The Prairie by James Fenimore Cooper (1827)

“The man I speak of was of great simplicity of mind, but of sterling worth. Unlike most of those who live a border life, he united the better, instead of the worst, qualities of the two people. He was a man endowed with the choicest and perhaps rarest gift of nature; that of distinguishing good from evil. His virtues were those of simplicity, because such were the fruits of his habits, as were indeed his very prejudices. In courage he was the equal of his red associates; in warlike skill, being better instructed, their superior. ‘In short, he was a noble shoot from the stock of human nature, which never could attain its proper elevation and importance, for no other reason, than because it grew in the forest:’” (Duncan Uncas Heyward speaking of Leatherstocking in Chapter X)

The Prairie is the third of Cooper’s five ‘Leatherstocking’ novels, written at speed after The Last of the Mohicans (1826) established Cooper’s reputation, and published just a year later.

It is set at the very end of Leatherstocking’s life, in the year following the Louisiana Purchase i.e the sale by the French to the young American government of the vast expanse of land extending west of the Mississippi. (The character Dr Battius makes an entry in his journal dated specifically to 6 October 1805 in the middle of the novel).

Leatherstocking is now over 80 years old (in chapter XXVIII he says he has lived ‘fourscore and seven winters’), living alone (apart from his loyal but elderly dog, Hector) in the wide, dry, barren prairie lands west of the Mississippi. 87 and still hunting? Cooper addresses this improbability by mentioning on the first page (expanded in a footnote added to the 1832 edition) the legendary American frontiersman Daniel Boone, who died at the advanced age of 85, factual support for the longevity of his fictional character.

A lot of Cooper’s contrivances – for example, his heavy use of long-winded comedy characters – haven’t stood the test of time. More successful is the trick of giving his hero a different name in each book. Thus he is Leatherstocking in The Pioneers, Hawkeye in Last of The Mohicans but in this book is referred to only as ‘the trapper’, as if 80 years of living in the wilderness have not only carved lines in his face and wasted his gaunt body, but also worn away his name itself and almost all signs of individuality, so that he has become a living symbol, an embodiment of a dignified, free way of life.

The plot – part one

The trapper is minding his own business in the middle of the wide prairie when a wagon train lumbers into view, carrying some twenty men, women and children, led by the boorish, low, cunning Ishmael Bush, his careworn wife Esther, their no fewer than fourteen children, and no-good brother Abiram White. It’s impossible to paint Cooper as a racist or white supremacist as the book is drenched in Leatherstocking’s contempt for white farmers destroying the forest (‘their wantonness and folly’ Ch XIX; the ‘wasteful temper of my people’ Ch XX), the arbitrariness of white law, the uselessness of white learning – and the Bushes, representatives of white settlers, are depicted as violent, stupid, criminal lowlifes. As the Pawnee chief Hard-Heart says:

‘Your warriors think the Master of Life has made the whole earth white. They are mistaken.’ (Chapter XVIII)

By contrast with their own narrow brutal worldview, the Bushes’ first sight of the trapper is as a larger-than-life figure, supernaturally enlarged in silhouette against the effulgence of the setting sun, the first of many tall, dark, mythic American heroes…

The sun had fallen below the crest of the nearest wave of the prairie, leaving the usual rich and glowing train on its track. In the centre of this flood of fiery light, a human form appeared, drawn against the gilded background, as distinctly, and seemingly as palpable, as though it would come within the grasp of any extended hand. The figure was colossal; the attitude musing and melancholy, and the situation directly in the route of the travellers. But imbedded, as it was, in its setting of garish light, it was impossible to distinguish its just proportions or true character.
The effect of such a spectacle was instantaneous and powerful. (Chapter I)

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Opening scene of The Prairie as the Bush family see the silhouette of the solitary trapper against the setting sun

Along with the Bushes is a spirited young woman, Ellen Wade, ‘a sprightly, active, girl, of eighteen, who in figure, dress, and mien, seemed to belong to a station in society several gradations above that of any one of her visible associates’. Ellen is reluctantly travelling with the Bush clan because both her parents are dead and Ishmael, as her ‘father’s brother’s widow’s husband’, has been lumbered with her care – but Ellen is secretly in love with a young and impulsive frontiersman named Paul Hover.

The trapper learns all this because he is present when she walks a distance from the Bush camp to meet the impetuous young man. They have barely started bickering like true young lovers before they hear a thundering of hooves, and lo! a band of Sioux Indians comes galloping up and seizes all three. (In the same way that his account of the Indians in Last of the Mohicans is confusing, once again Cooper refers to the Sioux, the Dahcotas and the Tetons interchangeably, which has you reaching for Wikipedia to discover that the Dakotas – here spelt Dahcotas – were one of the three main divisions of the Sioux nation. It seems that Cooper incorrectly uses the term ‘Teton’ when that should refer to one of the other divisions, the Lakota.)

In a prolonged sequence the leader of the Indians, Mahtoree, menaces the threesome, before setting off with his men to scout out the sleeping Bush campment. Here, in several edge-of-your-seat moments, he hovers with a drawn knife over a sleeping guard as if to stab him – before cutting the bonds of the pioneers’ horses, cows and pigs and shooing them back to the group of Indians (and the trapper) on a hill overlooking. The trapper seizes a moment of inattention to grab a knife off the Indian guarding him and strike through the cords binding the Indians’ horses, whooping loudly. Off run the Indian horses and off run the Indians after them.

The trapper strolls down to the Bush camp to find them all awake and angry that Indians have stolen all their cattle. They accuse him of being in league with the Indians. In his resigned, 80-year-old way, the trapper ignores all their shouting and, pointing out that they now need a place of refuge, guides them to a tall rocky bluff by a stream on top of which, over the next week, the Bushes set up a fortified camp.

From this point onwards several plotlines develop.

1. Dr Battius For a start, we are introduced to the pompous naturalist, Dr Obad Battius, who is also travelling with the Bushes, much given to quoting Latin tags and placing every animal encountered, including other humans, into their correct Family, Genus and Species.

“Woman, I forbid you on pain of the law to project any of your infernal missiles. I am a citizen, and a freeholder, and a graduate of two universities; and I stand upon my rights! Beware of malice prepense, of chance-medley, and of manslaughter. It is I — your amicus; a friend and inmate. I — Dr. Obed Battius.” (Chapter XI)

Battius feels a very stage-comic character, the joke scholar, like something out of Sheridan, with the added pedantry of Shakespeare’s Polonius.

“Perfection is always found in maturity, whether it be in the animal or in the intellectual world. Reflection is the mother of wisdom, and wisdom the parent of success.” (Chapter XIV)

But he isn’t as funny as the comic characters in The Pioneers which is, essentially, a comic novel – here, in the rougher environment of The Prairie and surrounded by the brutish Ishmael and his oafish sons, the humour seems more contrived.

“Am I man enough! Venerable trapper, our communications have a recent origin, or thy interrogatory might have a tendency to embroil us in angry disputation. Am I man enough! I claim to be of the class, mammalia; order, primates; genus, homo! Such are my physical attributes; of my moral properties, let posterity speak; it becomes me to be mute.” (Chapter XVII)

Instead, as the text progresses, we find Battius and the trapper engaged in evermore lengthy debates about the nature of knowledge, of science, of culture and readiness for death. Although tinged with comedy, Cooper has clearly put a lot of effort into creating these careful dialogues which I suspect the modern reader mostly skips to get on to the next bit of action, rather as we are inclined to skip the subtleties of the different non-conformist Protestant sects which are carefully delineated in The Pioneers. We see what we want to see and the modern mind, obsessed with sexism and racism and, maybe, environmentalism, sees that everywhere. Living in a post-Christian society means we are mostly blind to the subtlety of the Battius-trapper debates, which – in another era – could easily have formed the core of a review of the book.

2. Paul Hover is the young lover/hero, but he also is often played for laughs. In this vast man’s world, Paul is a bee-keeper, which immediately makes him an odd figure; but Cooper then gives him the comic attribute that more or less every time he opens his mouth, in any situation, whether making love to Ellen or being chased by Indians, he speaks in bee-keeping terminology, about hives and queens and honey and comb and so on. In this he is a carbon copy of Benjamin from The Pioneers, an ex-sailor who referred  to absolutely everything in naval terms. But it doesn’t work here: The Pioneers is a comic novel where you expect to read slowly to savour the comic situations and repartee; Mohicans and Prairie are action-adventure stories and the reader wants everything to be streamlined to emphasise the excitement: both Hover’s apiarism and Battius’s pedantry get in the way.

3. Asa dies Ishmael’s eldest son, Asa, doesn’t return from an expedition to kill game. Ishmael, his wife and sons all go scouting for him and eventually find his body, shot in the back and then horribly disfigured, hidden in a brake of grass. They extract the bullet which has the mark of the trapper on it. They bury Asa and vow vengeance.

3. The secret in the tent The first dozen or so chapters are threaded with a ponderous mystery – Ishmael keeps a tent in his camp separate from the people and goods, a tent which obviously contains some portentous secret – Ellen and the trapper and the Doctor are angrily pushed away by Ishmael whenever they get near it. Gold? Some rare animal? A person? The reader is kept guessing…

4. Duncan Middleton Out of the wilderness arrives an officer, Duncan Uncas Middleton, strolling in on Battius, Hover and the trapper as they are feasting on a bison they have shot and cooked.

a) The trapper is galvanised when the soldier mentions his middle name – Uncas – which is, of course, the name of the younger, more heroic of the two Mohicans in Last of The Mohicans. Duncan is none other than the grandson of the Major Heyward who featured in that novel and ended up marrying one of its two female leads, Alice Munro. As tribute to the young warrior Uncas who died rescuing Alice and her sister, Heyward gave his son the middle name of Uncas and it became a family tradition. The trapper is in tears as he hears all this and as, I imagine, the reader is meant to be.

b) Chapter 15 is devoted to Middleton’s backstory, namely he is an officer in the US Army which recently moved in to hold Louisiana once it was relinquished by its French owners, and he fell in love with the beautiful daughter of a Spanish grandee (the French themselves seized much of this territory from its original Spanish conquerors) – Inez de Certavallos. Although she, her priest, and the father all try to convert Middleton to the Catholic faith, he holds true to his simple Protestant roots, and on this basis they are married. But on the very day of the wedding Inez disappears, to everyone’s horror and consternation. Some time later, Middleton learns from a drunk that she was kidnapped by one Abiram White, a notorious slave trafficker.

Aha. The same Abiram White who is accompanying the Bushes, Ishmael’s wife’s brother! Now we know who is hidden in the tent which Ishmael is at such pains to keep everyone away from – Middleton’s long-lost wife, Inez! And now, while Ishmael and all his sons are away looking for the son who never came back from the hunt (in the scene described above), Dr Battius, Paul Hover, the trapper and Captain Middleton ride up to the rock-top fastness. Here they are confronted by Ellen who promised Ishmael to keep it secure, along with Ishmael’s trigger-happy daughters, but in a comic storming of the rock they make it to the top and liberate Inez from her trap. Middleton and his long-lost wife are reunited.

The plot – part two

From this point onwards, i.e. for the second half of the novel, it becomes a prolonged Chase, reminiscent of the prolonged chases through the New York forest in Mohicans, but this time over the small hills and gullies of the endless, open, exposed prairie.

  • Knowing the Bushes will return and not be happy to find their camp taken, their girls tied up and Inez liberated, our Team (Middleton & Inez, Hover and Ellen, Dr Battius and the trapper) circle away from the rocky camp and head back towards the very clump of reeds where the Bushes found Asa’s body, because that’s the last place they’ll look.
  • Here they uncover an Indian hiding in the reeds who emerges in dignified silence and mounts the horse he summons. He will turn out to be Hard-Heart, legendary chief of the Pawnee tribe, enemy of the Sioux – a man of ‘faultless form, unchanging eye, and lofty mien’ (Ch 28). He converses with the trapper, before setting off back towards his village.

The Pawnee and the Palefaces, illustration

  • Soon afterwards the trapper realises from the sound of thunder and the wave of birds flying towards them that a vast stampede of wild bison is heading directly towards them. The trapper saves them by stepping out in front of the brake of reeds and scaring the leaders either side of it, helped by Middleton and Hover, but it is a close thing, with some strays rampaging through the reeds close to the (as ever) defenceless maidens.
  • Our Team realise the stampede was started by Sioux who have picked off stragglers, as part of their hunting. They watch the Indians approach the brake then the trapper decides to creep round and approach them, exposing himself and trying to distract them from the rest of the Party. The Sioux – or Dahcotas as they call themselves – whoop with pleasure but allow the trapper to have an extended conversation with their leader, Mahtoree.
  • The trapper thinks he is getting somewhere with his distraction when he is disconcerted to see the rest of the Gang – Hover, Middleton, the maidens and Battius – emerging from the reeds behind him. They have seen Ishmael and his posse approaching from the other side and decided the Indians present a better chance of survival.
  • After their initial surprise, the Indians see the settlers approaching looking none too friendly. When the trapper says that the Bushes’ settlement is completely unguarded and ripe for looting and he can show them where it is, Mahtoree has our Team mounted up on spare horses and they all gallop back towards the Tall Rock, Ishmael and his boys firing their rifles at them from just out of range and, of course, having no horses of their own to follow on.
  • In a wordy sequence the trapper manages to persuade the Indians that Battius is a special Medicine Man so that they allow him to straggle a little behind the main posse. At which the trapper instructs the naturalist to make off in a different direction to a secret rendezvous. By this time the Sioux have arrived at the bottom of the Tall Rock, cross that the Medicine Man has disappeared, but about to enjoy some looting. As the Indians dismount and consider how to tackle the rock, not least because Ishmael’s infuriated wife Esther is taking pot shots from above – the trapper signals to the rest of  his gang and they spur their horses (one for the trapper, one carrying Middleton and Inez, one carrying Hover and Ellen) and whoosh, they are gone over a ridge into a gully, up the other side, and have a good lead on the Indians, who on balance, prefer the loot to pursuing the escapees.
  • They ride 20 miles then make a camp as night falls. The trapper has a long argument with Dr Battius where the latter defends civilisation and law and culture and the trapper pours scorn on all of it and laments the wastefulness and folly of the white man who has laid waste the primeval forest, despoiling the work of God and is now invading the plains and bringing with him nothing but waste and folly – “What the world of America is coming to, and where the machinations and inventions of its people are to have an end, the Lord, he only knows…. How much has the beauty of the wilderness been deformed in two short lives!” (Chapter XXIII)
  • As dawn wakes the Team they slowly realise the horizon is very red. It is because a prairie Fire is rampaging towards them. The guys panic, the women bewail their fate, but the trapper makes them pull up all the grass in an area 30 feet around them and then himself lights the grass at the edge of this clearing. The grass takes and burns towards the inferno, thus creating a brake of barren soil and ash around our Heroes. And so the raging fire passes close but not over them. The dazed survivors thank the trapper for saving their life and they head slowly through the ashes towards the nearest river.
The Prairie on Fire by Alvan Fisher (1827)

The Prairie on Fire by Alvan Fisher (1827) showing the trapper (and Hector his dog) Duncan Middleton in green, the beautiful and diminutive Inez with black hair, Ellen Wade and the bee-keeper Paul Hover, with the pedantic naturalist Dr Battius at right

  • They come across an incinerated Bison but are astonished when the corpse starts moving and is then thrown off to reveal the same Pawnee brave they met at the brake the day before, hiding under it. They spared each other then and are friends again now, especially when the trapper tells Hard-Heart that they are pursued by the Pawnees’ enemy, the Sioux.
  • They make quick time to the river where the Indian impressively creates a coracle out of a hide and a few sticks. One by one he ferries the Team across the wide fast river in the coracle tied to his horse. As Dr Battius, characteristically, dithers and discusses the seaworthiness of this little invention, the Sioux posse arrives on the river bank and starts shooting bows and arrows. That decides the naturalist who hops in and they are safely guided to the other shore by the valiant and faithful Pawnee, while our guys on the safe shore take a few shots at the Indians. One lucky shot kills Mahtoree’s horse from under him and this causes confusion and delay.
Hard-Heart steering the coracle containing Inez and Ellen across the river. Illustration by Charles Brock (1900)

Hard-Heart steering the coracle containing Inez and Ellen across the river. Illustration by Charles Brock (1900)

  • Hard-Heart and the trapper agree to head down the river for a while, instead of going in a straight line to the Pawnee village. They make a camp, make beds for the maidens, and then fall asleep. In the morning they awaken to discover that a thick snow has fallen during the night and this, of course, will show the Indians there are no tracks towards the Pawnee village. Barely have they thought this than they spy the Sioux circling carefully towards their hiding place. No point fighting. The trapper stands up and hands himself and his followers over to the delighted Tetons and their mighty leader, Mahtoree. (Chapter XXIV)

The plot – part three

Chapter XXVI Fade out the last scene and fade up on a new setting, a week later. We are in Mahtoree’s Sioux village, a scattering of a hundred teepees near the river. Also camped there are the Bush family with their wagons, uneasy allies of the Sioux. Middleton and Hover have been tied and bound and thrown on the ground, not far from the stake where Hard-Heart has been tied up. The old trapper has been left free to roam (rather like David Gamut in the Huron village in Mohicans). Proud but fickle Mahtoree approaches and commandeers the trapper to accompany him to his teepee and translate his words to the strikingly beautiful Inez, who he wishes to become his wife. The maidens (dark Inez and blonde Ellen) accept Mahtoree’s pledges and he leaves, but not before his distraught (third) Sioux wife first pleads with him to stay loyal to her on account of the little baby boy she bore him only a year previously and, when he haughtily ignores her and sweeps out of the teepee, she takes off all her jewellery and decorations, places them in a pile before Inez, withdraws to a corner in mourning.

Chapter XXVII Emerging from his teepee Mahtoree is confronted by angry Ishmael who demands the trapper translate that he wants his captive (Inez), his niece (Ellen) and the trapper himself to be handed over. Mahtoree smiles, says no way, but, seeing as Ishmael’s wife, Esther, is old and shrivelled, Mahtoree generously offers to give him his own cast-off Sioux wife. The trapper struggles to keep a straight face as he translates this and sure enough, Esther explodes into a rhodomontade of recriminations against savages, her husband, her good-for-nothing sons and men in general. Mahtoree proceeds to a council of Indian elders which is to decide what to do with Hover, Middleton, and especially their enemy, Hard-Heart. They have barely started the debate when Mahtoree asks the Paleface’s medicine man to be brought in, by which they mean Dr Battius, who has been stripped, shaved except for a mohican strip of hair and redressed in Indian warpaint and feathers, so that he looks quite comical

Chapter XXVIII A detailed description of the council of the Dahcota elders at which Mahtoree attempts to whip them up into enmity against their tied-up Pawnee prisoner, but to everyone’s surprise, an extremely old and venerable Indian, known by the name the French gave him back in the day, Le Balafre, laments that he has no son to be a support in his old age and continue his line – and then adopts Hard-Heart as his son – to Mahtoree’s inexpressible anger. But Hard-Heart refuses! The Pawnee cannot become a Sioux. In fact he has already pledged to become the trapper’s son (in an earlier scene, where the trapper pledged to carry word of his death back to his tribe and fetch his beloved colt to his graveside and there kill it so that Hard-Heart – in the manner of the Vikings or the ancient Egyptians – will have a steed to carry him to the Happy Hunting Grounds.) The scene ends in high drama as Mahtoree authorises his creature, a low-hearted Sioux named Weucha, to menace Hard-Heart with a tomahawk, swinging it round his head hoping to make him flinch or beg for mercy, but the noble youth stands undaunted until, with complete surprise, he grabs Weucha’s arm, seizes the tomahawk, embeds it in Weucha’s skull as deep as his eyes, and with a wild whoop, leaps over the aghast Sioux and skids down the slope to the river just as his fellow Pawnees arrive in force!

Chapter XXIX Mahtoree leaves a wicked old Sioux to arm the crones of the tribe and murder the remaining prisoners (Hover and Middleton) but the trapper sets them free, while all the time giving a running commentary on the skirmish of the two tribes down by the river. Meanwhile the Sioux women have packed their teepees and children onto horseback and exited. The old crones are dispersed by the braying of Dr Battius’s donkey (an animal they have never seen before and associate with his Dark Magic) but before the trapper and the boys can stop laughing, a heavy hand is clapped on his shoulder and he discovers Ishmael and his six brothers pointing rifles at them. The trapper, Hover and Middleton are tied and bound, packed up along with Inez and Ellen onto spare horses, and the Bush party heads off in the opposite direction from the Sioux tribe.

Chapter XXX A pitched battle between the Pawnees and the Tetons begins with the opposing chiefs, Hard-Heart and Mahtoree spurring their horses to a sandbank in the middle of the river and having a fierce duel. Hard-Heart’s horse is shot from under him and as he tries to extricate himself from  his fallen horse Mahtoree advances to deal the death blow when Hard-Heart throws a knife which buries itself deep in the other’s body. This is the signal for a massive melee in the river, with the Pawnees fighting the Sious back to their side but themselves being thrown back. But as the Sioux press their advantage and push the Pawnee into the river, shots ring out from the flank and a brace of Sioux braves fall. It is Ishmael and his sons attacking their former enemies. This breaks the Sioux who flee and are massacred mercilessly, Cooper dwelling on several particularly gruesome ends. Boys adventure heaven.

Chapter XXXI Ishmael Bush impresses by acting the judge before his family and his prisoners. (Hard-Heart, who he helped win the battle of the creek, has come in peace to observe proceedings.) He freely admits he was persuaded by his brother-in-law to kidnap Inez and now bitterly regrets it. He announces her set at liberty and also Captain Middleton (whose bounds are therefore cut by his sons). Similarly, he asks Ellen her wish and she tearfully expresses her gratitude to Ishmael for taking her in when no-one else would, but says her heart is set on Paul the bee-man. So Ishmael orders them both set free. Finally he charges the trapper with murdering his son, using the evidence of the bullet found in the body. The trapper calmly says he saw who did it, it was Abiram White. The cowardly murderer immediately overdoes his shouts of innocence and as Ishmael’s boys advance towards him, turns to run, trips and drops dead at their feet. The released prisoners ride off with Hard-Heart.

Chapter XXXII A grim and sombre, melodramatic and Gothic chapter in which the Bush family trundles across the plains in its wagons until it comes to a likely place to camp, and here Ishmael orders Abiram out of his wagon and declares his sentence is to die for the murder he committed and the wretched man pleads and grovels for his life, until Ishmael laments and sets him on a gallows made from a dead tree and a platform of rock, tying his hands so that he will eventually, from weakness, totter off the ledge and be hanged. The wagon train continues and camps further on. But Ishmael can’t rest and walks back, suddenly hearing terrible cries on the wind, blasphemies and crying and then a terrible scream of horror! It reads very much like one of Dickens’s most gruesome scenes of vengeance and the macabre. Ishmael and his wife cut down and bury the wretch, and next day their wagon trail lumbers out of the story.

Chapter XXXIII Hard-Heart and his Pawnees are noble hosts to Middleton, Inez, Hover and Ellen, the Doctor and the trapper. Middleton notes his ‘artillerists’ have arrived and are being treated hospitably. After a few days hospitality, our friends pack up and leave. Hard-Heart declaims a noble speech of friendship. They get into boats lined up along the river and the current bears them away. But they haven’t gone far before the trapper asks to be set ashore on a sandbank. Middleton, Hover, the Doctor all beg him to come with them to ‘the settlements’ where they will make him comfortable. But the old man ‘who has acted his part honestly near ninety winters and summers’ wants nothing to do with ‘the waste and wickedness of the settlements and the villages’. He wants to spend his last days in complete freedom. He asks one favour, that they take a few beaver pelts, sell them in the settlements and buy a new trap which they can send back to the Pawnee village. He gets out with old Hector and asks Captain Middleton if he may borrow his dog who (we learned in the middle of the book) is in fact a descendant of a pup of Hector himself, given to Heyward and Alice decades earlier; Middleton says, Yes of course, take anything. The friends he has guided to safety are all in floods of tears.

