Isvik by Hammond Innes (1991)

It was a strange wild world, the long ribbon of water stretching out ahead, leaden under the lowering overcast. The great mass of the Darwin Cordillera was behind us now and though heavy banks of cloud obscured the towering peak of Sarmiento I could feel the menace of it in the sudden wind shifts, the violence of the gusts. It made me very conscious that I was now at the bottom of the world. Cape Horn ahead and the Screaming Fifties; after that the frozen wastes of the pack, the icebergs, the whole mass  of Antarctica with its blizzards. (p.223)

Norfolk

Peter Kettil has a mundane job as a wood specialist, assessing damp and rot and worms in the ageing buildings of his native East Anglia, spending the weekends on his sailing boat moored in Blakeney harbour. Without any warning he is made redundant when the traditional firm he works for is sold to a larger modern conglomerate. He is, in other words, the classic Innes’ protagonist, the ordinary bloke suddenly at a loose end and ready for an adventure. Scouting round for work he is invited to a meeting at the National Maritime Museum.

London

Here he is introduced to the mystery which dominates the novel. Besides the Director of the NMM he is introduced to one Iain Ward, a broad Glaswegian chancer and possible criminal who claims to have won the pools and wants to fulfil a lifelong dream of going on an ‘adventure’. The adventure is offered by the sexy Iris Sunderby, wife of an English glaciologist, whose plane crashed in the Antarctic but on whose body, when recovered, was found Sunderby’s diary in which he’d described seeing a perfectly preserved three-masted frigate trapped in the Antarctic ice of the Wadell Sea. And this is where the NMM comes in, since this is just the kind of antique ship they would love to get their hands on. So. They need an expert in wood preservation who can sail: does Peter want to join the expedition? Hesitantly, he says yes.

Mystery and intrigue are present from the start for, as Iris gives him a lift back to central London, they find themselves tailed by the flashy young man Peter had noticed hanging round the museum and eyeing Iris up. Now she reveals he’s Carlos, working for a Latino man, Mario Ángel Gómez, who she hates, and mentions something about her brother, Eduardo, one of the Desaparecidos, the ‘Disappeareds’ ie the people kidnapped and killed by the Argentine military dictatorship whose bodies were never found. What? This is a whole extra and complex layer of narrative…

Stunned at the sudden prospect of packing off to the Antarctic for months, and deeply concerned by the murky background to Iris’s South American connections, Peter returns to Norfolk to think it over, only – in another unexpected surprise – to be called back to London a few weeks later to identify Iris’ badly mangled body. Seems she fell, or was pushed, into one of the docks in the newly developed Docklands where she lives, and her body mangled by the propeller of one of the various pleasure boats. It’s her clothes and her handbag all right, and Peter leaves the mortuary dazed and upset. Like everyone who met her he had been dazzled by her vitality and determination and sexiness.

So he’s even more puzzled when the Scotsman, Ward, phones him a few days later and not only tells him the expedition is still on, but that they are leaving the next day! What! He must pack his things, come down to London to collect his and Ward’s passport with all the correct visas from an East End lawyer, then meet Ward at Heathrow. Despite all his misgivings, Peter does this and then sets about interrogating Ward: Why the hurry? Who’s paying for the expedition? Where is the diary and information about the ship?

On the plane

On the plane he is stunned to learn that Iris is still alive and flying out ahead of them: Ward goes on to explain her tangled family background, her mother a Latin American prostitute, her father connected to the Naples mafia, her half-brother tangled up in all sorts of crime. And then Ward tells a long cock and bull story about his own upbringing in Glasgow slums, hiking down to London as a boy and getting attached to an East End barrow boy who makes good but then dies, prescribing in his will that Ward is sent to prep school and then to Eton! Really! Kettil doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Is the man mad? Can this farrago possibly be true?

By now they’re through passport control and onto the plane to Mexico City and, in the first 100 pages, Innes has set up the complicated strands of another one of his Gothic thrillers. All the ingredients are here: an ordinary bloke (Peter); an exotic location (Antarctica); an obscure quest (for the alleged frozen clipper); and very dubious company (Sunderby and Ward).

In South America

The main action in this section is Ward persuading the narrator that they don’t fly straight down to Puntas Arenas where the boat is docked, but instead drive 600 kilometers to visit Mario Ángel Gómez, the baddy, at his place, the Hacienda Lucina, high in the Cordelliras mountains. They do so in a monsoon downpour caused by El Niño, encountering sections of the road which have been washed away by floods. At one point Ward drives the 4-wheel drive Toyota onto the rail line and along the line through a tunnel and across a bridge because the road has been washed away.

