Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson (1948)

This is the third of the Moomintroll books, published in 1948 and translated into English by Elizabeth Portch in 1950. All the Moomin books bring back lovely memories, the feelings of wonder, adventure and safety I had when I read them as a boy.

The plot

Winter comes and the Moomins eat a last meal before hibernating.

In the spring Moomintroll wakes up to find Snufkin has woken before him and is sitting on the bridge over the little river. They wake little Sniff and decide to go for an adventure, to climb to the top of the nearest mountain and make a cairn of stones there. Instead, when they get to the top they find a big black top hat, which they don’t realise is the Hobgoblin’s magic hat.

(In fact this, the centrepiece of the plot, gives its title to the original Swedish-language version of the book, Trollkarlens hatt, ‘The Magician’s Hat’. [Jansson was Finnish but spoke and wrote in Swedish.])

The first hint of the hat’s magic is when Moomintroll absent-mindedly throws the shell of his hard-boiled egg into it. A while later five fluffy clouds emerge from it and hover in the garden. They are soft as cotton wool so, one by one, Moomintroll, Sniff, Snufkin, the Snork and the Snork maiden climb up on them and discover you can make them move by moving your feet and leaning to either side. Soon they are playing bumper cars on the magic clouds!

They comfort the Hemulen who is crying because he has completed his life’s work of collecting every stamp in the world. After some thought they suggest he starts a new collection (Hemulens need a project to keep them going) of botany. Every plant in the world! Aha! He suddenly beams with happiness and goes off to collect samples.

The Hobgoblin’s Hat shows a darker side when Moomintroll goes to sleep under it and emerges in a completely different shape, as a skinny elf. The others are afraid and then disgusted when he keeps pretending to be their friend Moomintroll. In tears he begs Moominmamma to accept that it is he, Moomintroll. She looks long into the tearful eyes of the stranger and then decides, yes, it is him. Typical of her role as the accepting, comforting, all-wise Mother.

They decide to play a trick on the ant lion who lives on the beach. They capture him and throw him into the hat, which they cover with a Dictionary of Outlandish Words. After a while the hat starts flowing with water (which is what the sand has changed into) and a profusion of peculiar little creatures (which is what the Outlandish Words have changed into) and then a small, bedraggled hedgehog emerges (which is what the ant lion has changed into).

Moominmamma and Moominpappa decide the hat is too dangerous to keep and throw it into the river. Late that night Snufkin wakes up Moomintroll and they go and find the hat has run aground on a little sand bank. Moomintroll wades out to rescue it and discovers that the river water flowing into it is coming out as raspberry juice, and that fish entering it fly out as canaries!

They decide to hide the hat in the cave by the sea which Sniff found in Comet in Moominland. Next morning the Muskrat is peacefully reading his big book, On The Uselessness of Everything when his hammock string breaks and he lands with a bump on the ground. He indignantly tells Moominpappa he can’t put up with the children’s pranks any more and announces he is going off to live in the cave. We follow him as he marches off to the cave, makes himself comfortable, and then settles down for a snooze, first putting his false teeth into the top hat for safekeeping.

Moominpappa only tells the rest of the family about all this at lunchtime, at which Moomintroll and Snufkin let out a squawk and go running towards the beach. On the way they hear a series of screams and pass the Muskrat running the other way. The cave is empty, though the sand is mightily disturbed. The Muskrat never tells anyone what had frightened him so much. We will have to use our imaginations!

Now everyone is down by the sea, they find a washed-up boat in fairly good condition. After some squabbling they name it The Adventure, pack lots of goodies and set sail. The first island they come to is the Lonely Island surrounded by reefs and combers. None of them know that this is the island where the legendary Hattifatteners congregate once a year before setting off on their mysterious odyssey no one knows where (or why).

They split up to go exploring. The Hemulen takes his magnifying glass botanising but stumbles across the clearing where the Hattifatteners hold their gatherings. Suddenly they are closing in on him and he retreats to the pole in the centre of the clearing, then scampers up it to find a barometer at the top.

His screams bring the others who suggest he rocks backwards and forwards to scare the Hattifatteners off. That does the trick but the Hemulen insists on bringing the barometer as a souvenir back to the tents which Moominmamma and Moominpappa have erected on the beach.

A massive and dramatic storm batters the island. Moominmamma tucks everyone up in the safe and cosy tents she has prepared. In the middle of the night Moomintroll is woken up by strange spectral figures moving about in the tent. It is the Hattifatteners, who have been electrically charged by the storm and so are glowing slightly, looking for their barometer. They find it in the Hemulen’s corner, seize it but wake him up and there is much screaming and pandemonium before the Hattifatteners made off.

The Snork maiden discovers to her woe that the electric buzz of the Hattifatteners has singed off her little fringe which she was so proud of. Moomintroll tries to tell her he never liked it really, but she is inconsolable.

Next morning they recover from all this excitement with breakfast and then split up to go swimming or sunbathing. The Snork finds a reef of gold inland, but the others find lots of wreck washed up by the sea – a life belt, a snow globe but most impressive of all is the big ship’s figurehead which the Snork maiden finds.

All the animals share their finds and the Snork maiden very graciously gives the big painted figurehead to Moomintroll. They pack all the discoveries onto a raft tied to the back of The Adventure and sail back towards the mainland. Moomintroll is in the middle of describing how beautiful the painted figurehead is when he becomes aware that the Snork maiden has gone quiet with unhappiness. Very sensitively, he then tells the maiden she is much more beautiful than any figurehead. He likes her much more. The Snork maiden blushes with pleasure.

A few weeks later it is boiling hot August. Moominmamma agrees to let the children go and set up a base in the seaside cave. They make themselves comfortable and Snufkin tells him stories he’s heard (from the Magpie) about the Hobgoblin, who collects rubies and rides about on a magic black panther.

But above all the Hobgoblin is consumed by a quest for the biggest ruby of all, the King of Rubies. He has travelled around the solar system looking for it on each of the planets. Currently he is searching the moon, and it is from there that his hat fell to earth and landed on the big mountain where Moomintroll, Sniff and Snufkin found it. All the creatures feel a thrill of fear and excitement go through them.

They wake next morning to find it is raining strong steady rain. Counter-intuitively they decide to go fishing. Meanwhile Moominmamma decides to tidy up Moominhouse. Among all the bric-a-brac she rolls up some of the Hemulen’s old botanical specimens and, without thinking, throws them into the hat in the corner – uh-oh – then goes for a well-earned nap.

The children have a fabulous adventure in the boat, and catch an enormous Mameluke fish which drags the small boat around like a whale until it eventually gives up the ghost. They sail it back to shore and then struggle to carry its huge carcass back to Moomin valley.

Where they discover that the whole house has become completely overgrown with vines and creepers and fruit trees which have all erupted from those botanical specimens which we saw Moominmamma throw into the hat. They have to hack their way into the cellar to gain entrance, while Moominpappa is breaking Moominmamma free from the bedroom where she’s been blocked in by thick vines and creepers.

Once this is all sorted out, the children have a wild afternoon playing Tarzan and Jane, swinging from the creepers hanging from the drawing room ceiling.

Outside the Hemulen gets bored of guarding the fish in the rain. When it eases off a bit he gets some matches and starts a fire, initially to keep warm but then decides to roast the fish. So the family ends all its jungle adventures just in time to come outside for an open air, fresh fish barbecue!

Next morning Thigumy and Bob arrive, two little creatures who speak their own language and have brought a heavy suitcase. They are taken in by Moominmamma, like all other creatures, fed milk and soon find a corner of the Moominhouse to live in. They tell the Moomins the suitcase really belongs to the Groke and she’ll probably come looking for it. Sure enough that night the air goes chill and the big sad Groke appears on their doorstep. After staring morosely, she slips away without saying a word. (When I was a boy it gave me some kind of frisson that so many of the key characters are female; I can’t define it exactly, but it added to the books’ exoticism, compared to lots of English children’s stories which were more often than not about boys.)

The Snork is very pompous and bureaucratic. He tries to organise a court to prosecute Thingummy and Bob for stealing the Groke’s suitcase. Thingumy and Bob blow cherry stones at him through their peashooters. All the characters are allotted roles like prosecuting lawyer and jury. It is all great fun.

Suddenly there is a chill over the forest, the sun goes behind a cloud, all the colour leeches out of things. The Groke has returned. But it’s not the suitcase she wants back, it’s the contents. Thingumy and Bob refuse. Moominmamma has a brainwave and goes and gets the Hobgoblin’s Hat: will the Groke accept the hat instead of the contents of the suitcase? To prove its magic they put a couple of cherries into the hat and – luckily for everyone – these turns into rubies. The Groke is impressed, takes the hat, disappears and is never heard from again.