He was last seen standing on the low point, leaning on his rifle, with Hector crouched at his feet, and the younger dog frisking along the sands, in the playfulness of youth and vigour.

Chapter XXXIV In the last chapter we see the dignified intelligent Middleton and Inez, and the rougher more boisterously American Hover and Ellen, married and settled. The Autumn of the next year duty takes Middleton close to the Pawnee village and, accompanied by Hover, he makes the journey there to renew friendship. He finds the village attending the dying trapper. Propped in a chair, he is now very weak. His dog, Hector, is dead. He makes the last of his countless sententious and high-minded speeches – pointedly reminding Hard-Heart that he is a Christian white man at the end. Nonetheless, we are reminded that he adopted Hard-Heart as his son in the village of the Sioux, promising to take his last words to his tribe when we all thought the Sioux would execute Hard-Heart; and right to his last breaths his Indian son dutifully obeys and comforts him. Middleton promises to pay for a simple headstone. The old man looks into the glory of ‘an American sunset’ and passes from this world. Not a dry eye in the house. It is a majestic ending.


Native Americans

Cooper’s attitude towards the Indians which feature so prominently in this and the previous novel is multilayered. On the one hand he freely admits the Indians are a ‘wronged and humbled people’, and ‘the lawful owners’ of the land (Ch XXV), which is being stolen from them by the whites (or the ‘Big-Knives’ as they are generally referred to) and who Cooper describes as ‘hungry locusts’ (Ch XXVIII). Hence their understandable antipathy to whitey.

“Could the red nations work their will, trees would shortly be growing again on the ploughed fields of America, and woods would be whitened with Christian bones.” (Chapter XXV)

Yet his hero is also quick enough to criticise and fear the savagery of some tribes and nations – in Mohicans the Iroquois, in this novel, the Sioux. The trapper inhabits a world in which there are hundreds of tribes of Indians, with a wealth of different characteristics and behaviours, themselves locked in a bewildering complex of inter-tribal wars and alliances. Through this world he has learned to pick his way. To us, nearly 200 years later looking back, there is just ‘the tragedy of the Indians’, driven off their land in a succession of betrayals and massacres, hemmed into ‘reservations’, and condemned to alcoholism and extinction. But reading Cooper makes you aware that, at the time, the Indians were equal players over vast parts of the continent, their war bands as powerful or more than the settlers who encroached, perfectly capable of massacring even full army units (like General Braddock’s in 1755 or General Custer’s 111 years later) let alone isolated bands of white settlers.

In this semi-embattled context, what stands out is not Cooper’s criticisms of, but his repeated admiration for, the native traditions and culture of some of the Indian tribes. After all, the closest friend and confidante of Leatherstocking to the end of his life is Chingachgook, the ‘Mohican’. And here is Cooper’s sterling depiction of Hard-Heart, the Pawnee chief, who Leatherstocking ends up adopting as his son, and who tends to his last days:

The Indian in question was in every particular a warrior of fine stature and admirable proportions. As he cast aside his mask, composed of such party-coloured leaves, as he had hurriedly collected, his countenance appeared in all the gravity, the dignity, and, it may be added, in the terror of his profession. The outlines of his lineaments were strikingly noble, and nearly approaching to Roman, though the secondary features of his face were slightly marked with the well-known traces of his Asiatic origin. The peculiar tint of the skin, which in itself is so well designed to aid the effect of a martial expression, had received an additional aspect of wild ferocity from the colours of the war-paint. But, as if he disdained the usual artifices of his people, he bore none of those strange and horrid devices, with which the children of the forest are accustomed, like the more civilised heroes of the moustache, to back their reputation for courage, contenting himself with a broad and deep shadowing of black, that served as a sufficient and an admirable foil to the brighter gleamings of his native swarthiness. His head was as usual shaved to the crown, where a large and gallant scalp-lock seemed to challenge the grasp of his enemies. The ornaments that were ordinarily pendant from the cartilages of his ears had been removed, on account of his present pursuit. His body, notwithstanding the lateness of the season, was nearly naked, and the portion which was clad bore a vestment no warmer than a light robe of the finest dressed deer-skin, beautifully stained with the rude design of some daring exploit, and which was carelessly worn, as if more in pride than from any unmanly regard to comfort. His leggings were of bright scarlet cloth, the only evidence about his person that he had held communion with the traders of the Pale-faces. But as if to furnish some offset to this solitary submission to a womanish vanity, they were fearfully fringed, from the gartered knee to the bottom of the moccasin, with the hair of human scalps. He leaned lightly with one hand on a short hickory bow, while the other rather touched than sought support, from the long, delicate handle of an ashen lance. A quiver made of the cougar skin, from which the tail of the animal depended, as a characteristic ornament, was slung at his back, and a shield of hides, quaintly emblazoned with another of his warlike deeds, was suspended from his neck by a thong of sinews. (Chapter XVIII)

The noble and the distasteful are mingled, for the chief has the scalps of his enemies attached to his leggings – just as Uncas is an undoubted hero in Mohicans and yet unnecessarily murders the French sentry to get his scalp – because it is the way of his people. All this Hawkeye notes, regrets, but knows he cannot change. Their land, their customs. You can’t say, their land, their customs, except the ones I don’t like and which I’m going to change – that’s what the Christian missionaries said, and the government lawyers and the Sunday schoolmarms, to the Indians’ ruination.

Even in enemy Indians, Leatherstocking respects their unbending dignity and stoicism. He recalls to Middleton the silence of the Indian desperately clinging to a bush over a vast waterfall, who he shot and who plunged to his silence (during the siege of Glens Falls in Last of The Mohicans).

Cooper had met and talked to Indians in the country around his hometown in New York state and then further afield, so he had more experience of Native Americans than any of us. According to some historians, Cooper’s Indian novels are the single most influential source of later Western cultural ideas about Native Americans. This is a heavy burden to bear, and we know that he was inaccurate in many aspects of the names and histories of the tribes he describes. But overwhelmingly, Cooper’s image of the Indian is positive, endlessly repeating the idea that they were noble, dignified, stoic, restrained, physically beautiful specimens of humanity, awesomely in tune with their environment and the beasts in it.

During this rude interruption to the discourse, the young Pawnee manifested neither impatience nor displeasure; but when he thought his beast had been the subject of sufficient comment, he very coolly, and with the air of one accustomed to have his will respected, relieved Paul of the bridle, and throwing the reins on the neck of the animal, he sprang upon his back, with the activity of a professor of the equestrian art. Nothing could be finer or firmer than the seat of the savage. The highly wrought and cumbrous saddle was evidently more for show than use. Indeed it impeded rather than aided the action of limbs, which disdained to seek assistance, or admit of restraint from so womanish inventions as stirrups. The horse, which immediately began to prance, was, like its rider, wild and untutored in all his motions, but while there was so little of art, there was all the freedom and grace of nature in the movements of both. (Chapter XVIII)

‘All the freedom and grace of nature’, wow.

Cooper’s environmentalism

Whatever we modern and impeccably politically correct readers make of Cooper’s attitudes to the Indians, there is no doubting his contempt for the white settlers and farmers, who his hero sees as unambiguously bad thing. If Cooper is racist, it is directed at white people. Their despoliation of the beautiful natural American environment is not only wasteful and ruinous, though that is bad enough – in defacing the wonderful works of the Creator, the activity of most white people is actively blasphemous.

“… it will not be long before an accursed band of choppers and loggers will be following on their heels, to humble the wilderness which lies so broad and rich on the western banks of the Mississippi, and then the land will be a peopled desert, from the shores of the main sea to the foot of the Rocky Mountains; fill’d with all the abominations and craft of man, and stript of the comforts and loveliness it received from the hands of the Lord!” (Chapter XVIII)

The beauty of unspoilt America, the nobility and manliness of its finest natives, and the wicked, wasteful, ungodly ways of its white settlers – these are the bedrock themes of these novels, emphasised again and again and again.

Cooper’s style

‘Long-winded’ does not begin to convey the circumlocutory nature of Cooper’s periphrastic periods.

While the exterior of the naturalist was decidedly pacific, not to say abstracted, that of the new comer was distinguished by an air of vigour, and a front and step which it would not have been difficult to have at once pronounced to be military. (Chapter x)

As Dr Battius is sneaking towards the secret tent, he is terrified to feel a hand on his shoulder and a whispered enquiry, and…

So soon as the heart of the naturalist had returned from its hasty expedition into his throat, as one less skilled than Dr. Battius in the formation of the animal would have been apt to have accounted for the extraordinary sensation with which he received this unlooked-for interruption, he found resolution to reply… (Chapter XI)

Cooper is self-aware. He even calls his own hero ‘prolix’, as he sets off on another long rambling sententious exordium about the nature of ‘the savage’… But you take the rough with the smooth in a book as old as this, and at other moments his 200-year-old style is rhetorically effective; some of the natural descriptions remind us of the school of American landscape painters which his work inspired. Here are our boys looking up at the tent on top of the high rock, as a gust of wind sweeps past them.

… a rushing blast of wind swept by the spot where they stood, raising the dust in little eddies, in its progress; and then, as if guided by a master hand, it quitted the earth, and mounted to the precise spot on which all eyes were just then riveted. The loosened linen felt its influence and tottered; but regained its poise, and, for a moment, it became tranquil. The cloud of leaves next played in circling revolutions around the place, and then descended with the velocity of a swooping hawk, and sailed away into the prairie in long straight lines, like a flight of swallows resting on their expanded wings. (Chapter XIII)

The wind blowing a gust of leaves across the open plain like swallows on the wing – not bad! So the long-winded style works quite often (and just as well in such a very long book).

For earlier generations Leatherstocking was an archetypal figure, a legend of the frontier. But for readers in the 21st century, I think the books’ power comes from the sheer variety of scenes, settings and characters which they contain – the stampede of bison, the prairie fire, crossing the river under fire from the Indians, all these scenes join the deep forests, the high mountains, the thundering waterfalls and hidden caves of the earlier books, and through all of them stride the haunting figures of the noble Indians, true ‘owners’ of the land.

The Leatherstocking books give you a powerful sense of what life must have been like, 200 years ago, in a world we can’t really imagine – or wouldn’t be able to without the lengthy, sometimes verbose, but amazingly varied, often powerful and vivid descriptions of this classic novelist.


Credit

I read the 1987 American Penguin edition, which has a useful introduction by Blake Nevius but, alas, no notes. The central point he makes is that the novels’ fundamental structure is the ‘romance’, an idea stretching back 2,000 years to the New Comedy of the Romans, which places a boy meets girl romance at the centre of a narrative – more often pairing two pairs of boys and girls, to give variety and contrast. The tradition goes right through Shakespeare whose comedies generally feature a pair of couples (think of Demetrius & Hermia, Lysander & Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Orlando & Rosalind, Oliver & Celia in As You Like It) and on into the 18th century novel which is, classically, about wooing and wedding (whether taken seriously in Samuel Richardson’s Pamela or played for laughs as in Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones). Thus both Mohicans and The Prairie feature a couple of couples: in The Prairie the more working class, rumbustious pair of plain-speaking Paul Hover and bosomy Ellen Ward are set against the aristocratic dignity of the virtually unspeaking Inez – a sort of doll or icon of femininity – and the intelligent, dignified officer Middleton who is the right sort of stuffed-shirt character to receive the trapper’s final words and wishes right at the novel’s end. Mohicans has the upmarket Alice, eventually married to Major Heyward, contrasted with the more ample-figured i.e bosomy, Cora. Since she has to die so does Uncas, in a big slab of tearjerking 18th century sentimentality.

Dressing up and disguises feature prominently in this comic tradition and partly explain the silly bear and beaver costumes in Last of the Mohicans or the ludicrous makeover Dr Battius receives to turn him into an Indian medicine man.

But the novel adds to this love-interest-with-disguises basic recipe a wealth of new influences, most obviously The Chase – hunt, pursuit, capture, rescue – and Landscape. After the trapper has established the Bushes on their rocktop encampment, the rest of the novel is just a sequence of interlocking chases, pursuits, perils and escapes. And these are not only exciting in themselves but allow for variety of scenery – open plain, firestorm, bison stampede, river battle, snowfall, Indian camp.

Nevius asserts that readers of Cooper often struggle to remember the details of plot – but they always remember the vivid brilliant pictures that Cooper creates in our minds’ eyes.

Related links

The five Leatherstocking novels

1823 The Pioneers – The Sources of the Susquehanna: A Descriptive Tale
1826 The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757
1827 The Prairie – A Tale
1840 The Pathfinder – The Inland Sea
1841 The Deerslayer – The First War Path

The Wrecker by Robert Louis Stevenson (1892)

The auctioneer was surrounded by perhaps a score of lookers-on, big fellows, for the most part, of the true Western build, long in the leg, broad in the shoulder, and adorned (to a plain man’s taste) with needless finery. A jaunty, ostentatious comradeship prevailed. Bets were flying, and nicknames. The boys (as they would have called themselves) were very boyish; and it was plain they were here in mirth, and not on business.
(Chapter IX – The Wreck of the Flying Scud)

Robert and Fanny and Lloyd

Fanny Stevenson Stevenson met Fanny Osbourne in France in 1876 and became deeply attached to her. She was ten years older than him (b.1840 compared to Stevenson’s 1850) and had three small children by her husband Samuel Osbourne, who she had married at the tender age of just 17. Samuel was an adventurer who headed to California to take part in the silver rush, brought his family out to stay with him, but was consistently unfaithful to Fanny until she decided to cut loose and took her children for a prolonged trip to Europe.

Fanny’s choice In 1876 Fanny returned to America prepared to reconcile with her husband. So infatuated was Stevenson that he saved up for three years to have the fare to travel out to California there to woo her (the journey described in his travel book The Amateur Emigrant) and poor Fanny was faced in 1879 with the choice between unfaithful husband and ardent devotee – who just happened to be a literary genius into the bargain. Eventually she chose the sickly Scotsman and they were married in 1880, Stevenson acquiring two step-children Isobel (b.1858) and Lloyd (b. 1868), the third, Hervey, having died as a child in Paris. They spent two months in the Napa Valley near abandoned mine workings, an experience fictionalised into the novel The Silverado Squatters.

Stevenson’s travels They moved back to Britain for a while for Robert to patch up relations with his scandalised parents. For the next seven years they moved around England and Scotland, Devon, Bournemouth, spending the winter months in the south of France or Switzerland. These were the years of his masterpieces – Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Jekyll and Hyde, as well as The Black Arrow and much poetry.

The South Seas In 1887 his father died and Stevenson returned to America, wintering in New York state. In 1888 he was in California charting a yacht to take him, Fanny and Lloyd to the islands of the South Seas and there began an extensive period of travel among the islands of the Pacific, getting to know customs, traditions, languages and politics. Lloyd was now 20 and very close to RLS. Stevenson restlessly wrote wherever he went, and in a wide variety of forms, children’s and adult poetry, adventure stories and romances, short stories, novels, travel books, essays and letters.

Collaborations with Lloyd Osborne It was here during his south sea travels and after he settled on an island of Samoa that Stevenson collaborated closely with his step-son Lloyd on three novels: The Wrong Box, The Wrecker and The Ebb-Tide. And, whereas he wrote two more novels and a number of south sea stories which are part of the ‘canon’, it is maybe no coincidence that most people haven’t heard of these three collaborations.

The Wrecker

The Prologue of The Wrecker, titled In The Marquesas, describes the litter of whites, beach bums and local South sea natives who live near the harbour of Tai-o-hae, ‘the French capital and port of entry of the Marquesas Islands’. It has colour and flavour and promises much.

Outside, the night was full of the roaring of the surf. Scattered lights glowed in the green thicket. Native women came by twos and threes out of the darkness, smiled and ogled the two whites, perhaps wooed them with a strain of laughter, and went by again, bequeathing to the air a heady perfume of palm-oil and frangipani blossom.

A schooner enters the harbour and the captain, Mr Loudon Dodd, is invited along to the whites-only club, where they drink and roister and the inebriated captain finds himself boasting about all kinds of scrapes and semi-crimes he’s been involved in. His host, back at his house, says surely that was all bluff. Oh no, says Dodd, it was all true. ‘Pray tell’, asks his host. Alright, says Dodd.

Dodd’s life story At which point the novel cuts away to become a completely different book from the one promised – a long, humorous, self-deprecating first-person narrative of Dodd’s life and times. Dodd’s dad was a typically boosterish American businessman who sends his son to college to  learn how to gamble on the stock market. But the young boy wants to be an artist! They square the circle by sending Loudon to Paris to study sculpture – so that he can provide the statues needed for the new state capital the father is crookedly involved in.

Student in Paris Loudon’s adventures in student Paris are all firmly tongue-in-cheek, told with a drollness which is completely at odds with the pithy, psychologically acute style Stevenson demonstrated in his classic adventures, The Black Arrow or Ballantrae.

At this time we were all a little Murger-mad in the Latin Quarter. The play of the Vie de Boheme (a dreary, snivelling piece) had been produced at the Odeon, had run an unconscionable time–for Paris, and revived the freshness of the legend. The same business, you may say, or there and thereabout, was being privately enacted in consequence in every garret of the neighbourhood, and a good third of the students were consciously impersonating Rodolphe or Schaunard to their own incommunicable satisfaction. Some of us went far, and some farther. I always looked with awful envy (for instance) on a certain countryman of my own who had a studio in the Rue Monsieur le Prince, wore boots, and long hair in a net, and could be seen tramping off, in this guise, to the worst eating-house of the quarter, followed by a Corsican model, his mistress, in the conspicuous costume of her race and calling. It takes some greatness of soul to carry even folly to such heights as these; and for my own part, I had to content myself by pretending very arduously to be poor, by wearing a smoking-cap on the streets, and by pursuing, through a series of misadventures, that extinct mammal, the grisette.

San Francisco In Paris he meets a fellow American art student, Jim Pinkerton, who is lousy at art but addicted to doing dodgy business deals, he nicknames him ‘the Irrepressible’ or ‘the Commercial Force’. This man is to loom large in his life because, when Loudon’s father dies after one business crash too many, Loudon, deprived of daddy’s monthly stipends, falls on very hard times and after trying all available options, is forced to travel back to the States and out to California where he becomes a side-kick and cultural fig leaf for Pinkertson’s numerous scams and cons: selling counterfeit brandy, organising a preposterous regular sea-side picnic, wild speculations on all and every business venture.

A taste of the South Seas Suddenly in chapter eight we learn that Loudon has taken to exploring San Francisco, the secret slums and hidden places – there are rich descriptions of its multi-cultural shops and bars and dives.

My delight was much in slums. Little Italy was a haunt of mine; there I would look in at the windows
of small eating-shops, transported bodily from Genoa or Naples, with their macaroni, and chianti flasks, and portraits of Garibaldi, and coloured political caricatures; or (entering in) hold high debate with some ear-ringed fisher of the bay as to the designs of “Mr. Owstria” and “Mr. Rooshia.” I was often to be observed (had there been any to observe me) in that dis-peopled, hill-side solitude of Little Mexico, with its crazy wooden houses, endless crazy wooden stairs, and perilous mountain
goat-paths in the sand. Chinatown by a thousand eccentricities drew and held me; I could never have enough of its ambiguous, interracial atmosphere, as of a vitalised museum; never wonder enough at its outlandish, necromantic-looking vegetables set forth to sell in commonplace American shop-windows, its temple doors open and the scent of the joss-stick streaming forth on the American air, its kites of Oriental fashion hanging fouled in Western telegraph-wires, its flights of paper prayers which the trade-wind hunts and dissipates along Western gutters.

And in amid these he starts listening to tales of sailors and seafarers of the remote romantic south sea islands, visits a seafarer who has a collection of south sea island artefacts, gets bitten by the bug. So he enthusiastically falls in with Pinkerton’s latest scheme to bid for a ship which they hear has been shipwrecked on Midway Island, the brig Flying Scud. It’s meant to be a rigged auction i.e. Pinkerton has arranged to buy the ship from the auctioneer at the nominal sum of $100, so everybody is surprised when a well known, seedy lawyer, Bellairs, starts bidding against Pinkerton and the bidding climbs to the absurd and giddy heights of $30,000 then $40,000.

By now our boys have realised something very suspicious is going on – maybe the brig must have been packed full of Chinese opium! Loudon notices that the captain of the wrecked ship – Captain Trent – is at the auction, looking very nervous. Our boys eventually win the ship but at a budget-breaking cost of $50,000. In the corridor Loudon overhears Bellairs telephoning the man whose instructions he was obeying, a certain Mr Dickson. But when Loudon gets hold of his address and goes to visit and question Dickson, he finds he has beaten a hasty retreat from his boarding house. Why?

Illustration of The Wrecker by William Hole (1892)

Illustration of The Wrecker by William Hole (1892)

Voyage to Midway Pinkerton and Dodds hire a schooner, the Nora Creiner, appoint a Captain Nares and hire a dodgy-looking crew. Pinkerton appoints Dodds his agent for the mission – which is to find the brig, find the opium, take it on to Honolulu to sell, and return to San Francisco with the profits. There is a brisk clear good humour about the narrator’s tone which seems different from any other Stevenson I’ve read. It has an often modern sense of comic timing and a brisk easy pace. Stevenson’s sentences are generally more broken up with semi-colons and edgy angular additions and clauses; The Wrecker‘s sentences run on smooth and debonair.

I was presented to the commissioner, and to a young friend of his whom he had brought with him for the purpose (apparently) of smoking cigars; and after we had pledged one another in a glass of California port, a trifle sweet and sticky for a morning beverage, the functionary spread his papers on the table, and the hands were summoned. Down they trooped, accordingly, into the cabin; and stood eyeing the ceiling or the floor, the picture of sheepish embarrassment, and with a common air of wanting to expectorate and not quite daring. In admirable contrast, stood the Chinese cook, easy, dignified, set apart by spotless raiment, the hidalgo of the seas.

The Flying Scud Eventually they reach the site where Captain Trent said The Flying Scud ran aground and, sure enough, find it. The captain, crew and Loudon spend days ripping the poor brig apart and, sure enough, do eventually find boxes hidden in the mats of rice – and they do contain opium – but only a few hundred pounds of the stuff – value, at the absolute maximum, maybe $10,000. Whereas Pinkerton had bid $50,000 for the ship! It looks like a complete bust. Sadly captain Nares and Dodd conclude they’ve done everything they can, set fire to the hulk and sail on to Honolulu.

