The Snow Tiger by Desmond Bagley (1975)

Unlike its two predecessor spy novels, The Snow Tiger is less about suspense and more of a prolonged account of legal and administrative procedure, making it read more like one of Hammond Innes’ sober, factual adventure yarns – right up till the detailed and gruesome avalanche at the book’s climax, at which point it becomes quite a hard-core ‘disaster novel’.

The Snow Tiger

The entire text takes the form of an official Commission of Inquiry into a major catastrophe – a massive avalanche which destroyed the mining town of Hukahoronui in the south island of New Zealand, killing 54 people and injuring many more. The first two-thirds remind me of the slow documentary lead-up to a pre-announced disaster which characterises several Hammond Innes novels, such as the catastrophic sinking of the landing craft (also with loss of life of some 50 people) in Atlantic Fury, the lengthy Board of Inquiry which forms the core of The Wreck of The Mary Deare, or the detailed description of the Court Martial in Maddon’s Rock.

Similarly, this book is divided into the thirteen consecutive days during which the Inquiry into the avalanche sits. Each chapter starts with a detailed and pedantic account of the cross-questioning of key witnesses, then segues into a presentation of the scene itself.

Briefly, Ian Ballard returns from England to New Zealand, to the town where he grew up, sent there to take control of the town’s struggling gold mine, which is owned by his strong-willed, patriarchal grandfather, back in London. Ballard encounters all sorts of opposition, not least from the Peterson family, a powerful clan in the little town (population 800) who reckon they own the land the mine is built on and were swindled out of it by Ballard’s grandfather. What’s more they also hold an ancient grudge that Ballard was responsible for the death by drowning of one of the Peterson brothers 20 years ago – so they pick fights with Ballard whenever possible.

But when the friend Ballard made skiing in Switzerland a few years earlier, a snow expert, Dr Mike McGill, turns up to visit, he immediately points out that the steep hillside covered with snow which sweeps down to the mine entrance, and to the town itself, is dangerously unstable, a problem exacerbated when all the timber was cut down to build the mine and new houses.

While the various characters are bickering about whether to contact the authorities a minor avalanche takes place, blocking the narrow entrance to the valley, trapping all the townspeople and knocking out the electricity and phone lines. McGill takes charge of the Town Council and begins planning emergency accommodation, food and heating, and is in the middle of detailing people to find safe shelter and training some of the men in snow rescue, when the Monster Avalanche suddenly occurs.

Two strands

Around the middle of the book the contemporary strand – the description of the Inquiry slowly working its way through the evidence of the eyewitnesses – gets a new angle, a new overlay of meaning, when an old lawyer friend of Ballard’s mean grandfather flies in. This man, Stenning, announces that the grandfather sent Ballard back to Hukahoronui as a test, to see if he could handle the antagonism of the locals and the shabbiness of the mine operation. For the mean old man had – astonishingly – consigned all his shares in the parent company to a Trust. If, in Stenning’s opinion, Ballard does show himself to be man enough, the trustees will vote him onto the Board and, since this has the largest single block of shares in the corporation, at a stroke Ballard would take control of a multinational corporation valued at around £232 million! Far from being the black sheep of the family despised by the old man, he turns out to have been the old man’s last hope!

Thus the two strands – past and present – significantly pick up pace for the last 100 pages (of this 250-page book):

  • In the present Ballard has to decide whether he wants the money – and, if so, prove that he has the balls to take on the Peterson brothers and the lawyers for the union and the local management of the mine, who are all manoeuvring to make him the scapegoat for the disaster. Spice is added when Ballard falls in love with the Petersons’ winsome sister, Liz, and the most thuggish Peterson brother, Charlie, threatens to murder Ballard if he keeps on seeing her…
  • In the flashbacks (which are also proceeding in chronological order, reflecting the accounts given in the courtroom). Even though we know the outcome ie the disastrous avalanche, nonetheless the scenes become increasingly tense as catastrophe looms. From the first avalanche and the power being cut, I found it genuinely hard to put this book down, in fact I kept on reading it into the early hours.

Disaster!

When the avalanche comes it is described at length and in detail. As in the ‘disaster movies’ which were so popular in the 1970s, the creator lingers in loving detail over the range of macabre, cruel and sadistic deaths he has contrived for his character:

Rawson is getting medical supplies when the avalanche smashes through the wall smashing a big jar of hydrochloric acid all over him.

