paintings by definition feature human figures. Without exception your eye goes to them, realises they are poorly defined with blobs for faces and wonky eyes, and the effect is ruined. Our 21st century culture is saturated with images of human beings and I’ve watched hundreds of hours of films of people moving, not to mention all the movies featuring CGI where the audience is invited to assess the realistic movement or not of the thousands of little human figures (Titanic, Lord of The Rings). Bringing this hypercritical awareness of every nuance of the human figure to bear on Turner’s history and myth paintings ruins them at a stroke.

Regulus, 1837, epitomises this. There’s the Turner Light Effect alright, but your eye is drawn to the figures at bottom right (and left) and they are poor and that undermines the work’s integrity.

JMW Turner, Regulus 1837. Tate. Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

JMW Turner, Regulus 1837. Tate. Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

The same could be said for:

Rule 2 – Only a small percentage of the oil paintings work Even dismissing everything with a human figure in it leaves hundreds and hundreds of landscapes, some of urban settings like Venice, others of mountains in the Alps etc, others of seascapes. An exhibition like this makes you realise quite quickly that a lot don’t work. Given such a large number to choose for I was looking for ones where the Affect is unblemished by imperfections and imbalances. For example, I don’t really like the famous Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway 1844 because I don’t like the finish of the engine, or the brick paling of the bridge, or the other, white bridge over to the left – the detailing of all of them seem to me imperfect. By contrast my favourite paintings were:

JMW Turner, Peace - Burial at Sea 1842. Tate. Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

JMW Turner, Peace – Burial at Sea 1842. Tate. Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Rule 3 – the sketches are better than the paintings Maybe my taste is against the enormous bombast of the paintings but, as with the Constable exhibition, I found the sketches had a free, uncontrived, fresh and sometimes quite magical impact. Whereas you could quite easily walk past vast oil canvases, rather ham-fisted portrayals of grand historical vistas which just don’t float my boat, I found myself lingering and coming back to re-view tiny 6-inch high sketches which captured a feeling and mood with breath-taking skill. There was a series of sketches taken of Mount Rigi at different times of day which were quite wonderful.

JMW Turner, The Blue Rigi 1841-2

JMW Turner, The Blue Rigi 1841-2

There are people in these sketches but he takes a completely different approach – instead of attempting complete depictions which fail and look clumsy – as in the historical paintings – Turner is content to hint at the human figure with silhouettes and slivers of paint. Compare the light and playful hints of figures in Boats off Margate pier with the melodramatic, overdone but unconvincing figures in Regulus.

Related links

The 9th Directive by Adam Hall (1966)

To respond to the threat of a grenade-burst the sub-conscious has to evaluate a mass of data: the angle of the thrower’s arm, which governs the time-period from the beginning to the end of the throw; the size (and thus the weight) of the grenade – data which affects the time taken to throw it (the heavier the slower) and the degree of explosive force; the distance of the thrower to the intended point of impact; the height of the thrower above that point (gravity aiding momentum); and all factors pertaining, which include mass, inertia, trajectory, air resistance, so forth. (p.152)

Everything that irritated me about the first Quiller novel is here in the second. There’s a big stake – a Royal is making a state visit to Thailand and security have received realistic information that there’ll be an assassination attempt – but not much actually happens – Quiller argues with the supervisor who called him over from France to manage the project and spends a lot of time, nearly two weeks in fact, driving round Bangkok hoping to catch a glimpse of the assassin. Seriously. Just as in The Quiller Memorandum there is a steady, constant amount of ‘tagging’ or following, and counter-tagging, of driving round following other cars or being followed.

The tedium of the eventless plot is routinely interspersed with psychobabble masquerading as tradecraft and spy technique.

A simple rule of mnemonics is that if a face is to be remembered it must be forgotten in its absence. Attempted recall in the absence of the image is dangerously prone to distort it… Most instances of poor memory are examples of retroactive interference producing qualitative changes: the memory, goaded into conscious service, begins making things up. If left alone, the initial neural traces will remain absolutely clear, and will recognise the image immediately the next time it is seen – because no change has taken place. (p.34)

Psychoanalysis is crossed with the shiny new world of computer science to lace the text with themes and threads which must have seemed achingly up-to-the-minute in 1966.

The Maltz system of psycho-cybernetics breaks new ground in that it likens the subconscious to a computer to which the forebrain submits problems for resolution. Some of its concepts derive from accepted disciplines including that of the sleep processes. (p.42)

And, just as there is a detailed but utterly detached, scientific paper-style account of being injected with truth serum in the first novel, so, here, there is a similarly super-detached account of being caught in an explosion.