Illustration for The Wrecker by William Hole

Illustration for The Wrecker by William Hole (1892)

The mystery Here I didn’t quite understand some scenes but I think Loudon disposes of the opium to two agents Pinkerton has arranged to meet him. He then bumps into the captain of the British warship which found and rescued the crew of the Flying Scud, is invited to a party aboard, and quizzes the ship’s doctor, Urquhart. From all this he discovers that the survivor of the Scud, who later paid Bellairs to bid against Pinkerton, and who gave his name as Dickson, was in fact one Norris Carthew, an Englishman from a noble family. What the devil is this all about? Dr Urquhart gives the impression of knowing but Loudon fails to wangle it out of him and is left as completely perplexed about the mystery of the wrecked brig as we the reader, and the narrator is the intrusive kind who comes right out and confronts the reader with it:

I have never again met Dr. Urquart: but he wrote himself so clear upon my memory that I think I see him still. And indeed I had cause to remember the man for the sake of his communication. It was hard enough to make a theory fit the circumstances of the Flying Scud; but one in which the chief actor should stand the least excused, and might retain the esteem or at least the pity of a man like Dr. Urquart, failed me utterly. Here at least was the end of my discoveries; I learned no more, till I learned all; and my reader has the evidence complete. Is he more astute than I was? or, like me, does he give it up?

Pinkerton’s bankruptcy So Loudon sails back to San Francisco and confronts Jim and his new wife, Mamie, with his failure to find treasure on the ship. Pinkerton, for his part, explains about his bankruptcy – an official receiver was called in, who could only secure 7 cents in every dollar for the creditors.  Jim was thoroughly pilloried in all the newspapers and now lives in a shabby apartment with shabby clothes and is working as the meanest type of clerk.

Loudon inherits a fortune Which is why, when Loudon receives a telegram telling him he’s inherited a fortune from his doting grandfather in Scotland, they all celebrate wildly with a champagne dinner and pack up and head to the country for a rest and recuperation. Within days Pinkerton is back to his classic best, a wheeling-dealing shyster, going to the office of the local newspaper, investigating mining operations, sniffing for new business ventures.

More Flying Scud mystery Loudon leaves him and returns to San Francisco where he dines with Captain Nares who he got to like and respect during the long voyage. Nares says they still haven’t got to the bottom of this Scud business. Loudon is then buttonholed by the lawyer Bellairs, who reveals himself as a weedy, uneducated shyster but who menacingly says he knows all about Loudon’s inheritance and makes vague threats to undermine him or Pinkerton or both. In addition, Bellairs says he knows all about the fake mate on the Scud, Norris Carthew. What? Loudon is puzzled: what fake mate? Who is Carthew? Why does is matter?

Bellairs goes on that Carthew comes from a venerable family in England, in Dorset, aha yes you can’t fool old Bellairs. Loudon wonders what on earth he’s babbling about.

Chasing Bellairs Next day, in a passage which I read twice but still didn’t understand, Loudon discovers that Bellairs has left his hotel and set off East, presumably to go to England and find Carthew, and decides to follow him. Why? I know the narrative has to take us to England and Carthew but Loudon’s decision to do so is extremely flimsy.

Across the Atlantic Loudon and Bellairs find themselves on the same transatlantic ship and get to know each other more, Bellairs alternating between wanting to be friends and show off his miserably uneducated mind, and sudden bursts of aggression and threat. Loudon finds out the whole of the poor man’s life story, which I won’t bother repeating here.

Stallbridge-le-Carthew From Liverpool the odd couple find themselves making American tourist day trips to local towns and then heading further south, to Gloucester, Bath and so by stages to Dorset. Bellairs disappears, presumably to get to Carthew first – and Loudon races to the fine ancestral pile of the Carthews arriving before the lowlife lawyer. Here Loudon is treated to a guided tour of the grand Carthew mansion, the gardens and stables and prize-winning horses and flower beds, and then the local village and the local inn kept by ex-servants of the Carthews.

From these people he learns that Norris was the black sheep of the family, the second son, wanted to be an artist (don’t they all) argued with the father and was packed off to the colonies. He has, apparently, only recently returned, promptly had a big fight with his mother, and has disappeared again. Through the roundabout method of examining the inn-keeper’s daughter’s stamp collection, Loudon gathers that Norris has gone to Barbizon, a village in France a little north of Paris and a popular hang-out for would-be artists. (In fact a place Stevenson knew well and visited when his cousin, the artist Bob Stevenson, was a regular visitor there in the 1870s.)

Barbizon Loudon sets off straight away, across England to London and then across the Channel to France and so on to Barbizon. He arrives to find the place packed with art students as in his day, and even knows some of the older-timers who show him round. And as there aren’t many Anglos he is almost immediately introduced to the dapper Carthew, who is going under the false name of Madden. Loudon recognises him as one of the sailors rescued from the Scud and Carthew admits it and admits using a fake name in San Francisco.

They talk late into the night, with Loudon giving his side of the long convoluted story of The Flying Scud – rather wearing the reader’s patience by this time – beforeCarthew says he will tell his side of the story.

And now,” said he, “turn about: I must tell you my side, much as I hate it. Mine is a beastly story. You’ll wonder how I can sleep. (Chapter XXI)

Carthew’s life story Once again, as in the switch right at the start of the text to Loudon Dodd’s point of view, we don’t get anything like a crisp narrative focused on explaining whatever the secret is behind the wrecked ship. The exact opposite: we get a long, long, long account of Carthew’s childhood and teenage years and prolonged arguments with his father about his wish to become an artist, the family force him to go to Oxford where he is kicked out with huge debts, after which he is packed off to Europe and makes even more debts gambling, before the disgusted family sent him even further away, all the way to Sydney Australia, to contact a lawyer who would pay him a living allowance only if he regularly visited the office. It is a strange kind of echo or just repeat of the life story of loudon which we had to crawl through in the early chapters.

Carthew puts up with this treatment in Australia for a while, spending all the money before he has it and ending up a homeless bum in a Sydney park, before he gets a tip to go and work on the railways where he discovers the joys of manual labour and rough proletarian company.

Scheme to do business in the South Seas Back in Sydney with his pay saved up, he bumps into a well-known speculator, Tom Hadden, who gets him interested in the vast profits to be made trading in the south seas. They recruit a legendary old sea captain, Bostock, ‘a slow, sour old man, with fishy eyes’, who introduces them to another captain, one Wicks who was indicted for murder when he struck down a mutineering crewman and has been in hiding as a cabman in Sydney for three years. He says he knows a good schooner that’s been laid up rotting while a massive lawsuit fights around it which has finally settled and they can get her cheap.

The deal is done, they pool their money, buy the schooner, rename her Currency Lass, hire a Chinese cook, Carthew has a final interview with the lawyer who’d been paying him his stipend to inform him he’s off for six months trading in the south seas, and they set sail.

Business success and nautical disaster After ten days sailing they come to an island where they are steered in by the drunk pilot and the captain makes a good deal with a susceptible white trader, enough to pay off the price of the boat and make a handsome two grand profit. The businessmen celebrate and are merrily sailing on towards San Francisco, when they are caught in a severe storm. The main boom swinging round hard cuts off the foremast at the root and then is blown overboard shattering the main mast. The ship now has no power of movement at least 1,000 miles for the nearest port.

Journey to Midway One of them has been reading the maritime guidebook by Hoyt which claims there is a coaling station only forty or so miles away at Midway Island, so they pack the whaling boat with food, all their gods and the money, and row there, arriving next day to find no station, no people, no civilisation, just a low coral island haunted by gulls and driftwood. Here they settle in, building a fire, cooking meals and slowly despairing.

Rescue Five or six days in they are in the middle of a despairing card game when they spy a sail. It is the Hull brig The Flying Scud which the second part of this yarn has all been about. They light a big fire with driftwood and to their amazed relief the ship comes up and anchors outside the reef. They take their whaling boat out to it and are helped aboard, asked questions, fed, to their great relief.

A hard bargain But then the captain, Trent, invites them all down into his cabin along with the big Scandinavian first mate, Goddedaal, and the mood changes. Thoughtfully he puts it to them that there is a price for their rescue. Once he’s heard the story of the big profit they made at the island, he says his offer is this: hand over the entire £2,000 profit and he’ll take them to San Francisco; refuse, and he’ll dump them back on the island. Even his own first mate is appalled and sinks his head in his hands. But as he insists and even threatens them, Mac, the unstable passionate Ulsterman in the Lasses crew, whips out a clasp knife and in the ensuing scuffle it ends in Captain Trent’s neck, he collapses onto the table and bleeds out. At which the huge Scandianavian goes berserk, whipping up a stool, bashing out Hemstead’s brains at one stroke, breaking Mac’s arm at the next, at which point Carthew draws his pistol and shoots him, then a crew member puts his face round the door and they shot him and then – in a pitiful scene, unlike anything else in the book and destroying forever its sense of humorous deprecation – our crew hunt down and methodically slaughter the whole crew of the Scud, refusing their pleas for mercy but shooting them like animals and throwing them overboard. This has all the horror of a very modern sensibility, like something as cruel and amoral as a contemporary movie, but all told in incongruously Victorian prose. Our crew throw the bodies overboard, make an effort to clear away the blood, getting drunk on raw gin until they pass out.

Saved The next morning they awake with terrible consciences and the psychological damage is described in depth by passages which must surely have been by Stevenson. They dispose of the last bodies, clear more blood, are going through the ship’s papers when they spot the smoke of a coal-fired ship approaching. In a mad panic they try and hide all evidence of the slaughter, search for the ship’s papers and dispose of as many as possible. Wicks comes up with the mad idea of stabbing his writing hand as if in an accident to explain why the most recent parts of the ship’s log were written by Goddedaal. And as the steamer anchors and a jolly boat rows towards them, Wicks hurriedly assigns them all identities from the slaughtered crew: he himself will impersonate Trent, Carthew with be Goddedaal, and so on.

Almost caught All goes sort of well as the young officer sent to investigate accepts their story and takes them, with their chests containing the treasure, back to the ship which turns out to be a Royal Navy boat, the Tempest. Here they start like guilty things at the least questioning, Wicks is permanently trembling and the climax comes when someone taps Carthew on the shoulder and recognises him as Carthew; he faints clean away. Their saviour is the ship’s doctor, Urquhart. he realises Wicks’s stabbed hand is self-inflicted, he hears Carthew mentioning the dead shipmates in his delirium and eventually the two guilty men confess what happened. Surprisingly the doctor helps them cover it up, helps smuggle Carthew off the ship in San Francisco and carries on covering for them, even when Loudon tracks him down to question him.

Tied up threads And thus almost all the mysteries of The Flying Scud, the ship Pinkerton and Loudon set out so innocently to buy and do a little trading with, are sorted out, from the nervous appearance of the crew in the Frisco bar where Loudon first saw them, to the crazy auction, where Bellair was under instructions from Carthew – masquerading as Dickson – to pay any sum to ensure nobody else came into contact with it. And when Loudon overheard Bellairs speaking to Dickson/Carthew on the phone and then rang the same number and asked him why he wanted to buy the Scud so badly – the conspirators in their paranoia took it as a sign that the authorities were onto them and scattered to the four winds, Carthew travelling back to England, revealing something of  his disaster to his appalled mother, before hurrying on to France.

Where Loudon finally tracked him down to hear the whole of this long and grim narrative.

Epilogue The final few pages consist of a letter to one Will H. Low, who I don’t think we’ve heard of before. The narrator of the letter seems to be a newspaperman (?) who has helped arrange the publication of this whole narrative. (There is a sarcastic aside where he claims to be ‘wholly modern in sentiment, and think nothing more noble than to publish people’s private affairs at so much a line’, a thought which sheds light on Henry James’s contemporary story, The Aspern Papers). He describes what became of all the participants. Pinkerton is now in business with Captain Nares, who keeps him on the straight and narrow. He’s bought a newspaper and has plans to become state senator. Dodds is in partnership with Carthew: Carthew bought another schooner and Dodds manages it, going on the voyages as super-cargo. Hadden and Mac (whose hot temper caused all the trouble) took a turn at the gold fields in Venezuela, and Wicks went on alone to Valparaiso. Why is he writing this letter?

Why dedicate to you a tale of a caste so modern;—full of details of our barbaric manners and unstable morals;—full of the need and the lust of money, so that there is scarce a page in which the dollars do not jingle;—full of the unrest and movement of our century, so that the reader is hurried from place to place and sea to sea, and the book is less a romance than a panorama—in the end, as blood-bespattered as an epic?

And he describes how the authors were discussing recent nautical tales and disasters – so maybe this letter is being written by Stevenson in his own character (?). Stevenson then explains how he and his collaborator thought to make the story into that modern genre,

the police novel or mystery story, which consists in beginning your yarn anywhere but at the beginning, and finishing it anywhere but at the end;

The risk of these is they often appear mechanical contrivances. Hence the decision to give such a very very long lead-in to the main characters – hence Loudon and his pa back in the States, and the long section about being an art student in Paris, and the long sections about Pinkerton’s preposterous schemes.

All this is meant to draw the reader in – but I defy any modern reader of this book who wouldn’t have found it do exactly the opposite and eventually tire and exhaust them so much that they give up reading the book before the mystery proper even appears.


Humour

Stevenson’s speciality is derring-do and adventure, risks and perils and threatening – often Gothic horror – tension. By contrast, this long book is written in a tone of urbane drollery. Once in Honolulu, Loudon goes to visit one of the men contacted by Pinkerton to take receipt of and fence the opium, a Mr Fowler.

This gentleman owned a bungalow on the Waikiki beach; and there in company with certain young bloods of Honolulu, I was entertained to a sea-bathe, indiscriminate cocktails, a dinner, a hula-hula, and (to round off the night), poker and assorted liquors. To lose money in the small hours to pale, intoxicated youth, has always appeared to me a pleasure overrated.

The last sentence is not exactly Wilde, but it is a deliberate epigram, intended to be dry and witty. The books is full of this kind of effect, far from the style used in KidnappedThe Black Arrow, The Master of Ballantrae. Whereas the narrators of those books talk up the action, and contrive an atmosphere of tension and melodrama, the narrator of The Wrecker takes a self-deprecating view of himself and everything around him, with a steady stream of epigrams, witticisms and a self-conscious punning attitude to words.

In such a mixed humour, I made up what it pleases me to call my mind, and once more involved myself in the story of Carthew and the Flying Scud. The same night I wrote a letter of farewell to Jim, and one of anxious warning to Dr. Urquart begging him to set Carthew on his guard; the morrow saw me in the ferry-boat; and ten days later, I was walking the hurricane deck on the City of Denver. By that time my mind was pretty much made down again, its natural condition.

For all the thousands of times I’ve heard people having their mind made up, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone make the fairly obvious joke claim that their mind is made down, and it is typical of Loudon to go on and joke that this is pretty much his mind’s natural condition.

In his humorous mode, the narrator is well aware that he is writing rubbish. When Loudon and Captai Nares are ransacking the shipwrecked Scud, they find some artists’ pencils which gives Loudon a moment’s pause.

“Yes,” I continued, “it’s been used by an artist, too: see how it’s sharpened–not for writing–no man could write with that. An artist, and straight from Sydney? How can he come in?”
“O, that’s natural enough,” sneered Nares. “They cabled him to come up and illustrate this dime novel.”

One small moment particularly struck me: Loudon creeps up behind him to eavesdrop on the lawyer Bellairs as he makes a telephone call to his client from the auctioneer house:

I scarce know anything that gives a lower view of man’s intelligence than to overhear (as you thus do) one side of a communication.

How prophetic, now that all of us have multiple moments on any bus or train where we are forced to listen to half a conversation as someone natters on their mobile phone and are invariably drawn to conclude that both participants are imbeciles.

Psychological acuity

A feature of Stevenson’s successful books is their psychological insight. Jekyll and Hyde is a sustained investigation of the human mind, but his other successes throw out all kinds of insights into human nature. In my review of The Master of Ballantrae – itself a sustained contrast between the two psychological types of the feuding brothers – I’ve mentioned the scene where the servant Mackellar tries to kick the wicked Master over the edge of the ship they’re sailing on in a storm – the acuteness comes in from the way the Master actually respects Mackellar for trying to kill him and Mackellar, in turn, can’t help admiring the master’s largeness of spirit, even while still detesting him. Peculiar insights into human behaviour like this litter the better books.

And so – through the essentially light and mostly dry ironic style of The Wreckers – there are occasional moments of something deeper, more visionary. Safely back in San Francisco Loudon takes captain Nares to dinner and both of them find it hard to reconcile the intensity of their hard labour dismantling the Scud in the harsh glare of Midway Island, amid the screeching seagulls and the crash of the waves, with the polite restaurant they now find themselves in, formally dressed and waited on hand and foot.

The same night I had Nares to dinner. His sunburnt face, his queer and personal strain of talk, recalled days that were scarce over and that seemed already distant. Through the music of the band outside, and the chink and clatter of the dining-room, it seemed to me as if I heard the foaming of the surf and the voices of the sea-birds about Midway Island. The bruises on our hands were not yet healed; and there we sat, waited on by elaborate darkies, eating pompano and drinking iced champagne.
“Think of our dinners on the Norah, captain, and then oblige me by looking round the room for contrast.”
He took the scene in slowly. “Yes, it is like a dream,” he said: “like as if the darkies were really about as big as dimes; and a great big scuttle might open up there, and Johnson stick in a great big head and shoulders, and cry, ‘Eight bells!’—and the whole thing vanish.”

If the plot and dialogue are given in an almost entirely even, sensible, sober, rather ironic style, it is the ‘strange’ moments like this which keep the reader reading… Just about.

Until the final grisly scenes. The massacre at the climax of the book comes in chapter 24 of the book’s 25 chapters. I.e. it is only at the very very bitter end of the text that we have anything like Stevenson’s characteristic psychological depth and this itself is a little overwhelmed by the amount of blood and gore. Still, the feelings of the sailors as they land on Midway and realise they are doomed to starve to death – and then their feelings in the aftermath of the massacre – are completely at odds with everything which preceded them and leave an odd, damaged taste in the mouth.

Old words and phrases

One of the main appeals of reading old books is they have a different way with the English language: individual words are used in a different sense from our contemporary meanings, and entire phrases appear which you can puzzle out but which have long disappeared. Therefore, reading old books gives you a sense on the wider possibilities of the English language and, even if only momentarily, expands your mind.

That was a home word of Pinkerton’s, deserving to be writ in letters of gold on the portico of every school of art: “What I can’t see is why you should want to do nothing else.”

‘A home word’? Presumably meaning, a particularly telling or accurate saying.

“Just let me get down on my back in a hayfield,” said he, “and you’ll find there’s no more snap to me than that much putty.”

‘Snap’? Presumably meaning vim, vigour, zest, energy.

It was blowing fresh outside, with a strong send of sea.

‘Send’ being, apparently, the heave of the sea, the motion of the sea against a vessel.

Just before the battle, mother

In a typically comic touch, Loudon not only finds himself made the reluctant front man for Pinkerton’s surprisingly successful business venture of organised trips to have picnics on boats out of San Francisco, but after humming it once finds himself called upon to sing the full version of the classic American tune ‘Just before the battle, mother’ until his performance is advertised on the posters and becomes a regular part of the excruciating routine. Listening to it gives a sense of how long long ago this society, its values and morals, its fundamental beliefs and values, are from our own.

Conclusion

Very broadly speaking there are two Stevensons: Bad Stevenson rambles without focus, his plots unravelling into increasing preposterousness and he exhausts the reader in endless peregrinations which eventually make you vow never to read one of his justly-forgotten books ever again. The classic example is the awful New Arabian Nights and, I’m afraid, this novel jostles into that group.

Then there is Brilliant Stevenson – as in Kidnapped and Treasure Island – works which make you think you must track down and read every word this genius of atmosphere, pace and incident ever wrote.

Until you find yourself reading another long, gruelling, amusing but ultimately inconsequential folly like The Wrecker. And so the would-be fan finds themself ping-ponging from one pole to the other.


Related links

A Stevenson bibliography

1878
An Inland Voyage – An immensely entertaining, witty and thoughtful account of Stevenson’s trip by canoe, with a friend, along the canals of Belgium and south into France, observing rural life and types along the way.
1879
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes – More gritty than the Voyage, the Travels record 12 days walking with a recalcitrant donkey through south-central France in a book which has moments of freewheeling nature worship but comes to be dominated by Stevenson’s interest in the bloody Protestant revolt which took place in the region a century earlier.
1881
Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers – Essays including: Virginibus Puerisque i-iv including ‘On Falling in Love’, Crabbed Age and Youth, An Apology for Idlers, Ordered South, Aes Triplex, El Dorado, The English Admirals, Some Portraits by Raeburn, Child’s Play, Walking Tours, Pan’s Pipes, A Plea for Gas Lamp.
1882
The Old and New Pacific Capitals – Essays on the climate and history of Monterey and San Francisco.
Familiar Studies of Men and Books – Essays on: Victor Hugo’s Romances, Some Aspects of Robert Burns, The Gospel According to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions, Yoshida-Torajiro, François Villon, Student, Poet, Housebreaker, Charles of Orleans, Samuel Pepys, John Knox and his Relations to Women.
New Arabian Nights – A sequence of thinly-linked and not too impressive short stories.
1883
Treasure Island – One of the most famous adventure stories of all time. Andrew Lang says it single-handedly established the financial viability of a new type of short, action-packed story and inaugurated a golden age of adventure yarns from the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Rider Haggard.
The Silverado Squatters – Another travel book, following immediately after the Atlantic crossing described in An Amateur Emigrant and the trans-America train journey described in The Open Plains, this one describes Stevenson and new wife Fanny’s honeymoon in an abandoned mining camp high on the flanks of Mount St Helena, north of San Francisco.
1885
Prince Otto – An action romance set in the imaginary Germanic state of Grünewald.
More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter – co-written with Fanny Van De Grift Stevenson
A Child’s Garden of Verses Classic volume of children’s poetry.
1886
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – One of the most famous fictions of all time about an Edinburgh scientist who devises a potion which releases his unconscious urges, his animal self, an alter ego which threatens to take over his personality.
Kidnapped – Gripping historical novel about young David Balfour plunged into a series of adventures in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745.
1887
The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables – Six short stories: The Merry Men, Will O’ the Mill, Markheim, Thrawn Janet, Olalla, The Treasure of Franchard.
On the Choice of a Profession – An essay.
Underwoods (poetry)
Ticonderoga: A Legend of the West Highlands (poetry)
1888
The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses – Historical adventure novel set during the Wars of the Roses as young Master Richard Shelton escapes from his wicked ‘uncle’ and rescues the girl he loves, young Joanna Sedley.
1889
The Master of Ballantrae – Two brothers end up on opposite sides of Bonny Prince Charlie’s rebellion of 1745, the Master being the one who goes into exile and adventures in America and India before returning to haunt the stay-at-home brother, until both are driven to a macabre and gruesome fate in the New World.
The Wrong Box – Comic novel mostly written by his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, but revised by Stevenson.
1890
Father Damien: an Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu Stevenson’s angry defence of Father Damien, Catholic priest to the leper colony on the island of Molokai, against a detractor.
1891
The Bottle Imp – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a magic bottle and the love of two South Sea island natives.
Ballads – poems
1892
The Wrecker (co-written with Lloyd Osbourne) – An immensely long rambling narrative telling the life story of American Loudon Dodds, from his days as a failed art student in Paris, to his business ventures with brash Jim Pinkerton in San Francisco, to the long puzzling case of the shipwrecked Flying Scud whose mystery dominates the second half of the book and, in the final pages, reveals a gruesome and bloody tragedy at sea.
The Beach of Falesá – (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) A powerful short story about a rough white trader and the harsh revenge he takes on the fellow trader who tries to get him expelled from the island.
A Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa – factual history
Across the Plains – Travelogue following straight on from The Amateur Emigrant (which describes RLS’s 1879 journey by steamship from Glasgow to New York) and describes his ongoing journey by train from New York to California.
1893
The Isle of Voices – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a lazy South Sea islander who falls foul of his father-in-law who is a warlock with magic powers.
Catriona, aka David Balfour – A sequel to Kidnapped.
Island Nights’ Entertainments (aka South Sea Tales) – Contains the three stories referred to above.
1894
The Ebb-Tide – A novella, the third collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne, describing the ill-fated trip of three beach bums at the ends of their tethers, who unexpectedly get the opportunity to crew a schooner, plan to steal and sell it, but then meet their nemesis in the shape of a supernaturally powerful white trader.
—-December 1894 Stevenson dies, aged 44, on the South Sea Island of Vailima—-
1895
Vailima Letters – 44 letters Stevenson wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin, who published them with a preface and epilogue.
The Amateur Emigrant – A short intense account of Stevenson’s journey across the Atlantic in 1879, with descriptions of the squalid conditions of ‘steerage’ class passengers and reflections on the condition and character of the British working classes.
1896
Weir of Hermiston – Unfinished at Stevenson’s death, this fragment of nine chapters describes the childhood and young manhood of Archie Weir, sensitive son of the hanging judge old Adam Weir, how his father removes him from Edinburgh University for his subversive views and exiles him to the country estate of Hermiston where he falls in love with a local beauty, Christina Elliott – at which point a student acquaintance comes to stay, who it is hinted will become Archie’s bitter love rival – and the manuscript breaks off. Contains much mature and insightful portrayal of its characters especially, for the first time in Stevenson’s fiction, of its women characters.
In the South Seas – A collection of articles and essays describing Stevenson’s travels in the Pacific islands.
Songs of Travel and Other Verses – Poetry.
Records of A Family of Engineers – A personal history of his own family of lighthouse-building engineers, unfinished at his death.
1897
St. Ives: being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England – A long novel which Stevenson had almost completed and was finished after his death by Arthur Quiller-Couch.