Then there is a dramatic scene where, driving around hairpin bends high in the mountains, above the noise of the torrential downpour they hear a bang and the first few rocks bouncing down and realise a rockslide has been triggered to bury them. Kettil accelerates like mad and just escapes the rocks while Ward jumps out and goes legging up the mountainside. Minutes later Kettil sees a frightened Latino descending a path chased by Ward who pursues him to the edge of the road and beats and hits him till he falls over the cliff screaming. Ward returns to the car streaming wet, carrying the detonator which the Latino used to set off the avalanche. Someone is trying to kill them but who? Kettil realises Ward is mad and that he is in way over his head.

They arrive at the Hacienda Lucinda high in the mountains, as the rain ceases and the sun comes out, and meet the devilishly handsome Ángel, urbane and smooth-talking like all thriller baddies. They also discover Iris Sunderby has been there for some time. It is difficult to understand why Ward has insisted in driving all this way, and at such great risk, just to see this guy: it’s something to do with establishing that Ángel is an ex-Argentine air force pilot who has himself seen the ice-bound frigate on one of his test flights or reconnaissance flights. Thus he is important to Iris because he confirms her husband’s sighting, and he knows its precise whereabouts.

But there is an extra layer of meaning and mystery which the narrator (and therefore we) don’t fully understand, in fact two levels, because Ward seems determined to find out whether Ángel was somehow involved in the fate of the ‘Disappeareds’, and therefore of Iris’s brother: is he, in other words, a baddy from the old military regime? And, in yet another of the incestuous Gothic family sagas which characterise Innes’ fictions, Ward is determined to find out whether Ángel is in fact related to Iris, is in fact her half-brother by the same father! Why he or we should care is never explained, it’s just part of the air of forced, compulsive obsession which is always a key element in an Innes thriller.

So Ward and Ángel go off arguing about these various issues while Kettil falls asleep in a chair in the garden wondering what the hell it’s all about. In a bizarre scene, he awakens to find Iris kissing him and stroking his manhood, giving him a hearty erection. But she has a dazed, glazed look on her face and is staring at the hacienda as if only doing it to provoke someone. As Ward and Ángel reappear she pulls Kettil out of his chair and onto the ground on top of her. Ward picks her up and diagnoses that she is high as a kite on cocaine, angrily yelling at Ángel that he’s been keeping her drugged.

Over the succeeding pages, it leaks out that she did it as part of the weird psycho-sexual games she plays with Ángel, because she is in fact infatuated with him. Kettil, an ordinary Englishman, is bewildered by these multiple levels of bizarreness. As he packs Iris’s stuff for her to leave with them, she admits that she has been with Ángel at the hacienda and, apparently, letting him use her in all kinds of sexual ways. It seems she did this from tangled motives, partly to extract from him the location of the iced-up ship in order to vindicate her dead husband’s sighting of the ship.

Because, as in all Innes’ thrillers, it is clearly way more than that, there is an out of control, Gothic, sexually obsessive side to the whole plot. Innes had always been candid about the sexual side of his characters: his male narrators have given frank assessments of the sexual appeal of women in the stories right from the earliest novels in the 1930s. Here he appears to be reacting to the hugely more ‘liberated’ culture of the 1980s, to describe head-on the peculiar sexual obsession of this gorgeous Latin American woman who is prepared to prostitute herself to a man who may be her half-brother, in order to vindicate her dead husband.

While the reader tries to puzzle out what the devil is going on and what the strange, twisted motivations are of Ward, Iris or Ángel, there is a completely separate thread in the book, which is that Ward, the larger-than-life, crippled Glaswegian street urchin, is very well read and insists on visiting key Aztec and Inca historic sites along the way. Thus, in between meeting disreputable contacts in Mexico City to dig up dirt about Ángel Gómez, he insists on driving Kettil out to the ancient site of Teotihuacan. And after they’ve collected Iris, on their hair-raising, mountain-path-washed-away-or-blown-up-by-assassins drive up to Gomez’s hideaway – he insists that they go out of their way to visit the vast ruined city of Chamchán, the old Chimú capital city. Here Kettil has what amounts to a religious experience, about life and destiny and history, which colours his perception of everything which follows.

If all this sounds weird for a ‘thriller’, it is, it really is.

If Innes’ novels don’t sell much any more it’s because they’re such an idiosyncratic mix of traditional thriller – innocent man gets caught up in some scam which leads to violence and intrigue – with these other, peculiar elements – one or more characters’ obtuse, impenetrably obsessive pursuit of some quixotic quest (after all, why are they all going on this cock-and-bull expedition to find an old ship in the ice, anyway?) – twisted, vengeful, doomed families (mad fathers, vengeful siblings) – along with heavy dollops of would-be profundity about human beings, nature, history etc (how man is exterminating wildlife in The Big Footprints or polluting the world in The Black Tide). The result is odd, uncanny, irrational and weirdly compelling.