In the final chapter it is the end of August ‘when owls hoot at night and flurries of bats swoop noiselessly over the garden’. Moomintroll is woken by Snufkin and they go down to the bridge they sat on at the start of the book. Snufkin announces the time has come to be on his way. He is a restless soul. And he sets off that very moment, walking into the distance playing his mouth organ.

Moomintroll wanders sadly back to the house where Thingumy and Bob try to cheer him up by taking him to the secret dell they’ve made in the bushes and revealing the contents of their suitcase. It is an enormous magical ruby which changes colour. Stunned, Moomintroll realises this must be the King of Rubies the Hobgoblin is seeking.

Back at the house disaster has struck – Moominmamma has lost her handbag. A Wanted advert is placed in the paper offering a reward for the finder – a Huge Party will be held in their honour. Word spreads. Soon every creature in Moomin Valley is searching for Moominmamma’s handbag. But it turns out that Thingumy and Bob had stolen it, because its pockets were just the right size for sleeping in. Since everyone has been so kind to them they reluctantly decide to go and fetch it from its hiding place and present it to a delighted Moominmamma.

The scene is set for a vast August Party, with loads of food and drink to which all the creatures of the valley are invited.

At the height of the party an excited Thingumy and Bob present a big surprise, by opening their suitcase and revealing the King’s Ruby which lights up the entire valley with its wonderful red glow. It is even visible from the mountains of the moon where the Hobgoblin is still searching. Quick as anything he leaps onto his magic panther and flies back to earth, arriving in the heart of the party.

There is a stand-off in which the Hobgoblin asks for the ruby but Thingumy and Bob steadfastly refuse. Oh well, the Hobgoblin is consoled with a delicious plum jam pancake and then declares that, since it’s a party, he will grant everyone’s wish. One by one the characters ask for wishes which the big sad Hobgoblin grants – for example Moomintroll wishes for the feast table they’re sat at to be sent to his distant friend Snufkin and immediately it levitates and flies off. Moominmamma, with a mother’s wisdom, wishes that Moomintroll should cease pining for his friend, and immediately his heart is freed from sorrow.

The Hobgoblin can make everyone happy except himself. Thingumy and Bob ponder this, go into a corner to confer and then – say that their wish is for the Hobgoblin to have a ruby as big and dazzling as the King’s Ruby – and lo and behold, the valley is filled with twice as much red light, as a ruby of equal splendour – the Queen’s Ruby – appears!

And so the Hobgoblin spends the rest of the night making everyone’s wishes come true and, as dawn rises over the happy valley, everyone goes home to bed.

The illustrations

At least half the pleasure of reading the Moomin books is the sheer visual pleasure of the illustrations. There’s a major one on almost every page.

The appeal stems from:

  • the essentially humorous, baby-like conception of the characters themselves
  • the clarity of line, the precision and deftness of the drawings
  • in the more complex ones, the wonderfully evocative effect of the cross-hatching and shading
  • the Heath Robinsonian intricacy of the more detailed illustrations (like Sniff at the telescope in Comet)
  • or the childlike simplicity of some of the smaller, incidental illustrations

The illustrations are themselves just part of the whole visual apparatus which surrounds the text. This includes a map of Moomin Valley as well as an introductory letter to young readers from Moominmamma and the numerous incidental small illustrations.

In addition there are chapter headings which give detailed summaries of each chapter’s events – and, at the top of every page, a few words summarising the events on that page (as a boy I used to love checking these summaries to see how closely they matched up with what actually happened on each page, and spotting mistakes).

Thus the books are packed with incidental information and decoration so that every aspect of the book’s production helps create an all-enveloping, fascinating and transporting environment.

Moomin facts

In this book we learn that:

  • Pine needles are the best thing to eat last thing before hibernating for the winter.
  • Snufkin’s best tune on the mouth organ is ‘All small beasts should have bows in their tails’.
  • Moomins can’t sing but they are excellent at whistling.
  • Hemulens all wear dresses (even the male ones). So when they’re being polite, male Hemulens curtsey.
  • All the bedrooms in Moomin house have rope ladders on the windows – quicker than using the stairs.
  • If the first butterfly of the year you see is yellow, it will be a lovely summer.
  • The Hattifatteners congregate every June on the Lonely Island before setting off on their endless quest for nobody knows what. Hattifatteners can’t speak or hear.

Nature

Moominhouse is the only house in the valley. These are extremely rural stories, as close to nature as can be: no other houses or people at all, let alone cars or trains or any element of the modern world. Instead, the Moomins live right by nature, immersed in its rhythms (hibernating and waking with the seasons). Many of the chapters start by indicating the month and then describing the kind of weather to be expected, the heat or coolness, the state of leaves in the trees, the noisiness or subduedness of the forest creatures.

And a really strong feature is the way the Moomin world is teeming with life. When they go for walks in the woods the trees are rustling with little forest creatures, the seaside is bristling with crabs and shellfish – nature is alive with voices and creatures and sprites and spooks and tree spirits combing their long black hair.

And all these weird and wonderful creatures talk and wish you the time of day as you stroll past, or join in silly games, or reveal wonderful mysteries. Everything is not exactly enchanted but open and free and calm and happy. Nature is open and available.

Moomintroll kept close behind Snufkin as they went through the wood. There were rustlings and patterings on both sided of the path and it was almost a bit frightening. Sometimes small, glittering eyes stared at them from behind the trees, and now and then something called to them from the ground or from the branches. (p.48)

Having recently visited the exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery about Tove Jansson I know that the lakes and seashore of Finland were extremely important to her, scene of many happy holidays with her family. The sea, in particular, is a recurrent subject, described very brilliantly in all its uncanny beauty. Here is the storm beginning to brew up on Lonely Island.

The sea had changed. It was dark green now with white-horses, and the rocks shone yellow with phosphorus. Rumbling solemnly the thunder-storm came up from the south. It spread its black sail over the sea; it spread over half the sky and the lightning flashed with an ominous gleam. (p.69)

And the characters’ response is the response of any adventurous 8- or 9-year-old.

‘It’s coming right over the island,’ thought Snufkin with a thrill of joy and excitement.

How wonderfully she captures the excitements and thrills of childhood.

Moominmamma

As usual Moominmamma is the unheralded heroine of the books, the calm accepting practical centre around which the world revolves, anchoring the tremendously safe, secure, happy and loving Moomin household, ‘a place where everyone did what they liked and seldom worried about tomorrow’ (p.16).

Strange new guests and even stranger events are all calmly welcomed, room made for them at the big table, while the steady routines of domestic life continue with Moominmamma calmly and sensibly making jam and pancakes.

Good things

This is linked to the way that everything that happens is exactly the kind of things which a child would want to happen. Climbing a mountain, finding treasure, owning a Magic Hat, sailing to an unknown island, weathering a Big Storm, finding washed up booty, night-long parties with dancing and fireworks – it is all the ingredients of a kind of perfect summer adventure holiday, of ideal childhood fantasies, all brought to life in vivid prose which has a strange dreamlike inconsequentiality.

And food, the yummy scrummy children’s food which Moominmamma is always preparing and serving. For example, the provisions they take to the cave, much of which is exotically non-English – betraying their Scandinavian origins – but recognisably yummy-sounding: raisin-pudding, pumpkin jam, bananas, marzipan pigs, sweet maize and pancakes. Always pancakes. Lots of pancakes.

Same with the amazing-sounding punch Moominpappa makes for the Big Party, out of almonds and raisins, lotus juice, ginger, sugar and nutmeg flowers, one or two lemons and a couple of pints of strawberry liqueur (p.140). Wow. Make mine a double.

Good prose

And the prose style is so wonderfully straightforward, good humoured, taking the most amazing events and ideas completely in its stride, plain and simple but capable of awesomely pregnant meanings and significances.

Outside the snow fell, thick and soft. It already covered the steps and hung heavily from the roofs and eaves. Soon Moominhouse would be nothing but a big, round snowball. The clocks stopped ticking one by one. Winter had come. (p.13)

Isn’t the rhythm marvellous, the diminuendo towards the last three-word sentence. And the subtle use of alliteration (hung heavily) and assonance (roofs and eaves). The simple use of baby language (‘big, round’). The brevity heavy with symbolism and meaning – ‘The clocks stopped ticking one by one.’

You know you are in safe hands.