2005
Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman

The Master of Ballantrae by Robert Louis Stevenson (1889)

If the Nonesuch foundered, she would carry down with her into the deeps of that unsounded sea the creature whom we all so feared and hated; there would be no more Master of Ballantrae, the fish would sport among his ribs; his schemes all brought to nothing, his harmless enemies at peace. At first, I have said, it was but a ray of comfort; but it had soon grown to be broad sunshine. The thought of the man’s death, of his deletion from this world, which he embittered for so many, took possession of my mind. I hugged it, I found it sweet in my belly. I conceived the ship’s last plunge, the sea bursting upon all sides into the cabin, the brief mortal conflict there, all by myself, in that closed place; I numbered the horrors, I had almost said with satisfaction; I felt I could bear all and more, if the Nonesuch carried down with her, overtook by the same ruin, the enemy of my poor master’s house.
(Chapter IX – Mr Mackellar’s Journey with the Master)

Like Treasure Island and KidnappedThe Master of Ballantrae is a gripping, fast-paced adventure story told in the first person, serious and foreboding and Gothic. It starts off in a gloomy old Scottish mansion and takes its protagonists, powerfully and vividly, to the immense forests of New World.

A mix of texts…

The narrative is presented as the written account of Ephraim Mackellar, steward of the Durrisdeer estate in Scotland. He writes as an old man, telling his story long after the events, lamenting the many misfortunes which befell the noble Durie family during his time of service. We know it is a written account because Stevenson himself intervenes at a few points, as the Editor of Mackellar’s manuscript, to make comments and explain how he has edited and is presenting it to us.

The text further foregrounds its own artifice when Mackellar’s account itself breaks off to include long chunks taken from the supposed autobiography of the Irish soldier of fortune ‘Colonel’ Francis Burke, and also to include the texts of letters from the various protagonists.

… and styles

The way the narrative is assembled from various sources means it deploys various prose styles. Whereas the old retainer Mackellar’s style is a kind of ‘honest old Scotsman’, Burke’s is completely different – foppish and Anglicised, while the letters of, for example, the Master himself, reveal his venom and cruel sarcasm.

The story is set in the 18th century and concerns two Scottish brothers who develop a life-long blood feud which spills over into blackmail, murder, madness and revenge – and their different attitudes to life, the way they hold themselves and speak, are also brought out through differences in manner, speech and style.

Heteroglossia

The net effect of all this is that the book is rich not only in straightforward adventures and melodramatic scenes, but in the range of voices and styles it uses. It is a good example of the Russian literary critic Bakhtin’s theory of ‘heteroglossia’ – meaning the novel’s distinctive ability to incorporate a host of voices and styles.

And these voices are often themselves in competition or are themselves compromised or questioned:

  • Mackellar considers Burke’s version of events to be unreliable, advising us to read between the lines
  • Mackellar uneasily says that many critics have questioned his role in the events he’s describing, so he is touchy about key moments where different interpretations are possible
  • and at the heart of the story is the radically different interpretations the two feuding bothers put on central events

So it is easy to show that this text is a virtual battlefield where numerous conflicting voices compete. And to attribute to this conflict and clash of voices and styles, much of the book’s energy and thrill.

The plot

We are in Scotland, in the mid-18th century, near the town of St. Bride’s, on the shore of the Solway firth. Here stands the house of Durrisdeer, home of the noble Durie family, built in the Continental style with fine gardens, and attended by numerous servants. The Durie family consists of:

  • the old Laird, who has relinquished control of the estate and likes to read classic books by the fire
  • his eldest son, the Master of Ballantrae, James Durie, not yet 24 in 1745, a determined, arrogant man, rumoured to have fathered a child by a wench in the village
  • the second son, Mr. Henry Durie, an honest, solid sort of young man
  • Miss Alison Graeme, a near kinswoman, an orphan and the heir to a fortune which her father acquired in trade, a spirited, independent-minded woman, much in love with the dashing Master

It is generally accepted that, in time, Miss Alison will become the Master’s wife, and her fortune will go a long way to paying off the big debts the Durrisdeer estate has acquired.

The toss of a coin

When Bonny Prince Charlie lands in Scotland in July 1745 and raises an army to march south and claim the throne that is rightfully his, families all across Scotland are placed in a quandary: whether to throw in their lot with the ‘rebels’ – backed as they are by a large number of Highland clans and appealing as Charles does to their patriotism as descendant of the last Stuart king of Scotland – or to remain loyal to the anointed king of Great Britain, George II, from the royal (German) house of Hanover, who have been rulers of Great Britain since 1714. The conflict between the brothers is real and psychological but also reflects the conflict at the heart of Britain’s seriously divided society and body politic.

At Durrisdeer, as at so many other gentry houses, the family is split by divided loyalties and decides to hedge their bets with a pragmatic solution: one son will go off to join the rebels, the other will stay at home with ostentatious loyalty. But which son should do which? There is a violent quarrel about whether James the Master or young Mr Henry should go to join the Prince and the Master, with his characteristic violent frivolity, suggests they toss a coin for it. The fateful toss decides that he, the Master, will ride to join the rebels while Mr Henry will stay at the estate, representing loyalist support for the established king.

With some bitterness the Master rides off, leaving Miss Alison in tears. In the following weeks the old Laird, Miss Alison and Henry follow, on tenterhooks, the progress of the prince’s invasion. They follow as the Bonny Prince succeeds in penetrating as far into England as Derby, before the Hanoverian English army stop his advance, and then pushes the combined Scottish, Irish and French forces all the way back into Scotland and, at the notorious battle of Culloden, slaughter the flower of the Scottish aristocracy. Many of the survivors are hanged in the subsequent reprisals and the Highlands are laid waste in a vengeful campaign which resonates with Scottish nationalists to the present day.

Nothing more is heard of the Master, for months, and then years, and the family dolefully conclude he must be dead. During this time Mr Henry grows into the role of the careful, responsible guardian of the Durrisdeer estate, taking all the burden and responsibility upon himself, and Miss Alison finds herself eventually, reluctantly, marrying him, and blessing the estate with her fortune.

News of the Master – and a second narrator

Then one day, out of the blue – on 7 April 1749 to be precise – a pompous preening Irish aristocrat, one Colonel Francis Burke, arrives at Durrisdeer, bearing the not-entirely-unexpected news that the Master survived Culloden after all. Burke is invited in for dinner and afterwards, by the fire in the big baronial hall, tells the most amazing account of his and the master’s adventures in the three years since the disastrous battle. (Mackellar elaborately explains that some time later the Colonel sent him a written version of his memoirs, and he now includes in his manuscript excerpts from that written account.)

The Master and Burke’s adventures

Briefly: the Master and Burke escaped pell-mell from the battlefield of Culloden, agreeing to co-operate even though they spend a lot of time arguing. They made their way with other survivors across country to one of the French ships which brought the rebel army, and now collects them off the coast. But in a disastrous turn of events, the ship is seized by pirates, led by the bizarre and manic Captain Teach. Sizing up the situation, the Master and Burke immediately throw their lot in with the pirates and so escape walking the plank, which is what happens to the rest of the crew and passengers.

The Master of Ballantrae illustration by Walter Paget

The Master of Ballantrae illustration by Walter Paget

There then follow a gruelling 18 months as Burke and the Master assimilate with the pirates, taking part in various adventures and attacks. Early on the Master realises that ‘captain’ Teach is a hopeless strategist, often drunk and making bad decisions – and leads a rebellion against him, persuading the crew to name him quartermaster and effective leader. But with the kind of psychological realism which lifts Stevenson’s adventures a cut above the rest, the Master realises that he needs to keep Teach alive, as both a psychopathic mascot for the crew when they go into battle, and a useful lightning rod for ongoing disaffection among a group of man much given to drunken grumbling.

Eventually, after many adventures, the pirate ship makes the mistake of running up the jolly roger as it approaches a strange ship at sea, only to discover it is a Royal Navy warship. They turn tail and sail to an empty waste spot they know on the American coast, and are saved by a fast-descending fog from pursuit. The Master organises a party to celebrate their escape and gets the whole pirate crew legless, steals all their accumulated treasure, and then rows the ship’s skiff ashore, with Burke and the one pirate they slightly trust – a certain Dutton who claims to know his way about the marshes where they are planning to go ashore.

From the moment they land every step of Burke and the Master’s adventures are fraught with peril and excitement; they could almost have made a story on their own, as the lads make their way through up the beach in a thick fog, then into impenetrable wooded marsh, terrifyingly aware that there are Red Indians in the woods nearby, trying to avoid getting captured and scalped, and also falling into the treeacherous quicksand which surrounds them. At last, when they think they are nearing habitation, the Master cold-bloodedly leaves Dutton to drown in a quicksand, stealing his portion of the treasure.

Eventually, after many days, they come across the crew from another anchored ship making a fire and food. It is a trader out of Albany, New York, with a cargo of slaves, and the Master and Burke cockily stroll up to them and offer to pay their way to Albany as legitimate passengers. Thus rendered respectable, they sail up the Hudson River and put up at the ‘King’s Arms’ in Albany to find the town up in arms against the French. Worried that they might be on a wanted list – as both pirates and rebels from the Uprising – they masquerade as loyal subjects of King George; but as soon as possible set off across country heading northwards to join the French (in what will eventually become Canada).

There follows a long sequence of travel through the wastes of unspoilt, untamed colonial America, paddling a native canoe they’ve got hold of with the help of a native guide, Chew. After some days of rough travel, Chew dies of some unknown ailment and then they drop and smash the precious canoe. Now they are lost in  the middle of uncharted wilderness, with no means of transport and no guide.

Burke reports that, with the advent of these adversities, the Master became even more savage than usual and railed with particular bitterness against his brother. For the first time he tells Burke about the toss of the coin which sent the Master off on the ill-fated Culloden campaign, led him into a life of piracy and now has led him to certain death, without canoe or guide or food, lost in the barren wastes of America. He pledges to take revenge against the brother who ‘betrayed’ him.

Burke’s narrative takes the reader deep into the vast untamed forests of the East coast of America. It resonates powerfully of the ‘Leatherstocking’ series of novels by James Fenimore Cooper, the most famous of which is The Last of the Mohicans, which is set in almost exactly the same year (1757).

Back in Scotland

And that is where we leave Burke’s narrative – on something of a cliffhanger – to return to ‘the present’ in Scotland.

The three members of the family listen to all this with very different emotions, but its main effect is to create bitter division between Mr Henry and his wife, Alison, who only married him out of pity when she thought the dashing Master was dead. Now a great animosity grows between them. Burke has brought with him letters for the Master which are designed to sow and foment dissension between the three members of the family. The one to Mr Henry is full of accusations and recriminations about how he has ‘stolen’ that Master’s patrimony.

Burke leaves the Master’s contact details in Paris (where he and the Master both now safely live) and Mr Henry, with a misplaced sense of duty, decides to pay the Master a regular allowance.

More years go by and the narrator explains how conscientious Mr Henry gets a reputation for penny-pinching and miserliness, not only in the neighbourhood but within their little household, where his embittered wife treats him with more and more scorn – what no-one realises is that he is pinching the pennies to fund the lavish, spendthrift lifestyle of his distant brother. It is not a happy house.

The Master returns

After seven years the Master returns, set ashore by the local smugglers who have been periodically referred to throughout the book as a local feature.

The passenger standing alone upon a point of rock, a tall, slender figure of a gentleman, habited in black

‘The passenger standing alone upon a point of rock, a tall, slender figure of a gentleman, habited in black.’

He announces his return to a startled Mackellar, Henry, Alison and old Laird, and proceeds to re-establish himself in the manner to which he’s become accustomed. The narrative paints him as an unmitigated cad – hypocritically presenting himself as a kind and loving son to the old Laird and Miss Alison – but whenever he is alone with Henry, taking every opportunity to jeer and insult him, blaming him for everything that’s gone wrong in his life, completely heedless of the way Henry has bled the estate dry to fund his lifestyle.

Enraged by the treatment of his good honest master, Mackellar breaks into James’s correspondence and discovers letters which prove that the Master long ago sold out the Jacobite cause by becoming a spy for the Hanoverian government – all the time boasting to his father, to Alison, to the servants and peasants of the heroic risks he is running by returning to Scotland. What a bounder!

Eventually he goes too far by telling Henry to his face that  his wife, Alison, has in fact always preferred him, James, and is still in love with him.

Taunted beyond measure, Henry punches the Master in the face and insists on a duel. A terrified Mackellar helps them get swords off the wall and walk out to a patch of flat lawn in the grounds. Here they fight and Henry’s steady controlled anger begins to tell over the Master’s flash flourishes. At the climax of the duel, the Master cheats, grabbing Henry’s sword, and making a lunge – but Henry pulls his sword free of his grip and plunges it right through the Master’s body.

Illustration for the 1911 edition of The Master of Ballantrae by Walter Paget.

Illustration for the 1911 edition of The Master of Ballantrae by Walter Paget.

Appalled, Mackellar establishes that there is no sign of life. The Master is dead! They stagger inside and tell first the old Laird and then Alison. But when they finally return to the duelling ground to remove the body… it has gone!

They follow a trail of blood and broken bushes down to the bay and realise that the smugglers must have removed the body – for the Master had timed his worst taunts and insults for the very night he had arranged to flee Durrisdeer and the pirates have kept their part of the bargain, carrying him off dead or alive.

The Master gone

The old Laird sickens and dies. Henry and Alison have a child, Alexander. Mackellar shows Alison the letters of the Master proving he is a spy and hypocrite but she appals him by burning them. On the upside the letters reveal to her what a cad the Master is and she is finally reconciled to her husband. But it is too late: Henry has changed drastically since he killed his brother. He is now a haunted man, sometimes almost unhinged. On the rare occasions when the subject is raised, Henry is almost demented, claiming his brother is a devil and that nothing can kill him. Years later Mackellar finds Henry showing his young son the patch of ground where the duel took place and explaining that it was here that a man fought a devil. Mackellar worries for his sanity.

In India

Mackellar’s text is then interrupted a second time by an excerpt from Colonel Burke’s memoirs. It is a much shorter snippet which describes how chance took him to India, where his path crossed James Duries’s once more. The Master is in company of a wiry Indian named Secundra Dass. I was hoping that the Indian adventures would be as long and convincing as the pirate and Leatherstocking escapades of the American section – but this episode is disappointingly brief – only really long enough to introduce Dass, who will turn out to be a key character in the story’s final scenes.

Slight return

In the spring of 1764 James returns once more to Durrisdeer, accompanied by his Indian familiar, Dass. Now the old Laird is dead, the Master is harsher and more abrupt than before. He swears he will be a vengeance on the house and a plague to the family. Goaded beyond endurance, Henry has his wife pack all their things and in the dead of night they flee the house. Next morning the Master is incensed to discover their flight and, in Mackellar’s presence, swears to track them down and destroy them.

It doesn’t take long for him to discover that Henry, Alison and Alexander have taken ship to New York. Remember Alison’s family inheritance? It included land in New York, thither they have now gone to build a house and live in peace. But the Master sets off after them, accompanied by Mackellar.

The crossing of the Atlantic is one of the most vivid things in the book. After Henry and family have fled, Mackellar is left alone with the Master and they develop a peculiar relationship, Mackellar hating and detesting the Master for his selfishness and wickedness, for the way he has persecuted his good brother – and yet part of him admires and warms to the Master’s indomitable refusal to be beaten, his genuine charisma.

This ambivalence feels very Stevensonian; although the plot moves from drama to melodrama and then into Gothic horror and a lot of the characterisation is hysterical and stagey – nonetheless, there is something very penetrating about the love/hate, or admiration/disgust, relationship which grows up between the honest retainer and the dastardly villain.

There is a particularly vivid moment on the ship over: Mackellar is recounting tales to the Master who is sitting on the bilges of the ship as it heaves and yaws in a big swell and at a particularly low plunge, Mackellar, obsessed with the Master’s evil determination to harm Henry and his family, lashes out with his foot, aiming to push the Master overboard and be done. The Master leaps cannily out of the way.

Illustration of The Master of Ballantrae by William Brassey Hole (1896)

Illustration of The Master of Ballantrae by William Brassey Hole (1896)

The scene itself is dramatic but what raises it is the way Stevenson makes the Master thereafter respect Mackellar for taking positive action to defend his lord. And for his part Mackellar, though he tried to kill the man, cannot repress feelings of respect and attraction for his mastery. For me, this odd relationship between Mackellar and the Devil is one of the most interesting things in the book.

New York

When they arrive in New York the roles are reversed. The Master finds Mr Henry well established with a tidy house, servants, and having established good friendships with the governor and other authorities. All the Master’s barbs, taunts and attempts at public humiliation rebound on his own head.

Stymied in his attempt to pull rank, the Master adopts a different tack and sets out to humiliate the family. He secures a shabby shack and sets himself up as a tailor, sitting outside under a big sign which proclaims his parentage and asserts his degradation at the hands of his brother.

But Henry is now – in public – a much changed man, more confident, less feeling. He routinely strolls along to his brother’s shack and sits there quite comfortably, sunning himself, ignoring his brother’s remarks and even existence, but quietly enjoying his humiliation.

However – in private – Mackellar finds Henry liable to hysterical outbursts when his brother is mentioned. Part of his mind really does believe James is the Devil, an unkillable spirit sent to torment and pursue him to the grave.

And it is now that the Master reveals another plan, to journey back into the wilderness. Way back in Colonel Burke’s long account of their wanderings after escaping the pirates, it’s mentioned that the pair buried their treasure, the loot they stole from the pirate ship. Now James asks Henry for money to fund an expedition to find that treasure, buried out in the wilderness. Henry, now passed beyond normality into a realm of pure obsessive hatred, organises for the Master and Dass to set off accompanied by a gang of low cut-throats who he commissions to murder him.

In the wilderness

Having despatched his devilish brother into the wilderness with a pack of murderers, Henry discovers that an official expedition is setting off along much the same route, led by Sir William Johnson. Mackellar and Henry get themselves invited along.

Some days into the journey they encounter the only survivor of the Master’s expedition, an obvious cut-throat named John Mountain.

In a particularly egregious bit of test-stitching, Mackellar explains that the account of the expedition we are about to read has been pieced together from several sources:

  • A written statement by Mountain
  • Conversations with Mountain
  • Two conversations with the key player, Secundra Dass

Briefly, the Master quickly realises that he’s been despatched into the middle of nowhere with murderers commissioned to kill him. Mountain is impressed at his attempts to defuse the conspiracy by playing the crooks off against each other, planting suspicions that their leaders are planning to betray them etc. On one occasion the Master tries to run away, only to be caught and brought back, once more at their mercy.

Finally, the Master plays his last trick and falls ill, wasting away over many days and finally dying and being buried by the loyal Dass. On his deathbed the Master reveals the whereabouts of the treasure and off the murderers go to find it.

Mountain’s account now goes on to describe how one by one the members of the expedition are murdered, their bodies discovered each morning, horribly scalped. Maybe a solitary Indian brave is proving his manhood by picking them off. Maybe, it crosses the reader’s mind, the Master’s spirit is taking some kind of supernatural revenge. Certainly, the sequence of uncanny deaths in the fearful wastes takes the story across a border into the realm of Gothic horror – a kind of cross between Edgar Allen Poe and the Blair Witch Project.

Finally, only Mountain is left alive and he gives up the treasure hunt, turning tail and fleeing the wilderness, travelling day and night back towards civilisation in a blind panic. And this is the condition he’s found in by the well-armed and well-provisioned Johnson expedition, and by Mr Henry and Mackellar.

As John Mountain gives this detailed account to Mackellar, Johnson and Henry, Mackellar is horrified to see the impact it has on his good sweet master: the once-solid Mr Henry snaps, upon hearing of the Master’s death, he rolls his eyes and is almost gibbering. At the end of the tale Henry refuses to believe his brother is dead, convinced he is a supernatural spirit and that nothing can kill him.

Ignoring these outbursts, the solid Sir William Johnson orders Mountain to take them back along the trail, to the place where they buried the Master.

Dead and alive

And here in the Gothic horror climax of the whole tale, the expedition comes to the burial place only to find the Master’s loyal Indian servant, Secundra Dass, working feverishly with a spade, up to his knees in the grave, digging up his master’s body.

As they watch in horror, they see Dass uncover the Master’s body and pull it up to the surface. When our chaps enter the clearing and confront him, Dass ignores them in his frenzy and carries on trying to revive the Master. In his Indian accent he explains that this is an old Indian trick he and the Master agreed on (aha, the reader realises – the entire rather spindly excuses for Dass’s presence were all designed to build up to this artifice). The Master’s sickness was feigned and Dass taught him the Indian trick of swallowing his tongue and going into a state of suspended animation.

And as Dass chafes his hands and body the Master, sure enough, opens his eyes and his mouth begins to move.

And at that moment Henry, at the end of a long tormented life, driven beyond sanity by the jeers and bullying and haunting of his brother, gives up the ghost and drops dead on the spot. But the Master’s eyes moving was itself only some kind of reflex action, for he too expires despite all Dass’s efforts.

And it is left to Mackellar to bury both brothers there in the wilderness, leaving a wooden sign over their graves, and there the narrative comes abruptly to a full stop.


A key factor in the book’s success is the immediate establishment of Mackellar as the recognised authority for this tale and a brisk spinner of prose. Although other texts intervene, Mackellar’s is the main manuscript and the dominating voice for the majority of the story.

The full truth of this odd matter is what the world has long been looking for, and public curiosity is sure to welcome. It so befell that I was intimately mingled with the last years and history of the house; and there does not live one man so able as myself to make these matters plain, or so desirous to narrate them faithfully.