Reaction time covers three phases: time required to sense the signal, to decide on the correct response, and to respond. Relevant factors: age, state of health, muscle-tone, fatigue, alcohol, caffeine, so forth. Greatest artificial influential factor: training (i.e. habit formation). (p.151)

Old tech

The entire plot turns out to be about this piece of cutting edge technology, known as a ‘laser’.

The project concerned a refinement of the Laser device (Light Amplification by Stimulate Emission of Radiation). This is an electro-magnetic oscillator producing light-waves massed into an ultra-narrow wave-length band and directed along a fixed path in a ray one million times brighter than is possible in any normal way. (p.121)

Trainspotting

The tough-minded and often angry first-person narrator is as humourlessly factual about his gadgets as about every single other aspect of his world.

They let me take my pick from what they had on the shelves and I came up with a compromise: a Pentax X-15 25 mm single reflex with a 135 mm lens that took a 2 Auto teleconverter and a stock adapter for my Jupiters. This 135 x 2 x 8 (lens plus converter plus field-glasses) gave a total focal length of 2160 mm and a magnification of X 16. (p.62)

Don’t worry, there’s plenty more.

All the Husqvarnas are beautiful but the finest they make is the 561. It is a .358 Magnum, centre-fire, with a three-shot magazine, 25½-inch barrel, hand-chequered walnut stock, corrugated butt-plate and sling swivels. The fore-end and pistol-grip are tipped with rosewood. The total weight is 7¾lbs and the beech-pressure is in the region of 20 tons p.s.i., giving a high muzzle-velocity and an almost flat trajectory with a 150-grain bullet. (p.72)

I think what I don’t like about the books (apart from the ludicrous plots which consist of lots of wandering round being tagged or ‘flushing’ your tags or tagging other people) is that the tone is so relentlessly lecturing, haranguing and expounding. If it’s not guns and cameras, it’s long humourless lectures about the forebrain and the unconscious, the stomach-mind versus the head-brain. How an agent should behave before, during and after an ‘overkill’ operation. What you should know about safe houses.

A safe-house is no ordinary place: it is a cornerstone of security and bad security can wreck a mission and kill you off. You’ve got Local Control if you’re lucky but you can’t always rely on getting there if the operation hots up and you’re jumping. A safe-house is a home and sometimes it’s the only place you can run to. We think of it as a shrine, sacrosanct. It’s really a bolt-hole. (p.117)

It is always left to the discretion of the intelligence director in the field whether a killing is reported or not. (p.148)

Got that at the back? There’ll be a test on Friday.

Sex

It’s a spy novel in the 1960s, so of course there’s a dolly bird (sorry, an operative working for Mil. 6 – note the cool way he doesn’t write MI6, no, Mil.6 is what real insiders call it). Turns out she’s been tasked with ‘tagging’ Quiller all along. She is unnerved by the execution which happens in the book and so they drive to a hotel room and mechanically undress with no words.

We had nothing to say to each other; it was now too urgent for that. In the glow from the bedside lamp she moved without awkwardness, revealing her lean body with feline arrogance until she was naked except for the wafer-flat ·22 that was holstered on the inside of her thigh. She unclipped it deftly and dropped it on to her clothes. (p.127)

Ambler, Innes and MacLean wisely have little or no sex in their novels. Len Deighton’s hero refers to it in an oblique and characteristically dry way. Hall’s touch is brutal and humourless and clumsy.

She cried out the first time, and afterwards the heat of her tears touched my hand. (p.128)

The first time, eh? Give her multiples, did you, Mr Big? The next morning she apologises for crying out her boyfriend’s name ‘in the moment of passion’. This made me smile, because it is such a cliché.

But I laughed out loud when she goes on to explain why: ‘At those times we… often say things. It was because you were so… magnificent. I forgot where I was, who you were.’ (p.130) So magnificent, eh? So magnificient he makes a girl forget who she is, where she is. Modest chap, this Quiller. In his mind, the only agent who can save the Royal, an expert at psychological control, a master of all known weapons, a demon between the sheets. —Presumably, this is all meant to be serious? It isn’t all a colossal satire?

Somewhat inevitably, it turns out her man was killed on their last assignment together and, well, she just had to get it out of her system… You know how women are.

Their moment of release past, the agents both dress and get on with the job of going off to ‘tag’ the bad guys, while trying to avoid getting too ‘tagged’ in return.

Oh and more lecturing.

The sole advantage of the spring-gun is silence. It is more silent than any powder-gun, however heavily baffled. At even medium range – six feet and over – it is inefficient it it has to fire through clothing. Even at four feet an overcoat will shield the body from most of the impact. The spring-gun can kill through light clothing at any range below two feet providing it can be aimed to strike at a vital organ without hitting bone. As a useful weapon it has value only if its limitations are known and allowed for. (p.137)

The stupid plan

This continual lecturing, the complete absence of humour, the tedious expounding of Spy Basics, might all be bearable if the plot had pace or intelligence. But the first half of the book describes how Quiller is brought to Bangkok by a controller who tells him the mission is to protect a visiting Royal from a well-known Asian assassin named Kuo. Quiller tags Kuo all over Bangkok until, abruptly, he disappears – then spends over ten days driving round town trying to find him again. He figures out it will be a hit with a long-range rifle and finds the location, a tower in a Buddhist temple close to the route of the Royal car procession.