Related links

The moomin books

1945 The Moomins and the Great Flood
1946 Comet in Moominland
1948 Finn Family Moomintroll
1950 The Exploits of Moominpappa
1954 Moominsummer Madness
1957 Moominland Midwinter
1962 Tales from Moominvalley
1965 Moominpappa at Sea
1970 Moominvalley in November

Dirty Hands by Jean-Paul Sartre (1948)

How you cling to your purity, young man! How afraid you are to soil your hands! All right, stay pure! What good will it do? Why did you join us? Purity is an idea for a yogi or a monk. You intellectuals and bourgeois anarchists use it as a pretext for doing nothing. To do nothing, to remain motionless, arms at your sides, wearing kid gloves. Well, I have dirty hands. Right up to the elbows. I’ve plunged them in filth and blood. But what do you hope? Do you think you can govern innocently? (Act V)

This is by far the longest of the four plays in the Vintage collection of Sartre’s plays – Huis Clos is one continuous act of forty pages; The Respectful Prostitute is even shorter at 30 pages – whereas Les Mains Sales has seven acts and is 120 pages long! And I think it’s also the most enjoyable because the characters have time to breathe and expand and become believable.

The plot

It is 1944 in the fictional East European country of Illyria and the Russian Army is coming closer. Olga is in a flat used by the Illyrian communist party. Hugo arrives. He has just been released from prison. He is young, handsome, talkative. He has just served two years for the murder of the communist leader, Hoederer. A knock at the door and he hides. Olga opens the door to representatives of the Party, tough guys with guns. They’ve come to kill Hugo, they’ve trailed him here, he’s a liability, a loose cannon, he must be liquidated. Olga pleads for his life and says, ‘Give me till midnight to find out what really happened.’ The tough guys grudgingly relent and leave.

Hugo comes out the bedroom where he’d been hiding. Olga explains he must tell her everything; maybe she can protect him, persuade the others he is trustworthy after all. ‘Tell me everything, right from the start.’ The stage darkens and now begins the majority of the play, which is told as a long flashback detailing the events leading up to the assassination of Hoederer.

(Setting up the threat of Hugo’s ‘liquidation’ in the present is a Hitchcock-like trick, like seeing the bomb being placed on the bus: everything that happens subsequently is charged with menace and suspense. Simple but effective.)

So the rest of the play shows in detail the build-up to the assassination and explores the very mixed motives of young Hugo the assassin.

Act II

It is 1942, Hugo has broken with his rich bourgeois family to join the People’s Party. As a callow young intellectual, he has been given the task of editing the party paper and is horribly intimidated by the ‘real men’ of action who surround him.

After a turbulent meeting of the party heads Louis explains to him and Olga that the party’s general secretary, Hoederer, is planning to sell the party out. He is persuading the central committee to go into an alliance with the Fascists and the bourgeois party after the war to create a government of national unity.

Olga and Hugo can’t believe he is a sell-out. Louis hesitates then lets them in on a plan to assassinate Hoederer. Hugo will get a job as Hoederer’s personal secretary. On a night to be arranged he will open the door to the assassins. Hugo bridles: he wants to be a man of action. Let him assassinate Hoederer. Louis hesitates but Olga speaks up for Hugo: let him. OK, says Louis. Pack your bags and take your new young wife, Jessica, with you (oh, he’s married, we realise). Move into Hoederer’s house. Become his secretary. Await orders.

The next few acts introduce us to the shrewd watchful Hoederer, surrounded by tough guy bodyguards (George, Slick and Leon). But by far the most interesting character is Jessica, Hugo’s attractive flighty nineteen-year-old wife. She and Hugo play baby games, play act, role play and neither are sure when the game is over or when they’re playing. This could have been a tiresome embodiment of Sartre’s ideas about people playing roles for others’ consumption, but in fact their young married flirting and flyting is done with a surprisingly light touch and I found very believable. It is Huis Clos but in a comic mode. When Hugo swears Jessica to secrecy then whispers that he’s here to assassinate Hoederer, Jessica bursts out laughing. Hugo’s plight is that no-one will take him seriously. He can’t even take himself seriously.

HUGO: Tell it to me now.
JESSICA: What?
HUGO: That you love me.
JESSICA: I love you.
HUGO: But mean it.
JESSICA: I love you.
HUGO: But you don’t really mean it.
JESSICA: What’s got into you? Are you playing?
HUGO: No, I’m not playing.
JESSICA: Then why did you ask me that? That’s not like you.
HUGO: I don’t know. I need to think that you love me. I have a right to that. Come on, say it.
Say it as if you meant it.
JESSICA: I love you. I love you. No: I love you. Oh, go to the devil! Let’s hear you say it.
HUGO: I love you.
JESSICA: You see, you don’t say it any better than I do. (Act III, p.156)

The next scene is set in Hoederer’s office, the representatives of the two other parties arrive, the Fascists and the Liberals. There is some interesting political analysis as Hoederer points out to the other two that, with the USSR on the horizon, the Proletariat Party, though numerically in a minority, will soon be supported by the conquering Reds: so they’d better do a deal now. At which point Hugo jumps to his feet, outraged that Hoederer is prepared to do a deal with the bourgeois he so despises, with the bourgeois party leader (Karsky) who actually knows Hugo’s own father and made a point of mentioning it to Hugo on the way in.

The bomb

Hugo is on the verge of pulling out his revolver and shooting Hoederer then and there, when a bomb goes off in the garden, shattering the window, throwing the characters to the floor. The political leaders are ushered into a safe room, leaving Hugo, the bodyguards and a terrified Jessica. There is now some dramatic irony because Hugo had blurted out ‘the dirty bastards’ just as the bomb went off. He was describing the cynical politicians making this stitch-up, as he worked himself up to shooting, but now has to pretend to Hoederer’s suspicious bodyguards that he was referring to the ‘dirty bastards’ who threw the bomb. In fact Hoederer had already (unwisely) given Hugo a few drinks before the politicians arrived, and now he has a few more to recover from the shock with the result that he gets hammered and starts drunkenly skirting round the fact that it is he who has been sent as an assassin.

They’re not particularly subtle, but these scenes where the callow Hugo teeters on the brink of giving himself away, unhappily revealing himself to be precisely the over-talkative intellectual he’s trying to stop being, while his quick-witted wife covers for him, are more dramatically complex and satisfying than anything in Sartre’s previous plays, whose characters have tended to be schematic and one-dimensional.

In particular, Jessica’s innocent quick-wittedness is a joy to behold. In an earlier scene, when Hoederer’s goons had insisted on searching the new arrivals’ room, Jessica had quick-wittedly hidden Hugo’s revolver in her dress and brazenly invited one of the bodyguards to search her who was, as a result, so red-faced that he only did a cursory job, not finding the gun.

Now Jessica quickly interprets Hugo’s drunken babblings as anger against the ‘dirty bastards’ who threw the bomb and devises other ways of masking what Hugo’s saying. In fact she encourages him to drink more, lots more, until he passes out and Slick and George just laugh at him, thanking their lucky stars they didn’t have a rich privileged upbringing.

Olga in the summerhouse

Cut to the summerhouse which is Jessica and Hugo’s quarters, and Olga is tending the unconscious Hugo, when Jessica returns to the room with a cold compress for his head. The two women confront each other over Hugo’s unconscious body – the scheming, hard, political woman versus the politically naive but sensuous and sharp woman. They wake a groggy Hugo and Olga tells him it was she who threw the bomb. The party’s getting impatient. It’s been ten days and Hoederer’s still alive. She came to finish the job off but botched it. Hugo’s got till tomorrow, then they’ll come en masse. Anyway, whatever happens, the party thinks Hugo’s sold out – he is in big trouble. Being blown up by the bomb would have done him a favour. Olga leaves, climbing over the wall and escaping.

Jessica confronts Hugo with the reality of what he’s promised. For the first time they’re not playing. Hugo admits he can’t believe it, can’t believe he’s a killer, can’t believe that Hoederer’s bright quick eyes will go dull, that blood will seep into his suit, all because he, Hugo, has pulled a trigger. He is over-thinking and over-imagining the deed. But Jessica is no Lady MacBeth; the opposite, she begs Hugo to reconsider and, instead of just murdering Hoederer, discuss the issues, arguing him out of whatever it is that Hugo so vehemently opposes.

At which moment there’s a knock on the door and Hoederer himself enters, to check up on his secretary. The goons told him he’s drunk himself unconscious: is he alright? Having made certain, Hoederer makes as if to leave but Jessica jumps up before him. Now, now is the time for Hugo to do it? For a moment we the audience and Hugo are flabbergasted: what? shoot Hoederer now? No, Jessica means now is the time for the two men to talk, to thrash out their differences, for Hugo to find out if it’s really necessary to kill Hoederer (Jessica obviously doesn’t say this out loud, but we know from the previous dialogue with Hugo that’s this is what she means).

Hoederer explains Realpolitik to Hugo

And this is the lead-in to a very enjoyable scene where Hoederer a) explains the political situation in Illyria b) explains why a political deal with the other parties is necessary c) taunts Hugo with his naive intellectual purity. He’s more interested in principles than men, Hoederer taunts. He doesn’t want to get his pretty little bourgeois hands dirty. Well, Hoederer’s hands are dirty all right, covered in blood and filth.