June the 1st, 1748, was the day of their marriage. It was December of the same year that first saw me alighting at the doors of the great house; and from there I take up the history of events as they befell under my own observation, like a witness in a court…

The narrative voice is four-square and candid, sharing with us all his impressions in an open, winning style with many vivid Scots expressions and turns of phrase thrown in:

My pen is clear enough to tell a plain tale; but to render the effect of an infinity of small things, not one great enough in itself to be narrated; and to translate the story of looks, and the message of voices when they are saying no great matter; and to put in half a page the essence of near eighteen months—this is what I despair to accomplish…

Such was the state of this family down to the 7th April, 1749, when there befell the first of that series of events which were to break so many hearts and lose so many lives…

This brings us to the use of –

Anticipation

The narrative is given added tension by frequent use of prolepsis or the anticipation of events, generally using variations on the ‘little did we know then…’, ‘if only things had been different…’ formula which give the reader an enjoyably thrilling sense of dread and expectation.

Such was the state of this family down to the 7th April, 1749, when there befell the first of that series of events which were to break so many hearts and lose so many lives…

… it is a strange thought, how many of us had been storing up the elements of this catastrophe, for how long a time, and with how blind an ignorance of what we did.

Doubles

So much has been written about the double or Doppelgänger in adventure fiction that I won’t add to the pile. Stevenson’s strict Calvinist upbringing is often blamed for giving him a starkly dualistic sense of the world, hordes of upright holy elders concealing a seedy world of sin and vice; and plenty of commentators have lined up to say that the Edinburgh of his day was a city divided between the clean, rational elegance of the New City and the filthy, vice-infested slums of the Old Town. With this upbringing some critics make it seem almost inevitable that he’d go on to write novels about the divided self, of which Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde is the classic example and this  rambling Gothic yarn is the longest example.

Maybe. But:

  1. A lot, probably most, of Stevenson’s fiction isn’t about doubles.
  2. Two is the smallest number. Two is an easy number to manage. For example, a doubleist could argue that The Black Arrow is about two sides in a conflict and young Dick Shelton must decide which side he’s on. But civil wars tend to have two sides, there was no real psychological doubling involved. Similarly, in The Wrecker, the narrator, Loudon Dodds, becomes friends with the entrepreneur Jim Pinkerton, and their characters are fairly different. But this doesn’t mean they represent opposite aspects of something; just that a novel, a story, a narrative, tends to focus on a handful of characters, and two is the smallest possible number of characters, and so a preponderance of pairs is inevitable in all forms of narrative.

Related links

A Stevenson bibliography

1878
An Inland Voyage – An immensely entertaining, witty and thoughtful account of Stevenson’s trip by canoe, with a friend, along the canals of Belgium and south into France, observing rural life and types along the way.
1879
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes – More gritty than the Voyage, the Travels record 12 days walking with a recalcitrant donkey through south-central France in a book which has moments of freewheeling nature worship but comes to be dominated by Stevenson’s interest in the bloody Protestant revolt which took place in the region a century earlier.
1881
Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers – Essays including: Virginibus Puerisque i-iv including ‘On Falling in Love’, Crabbed Age and Youth, An Apology for Idlers, Ordered South, Aes Triplex, El Dorado, The English Admirals, Some Portraits by Raeburn, Child’s Play, Walking Tours, Pan’s Pipes, A Plea for Gas Lamp.
1882
The Old and New Pacific Capitals – Essays on the climate and history of Monterey and San Francisco.
Familiar Studies of Men and Books – Essays on: Victor Hugo’s Romances, Some Aspects of Robert Burns, The Gospel According to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions, Yoshida-Torajiro, François Villon, Student, Poet, Housebreaker, Charles of Orleans, Samuel Pepys, John Knox and his Relations to Women.
New Arabian Nights – A sequence of thinly-linked and not too impressive short stories.
1883
Treasure Island – One of the most famous adventure stories of all time. Andrew Lang says it single-handedly established the financial viability of a new type of short, action-packed story and inaugurated a golden age of adventure yarns from the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Rider Haggard.
The Silverado Squatters – Another travel book, following immediately after the Atlantic crossing described in An Amateur Emigrant and the trans-America train journey described in The Open Plains, this one describes Stevenson and new wife Fanny’s honeymoon in an abandoned mining camp high on the flanks of Mount St Helena, north of San Francisco.
1885
Prince Otto – An action romance set in the imaginary Germanic state of Grünewald.
More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter – co-written with Fanny Van De Grift Stevenson
A Child’s Garden of Verses Classic volume of children’s poetry.
1886
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – One of the most famous fictions of all time about an Edinburgh scientist who devises a potion which releases his unconscious urges, his animal self, an alter ego which threatens to take over his personality.
Kidnapped – Gripping historical novel about young David Balfour plunged into a series of adventures in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745.
1887
The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables – Six short stories: The Merry Men, Will O’ the Mill, Markheim, Thrawn Janet, Olalla, The Treasure of Franchard.
On the Choice of a Profession – An essay.
Underwoods (poetry)
Ticonderoga: A Legend of the West Highlands (poetry)
1888
The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses – Historical adventure novel set during the Wars of the Roses as young Master Richard Shelton escapes from his wicked ‘uncle’ and rescues the girl he loves, young Joanna Sedley.
1889
The Master of Ballantrae – Two brothers end up on opposite sides of Bonny Prince Charlie’s rebellion of 1745, the Master being the one who goes into exile and adventures in America and India before returning to haunt the stay-at-home brother, until both are driven to a macabre and gruesome fate in the New World.
The Wrong Box – Comic novel mostly written by his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, but revised by Stevenson.
1890
Father Damien: an Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu Stevenson’s angry defence of Father Damien, Catholic priest to the leper colony on the island of Molokai, against a detractor.
1891
The Bottle Imp – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a magic bottle and the love of two South Sea island natives.
Ballads – poems
1892
The Wrecker (co-written with Lloyd Osbourne) – An immensely long rambling narrative telling the life story of American Loudon Dodds, from his days as a failed art student in Paris, to his business ventures with brash Jim Pinkerton in San Francisco, to the long puzzling case of the shipwrecked Flying Scud whose mystery dominates the second half of the book and, in the final pages, reveals a gruesome and bloody tragedy at sea.
The Beach of Falesá – (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) A powerful short story about a rough white trader and the harsh revenge he takes on the fellow trader who tries to get him expelled from the island.
A Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa – factual history
Across the Plains – Travelogue following straight on from The Amateur Emigrant (which describes RLS’s 1879 journey by steamship from Glasgow to New York) and describes his ongoing journey by train from New York to California.
1893
The Isle of Voices – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a lazy South Sea islander who falls foul of his father-in-law who is a warlock with magic powers.
Catriona, aka David Balfour – A sequel to Kidnapped.
Island Nights’ Entertainments (aka South Sea Tales) – Contains the three stories referred to above.
1894
The Ebb-Tide – A novella, the third collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne, describing the ill-fated trip of three beach bums at the ends of their tethers, who unexpectedly get the opportunity to crew a schooner, plan to steal and sell it, but then meet their nemesis in the shape of a supernaturally powerful white trader.
—-December 1894 Stevenson dies, aged 44, on the South Sea Island of Vailima—-
1895
Vailima Letters – 44 letters Stevenson wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin, who published them with a preface and epilogue.
The Amateur Emigrant – A short intense account of Stevenson’s journey across the Atlantic in 1879, with descriptions of the squalid conditions of ‘steerage’ class passengers and reflections on the condition and character of the British working classes.
1896
Weir of Hermiston – Unfinished at Stevenson’s death, this fragment of nine chapters describes the childhood and young manhood of Archie Weir, sensitive son of the hanging judge old Adam Weir, how his father removes him from Edinburgh University for his subversive views and exiles him to the country estate of Hermiston where he falls in love with a local beauty, Christina Elliott – at which point a student acquaintance comes to stay, who it is hinted will become Archie’s bitter love rival – and the manuscript breaks off. Contains much mature and insightful portrayal of its characters especially, for the first time in Stevenson’s fiction, of its women characters.
In the South Seas – A collection of articles and essays describing Stevenson’s travels in the Pacific islands.
Songs of Travel and Other Verses – Poetry.
Records of A Family of Engineers – A personal history of his own family of lighthouse-building engineers, unfinished at his death.
1897
St. Ives: being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England – A long novel which Stevenson had almost completed and was finished after his death by Arthur Quiller-Couch.

2005
Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman

The Afghan by Frederick Forsyth (2006)

The two F-16 Falcons were already airborne and three minutes distant. There is a squadron at Pensacola Air Force Base in the Florida panhandle that maintains a five-minute-to-scramble standby readiness round the clock. Its primary use is against drug smugglers, airborne and sometimes seaborne, trying to slip into Florida and neighbouring states with (mainly) cocaine. They came out of the sunset in a clear darkling sky, locked on to the tanker west of Bimini and armed their Maverick missiles. Each pilot’s visual display showed him the smart missiles’ lock on the target and the death of the tanker was very mechanical, very precise, very devoid of emotion. (p.428)

Colonel Mike Martin, ex-Parachute Regiment and SAS, was the hero of Forsyth’s 1994 novel, The Fist of God, where he almost single-handedly won the Gulf War – first by organising resistance groups among the occupied Kuwaitis, then by infiltrating into Baghdad itself and radioing back information from a top secret source inside Saddam’s cabinet, before then going on to locate and help destroy Saddam’s top secret Supergun which was primed to launch a nuclear weapon at the invading Allies, before escaping unscathed back to Allied lines. Phew!

7/7

Well, Mike’s back! The novel opens with Mike, now retired, doing up a nice cottage he’s bought in rural Hampshire and, being a manly sort of man, doing it all himself. Forsyth then gives an account of 7/7, the co-ordinated Islamic suicide bombing of London buses and Tube trains. As I read this (and the countless other factual sections of the novel) it occurred to me that Forsyth doesn’t so much write or describe the events which makes up his novels; he reports them. He doesn’t write novels; he files them.

One of the throwaway mobile phones bought by the suicide bombers is left over in the bags of stuff left with their Middle Eastern mentors and instructors and so ends up being taken back to Pakistan, where a lowly jihadist uses it when his own one runs out of battery, just long enough to give the Pakistani security forces a location for the call, and a snatch squad to be dispatched to the working class, fundamentalist quarter of Islamabad, accompanied by a British observer. They break into the fifth floor apartment, shoot dead a jihadist who reaches for a gun, capture the other three, then hear a bustle from the bedroom, run through and are just too late to stop a turbaned man throwing himself out the window to his death.

Before he jumped the man had attempted to trash the laptop he was using, but US and British experts can extract a surprising amount from even a badly damaged computer. The dead man was Tewfik al-Qur, international banker for Al Qaeda. There was disappointingly little that was really useful on the laptop, except for several documents referring to something called ‘Al-Isra’. What’s that?

The Koran Committee

Cut to the States where Forsyth gives a full explanation of the history and structure of the CIA and its history of involvement with Islamic terrorism, before explaining that it’s to answer that question that the head of its Mid-East division convenes a meeting of ‘the Koran Committee’, four leading academic experts on the Koran and Muslim teaching.

One of the four is Dr Terry Martin, the gay brother of Colonel Mike (who we also met in Fist of God). The four agree that Al-Isra is the term referring to the Prophet Mohammed’s night flight up into the seven heavens as described in The Koran (p.54). As used in the documents salvaged from the laptop, they guess it must refer to a major AQ attack, but they have no idea what. In the car to the airport, his colleague says if only we had someone who could infiltrate AQ as one of their own, but we don’t know anyone like that.

‘I do,’ replies Terry, ‘My brother,’ then wishes he could bite his tongue off. The car is, of course, bugged. The CIA contact British Intelligence and we witness high-level discussions about the feasibility of infiltrating a Westerner into AQ. Not from a standing start, no-one could get in without a tremendous amount of vetting among himself and his family, tribe, clan etc – but what about impersonating an existing AQ member?

The Afghan

Where would you find one? Well, what about the inmates of Guantanamo Bay, would there happen to be someone there who is the spitting image of Colonel Mike (with the dark colouring, black hair and brown eyes he inherited from his Indian grand-mother and which came in so handy infiltrating Baghdad 15 years earlier)? Yes, there is! And would Colonel Mike in fact just happen to have fought side by side with that inmate in the far off days of the Mujahideen resistance to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan? Yep.

For incarcerated in ‘Gitmo’ is one Izmat Khan, senior commander in the Taliban, who could be the double of Colonel Mike and who Mike in fact not only met, but whose life he saved during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Yes! As Sacaramanga would say, ‘Funny coincidence department!’

So the plan is hatched: the CIA will brief and train Colonel Mike to infiltrate AQ ranks to find out whatever Al-Isra is – and prevent it!

All this is established by page 100 of this fast-moving 400-page thriller. The remaining 300 pages tell the twists and turns of Colonel Mike’s attempt to impersonate Khan, larded with huge amounts of trademark Forsyth factual background and journalistic thumb-nailing.

There are three strands:

1. Operation Crowbar

Mike replaces Khan at Gitmo, is returned to Afghanistan after a carefully arranged trial, where the CIA arrange him to be ‘liberated’ by fighters in a staged break-out. Thus ‘set at large’, Mike makes his way into Pakistan and to the nearest radical mosque. He identifies himself as the legendary fighter known as ‘The Afghan’. Word is passed of his escape and he is moved into a ‘people funnel’ which carries him to the United Arab Emirates, to a safe house where he is interrogated by the suave Westernised Dr Al-Khattab. This is the hinge of the plot and Mike swings it when he mentions that he has actually met the Sheikh aka bin Laden (which he did in a cave complex in Afghanistan all those years ago) and, via a lengthy string of intermediaries, word comes back that OBL remembers him. Thus ‘approved’, Mike is dispatched with one of his minders to the Philippines, there to join a cargo ship.

2. The rogue ship

All these chapters are interspersed with other chapters telling the fate of two innocent cargo vessels, captained by European crews. Both are hijacked by terrorist pirates who force the captain of the first one, the Java Star, to radio mayday, before killing him and all his crew. The hijacked ship dumps all the ‘wreckage’ it can for passing boats to find, then sneaks into a creek of a nearby island and is transformed by hired Chinese engineers. Transformed to a) be full of powerful explosive b) look like another cargo ship, The Countess of Richmond. This also is hijacked, and its captain and crew murdered and genuinely sunk.

The Java Star will now masquerade as The Countess of Richmond except that instead of genuine containers of filk and teak, it is carrying explosives. Only in the final pages of the novel do we realise that it is going to be used, not to enter a highly populated port and detonated, as Western experts are worried – but to ram the newest biggest cruise liner in the world, the Queen Mary 2. Why?

Because, after the massive protests attending the G8 summit in Scotland in July 2005, the organisers of this biennial summit of the most powerful leaders in the world solved the problems of security and protestor containment, by holding the next G8 summit aboard the biggest, most luxurious cruise liner in the world.

(And so narrative strand emerges during which we see the ship docked, boarded by the national leaders, and then departing New York, all from the point of view of its First Officer, David Gundlach, p.432.)

3. The safe house in the Rockies

Interspersed is the third strand, the events surrounding the real Izmat Khan who is transported from Gitmo to a specially-built security facility high in the Rockies near the Canadian border, built solely for him and manned by CIA and Army. It is a shame that, towards the end of the novel, as the ship plot reaches its climax, an Air Force fighter plane (a F-15 Strike Eagle, described in loving detail) develops a mechanical fault and crashes while flying over the base.

In a convenient coincidence the wreckage falls on the security post, killing half the staff and, miraculously, tearing down the wall of Khan’s cell. By the time the security guards recover from the disaster Khan is long gone into the snowy wastes.

Khan comes across a local who had heard about the plane crash, saddled his horse and was riding to help. A seasoned fighter, Khan kills the American, stealing his horse and gun and provisions.

But a highly-trained US snatch squad is soon on his tail. This strand climaxes as the squad finally catch up with Khan as he stands in a phone booth at a settlement next to a rough road through the mountains. He is looking for change in the pockets of the dead American’s winter coat and dialling a number he was given years earlier, the number of the AQ organiser in the West. Just a few words would alert AQ to the fact Colonel Mike is an imposter.

The phone booth happens to be just across the border into Canada but the captain in charge of the snatch squad tells his best sniper, a half-Indian tracker, to take Khan out. Bang. The back of the Afghan’s head is blown off.

The explosive climax

During the Java Star’s long steam from the Philippines through the Indian Ocean, round Africa and into mid-Atlantic, Colonel Mike had been racking his brains about how to either a) send a message to his CIA/SIS minders b) sabotage the ship or killing some or all of the crew of seven. But neither is ever quite feasible and so he continues to play the role of Afghan fanatic, set on suicide, along with the other terrorists, not really knowing what is hidden in the hold of the ship, nor where they are steering or why. All this is kept entirely to himself by the Jordanian AQ leader of the crew, Ibrahim.

In the tense last few pages we watch as the Queen Mary steams towards the rogue Countess of Richmond, now stationary in the water and claiming, over the radio, to have an engine malfunction. Most of the crew slip into an inflatable dinghy which Colonel Mike knows they’re going to use to pull away from the ship and video whatever the event is going to be, instantly transmitting video of the ‘spectacular’ to websites which will beam it round the world to admiring Muslim youths.

As the crew, except the fanatical leader, descend the ladder into dinghy, Colonel Mike, coming last, leans down and slashes the side of the dinghy wide open, then cuts the arm of the crew member holding the rope to the ship. Instantly, the dinghy starts to drift astern the ship, taking water, and is quickly dragged down by the weight of its outboard motor, taking all hands, yelling impotent threats of abuse till the last.

Mike climbs back up the rope ladder and returns to the bridge, where the leader-cum-captain tells him he should have left. The dinghy was full, Mike replies, and I want to be martyred here with you.

The captain grunts then blows the small explosive charges which had been placed in the ship’s hold a month earlier. These blow open the lids of the six huge containers holding Liquid Gas Petroleum. In a flash Mike realises this heavier-than-air and hugely combustible gas will now silently roll across the surface of the sea towards the Queen Mary. When detonated it will cause an explosion as big as an atom bomb, incinerating everything in a five mile radius, including the leaders of the eight most powerful nations on earth.

His eyes flick from Ibrahim to the radio, then to the red button at his side, obviously linked to a detonator. Ibrahim sees the movement and in a flash realises Mike is an imposter and traitor. Mike goes for the knife he’d used earlier, but Ibrahim pulls a gun quicker. Mike realises he has no chance of reaching the detonator but goes for it anyway, lunges for the button, takes a bullet direct to the heart but carries on to press the plunger. Mike, Ibrahim and the Countess of Richmond disappear in a vast plume of fire.

Which can be seen from the Queen Mary 2, still 15 miles away and unscathed. Satellite, helicopter, plane and escort ships investigate and conclude the Richmond blew up but now poses no threat. The QM2 steams on unmolested. Colonel Mike has saved the leaders of the Free World and 4,000 other sailors, diplomats and bureaucrats.

Epilogue

Ten pages detail the investigation which pieces together the story of how terrorists funded the capture of two ships and the creation of, effectively, a bomb ship, but with the covering papers of an innocent cargo ship. Dr Al-Khattab is arrested and (improbably) sings like a canary, revealing the identities of hundred sleeper agents in the UK (if only) and confirming the story of ‘the Afghan’. He is amazed and appalled to learn the man he OKed for the job was in fact a Western agent.

The novel ends with a hymn to the courage of Colonel Mike, in the form of a muted description of the ceremony held to mark his death at the SAS headquarters in Hereford.

[Is there a Forsyth novel where the SAS don’t play a massive role? I wouldn’t be surprised if he was on a retainer to write what sometimes seems like extended recruitment literature for them.]


The good and the bad

When I summarised the plot to my teenage son, he rolled his eyes and said, ‘That sounds awful; the impersonation story sounds sooo unlikely and then all those convenient coincidences! How cheesy!’ Well, yes. There is something laughably preposterous about the whole story.

But I enjoyed reading it. Why? Because I enjoyed the factual research which dominates, which saturates, the text.

Izmat Khan isn’t really a character, he is a token through which Forsyth is able to retell the long, lamentable story of Afghanistan from the time of the Soviet invasion (1979). The account of his childhood on his father’s tiny farm in the mountains, of the village and tribal structure, of what happened to it during the years of the mujihadeen resistance, of the US cruise missile strike which wiped out his entire family and village and gave him an unswerving hatred of the West, all this is fascinating. As is the detailed account Forsyth gives of the Battle of Qala-i-Jangi, a bloody uprising inside a prisoner of war camp in the early stages of the US invasion of Afghanistan. Powerful, convincing and a true event, into which Forsyth skilfully inserts his Taliban ‘hero’.

Just as fascinating is the long account of Colonel Mike’s military career, especially the awesome training of the Parachute Regiment and then the SAS.

Fascinating is Forsyth’s account of the rise of the Taliban within Afghanistan, and the parallel rise of Al Qaeda under the tutelage of bin Laden.

Equally absorbing are the many places where Forsyth explains the measures taken by US and British security to address the threat of terrorism, especially the astonishing advances in computer technology and digital communications.

Just flicking back through the pages I come across the description of how the F-15 Strike Eagle malfunctions, with a lengthy explanation of how its advanced ejector-seat technology works, the sensors within the pilots’ suits which allowed the air base to monitor their temperature, pulse and so on, the microphones and headsets which can be patched through to the radios of the rescuers who set off to find them in the snowy wastes – all this is fascinating and compelling, for the gadget-obsessed teenage boy in all of us.

When the Army trackers finally shoot the fugitive Khan, the event is described coldly and clinically. If you expect your ‘novel’ to pay some kind of homage to human life, you will be disappointed. What Forsyth’s novels do is pay a kind of homage to the technology of killing. Whether the homage is revoltingly right-wing, cruel and violent for its own sake – or is factual and precise, accurate and unillusioned – is a matter of taste.

Lying prone at Captain Linnett’s feet was his leading sniper, Master Sergeant Peter Bearpaw. He was a half-blood Santee Sioux with a Hispanic mother. He came from the slums of Detroit and the army was his life. He had high cheekbones and eyes that sloped like a wolf. And he was the best marksman in the Green Berets.

What he cradled as he squinted across the valley was the Cheyenne .408 by CheyTac of Idaho. It was a more recent development than the others, but over three thousand rounds on the range it had become his weapon of choice. It was a bolt-action rifle, which he appreciated because the total lock-down of a closed bolt give that tiny extra stability at the moment of detonation.

He had inserted the single slug, very long and slim, and he had burnished and buffed the nose tip to eradicate the tiniest vibration in flight. Along the top of the breech ran a Jim Leatherwood x24 scope sight.

‘I have him, captain,’ he whispered. (p.395)

All the sentences are factual. They are lean. There isn’t a redundant word. You can dispute the fundamental stance of Forsyth’s hero worship of soldiers and policemen. But if war, conflict and killing are to be described, this is the way to do it. Without grandstanding rhetoric, without fancy words, with no attempt at all at psychology or feeling. Instead, the complete devotion of the prose to the craftsman and his tools. A rhetoric of efficiency and effectiveness. Forsyth’s novels contain page after page with this taut, thrilling, heartless velocity.

I read this novel when it came out and remember being so disgusted with how far Forsyth had fallen from the heights of Day of the Jackal that I threw it away. Now, having read all his novels in order of publication, I realise DOTJ was a one-off achievement and almost all Forsyth’s other books are rubbish, if judged as ‘traditional’ novels.

But their merit is the immensely thorough and absorbing descriptions of the settings and political histories, the technology and organisations which they explain in such loving detail.

Rather than unsatisfactory novels with an immense amount of background information, I read Forsyth’s novels as fascinating articles about recent conflicts and geopolitical issues, studded with compellingly described technological information, all livened up by cheesy thriller plots – which you are under no obligation to take at all seriously.


