Levkas Man by Hammond Innes (1971)

‘You don’t think about the world you live in, your species. You’re just a healthy, normal human animal. That’s why I need you. To keep me from thinking about my own species – the explosion of its populations, the massing in concrete jungles, the destructive assault upon the balance of nature which can only lead to nature’s retaliation – a long, slow, terrible battle of disease, famine and war.’ (p.192)

After the bright fluorescent modernity of Len Deighton, Innes reads almost like a Gothic writer, with his lingering on ancestral curses and implacable fates. As with the doomed relationship between the brothers in Atlantic Fury (1962) and the even more ill-fated relationship between father and son in The Doomed Oasis (1960), this is another tangled family saga.

Two things filled my mind – the way this house drew those who were connected with my father, as though his brooding personality were a living force within its walls, and the extraordinary pattern that was dragging me almost against my will into the area of his activities. (p.49)

Moreover, this novel is dominated by a gloomy early-1970s feeling that the world is coming to an end, that Man is destroying the environment and himself.

Levkas Man

The first-person narrator, Paul (28) is the adopted son of a famous Dutch archaeologist – Dr Van der Voort. The relationship was a stormy one, with much anger and beatings, until he ran away to become a merchant seaman. The narrative opens as, back from a long sea journey and fleeing some kind of waterfront brawl, Paul comes sneaking ‘home’ one night to the tall, dark, empty house in Amsterdam which is so full of memories and ghosts.

After wandering through the empty rooms and letting the memories flood back he is visited by his father’s young housekeeper/secretary, Sonia, and then, over the next few days, by two archaeologist colleagues of his father’s. Both want his father’s journal, the account of his current expedition out in Greece – although the trip has reportedly run into trouble, with stories of money shortages and fights.

The narrator could escape: the next morning he walks down to the docks and meets a seaman who introduces him to a captain who needs a mate for a voyage to New Zealand. It is everything Paul wants: flight to the other side of the world, escape to sea. But he turns it down and goes to a meeting with an international antiquities smuggler who wants him to move valuables between Turkey and Greece. Why? Because his father is in Greece… and he feels himself being pulled into what he repeatedly describes as the ‘pattern’.

I’d been given the chance of escaping from the pattern and, God knows why, I had rejected it. (p.51)

Stasis

As I’ve noted before, Innes has a trick or habit of mind of rendering long static scenes rather than dramatically active ones. People brood and stare off into the distance, stop speaking in mid-sentence and there is a general air of things unsaid, actions untaken, truths unexpressed, a paralysis which grips the characters and eventually the whole plot.

I sat there for a long time, the papers in my hand (p.40)… an awkward pause that held us silent (50)… He seemed resigned to my inability to help him and gave a little shrug (74)… He gave a shrug (78)… He stared at me, not saying anything (80)… He hesitated (81)… She hesitated, frowning (91)… She turned away (92)… He half rose as if to say something.. but then changed his mind (94) She had withdrawn into herself (97)… ‘I don’t know… It’s just a feeling.’ (98)… I think I must have stood there for quite a long time (103)… He was silent for a long time (105)…

There was nothing I could say and I stood there silent (107)… He just sat there silent, lost in his own thoughts (108)… He gave his habitual little shrug (117)… She hesitated as though about to say something… then she turned abruptly and went back (118)… He was not very communicative… we walked on in silence (123)… I hesitated… I didn’t say anything (128)… The intensity of his frustration… He hesitated (129)…

His open, honest features had reflected his own puzzlement as he searched for words to express his feelings (142)… For a time he seemed lost in his own thoughts (149)… He wouldn’t give me a straight answer to that (161)… We didn’t talk much, both of us wrapped in our own thoughts. (162)… he had withdrawn inside himself… He stared at me, his eyes suddenly blank (165)… The brooding look had returned to his face and  his mind was far away… a mood of withdrawal (167)… My father had withdrawn into himself (169)… Silence then, a silence that dragged. (188)… He was staring through the windshield, his mind on something else… He hesitated, staring at me (240)… I didn’t say anything. What could I say? (267)

It cannot be over-emphasised how much this atmosphere of blockage and constriction dominates the obscurely doom-laden text.

The plot

The plot, as in most Innes novels, is a concatenation of procrastinations.

Paul takes the smuggling assignment, flying to Malta where he meets up with the boat that’s been chartered for him to pick up the merchandise. But as soon as he and the husband-and-wife crew arrive in their first port in Greece, Paul is picked up by the Greek police who drive him to the dig, at a place called Despotiko.

  • The police (in the shape of a Greek Intelligence officer) want to know if his father is really a Communist spy – based on the fact he was a Party member in the 1930s and some of his expeditions were funded by Russia.
  • Meanwhile, it  becomes clearer that at least one of his father’s archaeologist rivals wants to steal his father’s discoveries, but why.
  • And at the site of the dig, up in the mountains, Paul asks the two assistants, Carpenter and Winter, why there was a fight, why the Doctor went mad, attacked one of them, then stalked off into the night.

And the answers to these questions? Don’t know, don’t know, don’t know.

The novel proceeds through a sequence of incidents none of which clarify what’s really going on or where we’re heading, creating a fog of uncertainty and indecision – and it’s a long one for Innes, 280 pages in the Fontana paperback edition.

So either you become quite frustrated at the lack of answers or you decide to sit back and enjoy the ride, savouring the saltily evocative description of sailing from Malta to Greece, or the sound and smells of evening in the square of a small mountain-top village.

There’s an Aegean Interlude in the middle of the novel, where Paul and the charter guys pull off the simple bit of antiquity-smuggling which, after all, is why he went out there – and this interlude contains wonderfully expressive descriptions of sailing along the Greek coast and out to the islands off Turkey. Sailing was Innes’ passion, and it shows.

Climax

Paul has a brief encounter with his father at the Despotiko dig, long enough to realise he is exhausted and at the end of his tether in obsessive pursuit of his theories, before decoying the police away from him. Drawing a blank there, the Greek Intelligence officer instructs the police to move their search to the locations where Dr Van der Voort was seen the previous year, specifically some caves on the island of Levkas.

Here they discover Dr Van der Voort has been exhausting himself for months, obsessively digging away at the rockfall at the back of the cavern, taking little food or drink at his feeble camp, in pursuit of the proof for his theories. But he is nowhere to be found. The Greek police, the other archaeologists, Paul and Sonia, all assemble here and realise the Doctor is missing because he’s trapped behind the rockfall, caused by a small earth tremor all of them felt a day or two previously, not big enough to be reported or cause any damage, but enough to trap the Doctor somewhere behind it.

In the final scenes, while the archaeologists go to work to remove the fallen rocks, Paul makes a tense and dangerous undersea dive along the shoreline directly beneath the cavern and finds a secret way up into it. In the climax to the various plot strands he discovers that:

  • his father has murdered his rival, Professor Holroyd, who had stolen some of his earlier discoveries and made the mistake of getting through the rockfall into the cavern at an earlier moment when a gap opened and before a further rockfall closed it
  • his father is now alone in a vast cavern covered with precisely the kind of prehistoric cave paintings which prove his theories about the migration of ancient man, about the triumph of Cro-Magnon Man, but above all confirm his view of Man as an irredeemably psychopathic killer

Themes

This brings us to the themes which are sprinkled throughout the text. They start out as being Dr Van der Voort’s theory, or theories:

  1. The sea was once 200 or 300 metres lower than it is now. The entire Mediterranean was then a vast savannah covered with the kinds of mammals you find in Africa. An enormous volcanic explosion (like the one which tore apart Santorini) blew up what are now the islands around Levkas. The ice melted and sea levels rose, making all sorts of places inhabitable by Stone Age man now underwater, hence the diving element in the plot.
  2. Prehistoric man came up into Europe from Africa, not Asia. (Since this is now the near universal view, it’s difficult to take seriously the idea that this is a Major Breakthrough, over which rival archaeologists are prepared to argue and even fight).
  3. ‘Modern man’, homo sapiens sapiens exterminated the heavier-browed, ape-like Neanderthal Man who he discovered inhabiting Europe, until only hss survived. (I think this is also the modern view, though disputed.)
  4. The Doctor’s personal theory that man is not the tool-making creature, but the weapon-making creature. Throughout the novel it is asserted that this insight is reinforced by his own personality and sudden rages, which have apparently included killing a man in Russia and (as narrated in the novel) attacking his assistants on the Despotiko dig. And the Doctor frightens his son, the narrator, by asserting that he, Paul, has inherited the old man’s violent tendency: hence the event before the text began, where Paul is meant to have killed a man in a waterfront fight. (Obviously a personal view of human nature.)
  5. Modern civilisation is sick, we are destroying the planet, maiming Nature, killing off each other, at a terrible rate. (See the quote at the top.)

Maybe the aim was to establish Van der Voort as a rather deranged version of someone like Laurens van der Post. The 1970s saw the rise of a number of ‘gurus’, people with a generally critical view of our consumer culture and a wider perspective on history or the cosmos, who were looked up to because they promoted ‘spiritual values’. Now that we know life is entirely about making money and buying the latest Apple iPhone, the alternative culture of the 1970s, with its aspirations to escape slavish consumerism, to bring peace and to protect the environment, seem utopian and naive.

Redemption in the end

As with the last few Innes novels I’ve read, you have to wade through several hundred pages of essentially mundane events, hundreds of frustrating non-communicative conversations, while some lonely obsessive leads the other characters a seemingly pointless dance – until the conclusion of the book, which in every case is a dramatic or imaginatively intense coup de théâtre which eclipses the preceding frustrations and leaves you with a powerful after-memory.

Same here: all the meandering plot and irritating non-conversations fade from memory by contrast with:

  • The scene where Paul confronts his father in the vast buried cavern completely covered in amazing prehistoric cave paintings of slaughtered animals which both can only see by the flickering light of Paul’s dying flashlight, which it has taken to many trials and adventures to discover, where Paul is oppressed by an almost tangible sense of prehistoric violence and evil, and where his father admits that he murdered the rival archaeologist, brutally staving in his skull.
  • Several scenes later, after Paul has burned his bridges by refusing to tell his potential lover, Sonia, the truth, and then beaten and tied up the Greek Intelligence officer who had been shadowing him – he steals the charter boat and heads south to freedom and new adventures. Man may be a murderer who is destined to fight countless wars and destroy his environment but, for this moment, for one man – Paul – there is the (very Innes) exhiliration of being at sea, at one with the elements, master of his own destiny, free. Not only is it powerful in itself, but comes as a tremendous psychological release after the sense of oppressive constriction which dominates most of the text, building up to the terrifying confrontation scene in the cavern. The narrator and the text are freed, liberated, newborn in the motion of the waves and the smell of the salt spray and the wide sky above.

Although the first two-thirds of a Hammond Innes novel are often a trial and a torment to read, it is almost always worth it because of the imaginative power of these final climactic scenes, for which the preceding pages are merely a sort of scaffold which can be kicked away and forgotten once the Big Scene has gripped your imagination, whose power lingers and forms your lasting memory of the book.

TV series

The novel was made into 6-part TV mini-series by ABC, the Australian TV channel. I think this must be the very of-its-time theme tune of the series.

Related links

1971 Fontana paperback edition of Levkas Man

1971 Fontana paperback edition of Levkas Man

Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines leads to him being hunted by an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land. The book features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute shootout on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a tough woman journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm – Gripping thriller based on Innes’ own experience as a Battle of Britain anti-aircraft gunner. Ex-journalist Barry Hanson uncovers a dastardly plan by Nazi fifth columnists to take over his airfield ahead of the big German invasion.


1946 Dead and Alive – David Cunningham, ex-Navy captain, hooks up with another demobbed naval officer to revamp a ship-wrecked landing craft. But their very first commercial trip to Italy goes disastrously wrong when his colleague, McCrae, offends the local mafia while Cunningham is off tracking down a girl who went missing during the war. A short but atmospheric and compelling thriller.
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it at a remote island in the Arctic circle in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complex enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig has to lead his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the owners’ conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose quest for independence he is championing.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this one convinced he can prove his eccentric and garbled theories about the origin of Man, changing Ice Age sea levels, the destruction of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up an invitation to visit a rancher’s daughter he’d met in England. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his treacherous past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle. It’s all mixed up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, whose last surviving son is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational and business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has hit the rocks near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyds of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Sequel to Isvik. Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cruse is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to fly a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. There are many twists, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is Ward’s scheme to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, whose existence was discovered by the sole survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a novel, which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania on the very days that communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu is overthrown, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller, before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s adventure stories for boys as Cruse and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started. A convoluted, compelling and bizarre finale to Innes’ long career.

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