This works very well as drama; it is written really effectively with Hoederer’s arguments battering Hugo’s feeble denials. When Hoederer has left, even Jessica can see that his arguments were right and, worse, that Hugo knows it, despite all his denials, despite his intention to stay true to his original mission, Hoederer converted him.

But I was also fascinated by Hoederer’s analysis of the situation in this fictional East European country because it closely parallels the analyses of the post-war communist takeover of Europe I have just read in Anne Applebaum’s brilliant history, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56. Hoederer argues that:

  • The Proletariat Party cannot take power by itself; the proletariat only make up 20% of the population and not even all of them support the party. Hugo naively says, ‘Let’s seize power’. Hoederer replies that if they seized power, they would quickly be suppressed by the Peasants Party which represents 55% of the population, in alliance with the Fascists who control the army and police.
  • Hence the need to enter power peaceably in a national coalition.
  • Hoederer has suggested to the leaders of the Fascists and Bourgeois parties that they set up a national government with six on the fulling council and the Proletariat Party will have three of those delegates. He even – and this chimes exactly with Applebaum’s description – wouldn’t want most of the ministries, just two: the interior and defence, because those are the only two that matter.
  • But, Hugo says, the Red Army will be across our borders in weeks: why don’t we ride their coat-tails to power? Because, my naive friend, replies Hoederer, they will still have to fight their way across the country and many will be killed; the Soviets will be blamed. Because they Party will forever after be thought to have been imposed by a foreign power rather than rising up to represent the people. Because, even for the national unity government, the country will be a wasteland when peace finally comes, difficult decisions about law and order will have to be taken; the Party can represent itself as a natural outgrowth of the nation and people, and can present itself as opposing these unpopular policies from within government. With control of key industries it can slowly isolate the leaders of the other parties and wait till the time is right to stage a coup.

Hugo hates all this because it is messy and unprincipled and yuk. Hoederer laughs at his naivety and bourgeois prissiness.

Act VI

Next day, the day of the deadline Olga told Hugo he must act or else. Before the working day begins Jessica comes into Hoederer’s office and after a little flirting reveals that Hugo has a gun, and has been tasked with assassinating him. Hoederer knew it all along. Hugo knocks at the door, Jessica exits through the window (reminding me of all the ins and outs through windows in The Respectful Prostitute).

Now Hoederer toys with Hugo, continuing the discussion over whether Hugo has it in him to be an assassin or whether he is too much of an intellectual. Because assassins don’t think at all, have no imagination, just kill. Whereas Hugo has too much imagination, can not only picture the dead body and the blood, but has grasped the political consequences, the cause of the Party set back, no single leader to greet the Red Army, its chance for power maybe irrevocably lost. He deliberately turns his back and fixes a cup of coffee, while Hugo gets the gun out his pocket and holds it trembling, very obviously struggling with himself. Hoederer turns, faces him, says ‘Give me the gun’ and takes it. Hugo collapses, virtually in tears, and says, ‘You despise me.’

Hoederer says he remembers being a naive principled young man. He can help Hugo to maturity, guide him, mentor him. Hugo is almost in tears. But he won’t give up his opposition to the political pact. Don’t worry, says Hoederer: he’ll go to town tomorrow and square it all with Louis (the guy who sent Hugo in the first place). Go back to writing, it’s what you do best; and he dismisses Hugo.

Re-enter Jessica who’s been perched on the window ledge all this time (!) She heard everything. She thinks Hoederer is noble. In fact, she’s realised she’s not in love with her silly immature husband, she realises she wants a ‘real man’ (p.232). Oh dear. The 21st century reader’s heart sinks a little. They look at each other in silence. She’s never thrilled to a man’s touch, sex with her husband makes her giggle. ‘Are you frigid?’ Hoederer asks. ‘I don’t know,’ Jessica replies. ‘Let’s find out,’ says Hoederer and embraces and kisses her.

At just this moment Hugo re-enters the office. Oops. Incensed, he accuses Hoederer of lying to him and stringing him along and sparing him and promising to make him a man because all along he’s just wanted his wife. Hugo springs for the desk where the revolver was left, seizes it, Jessica screams, Hugo fires three shots at Hoederer who crumples in his chair. Enter the bodyguards, George and Slick with guns aimed at Hugo but Hoederer with his dying breath tells them to spare him, it was a crime of passion, that he – Hoederer – was sleeping with Hugo’s wife. And dies.

Act VII

Lights go up on the setting of the first act, as Hugo finishes pouring his heart out to Olga. She keeps asking, ‘So did you assassinate him because of our orders,’ and Hugo honestly doesn’t know. In a typically Sartrean way, Hugo isn’t even sure that he did it: or was Chance the key agent? If he’d opened the door two minutes later or earlier, it wouldn’t have happened. In fact, he was coming back to ask for Hoederer’s help.

It was an assassination without an assassin. (p.234)

Hugo is crushed by a characteristically Sartrean sense of his own unreality. But Olga is pleased. She thinks she can fend off the men who want to kill him. And here comes the punchline, the cynical climax of the play. For Olga explains:

The party line has changed. When they despatched Hugo to murder Hoederer communications with Moscow were poor. Later they discovered that Moscow did, in fact, want the party to go into a government of national unity with the Fascists and bourgeois parties. It would mean saving many lives among the Illyrian army (which would immediately lay down its arms). It would save Moscow embarrassment with the Allies (Britain and the US). The new plan is for the party to join a 6-man government, and the party to have 3 delegates. Hugo is amazed and then bursts out laughing. This is exactly what Hoederer intended, what we saw him proposing to Hugo just a few moment (two years) ago down to the last detail.

Yes, Olga explains, but Hoederer was ‘premature’ in his policy. Meanwhile, another man, now dead, has been officially blamed for Hoederer’s assassination. Now Hoederer has been rehabilitated and… Hugo joins in, ‘You’re going to put up statues to him after the war. You’re going to make him a hero of the party?’ Hugo collapses into helpless tear-filled laughter of despair.

Olga tells him to snap out of it, the Party killers are about to arrive. She is ready to tell them he is a new man, rehabilitated, he will go along with the party line, he will lie about Hoederer’s assassination, he will forget all about and never mention to anyone that he did it. He will live a life of deceit and lies for the greater good.

But Hugo refuses. The only thing that kept him going in prison was that he fired – maybe for personal reasons – but in accordance with the party line. To learn that the line has changed and the act become completely meaningless is too much to bear. He thought that killing someone would make him feel real, give him weight and substance – but he carried on feeling horribly unreal and contingent. Now, now he has the chance to stand up, to act for himself, to make himself real. Olga begs him to stop but as the killer’s car draws up outside, Hugo stands up and walks to the door. He will proclaim his guilt and force them to kill him. It will be his final, defining acte.


Reactions

Apparently the big and powerful Communist Party of France disliked the play. You can see why.

In purely political terms, this was the decade when Moscow’s concept of Socialist Realism came to be enforced all across the Eastern Bloc. Art, music, literature, all had to be high-minded and inspiring, showing happy workers exceeding their quotas and merrily bringing in the harvest. It’s hard to imagine a more nihilistic, defeatist, cynical and plain anti-communist narrative than Les Mains Sales, hard to imagine anything more completely contrary to the spirit of Socialist Realism, focusing as it does on the amoral political manoeuvring, the lying to its membership, the cynical alliances with its class enemies, and the pointless infighting and murders of the communist party.

Politics aside, the communist party of Illyria comes over as a mob of gangsters, little different in terms of threat and violence from Al Capone and Chicago gangsters of Prohibition. Time and again I am reminded that Sartre and Camus were writing their intense, man-holding-gun fictions during not only the rather obvious violence of the Second World War, but also during the heyday of Hollywood films noirs which they both hugely enjoyed. Camus cultivated a Humphrey Bogart look with his collar turned up and a Gitanes cigarette permanently smouldering in his mouth. The romance, the glamour of being the dude with the shooter, calling the shots. Specially if you yourself are mostly the chap in the library with the pipe and the thick glasses.

As a specimen of intellectual French film noir, as a dissection of the worldview of communist politics in 1947 and 1948, and as pure entertainment, I think les Mains Sales is by far the best of these four plays.

Jessica and sexism

All the male characters utter contemptuously sexist comments either about Jessica in her absence, or to her face, which would get you locked up nowadays. They casually refer to her political naivety, her inability to do anything significant for the Revolution and her liability as distracting ‘bait’  for all the male characters. This was, after all, 25 years or so before the birth of Women’s Lib.

It is, for example, offensive to modern readers when the bodyguards make remarks about Jessica’s attractiveness in the first scene in the big house, and Hoederer is no better, dismissing her as a distraction, saying why doesn’t she ‘scratch her itch’ with Slick or George.