Credit

The Afghan by Frederick Forsyth was published by Bantam Press in 2006. All quotes and references are from the 2007 Corgi paperback edition.

Related links

Forsyth’s books

1971 The Day of the Jackal – It is 1963. An international assassin is hired by right-wing paramilitary organisation, the OAS, to assassinate French President, Charles de Gaulle. The novel follows the meticulous preparations of the assassin, code-name Chacal, and the equally thorough attempts of the ‘best detective in France’, Commissaire Lebel, to track him down. Surely one of the most thoroughly researched and gripping thrillers ever written.
1972 The Odessa File – It is 1963. German journalist Peter Miller goes on a quest to track down an evil former SS commandant and gets caught up in a high-level Nazi plot to help Egypt manufacture long-range missiles to attack and destroy Israel.
1974 The Dogs of War – City magnate Sir James Manson hires seasoned mercenary Cat Shannon to overthrow the dictator of the (fictional) West African country of Zangaro, so that Manson’s mining company can get its hands on a mountain virtually made of platinum. This very long novel almost entirely amounts to a mind-bogglingly detailed manual on how to organise and fund a military coup.
1975 The Shepherd – A neat slick Christmas ghost story about a post-war RAF pilot whose instruments black out over the North Sea but who is guided to safety by an apparently phantom Mosquito, flown by a pilot who disappeared without trace during the war.
1979 The Devil’s Alternative – A Cold War, geopolitical thriller confidently describing machinations at the highest levels of the White House, Downing Street and a Soviet Politburo riven by murderous factions and which is plunged into emergency by a looming grain shortage in Russia. A plot to overthrow the reforming leader of the Soviet Union evolves into a nailbiting crisis when the unexpected hijacking of an oil supertanker by fanatical Ukrainian terrorists looks like it might lead to the victory of the hawks in the Politburo, who are seeking a Russian invasion of Western Europe.
1982 No Comebacks Ten short stories combining Forsyth’s strengths of gripping technical description and clear fluent prose, with his weaknesses of cardboard characters and improbable plots, but the big surprise is how many of them are clearly comic in intention.
1984 The Fourth Protocol – Handsome, former public schoolboy, Paratroop Regiment soldier and MI5 agent John Preston, first of all uncovers the ‘mole’ working in MI5, and then tracks down the fiendish Soviet swine who is assembling a tactical nuclear device in Suffolk with a view to vaporising a nearby US Air Force base. the baddies’ plan is to rally anti-nuclear opinion against the Conservatives in the forthcoming General Election, ensuring a Labour Party victory and then (part two of the plan) replace the moderate Labour leader with an (unspecified) hard-Left figure who would leave NATO and effectively hand the UK over to the Russians. A lunatic, right-wing fantasy turned into a ‘novel’.
1989 The Negotiator – Taciturn Clint Eastwood-lookalike Quinn (no first name, just ‘Quinn’) is the best negotiator in the business, so when the President’s son is kidnapped Quinn is pulled out of quiet retirement in a Spanish village and sent to negotiate his release. What he doesn’t realise is the kidnap is just the start of a bigger conspiracy to overthrow the President himself!
1991 The Deceiver – A set of four self-contained, long short stories relating exciting incidents in the career of Sam McCready, senior officer in the British Intelligence Service, as he approaches retirement. More gripping than the previous two novels, with the fourth and final story being genuinely funny, in the style of an Ealing comedy starring Alec Guinness.
1994 The Fist of God – A journalistic account of Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing US-led ‘Desert Storm’ operation to throw him out, complete with insider accounts of the Western military and intelligence services and lavish descriptions of scores of hi-tech weaponry. Against this backdrop is set the story of one man – dark-skinned, Arabic-speaking Mike Martin who goes undercover posing as an Arab, first in occupied Kuwait, then – even more perilously – in Baghdad itself, before undertaking a final mission to locate and assist the destruction of Saddam’s atom bomb (!) and the Supergun designed to fire it at the Allies. Simultaneously gripping in detail and preposterous in outline.
1996 Icon – Hot shot CIA agent Jason Monk is brought out of retirement to foil a fascist coup in post-communist Russia in a novel which starts out embedded in fascinating contemporary history of Russia but quickly escalates to heights of absurdity, capped by an ending in which the Russian people are persuaded to install a distant cousin of our very own Queen as the new Tsar of All The Russias! Sure.
2001 The Veteran – Five very readable short stories: The Veteran, The Art of the Matter, The Miracle, The Citizen, and Whispering Wind – well engineered, sleek and almost devoid of real human psychology. Nonetheless, the vigilante twist of The Veteran is imaginatively powerful, and the long final story about a cowboy who wakes from a century-long magic sleep to be reunited with a reincarnation of his lost love has the eerie, primal power of a yarn by Rider Haggard.
2003 Avenger – A multi-stranded narrative which weaves together the Battle of Britain, the murder of a young American aid worker in Bosnia, the death of a young woman in America, before setting the tracking down of a Serbian war criminal to South America against a desperate plot to assassinate Osama bin Laden. The least far-fetched and most gripping Forsyth thriller for years.
2006 The Afghan – Ex-SAS man Colonel Mike Martin, hero of The Fist of God, is called out of retirement to impersonate an Afghan inmate of Guantanamo Bay in order to infiltrate Al Qaeda and prevent their next terrorist attack. Quite a gripping thriller with an amazing amount of detailed background information about Afghanistan, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Islamic terrorism and so on.
2010 The Cobra – Two lead characters from Avenger, Paul Devereaux and Cal Dexter, are handed the task of wiping out the illegal cocaine trade on the authority of Barack Obama himself. Which leads to an awesome display of Forsyth’s trademark factual research, scores of pages building up a comprehensive picture of the drugs industry, and to the detailed description of the multi-stranded operation which almost succeeds, until lily-livered politicians step in to halt it.
2013 The Kill List – Another one about Islamic terrorism. The Preacher, who has been posting jihadi sermons online and inspiring a wave of terrorist assassinations, is tracked down and terminated by US marine Christopher Carson, aka The Tracker, with a fascinating side plot about Somali piracy thrown in. Like all Forsyth’s novels it’s packed with interesting background information but unlike many of his later novels it this one actually becomes genuinely gripping at the end.
2015 The Outsider – At age 76 Forsyth writes his autobiography in the form of a series of vignettes, anecdotes and tall tales displaying his characteristic briskness and dry humour. What an extraordinary life he’s led, and what simple, boyish fun this book is.

Thunderball by Ian Fleming (1961)

Bond laughed, partly in admiration. ‘You’ve been taking mescalin or something. It’s a damned good sequence for a comic strip, but these things don’t happen in real life.’ (p.168)

Shrublands

The tremendous battering Fleming has submitted Bond to over the previous seven novels begins to show, as M – a recent convert to healthy living and wholefood diets – insists he takes a rest cure at a sanatorium in Sussex named ‘Shrublands’. Fleming’s description is amusingly sardonic throughout, from the brylcreemed youth who drives him in a taxi to the spa, through the old health food ‘doctor’ who prescribes his rest cure treatments, to the repellent, fat, old men and women who populate the place.

Bond submits with bad grace to the round of massages, hot baths, and the starvation diet of nut cutlets and dandelion tea, though there are several highlights: 1. He flirts with the unusually pretty, firm-bodied and ‘strict’ health therapist Patricia Fearing until, with dumb inevitability, while she’s massaging him he reaches up and kisses her. For all her flurried objections, Bond knows it is a done deal, and (rather callously) describes bonking her in her little bubble car up on the Sussex Downs.

2. More importantly, someone tries to kill him. He notices a tiny tattoo on the wrist of another ‘guest’, the handsome six-foot Count Lippe, then makes a bad mistake by phoning the Cipher Section of the Service to ask about the tattoo, from a public payphone in the sanatorium’s corridor. Turns out the tattoo is the sign of the Tongs, a secret society based in Macau.

Later the delectable Ms Fearing straps Bond into a complicated spine-stretching apparatus as part of his treatment and leaves the room – only for Lippe to sneak in and turn the machine way up past the danger zone, so that Bond’s body is literally being torn apart. It is only the accidental return of Ms Fearing a bit earlier than scheduled that saves his life. Bond laughs it off as a mishap but plans his revenge and, on the last day of his stay, ambushes Lippe who is sitting in a ‘sweat box’. Bond turns its thermostat up to a scalding 180 degrees.

Bond leaves Shrublands feeling lighter, toned up, fitter and more focused than for years, having bonked a pretty nurse and scored a petty act of revenge.

What he doesn’t realise is that he has impinged on a conspiracy to shake the governments of the world! Chapter five introduces us to Ernst Stavro Blofeld – the most notorious Bond baddie – giving his full backstory as a gifted Polish engineer who set up a bogus spy ring in pre-war Poland and screwed money out of various buyers, before setting up another ring in Turkey during the war itself, then clearing out to South America. Now he is back and he has invented SPECTRE, SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion, as a clearing house for all kinds of criminal activities.

Meeting of SPECTRE

In the next scene we are introduced to a meeting of the top men in SPECTRE at a non-descript house in Paris. They are all allotted numbers, and comprise cells of men recruited from the French and Italian Mafia, SMERSH, American underworld gangs etc. Their undisputed leader is Blofeld. Blofeld reads out the monthly summary of profits from their various criminal activities – then melodramatically moves on to punish one of the members seated round the big table. This man is accused of violating a young girl who had been kidnapped, and SPECTRE had promised to return unharmed. Blofeld announces that SPECTRE returned half the kidnap ransom and now the guilty man is punished by the activation of electric pads in his chair which electrocute and virtually cook him. His smoking body slumps onto the table. The other members take this as due justice. This is SPECTRE. Blofeld’s word is law. They then proceed to discuss ‘the Omega Plan’.

This scene feels every bit as overblown and teenage as the movies.

The letter

Next thing Bond knows he’s called in by M who gives him a letter claiming SPECTRE has hijacked an RAF bomber (the fictional Vindicator) carrying two atomic bombs. The governments of the West have one week to hand over £100,000,000 or they’ll explode one of the bombs at a site worth exactly that amount. Then, a day later, if no money is delivered, they’ll explode the other bomb at a major world city.

Frankly, this threat made me nervous and edgy in light of our current geopolitical situation, and I didn’t enjoy thinking about it. Bond is told that the intelligence forces of the Western world have gone into overdrive, everyone and everything is being thrown at the problem. But M has a hunch: before it disappeared off the radar the hijacked Vindicator descended into the main East-West Atlantic traffic (to conceal itself). A few hours later the American DEW radar system detected a plane making a sharp turn south, just off the US coast. M has a hunch it was the baddy plane, and goes to investigate maps of the region. As a result, M thinks the Bahamas might be a perfect hiding place for the crooks, out of the way but not far from the US mainland, no real military or radar presence – good place to ditch a plane. So he is dispatching Bond to the Bahamas to see what he can see. Bond is disgruntled because he thinks he’s being sent on a wild goose chase.

Capturing the plane

There is then a long sequence which describes, in retrospect, how the Italian ‘observer’ on the hijacked plane, Giuseppe Petacchi a) poisoned the five man crew by opening a cyanide capsule in the cockpit, then b) pulled the bodies out of the way and flew the plane single-handedly down into the busy East-West Atlantic commercial plane traffic, then veered south towards the Caribbean, exactly as M hypothesised. Here, overcoming nerves, he locks onto the radio signal then onto the landing lights put out by SPECTRE and skillfully crash lands the plane on the surface of the sea. Proud and happy he walks along the wing of the slowly settling plane towards the motorboat of SPECTRE men who have come to meet him and the first one aboard casually slips a stiletto up under his jaw and into his brain which kills him immediately. Not very nice people.

We are introduced to Number 1 (SPECTRE numbers rotate on a monthly basis) Emilio Largo, a superbly fit figure of a man, Olympic swimmer, fencer etc (p.126), scion of a noble Roman family, with a hooked nose, the mouth of a satyr and enormous hands. He supervises the concealment of the sunken plane and the retrieval of the two atom bombs – using the facilities of his superb, purpose-built, luxury catamaran, the Disco Volante (Italian for ‘flying saucer’, p.134).

There is a tame nuclear physicist on board the ship and on the payroll, Kotze, who is given a speech explaining how you defuse an atomic bomb, then arm it with a timed fuse so you can drop it somewhere and make your getaway. As he explains all this to Largo (and the reader), Largo is wondering when the moment will be right to ‘eliminate’ him. Not very nice people. The bombs are stashed in a remote coral island, and this phase of the mission is complete.

Bond in the Bahamas

Once again Bond is in the sunny Caribbean – in this, as in many other respects, Thunderball feels like a rehash of themes and settings. Bond has quickly latched onto Largo’s mistress, Dominetta ‘Domino’ Vitali, an independent-spirited, beautiful young woman. (The way she is named after a game is reminiscent of Solitaire.) He accidentally on purpose bumps into her in a general store in Nassau and invites himself for a drive in her sporty MG then a drink and get-to-know-you. (We see Bond through her eyes, six foot, black hair, scar on right jaw, cruel smile, confident, p.145).

There is then another flashback, taking us how through Bond got to this point (exactly as the letter from the terrorists was followed by the account of the hijack of the plane which preceded it).

So we learn that Bond arrived in Nassau and went straight to a High Priority meeting with the Governor, Police Commissioner etc. He said he’s looking for a group of 10 or 20 or 30 men, decent and respectable, engaged on a completely innocent purpose, who probably arrived in the fairly recent past. The Police Commissioner mentions the annual Treasure Hunt crew: every year a yacht goes looking for legendary sunken treasure. This year it’s the Disco Volante owned by Emilio Largo, who has been joined by about twenty shareholders in the venture. Bingo!

—This is a really glaring example of the general rule that there is no detection in James Bond. Mr Big, Hugo Drax, Goldfinger, they are all identified very early on as the bad guys – the narrative interest comes not from slowly unveiling the truth, but from the elaborate skirting round each other, which leads to the torture scenes and then the final showdown. a) M had a hunch the hijacked plane flew to the Bahamas and, guess what, he’s dead right b) the police suggest the Largo’s treasure hunters are the only group that fit Bond’s bill and, guess what, they’re dead right.

Bond has identified the baddies by page 180 of this 350-page novel, though admittedly he isn’t absolutely certain they are the ones and, as his snooping makes him more and more certain, he still doesn’t know where the bombs are hidden. 170 pages remain of, well, snooping round, getting caught, getting beaten up, chatting up the girl, escaping, probably a climactic shoot-out of some kind…

Felix Leiter

Bond had asked for help from the CIA and goes to the airport to meet the agent who’s flying in with a state-of-the-art Geiger counter. It is – with heavy inevitability – Felix Leiter, his old bosom buddy with the metal hook instead of a hand (the result of being half-eaten by a shark in Live and Let Die). Leiter allows Fleming to really let his hair down and write loads of American pulp dialogue, with Bond joining in; their buddy conversations are always fun to read. But this is all very familiar territory.

Bond tells Leiter everything and invites him to go with him out to the Disco Volante, Bond posing as a rich Londoner who wants to buy the house Largo is currently renting. Largo is hospitality itself and shows them all over the impressive catamaran and promises to get his ‘niece’ (Domino) to show him the beach-front house. Leiter and Bond depart in their rented motorboat debating whether Mr Largo is really as squeaky clean as he seems – he didn’t show them about half the volume of the boat but then it is on a secret treasure hunt so why should he? And they didn’t see any of the ‘shareholders’ but then it was siesta time, maybe they were all napping…

There may be suspense for Bond, but there is none for the reader.

Confirmations

In quick succession:

1. Bond goes to the Nassau casino that evening where he meets Largo and Domino. First – in a scene which echoes the intense card game scenes in Casino Royale or Moonraker, Bond takes on Largo at baccarat and just about wins. He deliberately spooks Largo by mentioning the word ‘spectre’ several times to see what affect it has. Then Largo encourages him to go have a drink with Domino. She tells him her extended fantasy about the man portrayed on the front of packs of Players cigarettes, an entertaining piece of whimsy which reminds us that Fleming was also the author of the smash hit children’s story Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. For the purposes of the plot, she lets slip that her real family name is Petacchi and that she has a beloved brother who is something in the air force. Like the Italian observer flying in the Vindicator. What a coincidence.

2. Bond borrows a scuba diving kit and swims underwater out to the Disco Volante. He confirms that there is a great seam in the hull which probably opens to allow ingress and egress of possibly naughty machinery. Barely has he done so than he is clobbered by the butt of a compressed gas harpoon and has a vividly described fight with an underwater guard, presumably from the boat which ends when the guard is attacked by a six foot barracuda. Dazed, Bond just about makes it back to shore and the waiting policeman who has accompanied him.

3. Bond and Leiter rent an amphibious plane and go scouting low over the sea, looking for the sunken plane. The odd circling of three sharks prompts Bond to go back to a particular area, land and again scuba dive to the ocean bed where, sure enough, he finds the plane hidden under a large tarpaulin. Fleming again gives a vivid description of the foulness of the water, polluted with the five corpses, and of their wrecked appearance, half eaten by sea creatures. He is particularly memorable on the interior of the plane which is absolutely stuffed with small octopuses which are eating the dead air crew. For the purposes of the plot he discovers a) the atom bombs are not on board – they have been removed, b) the body of Giuseppe Petacchi, and snaps off his identity tag, along with the rest of the crews, before finally escaping the nightmare scene and resurfacing by the flying boat.

While flying around and scouring maps, Leiter and Bond had discussed possible targets for SPECTRE’s attacks. They speculate that the first one might be against the NATO missile-firing base ‘at a place called North-West Cay at the eastern end of the Grand Bahamas’ (p.199). They fly near it, observing the rocket gantries, missile launchers, radar beacons and the rest of the paraphernalia.

Bond and Leiter had been keeping their respective services informed of developments and now are told that senior military men are flying in and Washington has dispatched a nuclear submarine, no less, to Nassau. Bond and Leiter must obey these orders, but have still not located the exact location of the bombs.

Snogging Domino

Back from the flight, and having assimilated the responses of their services, it is still daytime and Bond phones Domino at the house she and Largo are renting and casually asks if she’d like to go swimming. She gives directions to the beach where she’ll be and Bond races there in a Land Rover borrowed from the Governor’s staff. There follows a strange interlude which is meant to be moving: for Bond is affectionate and kind to her, all the time knowing he is about to break the news to her that her brother is dead, and that he was more than likely involved in a massive conspiracy to blackmail the world’s governments.

She emerges from the sea with some bits of black sea urchin in her foot and Bond very gently, very sensuously, sucks them out for her. Then carries her up to the primitive changing rooms and there they make love. And only then, does he tell her the truth. Tears. Recriminations. I hate you. Slowly she recovers as he presses on her the importance of the situation. Eventually he recruits her: will she agree to go on board the Disco Volante with the Geiger counter-disguised-as-a-camera which he will give her and snoop about: if she finds something come on deck; if nothing, remain in her cabin.

Bond leaves her to be collected by the Disco Volante and motors back to the docks to join the police who are now keeping it under surveillance. There is a message to join Leiter for the arrival of the nuclear submarine.

Nuclear submarine

The USS Manta arrives and Leiter and Bond go onboard to be greeted by the cheerful, confident commander P. Pedersen. They brief him on the whole situation including the crux that they don’t know where the bombs are. At this point they are all informed the Disco Volante has weighed anchor and steamed off north-west. The girl didn’t come up on deck, the pre-arranged signal that there were no bombs aboard, if she managed to carry out her search and not get caught, that is…

But Bond is still concerned: a) If the sub intercepts the Volante, they still won’t have the bombs and it’s just possible some other team is gathering and deploying them; b) Captain Pedersen informs Bond and Leiter the catamaran can skate easily over the countless reefs and shallows in the area, whereas the Manta can only follow guaranteed deep water channels, so they can’t give close chase to the baddies.

Aboard the Disco Volante

Cut to the interior of the Disco Volante, where Largo has called an emergency meeting of the ‘shareholders’ ie the other SPECTRE crooks. He announces to the shocked meeting that Domino was found snooping round with a camera which, on closer inspection, turned out to a Geiger counter: looks like someone put her up to it, so someone is on to them.

Domino has been detained and will be tortured to find out who commissioned her snooping. Meanwhile, the Omega plan goes ahead. The meeting is disrupted by one of the Russian delegates who sows seeds of doubt, saying while some of them are being frogmen accompanying the bomb to its destination, who’s to say the boat won’t weight anchor and scarper, leaving them in the lurch. Largo replies by shooting the complainer three times. We get the picture: SPECTRE are ruthless people.

Then Largo goes down to the cabin where Domino is tied spread-eagled to a bed, rips off her clothes and leans over her naked vulnerable body with a lighted cigar and a bucket of ice cubes, and starts to torture her. [This feels like it steps over a line: Fleming torturing Bond is one thing, as happens in the earlier novels – Bond is the hero and at least part of the mind of the male reader is experiencing the physical ordeals vicariously and wondering how he would fare. I think this is the first time we’ve seen a woman be tortured, really sadistically, cold-bloodedly tortured, and it’s not only not entertaining, but it feels wrong for Bond’s persona, for the feel of the books.]

Underwater fight

Bond and Leiter are aboard the American sub. The commander is under orders to take their orders, so Bond gives out a plan of battle to the best ten hand-picked men. They will wear skin-diving outfits, use makeshift spears, and attack Largo’s men wherever they find them.

Hours later the sub makes contact with the Wavekrest anchored off North-West Cay, the missile testing base, just as Bond and Leiter had speculated. Bond, Leiter and the ten best men suit up and exit the submarine with their makeshift weapons. They approach in a flanking movement the SPECTRE crew, but Bond immediately realises the odds are against them, as there are many more of the baddies, who have also got little propeller packs on their backs giving them greater mobility. In the middle of his posse sits Largo, riding an underwater sub which is towing the bomb.

A massive fight breaks out, Bond skewers several bad guys, before himself getting cut, cuffed, then saves Leiter’s life as a bad guy is about to shoot him, then escapes the melee to hunt down Largo. Largo is still riding the mini-sub and Bond throws himself onto it, they have a desperate cat-fight, but Bond manages to slip back onto the rudder and twist it so the machine rears up and breaks the surface, throwing them both off.

Exhausted Bond sinks to the bottom, only for Largo, still fighting fit, to approach him spear-gun at the ready. In a typically Flemingesque ghoulish detail, Largo clamps a baby octopus over Bond’s mask then puts his enormous hands round his throat to strangle him (ah, those enormous hands which have been continually referred to) and Bond is passing out, everything is going black, when….

The pressure has gone, Bond wipes the octopus away, Largo is on the ocean bed flailing with a big spear through his neck, and the girl Domino is behind him, harpoon gun in hand, her body covered in ugly red burn marks from the torture. Together, the wounded hero and heroine struggle to the surface.

Bond has been cut by a harpoon, clubbed in the head, exhausted himself fighting the rudder of the min-sub and then nearly strangled to death, all but blacking out before Domino saved him – but this, like many of the other scenes, felt to me rather like going through the motions: Bond has to be beaten to within an inch of his life because this is what happens in all Bond novels – it doesn’t necessarily follow from the actual action.

Certainly it was a tough fight, but doesn’t compare to being nearly incinerated at the climax of Moonraker, tortured to a bloody pulp in Casino Royale, or subjected to the degrading punishment in Dr No. His suffering, like so much else in the novel, feels willed in order to fit a formula.