BUT, despite knowing the identity of the assassin and the location, Quiller and his Control agree a ludicrous plan which is to wait till the last possible moment, until the Royal car is coming down the parade and into view, and until the assassin is lifting his rifle to take aim, and only then giving Quiller a few seconds to shoot the assassin – from the window of a room Quiller has found in a derelict building across the way.

This seems like a bad plan. I explained it to my son and he said, how stupid. Really – you’re not going to tell MI6 (sorry, Mil.6), the local police or military or intelligence – you are going to make saving the life of a senior Royal entirely dependent on your own shooting ability and leave it to the last possible moment? Not have him arrested? Not bump him off earlier in the day? Leave everything to the last possible moment?

The absurdity of this approach closely echoes the absurdity of The Quiller Memorandum wherein Quiller lets himself be picked up twice by the Nazi gang and then lets himself be ‘tagged’ all round town before managing to slip away to make a phone call to his local Control. That’s the plot. How Quiller slips his tail to make one phone call to the office.

I wasn’t in the least bit surprised when the ‘plan’ goes horribly wrong. Who would have predicted that? Despite having cocked things up really badly, the narrator doesn’t leave off his barrage of hectoring, except it is now like trying to keep a straight face in front of a teacher who has hilariously screwed up in front of the whole class. Now you can’t take anything he says seriously, and the more deadly earnest and man-of-the-world he tries to be, the more ludicrous a figure he cuts.

There had been only a slight phuttt from the gun. Its barrel had swung up a degree to meet my hand and the dart had ripped flesh away. A trained athlete reacts as fast as a cat, and muscle-obedience to the motor nerves is almost instantaneous. (p.138)

Ah so.

He held a ·38 automatic and it had a silencer. ‘Silencer’ is a misnomer. No gun can be made silent. A full baffle will absorb a lot of noise but it will also cost a lot of impact and can make the difference between a kill and a maiming wound – and a man with a maiming wound can run and can even fight and can even close in before the second shot comes. This was a half-baffle designed to cut down the noise without costing too much fire-power. (p.140)

In many places this ‘novel’ approaches as close to a textbook or manual as a work of fiction can. And all the people in it are faultless professionals who have all been to the same finishing schools for spies and secret agents.

His hand moved fractionally into the killing-attitude, pressing the gun against his side to cushion the recoil. (p.142)

The Chinese hadn’t moved. Blood came from the hole in his neck. She had shot for the third vertebra in the cervical region, smashing it and severing the nerves. It was a surgically accurate shot, consideration having been taken of the limitations of so small a gun. (p.146)

They were working as a perfectly disciplined cell controlled by a professional of talent. (p.166)

So it’s odd, eerie, then, that the overwhelming impression the narrator makes is of an idiot, permanently angry, always shouting at his calm boss, arrogantly declaring he has the only plan to protect the visiting Royal – a plan which completely misfires allowing the Royal to be kidnapped by the gang – an idiot, and who then deliberately lets himself be cornered in a warehouse, hand grenaded, poisoned by cyanide and then has his car shot away from under him.

There are countless pages of manual-speak but next to no intelligence. Instead the crucial breakthroughs in the plot are complete accidents – he happens to see Kuo going into the temple which will be used for the hit; and he happens to glimpse out the corner of his eye a Rolls Royce with the Union Jack being flown incorrectly on it and so suspects it is being used to smuggle the Royal out of Bangkok.

The narrator goes to great lengths to show off his expertise, but comes across as a technocrat buffoon. On page 174 he accuses himself of gross stupidity and it is hard to disagree.

Related links

Fontana paperback edition of The 9th Directive, tie-in with the BBC TV series

Fontana paperback edition of The 9th Directive, tie-in with the BBC TV series

The Quiller novels

  • 1965 – The Berlin Memorandum Quiller tangles with a group of neo-Nazis led by Oktober, trying to get details of their organisation til the capture and interrogate him to get the details of his organisation.
  • 1966 – The 9th Directive Quiller is in Bangkok where he uncovers a plot to assassinate ‘a leading Royal’, which he incompetently fails to realise is really a disguised plot to kidnap him. After much shooting and a high speed road chase the Royal is exchanged for an enemy spy on the Chinese border.
  • 1968 – The Striker Portfolio Quiller investigates the unexplained crashes of NATO’s latest high speed jet and uncovers a sinister conspiracy.
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