More to the point, there is something sexist about the entire conception of the play which sets the world of passive sensuality (Jessica) against the ‘active’ network of male politics and action (Hugo and Hoederer). With crashing stereotyping the main woman character represents Sex, anti-Politics (although, to be fair, she is balanced by clever calculating Olga, who is smart enough to try and save Hugo, and who, after all, throws a bomb in the middle of the play.)

But despite what we nowadays would describe as the #everydaysexism of the text, Jessica is, by and large, the most attractive character in the play. She is the least hoodwinked, the least deceived. She knows nothing about politics but she knows more about life than her over-intellectual husband, tricks the bodyguards with her nimble-wittedness and is quite a match for Hoederer. She is the only one who sees through the men with all their high-handed rhetoric to ask the real questions, specifically; why does Hugo want to murder a man he respects and, by the end of the play, has come to love? Why? Fool!

Although it’s ostensibly a play about tough guy men politicking and conspiring, Jessica is – for me – the star of the show.

The movie

Despite being ‘the philosopher of the century’ it’s damn difficult to get hold of the movie versions of Sartre’s plays. The Respectful Prostitute seems impossible to track down in any shape or form. Here’s a print of the film version of Les Mains Sales, made in France in 1951. There are no sub-titles and the sound is out of synch for a lot of it, but it gives a stark sense of how stagey the story is. And how French.

Apparently, the French Communist Party carried on being so angry about it, that they tried to organise a boycott of cinemas where the film was showing.


Credit

Les Main Sales by Jean-Paul Sartre was first performed in Paris in April 1948. This English translation – Dirty Hands – by Lionel Abel was published in the United States in 1949. All page references are to the 1989 Vintage paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Heart of The Matter by Graham Greene (1948)

Despair is the price one pays for setting oneself an impossible aim. It is, one is told, the unforgiveable sin, but it is a sin the corrupt or evil man never practises. He always has hope. He never reaches the freezing-point of knowing absolute failure. Only the man of goodwill carries always in his heart this capacity for damnation. (p.60)

Background

During World War II Greene was recruited by British Secret Intelligence (later MI6) and sent to Freetown, capital of Sierra Leone, from 1942 to 1943, to spy on Axis activity in the region. He used this location as the setting for what many people think is his ‘finest’ novel.

Overview

This book has a completely different feel from its immediate predecessor, the ‘entertainment’  or surrealist thriller, The Ministry of Fear (1943) which was, frankly, a shambles.

The Heart of The Matter moves slowly and realistically, building up our sympathy with a handful of carefully contructed characters through an accumulation of psychological insights, and depicting the reality of the humid African setting through an accumulation of perceptive details.

He stood quietly for a while breathing in the heavy smell of the sea. Within half a mile of him a whole convoy lay at anchor, but all he could detect were the long shadow of the depôt ship and a scatter of small red lights as though a street were up: he could hear nothing from the water but the water itself, slapping against the jetties. The magic of this place never failed him: here he kept his foothold on the very edge of a strange continent. (1983 Penguin paperback edition, p.37)

The Heart of The Matter

Major Henry Scobie, ‘a squat grey-haired man’, is Assistant Commissioner of Police in the capital of the unnamed West African country, has been been there for 15 long, hot, demoralising years. Honest and upright he is therefore the target of malicious gossip and criticism. He is hard on himself, with a permanent sense of guilt for having persuaded his wife – ‘poor Louise’ – to come to this hell-hole and then doing little or nothing to gain promotion and a move away.

Their only child, a daughter, died age nine back in England. People laugh at his wife behind her back, calling her ‘Literary Louise’ and she appears to be clinically depressed, unable to get out of bed, frequently weeping and needing constant reassurance from her beloved ‘Ticki’, her nickame for Scobie. She is desperate to escape, to go to her imagined El Dorado of South Africa. They love each other and hate each other and are stuck with each other.

This miserable marriage is painted with an abundance of psychologically acute detail.

A newcomer to the colony, podgy inexperienced Wilson almost immediately ‘falls in love’ with Louise and combines clumsy attempts to seduce her with a steadily growing hatred of Scobie, especially after the older man witnesses him in several compromising situations: Wilson can’t forgive Scobie for having seen him cry.

As the novel opens, the current Commissioner retires and Scobie is passed over for promotion, adding to his wife’s misery. Scobie tries to borrow money to pay his wife’s passage to South Africa, but the bank turn him down. And he breaks all the rules by taking pity on a Portuguese merchant captain who was hiding a letter to his daughter in Germany. Scobie finds it, confiscates it, should hand it in and report the captain: instead he burns it. Scobie’s decline is made of a series of small and forgiveable transgressions like this. The heroes of Shakespeare’s tragedies are each said to have one fatal flaw. Scobie’s is his sense of pity.

Eventually, out of pity for his miserable wife, Scobie borrows £200 from the slippery Syrian mechant, Yusef and is able to despatch Louise to South Africa. But the loan, of course, has consequences. There is a rival Syrian merchant Tallit, and soon his spies are spreading rumours that Scobie has accepted bribes. Yusef pulls the trick of telling Scobie Tallit is smuggling diamonds out on the next neutral ship. When the ship is searched the diamonds are found; but slowly it emerges that Yusef planted them in order to implicate his rival. The real result is that Tallit complains to the authorities and a Colonial Administrator comes to visit for what is, although everso British and polite, in effect an interrogation of Scobie about the affair. He robustly admits his friendship with Yusef, says he knows both are liars scheming against each other, neither has bribed him etc. But his integrity has, for the first time in  his career, been questioned.

The next act in this tragedy is Scobie being sent to the border with the neighbouring colony to receive the survivors of a merchant ship which has been sunk by Germans. It is a harrowing scene: they have been in an open boat for 40 days. Scobie finds himself having to pretend to be the father of a poor little boy who is on his death-bed, to give him some last moments of reassurance. Pity, again.

The whole book is like that. Although it’s about a simple adulterous affair, almost every scene seems to involve moments when the author can comment about the extremes of human experience, of life and death and pain and despair. One of the survivors is a young woman, Helen Rolt, newly married, whose husband was drowned. Once they’re shipped back to the capital Scobie makes a point of checking up on all of them but finds himself drawn to the young woman.

Book Two describes with a multitude of persuasive detail, how he slowly, painfully falls in love with this scrawny immature woman . On one visit she talks about her childhood and he finds himself speaking honestly about his feelings for the first time in years. Suddenly, without planning it, they are kissing. They sleep together. They are having an affair. So far so ordinary, so suburban.

What makes it Greene is that Scobie makes promises to look after her, to make her happy and he takes these promises with pathological seriousness. Of course the colony vultures are gathering in the shape of the jealous Wilson who, we discover, is actually some kind of spy sent out from London (a kind of ironic self-portrait by the author, who played this role in Freetown?).

The final parts of the tragedy slot into place when Scobie’s wife unexpectedly (and implausibly) announces she is returning from South Africa. She realises her mistakes, selfishness etc, things will be different this time. Well, they certainly will because instead of doing the sensible thing and chucking in the affair with Helen (which she actually suggests he do) – or splitting up with his wife and committing to Helen – he does neither and places himself in what you could call the Optimum Graham Greene position: a situation where he can revel in an orgy of despair because he has made promises to two people which he cannot keep.

Enter the Catholic Voodoo when Louise insists they celebrate her return by going to communion. Before which you must, as a Catholic, have had full and complete confession of your sins. But Scobie puts off going, then finds that he cannot properly repent. He (and the author) use the casuistry (‘a specious, deceptive, or oversubtle reasoning, especially in questions of morality’) that by breaking his promise to help Helen he will somehow be abandoning her to ‘despair’ and (pathetically) to the advances of various seedy single men in the colony. Hmm.

Either you accept that a man like Scobie feels bound by this rather silly promise even if it means his death; or you feel that Greene is contriving, just this side of plausibility, a scenario which has been designed solely to justify the very heavy freight of moralising which the last pages of the novel carry.

For in the final 30 or 40 pages Greene revels in showing us a man ‘at the end of  his tether’, torn between two women to whom he has made what he regards as unbreakable vows, and forced (so he says) to lie to his God. This unleashes a torrent of ripe Greeniana:

When he came out of the [confession] box it seemed to Scobie that for the first time his footsteps had taken him out of sight of hope. There was no hope anywhere he turned his eyes: the dead figure of the God upon the cross, the plaster Virgin, the hideous stations representing a series of events that had happened a long time ago. It seemed to him that he had only left for his exploration the territory of despair. (p.222)

Thus, not properly confessed, he allows his wife to take him to Mass and to take the wafer of bread and wine in the full knowledge that, according to Catholic theology, he is damning himself to eternal hellfire. This scene is an operatic farrago of self-pity, as Scobie insists that he stay loyal to his vow to Helen, taken out of pity for her, watches the priest’s skirts moving closer with horrified clarity, feels his mouth go dry, and then makes the fatal gestures etc.