Epilogue

Bond in hospital, as at the end of so many other adventures. Leiter visits and tells him what happened: CIA, MI6 et al now know all about SPECTRE, have identified Blofeld (who got away), their plan had been to bomb the missile launching base, then make Miami the second target. 10 men from the yacht including Largo were killed, six of the 10 volunteers from the submarine ditto, both bombs were successfully recovered. And, wow! that girl – she escaped by squeezing through a porthole with a diving suit and a harpoon gun, and saved Bond’s life. Totally believable.

Then Leiter’s gone – but all Bond wants to know about is Domino: Is she alive? How is she? Bond’s doctor comes in next and Bond feverishly asks after the girl. After hesitation, the doc tells Bond she’s next door, still in great pain from having been cruelly burned and tortured. Bond staggers into the next room, holds Domino’s hand as she regains consciousness and weakly murmurs to him, then collapses to the floor and passes out. She moves her pillow so she can lie and watch him.

The book may be manipulative, sentimental slop concocted from preposterous escapades and ridiculous escapes, but something in the desperation of their commitment, the fierceness of their ‘love’, made me burst into tears. Maybe all really fierce, heart-breaking loves are emblems of all others.


Co-authorship

By 1960 Fleming was deeply involved in various schemes for turning his creation into TV series or movies. Thunderball the novel itself originated as the screenplay for a movie which was a collaborative effort between Fleming and four others – Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham, Ivar Bryce and Ernest Cuneo. After he published the novel, Fleming was sued by two of the collaborators who claimed part authorship of the plot, and the part ownership of the copyright explains why two movie adaptations were subsequently made, by different production companies (Thunderball 1965 and Never Say Never Again 1983 both, rather confusingly, starring Sean Connery.)

I may be influenced by this knowledge, but I think you can feel this troubled origin in the book: in certain turns of phrase which are unusual for Fleming, and in the way the plot – although just as garish and grandiose as other Bond novels – is somehow also very heavy and lumpy. Nuclear weapon threatens major city was the plot of Moonraker; the Caribbean was the setting of Live and Let Die, Dr No, the opening of For Your Eyes Only and tropical diving was the theme of The Hildebrand Rarity.

By this, the ninth book, it feels like the building blocks of a Bond novel have become so well-defined that they are transforming into clichés in front of the reader’s eyes.


Credit

Thunderball by Ian Fleming was published in 1961 by Jonathan Cape. All quotes and references are to the 2006 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Other thrillers from 1961

The Bond novels

1953 Casino Royale Bond takes on Russian spy Le Chiffre at baccarat then is gutted to find the beautiful assistant sent by London to help him and who he falls in love with – Vesper Lynd – is herself a Russian double agent.
1954 Live and Let Die Bond is dispatched to find and defeat Mr Big, legendary king of America’s black underworld, who uses Voodoo beliefs to terrify his subordinates, and who is smuggling 17th century pirate treasure from an island off Jamaica to Florida and then on to New York, in fact to finance Soviet spying, for Mr Big is a SMERSH agent. Along the way Bond meets, falls in love with, and saves, the beautiful clairvoyant, Solitaire.
1955 Moonraker An innocent invitation to join M at his club and see whether the famous Sir Hugo Drax really is cheating at cards leads Bond to discover that Drax is in fact a fanatical Nazi determined on taking revenge for the Fatherland by targeting an atom-bomb-tipped missile – the Moonraker – at London.
1956 Diamonds Are Forever Bond’s mission is to trace the route of a diamond smuggling ‘pipeline’, which starts in Africa, comes to London and then to follow it on to New York, and further to the mob-controlled gambling town of Las Vegas, where he wipes out the gang, all the while falling in love with the delectable Tiffany Case.
1957 From Russia, with Love Bond is lured to Istanbul by the promise of a beautiful Russian agent who says she’ll defect and bring along one of the Soviets’ precious Spektor coding machines, but only for Bond in person. The whole thing is an improbable trap concocted by head of SMERSH’S execution department, Rosa Klebb, to not only kill Bond but humiliate him and the Service in a sex-and-murder scandal.
1958 Dr. No Bond is dispatched to Jamaica (again) to investigate the mysterious disappearance of the station head, which leads him to meet up with the fisherman Quarrel (again), do a week’s rigorous training (again) and set off for a mysterious island (Crab Key this time) where he meets the ravishing Honeychile Rider and the villainous Chinaman, Dr No, who sends him through a gruelling tunnel of pain which Bond barely survives, before killing No and triumphantly rescuing the girl.
1959 Goldfinger M tasks Bond with finding out more about Auric Goldfinger, the richest man in England. Bond confirms the Goldfinger is smuggling large amounts of gold out of the UK in his vintage Rolls Royce, to his factory in Switzerland, but then stumbles on a much larger conspiracy to steal the gold from the US Reserve at Fort Knox. Which, of course, Bond foils.
1960 For Your Eyes Only (short stories) Four stories which started life as treatments for a projected US TV series of Bond adventures and so feature exotic settings (Paris, Vermont, the Seychelles, Venice), ogre-ish villains, shootouts and assassinations and scantily-clad women – but the standout story is Quantum of Solace, a conscious homage to the older storytelling style of Somerset Maugham, in which there are none of the above, and which shows what Fleming could do if he gave himself the chance.
1961 Thunderball Introducing Ernst Blofeld and his SPECTRE organisation who have dreamed up a scheme to hijack an RAF plane carrying two atomic bombs, scuttle it in the Caribbean, then blackmail Western governments into coughing up $100,000,000 or get blown up. The full force of every Western security service is thrown into the hunt, but M has a hunch the missing plane headed south towards the Bahamas, so it’s there that he sends his best man, Bond, to hook up with his old pal Felix Leiter, and they are soon on the trail of SPECTRE operative Emilio Largo and his beautiful mistress, Domino.
1962 The Spy Who Loved Me An extraordinary experiment: an account of a Bond adventure told from the point of view of the Bond girl in it, Vivienne ‘Viv’ Michel, which opens with a long sequence devoted entirely to her childhood in Canada and young womanhood in London, before armed hoodlums burst into the motel where she’s working on her own, and then she is rescued by her knight in shining armour, Mr B himself.
1963 On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Back to third-person narrative, and Bond poses as a heraldry expert to penetrate Blofeld’s headquarters on a remote Alpine mountain top, where the swine is carrying out a fiendish plan to use germ warfare to decimate Britain’s agriculture sector. Bond smashes Blofeld’s set-up with the help of the head of the Corsican mafia, Marc-Ange Draco, whose wayward daughter, Tracy, he has fallen in love with, and in fact goes on to marry – making her the one great love of his life – before she is cruelly shot dead by Blofeld, who along with the vile Irma Bunt had managed to escape the destruction of his base.
1964 You Only Live Twice Shattered by the murder of his one-day wife, Bond goes to pieces with heavy drinking and erratic behaviour. After 8 months or so M sends him on a diplomatic mission to persuade the head of the Japanese Secret Service, ‘Tiger’ Tanaka to share top Jap secret info with us Brits. Tiger agrees on condition that Bond undertakes a freelance job for him, and eliminates a troublesome ‘Dr Shatterhand’ who has created a gruesome ‘Garden of Death’ at a remote spot on the Japanese coast. When Bond realises that ‘Shatterhand’ is none other than Blofeld, murderer of his wife, he accepts the mission with gusto.
1965 The Man With The Golden Gun Brainwashed by the KGB, Bond returns from Japan to make an attempt on M’s life. When it fails he is subjected to intense shock therapy at ‘The Park’ before returning fit for duty and being dispatched to the Caribbean to ‘eliminate’ a professional assassin, Scaramanga, who has killed half a dozen of our agents as well as being at the centre of a network of criminal and political subversion. The novel is set in Bond and Fleming’s old stomping ground, Jamaica, where he is helped by his old buddy, Felix Leiter, and his old secretary, Mary Goodnight, and the story hurtles to the old conclusion – Bond is bettered and bruised within inches of his life – but defeats the baddie and ends the book with a merry quip on his lips.
1966 Octopussy Three short stories in which Bond uses the auction of a valuable Fabergé egg to reveal the identity of the Russians’ spy master in London; shoots a Russian sniper before she can kill one of our agents escaping from East Berlin; and confronts a former Security Service officer who has been eaten up with guilt for a wartime murder of what turns out to be Bond’s pre-war ski instructor. This last short story, Octopussy, may be his best.

The White South by Hammond Innes (1949)

The sky cleared about eleven that night. The sun was almost due south, a flaming yellow ball, its lower edge just above the horizon. A towering iceberg loomed up to starboard, catching the sunlight and flashing fire like an enormous pink diamond. Fragments of ice began to drift past us – tiny ‘growlers’, almost completely submerged. And ahead of us the loose pack ice stretched like an unending, broken plain of pink straight into the sun. It was an incredible sight. (p.112)

Summary

This is a longer, deeper and more successful novel than any of its predecessors.

Slowly and methodically it chronicles the tangled web of personal and business rivalries which lead to a major shipping disaster in the Antarctic. It is the story of the whaling ship Southern Star which, along with its flotilla of chaser and support ships, heads south in search of whales into Antarctic pack ice. Here some of the chaser ships, and then the master ship itself, become trapped, forcing their crews to abandon ship and decant nearly 500 men and a handful of women and boys onto the treacherous ice.

The novel tells in gruelling detail the story of the attempts of one of the chaser ships and its crew and English captain to survive the most inhospitable environment on earth.

Set-up

The story is topped and tailed by an omniscient narrator, briskly telling the facts of the case. After a few pages recalling the media storm surrounding the story ie lending the story an aura of factuality, including brief newspaper cuttings, the texts of telegrams, the original radio messages etc – the text then cuts to a long and detailed first-person narrative by young Duncan Craig. (This use of a narrative framed within an objective editor’s-eye-view recalls loads of late Victorian, Rider Haggard/Conan Doyle-style yarns.)

Like characters in the Innes previous novels, Craig had an exciting and responsible job in the War, in his case as captain of a corvette, which took him all over the world. The return to Civvy Street was a shock and a disappointment, the only post he could find was clerking at a tobacco import company. A friend of a friend mentions work in the mines in South Africa and on this flimsy pretext Craig hitches a lift on an airplane to Cape Town.

In those days it was a long trip with a number of stopovers which give Craig time to get to know the other passengers, who includehated the harassed and sick head of the South Antarctic Whaling Company, Colonel Bland, which owns the Southern Star, and his daughter-in-law, Judie. He learns that the owner’s son, Erik, is a spoilt brat who was put in charge of the Star as an opportunity but has quickly got at loggerheads with the master of the ship and co-owner of the company, Judie’s father, Nordahl. As they arrive in Cape Town the crisis deepens as all three learn that Judie’s father has gone missing from the ship. How? Did he jump or was he pushed?

Later the same night Bland makes Craig an offer: the captain of the towing ship, Tauer III, due to take Bland out to to the Star has been hurt in a car crash. Knowing of his wartime experience, Bland offers him the captaincy and the job of taking them from Cape Town out to the troubled ship. Craig hesitates then accepts. He is now thoroughly embroiled in the fate of the ship and the personalities who are central to the disaster which will follow…

Briefly

The vast Southern Star factory ship is surrounded by a small flotilla of whale catcher boats and fuel and refrigerator ships. The whole whaling operation is described in convincing detail and is clearly something Innes has observed himself.

As to the thriller story: Craig is reluctantly roped into an onboard inquiry which hears the contradictory evidence about whether Erik pushed Nordahl, who he hated and feared, overboard. Lots of murmuring among the crew which old man Bland defuses by demoting his son to captaincy of one of the corvettes, much to Erik’s seething anger. But then whales a-plenty appear and for a while everyone forgets their troubles in the exciting, dangerous work of chasing, catching, killing and gutting whales, which Innes describes with his usual energy and vividness.

A few days later one of the catchers follows whales into the pack ice then suddenly finds itself trapped. The catcher Craig has been given to captain immediately goes to its rescue. So far bad luck, but then, in the mist and fog Craig’s boat is suddenly rammed by the corvette captained by evil Erik, though not before the rather mad Dr Howe fires a whaling harpoon up through the bridge which penetrates the engine room and explodes. In a matter of minutes a problem has been changed into a disaster: Craig abandons ship onto the ice, then watches the corvette go up in flames and be abandoned onto ice further away.

Between them the three stricken boats have radioed the Southern Star but the small receiver Craig’s men rescue has no send facility. They listen with mounting horror to the radio broadcasts from Southern Star as it announces it is coming to rescue them, requests them to burn stuff to create smoke to find them, begins to say the ice is closing in, the pack appears to be being scrunched up by a set of giant icebergs being pushed in by a storm, the clear water by which it entered the pack is being closed behind it, now it is being itself crushed by ice, it is taking on water, they are sending SOS signals, they are abandoning ship. Silence. Horror. Death on the ice.

The men of the corvette rebel against Erik’s characteristic bad leadership, trudge over to Craig’s makeshift camp and he finds himself in charge of both crews. And the last 80 or so pages of the novel describe their nightmare on the ice: the deaths of the injured; the decision to try and mount a natural ledge on one of the approaching icebergs; civil war that breaks out between Bland’s followers and those who stay true to Craig; the slow diminution of rations until they take the desperate decision that a few volunteers should trek across the ice to try and find the camp which the survivors of the Southern Star must have made; and the gruelling trek across the ice in which more people die of exposure and exhaustion and Craig himself is on the edge of extinction when they finally do stumble across the survivors of the whaler complete with ample stocks of food and oil.

Even then it takes a major effort to bring all the survivors together in one place; and even then they have to make the difficult decision to select crew to set out in the little lifeboats to try to sail to South Georgia; and even then they have to persuade the authorities to commission ships to return in search of the iceberg, now floating freely in the south Atlantic, to pick up the last of the survivors. Exhausting.

Innes’ previous novels had been about handfuls of characters, 5 or 6 people. This is on a much larger scale: the awesome setting of the Antarctic seas, the dramatic descriptions of whale hunting which fill the middle of the book, and then the gruelling tale of starvation and survival – it is a much larger imaginative achievement than anything he’d done before.

Anticipation

As usual the first-person narrator is in a privileged position and has the ability of hindsight to drop throughout the text ominous hints of disasters yet to come…

I think it was then that I got the first premonition of trouble ahead. (p.48)

I didn’t know it then, but this was the morning of the fatal decision. (p.76)

Later I was to remember this story and wish she’d never told it to me. (p.114)

The Empire/the Commonwealth

In the later 1940s the British Empire began morphing into the British Commonwealth. The ‘jewel in the crown’, India, became independent in 1947, Palestine/Israel in 1948. The Commonwealth was formally constituted by the London Declaration in 1949, the year The White South was published, and was ready to receive the scores of nations which gained their independence in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Despite these changes one persistent thread of these books is the free and easy way the (white, male) characters seem to have been able to up sticks and live and work in other Empire/Commonwealth countries with wonderful ease.

Bill Ganster in The Blue Ice opened a nickel mine in Canada, having previously worked with the novel’s central character in southern Rhodesia. As the novel opens he and a few other Brits disgruntled by the lack of post-War opportunities in England are about to sail to the Mediterranean in search of new lives. In Killer Mine Jim Pryce has managed to live illegally in Italy for several years and now plans to start a new life in Canada.

In this novel the narrator, Duncan Craig, decides to emigrate to South Africa because someone he met in a bar tells him he can get him a job there. He blags a lift on a plane at London airport because a pilot he met at a party the night before tells him there are a couple of spare seats. And these aren’t especially well-off people.

The air of these books bespeaks a much free-er, more open world in which an enterprising man could travel the world, find work and make his fortune.

Style

Innes wrote these first ten or so novels very fast. You can watch his style being purified, becoming simpler and more effective. The key is not the fancy words, it’s the clarity of perception. It’s using simple language to convey things which are vividly felt and imagined. Maddon has wonderful descriptions of the wild sea and the barren Arctic island. Blue Ice eloquently describes the sea voyage to Norway and then the clear green water and soaring cliffs of the Norwegian fjords. In this book, again, Innes gives powerful descriptions of man-in-nature which are convincing because of their simplicity and precision of feeling.

I went up onto the bridge. The sea was a heaving mass in the dreary half-light. I stood there for a moment, watching the heavy weight of water surging white across the bow every time the little ship plunged. An albatross wheeled over the mast. Its huge wings were still as it planed into the wind. The air was bitterly cold. A thin film of ice was spreading on the windbreaker so that the canvas was stiff and smooth to the touch. I went into the wheelhouse and looked at the barometer. (p.56)

Sentimentality

I’d like to say the book was a masterpiece but it isn’t. Although the situations are described with startling power, the characterisation is weak and sterotypical. Old man Bland is a typical ageing patriarch, part bluster, part genuine authority. His son is a stereotypical spoilt son, sometimes weak and craven, at others surprisingly brave, but never to be trusted. The narrator, Craig, is a typically upright specimen of the Royal Navy who insists on behaving properly and refuses to do what absolutely everyone tells him to do ie either kill Erik or leave him behind with the entirely predictable result that Erik time after time sabotages their efforts to survive.

There is a highly sentimentalised love match between the physically feeble and drunk Dr Howe, who appears almost deranged with anger against Erik from his first appearance, and the ugly fat but immensely strong and likeable Gerda. Gerda accompanies Craig on their trek to find the other survivors and her slow wasting away and final death are meant to be moving, but Craig the narrator overdoes it, lamenting her death and going on about the love she had found with Howe at too much length.

If the practical, resourceful and jolly decent character of Craig sounds exactly like the practical, resourceful and jolly decent narrators of Blue Ice and Maddon’s Rock, so the love interest, Judie, bears a striking resemblance to the Jenny and Jill of those novels. Innes makes a token gesture to differentiate her by pointing out early on thjat she is not conventionally beautiful; but after that she shows herself every bit the practical sailor-type as her predecessors, and the whole process of being-brought-together-in-adversity-and-falling-in-love is basically the same. It’s a formula.

In the last lines we learn that Judie and Craig marry, buy a nice house overlooking Falmouth Harbour, have babies, and hang up a photo of the sainted Gerda in the hall. It is the superficiality of their entire relationship and the tweeness of this sentimental ending which limit the book, which limit it to its genre setting. Where the book triumphs is in its dazzling descriptions of exciting and exotic locations; where it fails is in its attempts at character and psychology.

Still, it’s the most ambitious and rewarding novel Innes had written to date.

Dramatic personae

  • Duncan Craig: narrator. Leads survivors out of the ice. Marries Judie.
  • Colonel Bland: chairman of the South Antarctic Whaling Company.
  • Erik Bland: his useless playboy son, conspiring to take complete control of the company, threatened by his father’s partner Nordahl. Erik orders  his corvette to ram Craig’s chase boat which leads Southern Star to enter the ice pack to rescue them but itself get stuck in ice and sunk. Ie Erik is responsible for the deaths of several hundred men.
  • Judie Bland née Nordahl: daughter of the Norwegian co-owner of the company, unhappy wife of Erik Bland. Falls in love with Craig.
  • Bernt Nordahl: Norwegian. Judie’s father, co-owner of the company, master of the Southern Star who goes mysteriously missing. Did he jump through stress, or was he pushed by Erik Bland because he had done finiancial deals to gain a controlling share in the company and was therefore a threat to the owner’s son?
  • McPhee: standard issue Scottish engineer of the Tauer III.
  • Dr Walter Howe: violently angry drunk marine biologist expert aboard the Tauer III, revealed to be Nordahl’s natural son ie Judie’s half-brother. Obsessed with killing Erik Bland.
  • Captain Eide: captain of the Southern Star.
  • Gerda Petersen: chunky, ugly, immensely competent female whaler. In many ways the best man there (p.179). Craig comes to really like and value her and her wasting away and death on the gruelling trek across the ice is meant to symbolise and sum up the entire tragedy, something – I think – it fails to do.
  • Aldo Bonomi: famous photographer who has the bad luck to be commissioned to take photos of whaling on this trip, merrily keeps on snapping no matter how bad things get, and ends up surviving and selling his photos to the world’s press.

Movie

The novel was made into a movie named Hell Below Zero (1954), starring American heart-throb, Alan Ladd, and rugged Brit, Stanley Baker. Here’s the opening titles, looks like a bad quality transfer from a VHS. I’d imagine it would have to simplify a lot of the plot and certainly tone down the fact the hero and heroine almost starve to death, and people around them actually do. I dare say they manage to retain a cinematically rosy glow.

Related links

Cover of the 1960s American Fontana edition of The White South

Cover of a 1960s American Fontana edition of The White South

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.

The Lonely Skier by Hammond Innes (1947)

I realised then that I was buried. I was frightened. I fought upwards with my hands, gripped in a frenzy of terror. (p.93)

Neil Blair had a nice little family business before the War, running a local newspaper in Wiltshire. After three years in the Army he returned and set up a printing business in Exeter but that folded. One day, up in London, he bumps into a tough-minded man he knew in the Army, one Engles, who served with him for a while before moving into Army Intelligence, now back in Civvy Street and making films. Engles asks Blair if he wants to make money spending three months in Cortina in the Dolomites as a script editor on a new film production, with maybe some other duties thrown in. The main other duty is to report if he sees a beautiful Italian woman whose photo Engels gives him. Little does he suspect that this innocent invitation will draw him into a web of intrigue and murder etc etc…

Blair travels to Cortina, to the Tre Coci Pass and, here at the main hotel, meets some of the novel’s characters. He then takes the sledge lift with Joe up to the rifugia or guest house atop the Col da Varda where he encounters the other characters (listed below). Slowly he realises that something is afoot but it takes him 120 or so pages to begin to work out what. It all goes back to a German Captain Stelben who owned the rifugia after the War before being betrayed to the British Army and committing suicide in prison. Newspaper reports of the events mention a certain Contessa who is his partner. Blair recognises her as the woman in the photo Engels gave him; then recognises her in real life at the hotel at the foot of the mountain.

Now that Stelben is dead, this disparate group assembles from across Europe for the official auction of the old rifugia – to everyone’s surprise the bidding for this old hut goes exceptionally high. Why? What is its value? What is hidden there?

Murder attempt

All these novels require a chase or pursuit or physically challenging incident to get the reader’s blood racing. Here, Mayne invites Blair for a supposedly innocent morning’s skiing. For a start, skiing in those days seems to have been more strenuous than in our time; it involves taking off the skis at various points to climb or walk across glaciers or up mountain sides to better positions. But it also turns out that Mayne has chosen a particularly treacherous ski run in order to get Blair skiing far faster than is safe and, suddenly leads him into a sheer cliff of snow and ice. Mayne avoids this at the last second but which Blair crashes right into.

The description of the early, innocent, stages of the skiiing expedition is interesting; the account of the dangerous ski itself is riveting; and the account of Blair’s fortuitous survival and of how he slowly, painfully digs himself out of the snow and finds his way back along the route in a howling snow-storm before collapsing just as the rescue party from the rifugia sights him, is involving and exhausting.

When he recovers Blair confronts Mayne with the accusation he tried to murder him, which Mayne blithely ignores, saying the whole thing was an unfortunate accident. Previously Blair’s room has been searched. And the night before he overheard two men out in the snow apparently discussing sabotaging the sledge-lift in order to kill someone, though he didn’t see who they were.

Blair now wonders if one of the people he overheard was Mayne who caught Blair eavesdropping and think that he – Blair – overheard more than he actually did. Was it this which inspired him to try and get rid of him on the treacherous ski journey? And so the suspicious circumstances and narrator’s uncertainty grow…

Nazi gold

But it is only with the arrival of Engels himself, travelling up the sledge lift with the Contessa, that the scene is set for the Final Act in what turns out to have been a long and complicated criminal conspiracy.