The boat Isvik

After the peculiar mountain top scenes with coked-up Iris and mysterious Ángel and the ominous ruined cities, it is a relief when they fly and drive and fly again to arrive at the southernmost tip of South America, at the port of Puntas Arenas, where they check into the boarding house of a grizzled old sailor, ‘Captain Freddie’, and finally clap eyes on the famed Isvik. This is the boat which will take them south to the Antarctic. It was built for an American millionaire who lost interest, bought by an Antarctic prospecting company which went bankrupt, and which Ward’s money has now bought them for the madcap expedition. (Innes gives a full technical description on page 173.)

Here there is a month or more of hard work to get the ship into shape, with Innes displaying his in-depth knowledge of boats and sailing to dazzle us with precise detail of all the aspects of keel and sail and rigging and motors which have to be renovated, fixed, repaired or replaced before the ship is seaworthy.

Still no real explanation of why they’re doing it all, though – it’s not for money. But a new element enters along with the strange psycho-sexual ones: for the grizzled old sea-dog they’re staying with happens to have been shown round the old frigate when she docked here. In case I haven’t made this clear, the antique clipper ship they’re seeking hasn’t been lost in the ice for hundreds of years. The reverse. It sailed down the Argentine coast just a few years before and the grizzled old landlord had been able to go ashore and look around. He found her not only very seaworthy, but could see that various aerials and electric equipment had been attached to the masts and, presumably, linked to radios and who-knows-what electronic kit in the cabins.

Was all this something to do with the Falklands War (April 2, 1982 – June 14, 1982)? The war has already been mentioned in connection with Gomez, who we know flew fighters during it but, like all Innes characters, refuses to answer questions about it. Was the ship some part of that war, rigged up with secret equipment which could sneak past British radar because the ship was made of wood not metal?

The characters speculate about all this and the reader is left even more confused than before as to what this novel is really about. Is it a spy thriller? A Falklands War tale? A lurid psycho-sexual exploration? Is it about hidden treasure? Or the tragic impact of the Disappeared on their families? Or a Gothic fantasy about Ward and Iris’s different but equally intense obsessions with the ship? Or a psychological tragedy about Iris and Ángel Gómez’s incestuous, half-brother and sister, sexual madness? Or all of the above?

The voyage south

Finally they set sail, having recruited some more crew members starting with Nils, a standard-issue big bluff Scandinavian sailor. But after that it gets weird again: Carlos, the sleek good looking young man who had tailed Iris back in London turns up and begs to be taken along. Because now, Ward tells Kettil, they are to collect Ángel from the far south of South America, in fact he is vital as the only one who knows the ship’s location. And two Australians had answered the advert to crew for them but when they turn up, one turns out to be an Aborigenal woman, Go-Go, married to the white Aussie Andy. As the voyage progresses Kettil observes that she is obsessed with her husband, refusing to let him out of her sight and appears to be ‘sexually voracious’. This results in Andy’s shattered appearance in the mornings and his attempts to escape from her and into the safety of slipping on his headphones and communicating with local radio hams and guides.

It is a long difficult fraught voyage east towards the Falklands and then south towards Antarctica, all described with Innes’ trademark vivid detail and an impressive wealth of information about currents, winds, wave sizes and the thousand details of sailing in these unforgiving seas. There’s such a stark contrast between the cleanness and clarity of the sailing information and the peculiar, twisted psycho-sexual strands which inform the plot, for Kettil is still powerfully attracted to Iris, Iris is still attracted to Ángel, but it turns out young Carlos is Ángel’s gay lover – Kettil finds them in bed together. And there’s the smouldering tension between the bickering Australian couple. No wonder Kettil likes the company of straightforward, heterosexual and not at all incestuous Nils.

On the ice

They navigate the Isvik slowly into the ice pack, going as far south as they can before mooring, planning to set off the next morning. Next morning Ward isn’t at all surprised to wake and find Ángel and Carlos have stolen the snow scooter and set off early. Ward orders Kettil to have a hearty breakfast and then the pair of them set off, pulling their sledges with equipment, food, tents etc behind them, following the tracks in the snow. Many pages follow describing the extreme physical hardship of the three day journey that follows – the hail, the snow, the melting ice, the cracked ice, the jumbled up ice, the fierce sun at noon, the midnight storms.