In the last sections Greene rubs Scobie’s face in the dirt.

  • Out of the blue it is announced that he will be promoted to Commissioner after all ie it was all unecessary: it is what Louise wanted so he need never have sent her away, need never have been tempted and fallen with Helen etc.
  • Helen herself fails to understand the sacrifice he has made for her. She doesn’t at all believe his Catholic hoodoo, saying he is free to leave her any time (as he, of course, is). Helen becomes the mouthpiece, within the text, of the sceptical reader, allowing Greene to anticipate criticisms of the situation and rebut them via Scobie.
  • And finally, he comes to distrust his loyal houseboy of 15 years, Ali, and half-knowingly allows the slimy Yusef to arrange for him to be murdered in the dirty wharf at night. Finding his body drills in to Scobie’s mind the depths to which he has fallen, how evil he has become.

Oh God, he thought, I’ve killed you: you’ve served me all these years and I’ve killed you at the end of them. (p.247)

He becomes, in his own mind, an infection, a disease. (Exactly the metaphor frequently used by the protagonists of the early novels and especially by the whisky priest about himself in The Power and the Glory).

I’m carrying my corruption around with me. It’s the coating of my stomach… I can’t bear to see suffering, and I cause it all the time. I want to get out, get out. (pp.232-3)

He foresees only one end, the ultimate sin for a Catholic, the sin of despair and the unforgiveable act of self-murder. The last pages chronicle Scobie’s methodical way of going about faking the symptoms of angina, to the doctor, to his wife, to his boss and in the diary which he knows will be examined by the coroner and insurance investigator.

O God, he prayed, his hands dripping over the wheel, kill me now, now. My God, you’ll never have more complete contrition. What a mess I am. I carry suffering with me like a body smell. Kill me. Put an end to me. Vermin don’t have to exterminate themselves. Kill me. Now. Now. Now (p.252)

There follows the hallucinatory last day and hours and minutes of the suicide as he realises he is seeing everything, saying everything, smelling and touching and feeling everything, for the last time. He bids his wife goodnight, makes his last – deliberately unfinished – entry in  his diary, and takes the overdose of painkillers, collapses and dies.

Postscript

In a technique he experimented with in the early novels and perfected in The Power and The Glory, there is a postscript. And just as in Power its purpose is to undermine the protagonist’s tragedy; to set it back in the shabby everyday world; to highlight how pointless and futile it is to think that anybody can escape the relentless mundaneness of other people’s trite opinions, of our little lives.

The postscript has three quick scenes where we see:

  • Louise with Wilson, telling her he loves her. There is the bombshell revelation that she knew all about Scobie’s affair with Helen all along, in fact that’s why she came back from South Africa: the entire colony knew and one of the wives wrote and told her. Wilson reads Scobie’s diary and notices the way the remarks about sleeplessness – one of hte symptoms of angina – have been written in later in a different shade of ink. He floats the thought that Scobie might have committed suicide.
  • Helen with the cad, Bagster. Drunk, he tries to seduce her. Numb with loss, she lets him. In his twisted soliloquies Scobie had persuaded himself that continuing to love Helen saved her from emptiness and the attentions of the Bagsters of this world. If so, he has completely failed.
  • Louise with the priest Father Rank. She’s obviously shared Wilson’s suspicion that Scobie killed himself. They begin the debates which have continued in millions of readers’ minds, in reviews and scholarly articles and books for the past 66 years: Will God forgive Scobie? Does God’s mercy supercede the laws of the Church? Did he love either of his women? Did he only love himself? Did he truly love God?  and on and on, endlessly…

Critique

The Ministry of Fear was a laughable shambles of a novel: it was almost as if Greene deliberately threw together the most bizarrely surreal scenes he could conceive, along with great screeds about suicide and despair, and then set himself the challenge of pulling it all back into some shape by pretending it was a (wildly implausible) Nazi spy conspiracy thriller. It is a reckless satire on the thriller genre, with a whole vat of Catholic guilt thrown into the mix.

The Heart of The Matter is of a different order. It is a serious and sustained effort to portray contemporary characters in depth and detail. It is (rather grandly) divided, like a Victorian novel, into Books, themselves sub-divided into parts, themselves sub-divided into chapters, themselves sub-divided into short 3 or 4 page scenes. Pretty much every one of these scenes is written with thrilling power and accuracy. You could put the  book down after every single one of them to savour and admire their craft and force.

The first 120 pages, or Book One, are an immensely powerful portrait of an unhappy marriage, the Scobies’ marriage. The details are so perceptive and familiar to anyone whose marriage has been through rocky patches: the timeworn rituals, the midnight reassurances, the quiet lies to bolster each other’s confidence: the way two people can torture each other and yet stick to each other, is horribly convincing.

And the creation of Wilson as the immature outsider who naively thinks he’s fallen in love with Louise Scobie, and in effect becomes a witness to the outside appearance of these details, these pained looks and furtive deceits, is masterful. And outside this three the ring of ‘others’, the various officers and officials of the colony and their bitchy wives, and the claustrophic sense of being tightly cocooned by ever-present watchful eyes and malicious gossip, are wonderfully conveyed.

And the character of the slimy merchant Yusef who offers Scobie the bait of a loan of £200 which Scobie, with nowhere else to turn, accepts, in order to pay for his so-miserable wife to be despatched to sunny South Africa. Every scene between the knowing Scobie and the infinitely subtle Yusef are gold. In fact, scene after scene is written with tremendous psychological insight, with a terrifying precision of scene and setting, tone of voice, detail and dialogue.

Whether you accept the final conclusion to the tragedy – whether you intellectually and emotionally accept the premises which lead Scobie to his suicide – will vary from reader to reader, and from mood to mood. If you are a more emotional person or in an emotionally labile mood, then I think you will come away feeling this is one of the great novels of the twentieth century. Many critics have claimed it as such.

I am a more detached, intellectual (and older) reader and, while I praise the craftmenship of many of the novel’s individual scenes, in the end I felt too manipulated to give in to the novel’s spell. Either you are ‘inside’ the fiction and feel the author’s relentless comments about pain and despair are truly telling you something about the Human Condition. Or, like me, you are ‘outside’ the fiction, can admire the professionalism and expertise of its assembly, but are immune to its emotional and psychological manipulations.


The Heart of The Matter feels like a truly great novel. Nonetheless, it still reveals certain enduring aspects of Greene’s approach.

The plotlessness of GreeneWorld

As discussed in my previous posts about Greene, his mental landscape is one of unrelieved gloom, depression fermenting into suicidal thoughts. Freud diagnosed many mental illnesses as being essentially repetitive: the unconscious making repeated attempts to break into the conscious mind, the conscious mind erecting defences against it, a permanent gridlock which results in obsessive and compulsive patterns of behaviour or thought.

Applied to Greene’s fiction, this helps explain why his plots are so thin. His novels don’t really have plots they have predicaments – the whisky priest’s story in The Power and The Glory isn’t really a story at all, it’s a plight. Or even if one of his books does have a plot of sorts, you don’t have any sense of progress or movement by the end of the book. Everyone is still trapped. Maybe a bit trappeder. A Beckett-level of inanition and futility.

Although a plot can be extracted from Heart ie a sequence of events which propel the protagonist to his final disaster, viewed from another angle, the plight of the colonists remains much the same at the ending as it did at the start. Greene’s all-encompassing worldview of despair doesn’t really budge. On page one Wilson feels ‘intolerably lonely’. Towards the end of  Scobie’s life, ‘It seemed to him that he had never been so alone before.’ (p.235) Stasis.

The developing world is an ideal setting

As with revolutionary Mexico inThe Power and The Glory, the poverty and degradation of Africa here allow Greene free rein to his gift for finding seediness, shabbiness, moral squalor and decay at every turn. Could it be that his best novels are set in the developing world because there he could indulge to the full his personal obsessions with the (to him) terrifying futility of human existence?

Why, he wondered, swerving the car to avoid a dead pye-dog, do I love this place so much? Is it because here human nature hasn’t had time to disguise itself? Nobody here could ever talk about a heaven on earth. Heaven remained rigidly in its proper place on the other side of death, and on this side flourished the injustices, the cruelties, the meanness that elsewhere people so cleverly hushed up. Here you could love human beings nearly as God loved them, knowing the worst. (p.36)

Not only do developing countries set Greene’s imagination free but his melodramatic existentialist crisis-stricken protagonists somehow seem more plausible in faraway exotic lands than they do in, say, London. They just seem rather ridiculous in a London where they take their place among the millions of people we know who just get on with their lives, most of whom are right at home in the world, thank you very much, and completely oblivious to Greene’s brand of Catholic Despair.