It’s about Nazi gold. At the end of the War Captain Stelben was in the Gestapo and put in charge of a transfer of gold from an Italian bank north to Munich. He diverted from his orders and got his men to take the gold in crates up the sledge lift to the Col da Varda and there bury it in the foundations of the anti-aircraft guns which he knew were being built. Then he massacred the men with a machine gun. He then escaped in the confusion at the end of the War, holed up in Greece, before returning to Italy and buying the rifugia. However, he was betrayed and handed over to the British Army for interrogation during which he committed suicide.

He left a number of people with partial knowledge of the theft and hiding: his girlfriend, the ‘Contessa’ – in fact one of a troupe of dancing girls and courtesans; Valdini who at one stage was the Contessa’s lover; Mayne, the Irish-American who the Contessa also was indiscreet with; Keramikos who heard the story from the sole survivor of the massacre, a German corporal hiding in Greece.

A closed circle mystery

The closed circle mystery is a specific genre of detective fiction, in which a limited number of suspects all have the means and motivation to have committed the murder which starts the action. There is no specific murder here; or, rather, there are quite a few murders but all carried out during the War and it is not a murder which needs a solution, but the precise whereabouts of the Treasure.

In this respect, maybe it is more like a buried treasure-pirate story – except that there are so many Nazi gold plots that ‘hidden Nazi treasure’ is probably as large a genre as ‘country house mystery’, eg Desmond Bagley’s debut novel, The Golden Keel also, as it happens, set in Italy.

Skiing

The novel explores in some detail the immediately post-War world of skiing, with its cable cars, sledge lifts, popular resorts and bars, refuges high up in the mountains as well as skiing terms and techniques. Is this the earliest adventure novel to take skiing as its central subject? It’s certainly the earliest one I’ve read which features not one but two thrilling ski rides, chases and murders.

Dramatis personae

  • Neil Blair: innocent first-person narrator.
  • Derek Engles: Neil’s Battery Commander in 1942 before he transferred to Intelligence. A dashing, exacting officer, it was in this capacity that Engles interviewed Captain Stelben and got some of the story of the hidden gold but not all. When he read a newspaper story about Stelben’s suicide it revived his interest and he sends Blair to be his eyes and ears until something definite crops up. When the Contessa and others arrive in Cortina it prompts him to come himself. In many ways Engles is the hero of the story, and Blair is the Nick Carraway to Engles’ dashing Gatsby figure, the rather naive bystander, witness, only survivor of the débâcle on the mountain top and its reluctant chronicler.
  • Joe Wesson: cameraman: a ‘fat sluggish ape’, completely innocent of the various goings-on around him.
  • Edoardo Mancini: biggest hotelier in Cortina, former sportsman run to seed.
  • Aldo: apelike waiter in the rifugio, the ski house atop Col da Varde in the Dolomite mountains.
  • Anna: flirtatious barmaid in the rifugio.
  • Kapitan Heinrich Stelben: Nazi officer who stole bank gold he was entrusted with and buried it atop the Col da Varda; he was captured soon after the War and interrogated by Engles, but escaped, adopting a new identity and buying the Col da Varda, before being captured a second time and committing suicide. Now the property is to be auctioned…
  • Contessa Forelli: previously known as Carla Rometta, a dancer and courtesan who attached herself to Stelben during his post-War life but has thrown in her lot with Valdini, whom she devastatingly revenges.
  • Stefan Valdini: ‘a dirty little Sicilian gangster’, one-time lover of the Contessa. Keramikos murders him, prompting her fiery revenge.
  • Keramikos: a visiting Greek, revealed to have been a Nazi agent; turns out Engles is more interested in him and the crimes he committed against British forces in Greece, than in the gold.
  • Gilbert Mayne: Irish but well-travelled, particularly in the States; revealed to be a British deserter become gangster who stole the deceased captain Mayne’s identity: he holds everyone up in the rifugia shoots Valdini and beats up the Contessa before meeting a horrible death.

Technical terms

You English…

Innes is at pains to distinguish between the fiery passionate Italians and the cold, stiff English.

‘I wonder whether you will understand. You English are so cold.’ (p.63)

‘You are so English, my dear – so delightfully English…’ Her expression as she said this was the equivalent of sticking out her tongue at me and my English ideas. (p.66)

This is similar to Eric Ambler who, in almost every one of his pre-War novels, has one character or another laugh at the English, at their political naïveté, their cold manner, their gaucheness in affairs of the heart. Since these books were written to be popular, one can only assume this was a widespread feeling the English held about themselves.

The movie – Snowbound

The book was almost immediately made into a film, Snowbound, released in 1948, directed by David MacDonald and starring Dennis Price, Stanley Holloway, Mila Parély, and Herbert Lom. It is, apparently, not so good, which explains why it isn’t even available on DVD nor on YouTube.

Rather naive cover illustration of an early edition of The Lonely Skier

Rather naive cover illustration of an early edition of The Lonely Skier

Related links

Hammond Innes’ novels

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


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

Running Blind by Desmond Bagley (1970)

How in hell did Kennikin get ahead of me? That was my first bitter thought.
But idle thoughts were no use and action was necessary. (Chapter 5, III)

This is a first-person spy thriller told by British counter-espionage agent Alan Stewart and set in Iceland, where he has gone to do a simple courier job which goes badly wrong, and where he also has an apartment and a girlfriend who swiftly gets dragged into the turmoil.

Facts

Being Factual Bagley, the location is the cue for plenty of facts and figures about Icelandic geography, history, language, food and customs.

I frowned. Most people think that because Greenland is covered with ice and is wrongly named then so is Iceland, and there’s not much ice about the place. They’re dead wrong. Thirty-six icefields glaciate one-eighth of the country and one of them alone – Vatnajökull – is as big as all the glaciated areas in Scandinavia and the Alps put together. (Ch 4, II)

There’s even a brisk summary of the most famous of the Icelandic sagas, Njal’s saga.

Voice

The narrator’s voice is mostly very flat and factual. This is Bagley’s default style – no metaphors or similes, precious little description – just facts. But having just read Landslide, where Bagley creates a credibly ballsy Canadian persona, I know it’s also a deliberate choice. The most noticeable element of the style is how much the hero swears, saying ‘bloody’ and ‘bastard’ a lot, in a way he didn’t in the earlier books, and Alistair MacLean never does. I blame it on the Permissive Society.

‘I don’t know, damn it! I wish to hell I did.’ I retrieved the carbine. ‘Let’s get on with it.’
So on we went along that bastard of a track, round and round, up and down, but mostly up, until we had climbed right to the edge of Vatnajökull, next to the ice. (Ch 4, III)

Phony philosophy

‘There’s only one way of opting out of the world and that’s by dying,’ said Slade with phony philosophy.

Adventure stories are primarily entertainment and the entertainment is in exercising the predatory parts of our brains, either in calculating and scheming against the enemy or in direct physical action. Adventure authors could be distributed around a graph with axes for cerebrality and action, with Le Carré at the chess-playing pole, MacLean at the blood and gore physicality pole and Deighton a rather confusing combination of the two.

Bagley is an odd case because there’s quite a lot of cold factual information (gleaned from enyclopedias and then sown into the text) but no subtlety at all. There are none of the abrupt twists and unexpected revelations which make MacLean’s books so riveting, there is none of the super-subtlety of le Carré’s psychological battles or the clever-clever gaming of Deighton’s texts.

Bagley’s simple heros commit to a course of action and then see it through, overcoming various physical challenges on the way and getting the girl in the end. The goodies remain goodies. There is a clean-cut, honest innocence about Bagley’s novels. Although they make a few fashionably jaded comments about contemporary life these are just Daily Mail whinging ie they don’t penetrate the surface, they aren’t fully dramatised in the story. Characters may spout a bit of philosophy or politics at the appropriate moment in the plot – ‘If only the people back home knew what wicked deeds were done to keep them safe’ or some such – but it is phony philosophy, untroubling and easy-to-digest oiling for the machinery of the plot.

In this overtly spy novel he makes a stab at the cynicism and world-weariness which are associated with the genre – his boss seems to be playing a double game, sending one of his colleagues in to assassinate him and threatening to alert his KGB opposite number to his whereabouts – but it is an easy and obvious cynicism, expressed, in this example, in the tritest metaphor of all for espionage, the game of chess.

Graham was dead – a pawn suddenly swept from the board. He had died because he obeyed orders blindly, just as I had done in Sweden; he had died because he didn’t really understand what he was doing. (Ch 3, II)

If that’s meant to have dramatic impact it fails because Bagley is announcing as news what have become, in the 45 years since this novel was published, the basic clichés of the genre: trust no-one, everyone is out to get you, your own side are more dangerous than the nominal ‘enemy’, we’re all just disposable pawns in a Great Game.

Similarly, although the novel gives the appearance of plot twists, there aren’t really any: Stewart hates his boss, Slade, from the start and, it turns out, justifiably; he fears his Russian enemy Krennikin from the start and is right to do so; he is saddened that his old mate Jack Case seems to be siding with Slade, but he turns out to be the ‘Genuine Buddy Who Is Cruelly Betrayed’ figure. What would have surprised me a bit is if his long-term girlfriend had turned out to be spying on him but this is Bagley so, no, she is as good as he paints her from the start, in fact comes up trumps and saves the day.

Decisive action beats idle thoughts

This book dates from before the Great Cynicism of the 1970s and suffers from its simplicity and honesty. But whereas crashing obviousness is not a problem for the high-spirited heroes of such straighforward actioners as The Golden Keel, The Vivero Letter, Landslide or The Spoilers who just have to biff the bad guys, it is a problem when Bagley attempts a genre which has come to signify subtlety, complex undercurrents and confusion. He is good at action, at the practicalities of disposing of a body, fording a river, stalking an assassin, dressing a wound and the rest of it – a lot less good at psychology.

We expect our spies to be clever if nothing else. The Ipcress narrator is always several steps ahead of the reader, as is Le Carré’s Smiley. Bagley’s Stewart is the opposite, slower than the reader. It is one thing to admit you’re at a loss in an adventure story, especially when you’re a Bagley hero masquerading as Joe Ordinary and wanting to involve the reader in your perilous plight. But we expect our spies to be smart and are disappointed when we can figure out things quicker than them.

‘I don’t know,’ I said despondently. ‘It’s too damned complicated and I don’t know enough’… I needed more than help, I needed a new set of brains to work out this convoluted problem.

These remarks come under the category of identifiers, phrases designed to help or make the reader identify with the hero. Bagley does this more than MacLean; he is known for the (supposed) ‘ordinary’ nature of most of his heroes. Thus the ‘thoughts’ of a Bagley protagonist given in the text are at least as much to rope the reader in, to make the hero accessible to the average reader, as an actual attempt to mimic the thought processes of a spy. If they are meant to be his thought processes, then he’s pretty dim.

This playing to the gallery also explains his late ’60s sexism.

I set out toward the Land Rover at a dead run, holding Elin’s arm, but she dragged free. ‘The coffee pot!’
‘The hell with it!’ Women are funny creatures; this was not a time to be thinking of domestic economy. I grabbed her arm again and dragged her along.

These kinds of remarks aren’t interesting for anything they tell us about Mr Bagley, they are much more interesting as an insight into how he conceives of his audience, its reflexes and expectations, ie middle-aged, middle England, Daily Mail-reading men, complete with their prejudices against women, the trendy young, foreigners and so on. The steady stream of not-too-demanding quips, would-be cynical remarks, moans about Modern Life or very obvious quotes from the only poet his readers have heard of, Shakespeare, paint a vivid portrait of the target audience for this kind of flat, efficient, clichéd melodrama. It’s effective and professional at what it does, but this is not a good book.

Related links

Cover of the 1973 Fontana paperback edition of Running Blind

Cover of the 1973 Fontana paperback edition of Running Blind

Bagley’s books

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

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

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

The Spoilers by Desmond Bagley (1969)

This is a great action adventure yarn, starting slow and factual with the body of a dead junkie in a Notting Hill flophouse and building to exciting shoot-outs in the Iraqi desert before an explosive climax in the Mediterranean.

Bagley returns to third-person narrator which allows him to describe and portray a wider range of characters, especially as – like in High Citadel – they are split into two groups with two completely different narrative arcs.

Heroin

The story is about heroin and heroin smugglers. Interesting that in this same year, 1969, Alistair MacLean published his thriller about heroin smuggling, the gruesome Puppet On A Chain. A hot topic? Something in the air? Interesting to compare and contrast the two author’s approaches to the same issue. Bagley is characteristically more formal and factual, giving an interesting overview of the problem of heroin addiction in London, the work of a reforming doctor in the area, along with the basic facts about Papaver somniferum, the supply chains from the East, and the prices and profits to be made along the supply chains to America, before the novel metamorphoses into an action adventure in the deserts of Kurdistan, which is where our heroes find an enormous heroin factory.

MacLean’s feels like a thriller as it is full of violence and the threat of violence and the tension of impending violence from the very start. Bagley’s is an adventure as it takes well over 100 pages of careful factual build-up to get to any action scenes ie there isn’t the same sense of tension, of suppressed anxiety, as in the MacLean.

I am not James Bond

As in the previous novel, Bagley’s ‘I am not James Bond’ obsession recurs. Why does he feel the shadow of Commander Bond weighing so heavily on him?

‘You’ve picked the wrong man. I don’t think the man exists, anyway. You need a combination of St George and James Bond. I’m a doctor, not a gang-buster.’ (Ch 2, I)

Just after ten o’clock Warren strolled through the gambling rooms towards the bar…He watched the roulette for a moment and thought sardonically, If I were James Bond I’d be in there making a killing. (Ch 2, IV)

His decision was made and all qualms gone. He was tired of fighting the stupidity of the public, of which the queasiness of this narrow-gutted landlord was only a single example. If the only way to run his job was to turn into a synthetic James Bond, then a James Bond he’d be. (Ch 2, VI)

Mission impossible

Despite all his disclaimers the quiet studious doctor Nick Warren quite quickly morphs into the stock Bagley hero, clear-headed, unafraid, resourceful; taking the money of multi-millionaire movie mogul Sir Robert Hellier and assembling a scratch team of likely lads to help him tackle the heroin gangs at source.

  • Dan Parker – ex-Royal Navy mechanic, good with torpedoes etc
  • Andy Tozier – mercenary
  • Mike Abbott – inquisitive Fleet Street journalist
  • John Follett – Soho nightclub owner and con-man

The assembly of the team reminds me of the original TV series of Mission Impossible (1967-73) and way the plot depends on ‘stings’ or ‘cons’ just as much as violence is reminiscent of The A-Team (1983-87), though the premise of a small team tackling international criminal masterminds was a very common theme of popular TV series of the 1960s such as The Avengers (1961-69), Danger Man (1960-68), The Saint (1962-69), The Prisoner (1967-8), The Champions (1968-9), Department S (1969-70), The Persuaders (1971) and Jason King (1971-2). Even the title, the Spoilers fits in with these TV names.

And he may protest that he’s not James Bond but there’s a gorgeous nymphomaniac baddie, who likes to be wined and dined at the best hotels, there’s exotic locations in Iraq and the Lebanon, there’s clever gadgetry, with guns smuggled in as parts of Land Rovers, a torpedo being adjusted to travel super distances, a cutting-edge video recorder, there’s blowing up the baddy’s super-laboratory, escapes along secret underground passageways and improbable shoot-outs against the Kurdish militia, complete with panicked camels getting in everyone’s way.

Research

As usual with Bagley, the novel is larded with factual information and the reader is treated to lectures on:

  • the Kurdish Question ie the Kurds’ attempts to gain their own homeland
  • how to make dynamite out of fertiliser, charcoal etc
  • how torpedoes work and can be re-engineered
  • how to conceal weapon parts in a Land Rover
  • heroin manufacturer and the economics of the dope business
  • game theory

Metcalfe

Out of the blue the smuggler and baddy from Bagley’s first novel, The Golden Keel, Tom Metcalfe who chased our heroes across the Mediterranean in a high speed boat, sinks but ultimately saves them in that book – turns up here! He is running guns to the Kurdish peshmerga but rather improbably switches sides when he meets old friend and fellow mercenary Andy Tozier and learns that his deal was being funded by heroin which he, rather high-mindedly, objects to.

Related links

Cover of the 1973 Fontana paperback edition of The Spoilers

Cover of the 1973 Fontana paperback edition of The Spoilers

Bagley’s books

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

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

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

The Vivero Letter by Desmond Bagley (1968)

‘This sounds like a cross between a jigsaw puzzle and a detective story,’ I said.

Quiet accountant Jeremy Wheale’s life is turned upside down when his brother is shot dead on the family farm in Devon, and a lot of people are suddenly showing interest in a family heirloom, a brass tray which turns out to be the clue to a fabulous Mayan treasure.

Manuel de Vivero was taken prisoner by the Mayans during the Spanish invasion of Central America early in the 1500s but wrote a letter from captivity in the Mayan city of Uaxuanoc to his two sons, accompanied by two presents. The set-up is that a) the city was overflowing with gold – buildings and temples and treasure and everyday utensils made from gold b) the two trays, when combined, give the clue to the location of this lost city.

The idea of a set of physical artefacts which need to be combined to give the location of lost treasure is slightly reminiscent of the founding adventure story, Treasure Island (1883) but reminds me more of the Tintin adventure, The Secret of the Unicorn (1943) where the maps found in three model boats must be combined to give the location of the treasure.

Thriller or adventure?

Like The Golden Keel maybe this isn’t a thriller at all, it’s more straight adventure story with some thrilling scenes at the end. According to Wikipedia, ‘Thrillers may be defined by the primary mood that they elicit: fearful excitement. In short, if it “thrills”, it is a thriller.’ For two thirds of the text this book, like Keel, does not thrill. It moves slowly and leisurely as the protagonist, in perfect safety, finds out about the Vivero Letter, the importance of his ‘tray’, persuades the rival archaeologists to collaborate and accompanies them to their luxury house in Mexico City, then to base camp on the Yucatan peninsula, then helps with the prolonged and rather boring excavations to find the ruined city.

Only in the last fifth or so of the text does the gear shift as baddies try to muscle in on the dig to steal the excavated treasure. Only at this point do we enter ‘thriller’ territory ie enter the atmosphere of tension and jeopardy and reach full throttle in the last thirty pages which combine an armed attack on the base, the arrival of a tropical hurricane, a tense escape to an underwater cavern, and then a nail-biting duel with machetes!

Coincidences

The tale is told by Wheale as first person narrative, and his ignorance of archaeology, history and so on help to smooth over a series of improbable coincidences and unlikely events – that the tray/treasure clue ever came into his family’s possession, that a couple of American archaeologists both just happened to read an article in the local Devon papers about it (!) and that brings them both to his door, that Wheale can persuade the rivals (who both know about the letter and its secret) to work together on a joint treasure hunting expedition in Mexico, and so on.

Ordinary man protagonist

But the main oddity of the story is that Bagley goes out of his way to make Wheale a boring non-entity, a timid accountant. This is established in the opening scene at a ‘swinging 60s’ party where he overhears his with-it girlfriend describe him as deadly dull, ‘a grey little man in a grey little job’. His on-impulse decision to force the two collectors to take him on the treasure hunt is supposed to be his response to this hurtful jibe. This ‘I am not a hero’ theme runs very self-consciously throughout the text:

Jemmy Wheale, New Elizabethan, adventurer at large – have gun, will travel. The thought made me smile, and the man in the mirror smiled back at me derisively. I didn’t have a gun and I doubted whether I could use one effectively, anyway. I suppose a James bond type would have unpacked his portable helicopter and taken off after Jack Gatt long ago, bringing back his scalp and couple of his choicest blondes. Hell, I didn’t even look like Sean Connery. (Ch 5, I)

And yet he is the hero. He is foolhardy enough to go to Mexico with the archaeologists, he is man enough to stand up to the bullying one, Halstead, and to provoke him by flirting with his wife. He turns out to be an advanced scuba diver, capable of organising and running a sustained joint dive to the bottom of the giant well in the abandoned city where most of the treasure is found. And then, when the baddies move in, he is tough enough to survive a helicopter crash and several days in the jungle before coming to the rescue of the other goodies, shooting dead about four of the attackers, he organises the armed resistance, getting rid of the treasure, saves the girl in the underwater cave and turns out to be an expert fencer (that’s fighter with a sword). I know a few boring English accountants. They couldn’t do all this.

This primitive world of kill or be killed was a long way from Cannon Street and the bowler-hatted boys. What the hell was a grey little man like me doing here? (Ch 10, I)

In fact the ‘ordinary joe’ schtick is a routine, part of Bagley’s brand, making him stand out distinctly from Le Carré’s spies, from the special agents who feature in MacLean’s 1960s thrillers and, of course, from the great dominating figure in this field, Commander Bond.

Maybe Sheila had been correct when she had described me as a grey man but only in a circumscribed way. She expected Sean Connery disguised as James Bond and what she got was me – just a good, old-fashioned, grey, average type. (Ch 1)

But asserting something in a fiction is not the same as dramatising it. Wheale doesn’t actually think or behave anything like the boring accountant the author keeps telling us he is. In Landslide Bagley keeps repeating that Bob Boyd is a man who (due to the car crash he was in) does not know his true identity and that this plunges him into some kind of existentialist crisis – but it doesn’t; it doesn’t make any difference to the way the character actually thinks or behaves. Same here with Mr grey accountant Wheale. Despite the author’s assertions to the contrary, both these characters behave like the standard Bagley hero, tough, resourceful, unafraid, physically fit and strangely attractive to the only nubile woman in the vicinity who he ends up carrying off into the sunset.

Well-researched

As usual, half the pleasure of reading Bagley is for the encyclopedia-style information which not only decorates the text but which the story is in fact premised on. A reader of  this book learns a lot about the (two) Mayan empire(s), about the geography of the Yucatan Peninsula, a lot about scuba diving to depths of 120 feet or so, there is a neat exposition of how a helicopter works (to explain how one is sabotaged), as well as some introductory facts about the Mafia in case you hadn’t heard of them before.

As in The Golden Keel (which is stuffed from start to finish with detailed information about yacht design, building and sailing) the dense factuality of Mayan history and archaeology takes the place of the ‘thrill’. As in Keel we are introduced to the possible baddy Metcalfe fairly early on, but it is only in the last 50 pages that he becomes an explicit enemy in the exciting sea race across the Med – so in this book we are introduced to the Mafia boss John Gatt fairly early on as a possible instigator of the murder of Wheale’s brother, only for him to be forgotten in the detail of diving and digging which takes up the next 150 pages, and only for him to reappear in the last 50 pages leading the attack on the archaeologists (and their treasure).

Thus the majority of the text of these books is not thrilling. It is taken up with lengthy descriptions of the interplay between fairly mundane characters, in Vivero between the accountant-turned-adventurer Wheale, the multi-millionaire archaeologist Fallon, his embittered rival Halstead, Halstead’s dishy and deluded wife Katherine, Fallon’s savvy investigator Harris (who provides the factual info about John Gatt and the mafia), as well as the factual background listed above as well as plenty of detail about how to set up a camp in a tropical rainforest, and so on.

All of this stuff is interesting, and the low-level drama between the characters is amusing in a kitschy Dallas kind of way, but thrilling it is not. A sober, factually-based adventure story with a thrilling finale is what it is.

Related links

Cover of the early 1970s Fontana edition of The Vivero Letter

Cover of the early 1970s Fontana edition of The Vivero Letter

Bagley’s books

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

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

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

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