Eventually they sight the ship in the ice and things speed up. After 300 pages of build-up the climax of the novel is played out in thirty intense, breathless pages. They find Carlos lying mortally wounded beneath the ice-bound bows of the ship. He’s been shot in the back and pushed over the bows to the hard ice below. Carlos has time to whisper,’I wouldn’t have told’ and then expires. In very tense and atmospheric scenes Ward and Kettil climb aboard the ship and explore it. Someone has lived here for the past two and a half years. There is a living quarter, food hung in strips, still some tins of food, coffee jars etc. Suddenly they hear a sound from a distant part of the ship: is it Ángel who we now know has murdered his boyfriend, Carlos? But why? What secret didn’t he want Carlos to reveal? And then as in the corniest thriller, the door to the cabin they’re in slowly creaks open…

The death ship

It is Eduardo, Iris’s half-brother, the one she thought was dead. He was one of the Disappeareds kept prisoner in the abandoned labour camp Ward took Kettil to see in an eerie scene, just before they collected Ángel from the tip of South America. He is in a terrible state, stinking of fish and faeces, filthy dirty, unshaved, hair and beard matted and stinking. At first barely able to speak, he slowly unburdens himself of his terrible story.

The political prisoners kept on the camp were rounded up and driven on board the sailing ship, along with a cargo of sheep. Almost everything metal had been removed from it. Eduardo knew how to sail and so he was chosen to be a ‘trusty’, allowed out of the stinking hold to perform various tasks around the ship as it set sail. And it was here that he was let in on its terrible secret. The Argentine authorities, having lost the Falklands War, planned to spray the prisoners and sheep in the hold with anthrax spores, reach the Falkland Islands undetected by radar, and then release the infected humans and sheep to mingle with the native population. Sheep and people would be utterly decimated and the islands become uninhabitable forever.

Eduardo took part in the opening of the hold and spraying the whimpering men and bleating animals. Then the crew, appalled at their own actions, got drunk. Eduardo, an educated man (hence imprisoned in the first place for his left wing views) had spotted amobarbital in the first aid supplies and took the opportunity to spike the crew’s drinks to knock them out. When they awoke he had tied most of them up and had them covered with a machine gun. He forced them to abandon ship into a little dinghy and set them adrift in the south Atlantic; none of them survived.

But then the weather turned stormy and Eduardo was completely unable to control such a massive ship on his own, and she was tossed in storms, her sails and masts ripped off, turned by the elements completely away from her course towards the Falklands and driven hundreds of miles south while Eduardo lay helpless in his bunk listening to the screams of the dying victims in the hold. Eventually she beached on the ice, on the buried shoreline beneath the ice and there she had stayed for the past two years, slowly drifting with the drift of the ice eastwards, while he lived on tinned supplies, on the occasional seal and fish.

Ward and Kettil listen to this appalling story in silence. Ward establishes that Ángel had come all this way with stocks of semtex on a mission to blow up the ship and destroy the evidence; but while Kettil and he were investigating one end of the ship, Eduardo successfully lured Ángel towards a trapdoor into the hold and the noise they heard earlier was the sleek, sexy Ángel tumbling to his doom in the hold full of half-rotted anthrax victims.

They bundle Eduardo in warmer clothes and secure him to the sledges and return to the Isvik, a nightmare three-day journey through terrible blizzard conditions across melting ice. Once there, despite persistent questioning, neither of them can bring themselves to tell the full story of what they’ve seen: the others have themselves been through a hard week of foul weather and the psychological stresses of being cooped up together. Iris is overwhelmed to see her brother and help him recover but when she asks about Carlos or Ángel, Kettil, like every other Hammond Innes characters, buttons up, goes silent, hesitates, shrugs and generally avoids spitting it out. It is too terrible to repeat. She eventually sinks into a sullen silence of her own as Nils turns the Isvik and sails her north through more terrible weather.

All this is skipped across to reach the point where they radio for a helicopter from South Georgia, saying they have a sick man aboard. The chopper hovers over the pitching ship as they load the sick Eduardo into its net but everyone is surprised when the net returns and Ward swiftly climbs aboard with all his gear. A wave of the hand and he is gone. What the…? So was he some kind of government agent tasked with finding out the truth behind the mysterious frigate, with confirming terrible rumours about a ghost ship full of anthrax?

The Falkland Islands

In the closing pages, after a gruelling further eleven days of sailing, the Isvik weights anchor in the lee of the Falkland Islands. Nils packs his bags saying, ‘Never again’. The Aussies take their pay and leave. That night over a coffee laced with rum Iris shows Kettil the package Ward left behind: it leaves her 100% ownership of the Isvik and a small fortune in pre-signed travellers cheques. She owns a fine sailing vessel and quite a lot of money. She puts her hand on Kettil’s: does he really want to go back to flat Norfolk, to a little sailing dinghy, to a Job Centre in Cromer looking for a new career? Or will he stay with her and try their luck together, here at the ends of the earth in this strange, bracing, terrifying environment?

After the bizarre psycho-sexual relationships, the incest and gay murder and the central horror of the anthrax plot, it is a surprising and surprisingly old-fashioned happy ending. As with so many of Innes’ novels I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.


Credit

Isvik by Hammond Innes, published by Chapmans 1991. All references to the 1992 Pan paperback edition.

Related links

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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