In Mexico, Africa, post-war Austria, Vietnam, Haiti and so on, the setting itself has very conveniently justified a sense of poverty, corruption, easy death and despair before the author even lifts a finger to create a character.

Related links

The movie

Greene was phenomenally successful in getting his novels converted into films. The Heart of the Matter took 5 years, appearing in 1953, directed by George More O’Ferrall and starring Trevor Howard and Elizabeth Allan with sterling support from young Maria Schell as Helen, creepy Denholm Elliott as Wilson, slippery Gérard Oury as Yusef, and handsome Peter Finch as father Rank.

It is an astonishingly wooden film. The blurb claims Howard gives the performance of his career but this seems to mainly consist of pushing his cap up his forehead and rolling his eyes.

As usual the medium of film strips away all the subtlety and interest of a text and omits scores of the incidental scenes which help build up the plausibility of the novel. Thus reduced to its bare bones it’s hard to see why Scobie either ends up in love with two women or is so incapable of dealing with the situation like a rational adult.

But if the first hour and a half of the movie are a woodenly directed sketch of the novel, the last five minutes are a complete travesty: in the novel one of Scobie’s last and filthiest betrayals was telling Yusef that he thought Ali, his loyal boy, was spying on him and then acquiescing in what he half knew would happen, Yusef arranging for Ali to be murdered. He then proceeds to overdose on the painkillers he’s been carefully hoarding, passes out, collapses and dies.

In the movie, in a completely different ending, Scobie drives down to the docks to shoot himself but, while he cradles his loaded revolver pondering the whys and the wherefores, hears the screams of the usual night-time fights among the ‘wharf rats’ and goes running off to break it up. He is himself set upon and shot just as his faithful Ali comes running up to him. His good and faithful servant cradles Howard in his lap as he delivers the film’s last line: ‘Tell Mrs Scobie God make it alright.’ Roll credits, not a dry eye in the house.

It is a staggering indictment of the inability of film to bear witness to its literary sources or to make even the most modest gesture towards seriousness and difficulty.

Penguin cover of The Heart of The Matter

Penguin cover of The Heart of The Matter

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 Blue Ice by Hammond Innes (1948)

The bumf at the front of this book explains that when Innes’ previous novel, The Lonely Skier, was made into a movie, Snowbound (1948), the income from that film gave him the financial freedom to fulfil his dream of travelling, ideally by yacht. One of his first destinations was Norway, where he travelled much of the territory which features in this novel. His first-hand knowledge is evident in the very detailed descriptions: of the yacht they sail in, the whaling station they stop at, of the glacier and mountains they climb and ski across in the long snow-bound chase which is the climax of the book.

A mystery

This is another first-person narration: ‘Big’ Bill Gansert has been for eight years Base Metals and Industry (BM&I)’s production chief at their alloy plant in Birmingham. During that time he had opened a nickel mine in Canada, and helped BM&I develop a new lightweight alloy from thorite although sources in the States were so meagre, he’d been forced to abandon it. The story opens as he’s quit BM&I to go sailing in the Mediterranean in his yacht, Diviner. But at the last minute he is persuaded by BM&I’s chairman, Sir Clinton Mann, to change his plans and go to Norway because of a mystery.

The mystery is that Sir Clinton has been sent a great chunk of thorite from Norway, wrapped in whale blubber with a note apparently signed by one George Farnell. Everyone thought Farnell was dead. He was a leading metallurgist before the war but in 1939 was convicted of defrauding his business partner for £10,000 in order, he said, to fund mineralogical expeditions to Norway. Convicted and sent to prison, Farnell managed to escape his escort and flee the country.

Now, recent Norwegian newspapers reveal that he fled to Norway where he adopted a new identity and became a hero in the anti-Nazi resistance but that his dead body has just been found as if fallen from a notorious glacier in the central mountains. Gansert had known Farnell from a spell working together in Rhodesia, and he knew Farnell knew those mountains better than any Norwegian. Could his death have been foul play? Why?

Hooked by this mystery – and tempted by the apparent discovery of a new source of thorite – Gansert then discovers Sir Clinton had cheekily put an advert in the papers saying he was sailing to Norway, before the decision was even finalised, asking anyone with information about Farnell to come and see him at the yacht’s berth by the Tower of London.

With the result that a motley crew of four strangers arrives on his yacht, each in their way curious about Farnell. To sort it all out Gansert, in cavalier fashion, simply casts off and sets sail for Norway with them all aboard, with no warning. They are allowed to cable their companies or hotels but most accept it meekly and settle down to the three-day sail to Norway. And along the way we get to know more about each of the characters, their (sometimes poisonous) relations among each other, and with the deceased Farnell.

These characters are described in the Dramatis personae below.

There is some drama caused by poisonous enmities aboard such a small yacht, but the real action starts when Gansert arrives at the whaling station, Bovaagen Hval, where Farnell’s message and sample of thorite appear to have been sent from. How could it have been sent on the 9th and yet his body discovered on a glacier miles away on the 10th? Is he actually dead or faking it somehow? But why?

The Innes voice

To be honest, Gansert’s voice is pretty much the same as every Innes hero, tough, resourceful, mature, well-travelled, but also puzzled, blocked, feeling his way in the dark, trying to formulate a plan, solve the problem. But always indomitable. Fundamentally unsinkable. He never gives up. We are safe in his hands, in the tense but ultimately comforting cradle of the narrative. Not least because all these narratives start out by explaining that they are being written after the successful conclusion of the case. We know the author survives. Because of this no amount of jeopardy really scares us; all the novels carry this underlying reassurance.

The plot thickens

Once the crew arrive in Norway more characters join the chase, notably the fat, jolly, untrustworthy whaling captain Lovaas. He it is who captures a a man trying to hide under a false identity on his whaling boat and turns round to return him to the whaling station where the other characters are waiting. They think he is Hans Schreuder, supposed witness to Farnell’s death.

But Schreuder eludes them all by jumping overboard then disappearing in thick fog. As they steam back after failing to find him, they notice a crew of divers operating from a boat not so far away and suspicion falls on them. So much so that it becomes a chase to track down the main diver, Sunde, down, and our heroes grab him at gunpoint from Lovaas’s crew, and whisk him off in the yacht to interrogate him: Who was Schreuder? Why was he so scared he jumped into the freezing sea? Why is Sunde so nervous? Did he have some arrangement to pick up and hide Schreuder? Where is Schreuder now?

Finding the answers to these questions takes Gansert further into the Norwegian coastline, up the mountains to the glacier of blue ice, deep into the treacherous legacy of the Nazi occupation of Norway which still casts a long shadow, and finally into a long agonising chase across icy mountain heights to track down the man who has the key to all the questions.

Thrillers carry wartime mentality into peacetime

These first post-War novels are heavy with its legacy: blackmailed deserters in Killer Mine; Nazi gold in Lonely Skier; Russian silver in Maddon’s Rock; the bitterness between Nazi collaborators and resistors in Blue Ice. Tending to confirm the theory I developed in reading Alistair MacLean, that the modern thriller carries the violence, tension, excitement and absurdity of wartime into peacetime situations. Thrillers are like the outbreaks of miniature wars, accompanied by all their corollaries – sudden violence, desperate situations, strangers thrown together, horrible deaths.

After shooting the man who had them at gunpoint in the high mountain saeter, Sunde, the diver who turns out to be a veteran of the Norwegian resistance, comments:

‘Anybody’d fink we was at war again.’… To Sunde this was just one more man killed up in these mountains. This was the sort of thing he’d been doing all through the war. (p.176)

Quite.

In the end of The Blue Ice there isn’t a direct clash between goodies and baddies, between collaborators and resistance. In the end different parties all with something at stake converge on a skiing-climbing chase of the missing man, for hours and hours, climbing snowy  mountainsides, skiing down them, blundering across glaciers, with shoot-outs in isolated mountain huts. When the climax comes it is tragi-comic, accidental, absurd, and the narrator struggles at the end of the book to make sense of Farnell’s obsession and achievement.

Love interest

And all the time Gansert, exactly like Innes’ previous heroes, is slowly falling in love with the only nubile woman in the drama, 26 year-old Jill Somers, tall, active, a proficient sailor. She had had a brief fling with Farnell, but adversity brings her and Garsent conveniently closer together.