Rawson was buried about twenty yards away and was dying slowly and quite painfully as the acid ate at his flesh. Fortunately, when he opened his mouth to scream it filled with soft snow and he died mercifully and quickly of asphyxia. (p.191)

Tastes have changed. I found the relish with which so many deaths were described revolting.

  • The drinkers in the local hotel are all killed, devastated by flying bottles and broken glass.
  • A lot of the town’s old people have gathered in the mayor’s house half way up the slope opposite to the danger one: nonetheless, the 200-mile-an-hour pressure wave makes the house explode as if hit by a ten-ton bomb, and survivors describe it as a butchers’ shop covered with blood and slabs of flesh.
  • Cameron, the mine manager, is trapped in the cab of his lorry which rolls over and over in the avalanche, his foot caught between pedal and brake until he comes to rest hanging upside down, with numerous broken bones, a position he stays in until he hears the water of the river, blocked by avalanche snow, beginning to fill the cab to drown him.
  • Nice old Mrs Sawnton who manned the telephone exchange is told to make for safety but as she’s getting up the phone rings, she stays to answer it, and the entire mine building, lifted by the hurtling snow, falls on the exchange crushing her.
  • Dave Scanlon is caught in the open, hit by a flying truck which mashes him ‘to a bloody pulp’.
  • Len Baxter is killed by flying bricks then buried by snow.
  • Phil Warrick is thrown against the red-hot stove he’d been feeding all morning, forced to embrace it and burned alive.

And so it goes on, a long list of ‘innocent’ townspeople – fictional characters – killed, tortured, eviscerated, mashed, crushed, burned to bloody messes. It is compelling, gripping but not pleasant reading.

Even when the avalanche has subsided and mountain rescue teams arrive, led by a squad of notably efficient and helpful Americans, accidents still occur. An American tourist, Newman, had taken shelter in a small cave in the avalanche’s path, and is trapped in it with half a dozen others, most of whom lose hope in the claustrophobic dark. But he heroically tunnels out of the cave using a ballpoint pen, and it takes 24 hours of relentless digging for him to make it almost to the surface of the sow, a full 60 feet above him, when one of the rescuers treads through the narrow layer of snow just as he approaches the surface, stepping directly onto his head, making him lose his grip and fall the 60 feet back down the narrow twisting tunnel, breaking his neck. The others, still left in the cave are rescued alive.

These closing pages are full of vignettes like that, which are – I suppose – somehow intended to make the reader feel horror at the randomness of Fate. Perhaps you’re meant to feel more manly, because you’re tough enough to read all these horrors. Perhaps it has the same appeal as gruesome horror movies.

What makes it a disaster movie As mentioned, a number of Hammond Innes novels describe major disasters and loss of life, but only when I read this Bagley novel did I for the first time think that there might be a category of ‘disaster novels’ like there are ‘disaster movies’. I think the difference between an adventure novel with a catastrophe in it, and a ‘disaster novel’ would be the lip-smacking voyeuristic descriptions of gruesome individual deaths. In Atlantic Fury the sinking of the landing craft and loss of life is essentially a backdrop to the narrative, and we mainly read about just the narrator’s experience: here in The Snow Tiger, the detailed description of a lot of  grotesquely horrible deaths is at the imaginative heart of the enterprise, and the plight of the main protagonist (Ballard and his love affair) pales next to it.

The narrator takes a kind of sadistic pleasure in pointing out that, even after the avalanche has finished, tragedy continues, the striking example being the mid-air collision of a rescue helicopter – loaded with injured survivors – which takes off vertically into the path of a light airplane overflying the valley. Both plummet to the ground in flames. Pye, the local policeman, and Quentin, the union official, rush forward to open the helicopter doors and try and free the trapped passengers.

It was at that moment that the petrol ignited. He saw a white flash and felt searing heat, and when he inhaled his next breath he drew flaming petrol vapour into his lungs. He felt no pain and was dead before he knew it, and so was Bill Quentin, Mrs Haslam, Harry Baker and his co-pilot. (p.230)


Style

The style is clear, factual Bagley. Despite being set in the stunning mountain scenery of New Zealand, there are few if any extended descriptions. Instead Bagley is interested in the minutiae of the exchanges in the court room, or in the hotel at Hukahoronui. Just before the avalanche occurs he devotes several pages to a Wikipedia-style explanation of the complicated physical processes snow undergoes which make an avalanche happen. And when the catastrophe happens and scores of people die in garishly gruesome ways, Bagley’s flat, police-record-style descriptions make the suffering all the more vivid, disgusting and compelling.

Title

The title doesn’t refer to the animal, the white tiger – but to a proverb by the snow expert Matthias Zdarsky: ‘Snow is not a wolf in sheep’s clothing – it is a tiger in lamb’s clothing’. Similarly misleading, I thought the cover image (below) might refer to some kind of chase, as if this were an espionage novel – but it is not, it is a disaster novel, and the image depicts the gruesome moment, described above, when the helicopter and plane collide.

Related links

1970s Fontana paperback edition of The Snow Tiger

1970s Fontana paperback edition of The Snow Tiger

Bagley’s books

1963 The Golden Keel – South African boatbuilder Peter ‘Hal’ Halloran leads a motley crew to retrieve treasure hidden in the Italian mountains by partisans during WWII, planning to smuggle it out of Italy and back to SA as the golden keel of a boat he’s built for the purpose.
1965 High Citadel – Pilot Tim O’Hara leads the passengers of a charter flight crash-landed in the Andes in holding off attacking communists.
1966 Wyatt’s Hurricane – A motley crew of civilians led by meteorologist David Wyatt are caught up in a civil war on the fictional island of San Fernandes just as a hurricane strikes.
1967 Landslide – Tough Canadian geologist Bob Boyd nearly died in a car wreck ten years ago. Now he returns to the small town in British Columbia where it happened to uncover long-buried crimes and contemporary skulduggery.
1968 The Vivero Letter – ‘Grey’ accountant Jeremy Wheale leads an archaeology expedition to recover lost Mayan gold and ends up with more adventure than he bargained for as the Mafia try to muscle in.
1969 The Spoilers – Heroin specialist Nick Warren assembles a motley crew of specialists to help him break up a big drug-smuggling gang in Iraq.

1970 Running Blind – British secret agent Alan Stewart and girlfriend fend off KGB killers, CIA assassins and traitors on their own side while on the run across the bleak landscape of Iceland.
1971 The Freedom Trap – British agent Owen Stannard poses as a crook to get sent to prison and infiltrate The Scarperers, a gang which frees convicts from gaol but who turn out to be part of a spy network.
1973 The Tightrope Men – Advertising director Giles Denison goes to bed in London and wakes up in someone else’s body in Norway, having become a pawn in the complex plans of various espionage agencies to get their hands on vital secret weapon technology.
1975 The Snow Tiger – Ian Ballard is a key witness in the long formal Inquiry set up to investigate the massive avalanche which devastated the small New Zealand mining town of Hukahoronui.
1977 The Enemy – British Intelligence agent Malcolm Jaggard gets drawn personally and professionally into the secret past of industrialist George Ashton, amid Whitehall power games which climax in disaster at an experimental germ warfare station on an isolated Scottish island.
1978 Flyaway – Security consultant Max Stafford becomes mixed up in Paul Billson’s quixotic quest to find his father’s plane which crashed in the Sahara 40 years earlier, a quest involving extensive travel around North Africa with the charismatic American desert expert, Luke Byrne, before the secret is revealed.

1980 Bahama Crisis – Bahamas hotelier Tom Mangan copes with a series of disastrous misfortunes until he begins to realise they’re all part of a political plot to undermine the entire Bahamas tourist industry and ends up playing a key role in bringing the conspirators to justice.
1982 Windfall – Max Stafford, the protagonist of Bagley’s 1978 novel Flyaway, gets involved in a complex plot to redirect the fortune of a dead South African smuggler into a secret operation to arm groups planning to subvert Kenya, a plot complicated by the fact that an American security firm boss is simultaneously running his own scam to steal some of the fortune, and that one of the key conspirators is married to one of Stafford’s old flames.
1984 Night Of Error – Oceanographer Mike Trevelyan joins a boatload of old soldiers, a millionaire and his daughter to go looking for a treasure in rare minerals on the Pacific Ocean floor, a treasure two men have already died for – including Mike’s no-good brother – and which a rival group of baddies will stop at nothing to claim for themselves, all leading to a hair-raising climax as goodies and baddies are caught up in a huge underwater volcanic eruption.
1985 Juggernaut – Neil Mannix is the trouble shooter employed by British Electric to safeguard a vast transformer being carried on a huge flat-bed truck – the juggernaut of the title – across the (fictional) African country of Nyala towards the location of a flagship new power station, when a civil war breaks out and all hell breaks loose.

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