She looked cold and remote and delicately lovely in her navy blue ski suit and red socks and scarf. Red woollen gloves lay on the floor at her feet. She was the sort of girl that never let up once she had decided on something. (p.195)

There are some amusingly sexist moments which would give a modern feminist fits, like when he despatches her to the galley to fix the meals, something all the rest of the crew and she herself take for granted. But in among the lovey-dovey stuff, there’s an interesting exchange about the difference between men and women:

‘You, for instance. Have you never been in love?’
‘Many times,’ I answered.
‘But not really. Not so that it was more important than anything else.?’
‘No,’ I said.
Her hands suddenly tightened on mine so that I could feel her nails biting into my palm. ‘Why?’ she cried softly. ‘Why? Tell me why? What is there more important?’
I didn’t know how to answer her. ‘Excitement,’ I said. ‘The excitement of living, of pitting one’s wits against everyone else.’
‘Meaning a wife is an encumbrance?’
‘For some men – yes.’ (p.132)

‘The excitement of living’. That’s not a bad summary of Innes’ thrillers. Far-fetched though most of the plots are, and a bit too reliant on madmen to provide the narrative drive, nonetheless the books are filled with plenty of incidental moments which convey the beauty of the natural world and the sheer joy of being alive in it, of swimming, sailing, skiing, rejoicing in the wonder of existence.

Mad Innes baddies

  • The Trojan Horse  – Nazi spy Max Sedel
  • Wreckers Must Breathe – the frothing Gestapo man
  • The Killer Mine – old man Manack who kills almost everyone
  • The Lonely Skier – the maniac who stole Gilbert Mayne’s identity and tries to kill everyone
  • Maddon’s Rock – mad Captain Halsey kills one ship’s crew and most of another
  • The Blue Ice – obsessed mineralogist George Farnell
  • The White South – mad Erik Bland who rams our hero’s ship and mad Dr Howe who gets his revenge

In fact the women, the heroines of these stories, although clothed in 1940s/50s attitudes, stand out as pretty much as tough as the men (and a lot less bonkers). Maybe not physically as strong, but as skilled and brave and resolute.

Strong Innes women

  • The Trojan Horse – Freya Schmidt, sailor.
  • Wreckers Must Breathe – Maureen Craig, feisty journalist.
  • The Killer Mine – Kitty Manack, strong swimmer.
  • The Lonely Skier – the countess is a strong feisty woman, if not the love interest
  • Maddon’s Rock – Jenny Sorrell
  • The Blue Ice – Jill Somers

Jenny Sorrell in Maddon’s Rock and Jill Somers here are both very capable sailors (as is Freya Schmidt) and it is no accident that it is at sea, in the freedom of a boat on water, that these relationships blossom. Innes writes with tremendous gusto about physical activity. There is energy and vim in his descriptions of the natural world and especially of his favourite means of seeing it, from a sailing boat.

Sailing

Innes was a very experienced sailor and it shows. A large part of Maddon’s Rock describes in great detail the journey by yacht to the cursed rock. Here, about two-thirds of the text describe the journey of the Diviner from Tower Bridge, down the Thames and up the North Sea, along the Norwegian coast and then into the fjords.

Innes’ writing about sailing combines technical detail with poetic description. The combination of experience and deep feeling behind these passages goes a long way to help make the sometimes implausible plots seem much more realistic, urgent, convincing.

As soon as [Jill] had relieved Dick, I called to Carter and we got the mainsail up. The canvas cracked as the boom slatted to and fro in the weird red and green glow of the navigation lights on either side of the chartroom. As soon as peak and throat purchases were made fast and the weather back-stay set up I had the engine stopped and I ordered Jill Somers to steer up Barrow Deep on course north fifty-two east. The mainsail filled as the ship heeled and swung away. In an instant we had picked up way and the water was seething past the lee rail. By the time we had set jib, stays’l and mizzen the old boat was going like a train, rocking violently as she took the steep seas in a corkscrew movement that brought the water gurgling in the scuppers at each plunge. (p.36)

The machine of grab

Innes used this phrase in an earlier book and now again, here.

Nothing to Jorgensen was a man who had no power over other men. Power was what he loved more than anything. Power over men, possibly women, too. The sleek smoothness of the man! Even in borrowed clothes he achieved a kind of bourgeois respectability. And yet behind it all was this violent delight in power. It was there in his eyes, in the quick, down-drawn frown of his thick eyebrows. But never exposed, never revealed. The iron claw in the velvet gloves. I’d seen it all my life. This man belonged to the ranks of the controllers of the machine of grab. (p.65)

He is not a socialist as such: the world is full of corporations which his heroes work for with no qualms. He is not as overtly anti-Big Business as Ambler. But he dislikes the greed and power-lust which so often hide behind the veneer of bourgeois respectability.

And his heroes are regularly outsiders, lawbreakers. Jim Pryce in Killer Mine is a deserter; Jim Vardy in Maddon’s Rock is convicted of mutiny; George Farnell in this novel is an ‘ex-convict, swindler, forger, deserter, murderer’ and yet the hero of the story, a man whose artist’s passion for minerals redeems him.

Prolepsis/anticipation

As usual the text is sprinkled with ominous anticipations of doom, or at least bad events which the text foreshadows. To build tension and anticipation. To underpin the idea that this is a chronicle set down in peace and quiet after it is all over, ie the author knows what the final outcome will be.

The fat, jovial voice with the sing-song intonation of Eastern Norway had left me with the impression of a big man – a big man who enjoyed life and was also a rogue. I was to get to know that voice too well in the days that followed. But I was never to revise my first impression. (p.69)

These anticipations colour our perception – of the individuals or moments to which they’re attached – but also confirm the author’s authority as master of his narrative.

His air of command had taken me by surprise. Before the next few hours were out Alf Sunde was to give me several surprises. (p.160)

You English…

Most of Eric Ambler’s pre-War novels set, as they are, abroad and featuring, as they do, many foreign characters, also feature moments where the characters gently laugh at the Englishman’s political naiveté or emotional frigidity. This is also true of Innes’s novels. It happened at a couple of prominent moments in The Lonely Skier and happens in this novel, too. Does it reflect a general view the English held of themselves in the 1930s and 40s? Or is it a convention of the thriller genre that foreigners are allowed their little joke at our expense? Or is it simply inevitable that anyone concocting dialogue for foreigners will at some point slip in one or two jokes about us Brits?

‘You English – you are like bulldogs. You never let go. You can ignore anything and concentrate on the one thing that matters to you.’ [Dahler] (p.56)

Dramatis personae

  • ‘Big’ Bill Gansert: for eight years BM&I’s production chief at their alloy plant in Birmingham, developed a nickel mine in Canada, worked with Farnell in southern Rhodesia. Packs it in to go sailing in the Mediterranean but at the last minute is persuaded by
  • Sir Clinton Mann: Chairman of BM&I
  • George Farnell: aka Bernt Olsen: the missing man, the McGuffin, the motor for the plot. Dark and short and convicted for defrauding his business partner, before escaping and assuming a Norwegian identity and becoming a war hero. BM&I come into possession of a lump of thorite sent wrapped in whale blubber with a quote from Rupert Brooke’s farewell sonnet, The Soldier. What does it mean?
  • Bill’s crew
  • Dick Everard: 28, tall, freckled, talented Navy captain, demobbed and at a loose end.
  • Carter: the quintessential Scottish naval engineer, never happier than tinkering with the engines. ‘Ye dinna ha’ to fash yersel’ aboot the engine, Mr Gansert.’ (p.26)
  • Wilson: other crew member
  • Visitors
  • Jill Somers: 26, tall, active, competent sailor. Daughter of Walter Somers, partner in Petersen and Somers.
  • Major Curtis Wright: heavily built, red hair, regular Army. Farnell’s commander at the Malöy Raid, after which Farnell went deliberately awol.
  • Dahler: Norwegian, half-paralysed, once owned a fleet of coastal steamers, bitterly hating Jorgensen who he accuses of collaborating with the Nazis. But then Jorgensen accuses Dahler of collaborating with the Nazis.
  • Knut Jorgensen: powerful confident CEO of a Norwegian mining company, wants to do a deal with Gansert and BM&I.
  • Norwegians
  • Captain Lovaas: fat, jolly, untrustworthy whaling captain. Once he realises there’s big money involved he’s prepared to use his harpoon gun against the Diviner if he thinks it will gain advantage.
  • Sunde: weak and scared salvage diver, who transforms in the second half of the book into super-capable ex-Resistance fighter, skiier and tracker.
  • Kielland: manager of the Bovaagen Hval whaling station who gives our heroes an in-depth tour of the facilities and explanation of the whaling business.
  • Hans Schreuder: Austrian Jew who escapes to Norway, collaborates with the Nazis. He enrolled as crew on Lovaas’s boat but was recognised, locked up and escaped just as Gansert came alongside, jumped overboard and disappeared.

Related links

White Circle Pocket edition of The Blue Ice

White Circle Pocket edition of The Blue Ice

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.

%d bloggers like this: