The Periodic Kingdom: A Journey Into the Land of the Chemical Elements by Peter Atkins (1995)

Chemistry is the science of changes in matter. (p.37)

At just under 150 pages long, A Journey Into the Land of the Chemical Elements is intended as a novel and imaginative introduction to the 118 or so chemical elements which are the basic components of chemistry, and which, for the past 100 years or so, have been laid out in the grid arrangement known as the periodic table.

The periodic table explained

Just to refresh your memory, it’s called the periodic table because it is arranged into rows called ‘periods’. These are numbered 1 to 7 down the left-hand side.

What is a period? The ‘period number’ of an element signifies ‘the highest energy level an electron in that element occupies (in the unexcited state)’. To put it another way, the ‘period number’ of an element is its number of atomic orbitals. An orbital is the number of orbital positions an electron can take around the nucleus. Think of it like the orbit of the earth round the sun.

For each element there is a limited number of these ‘orbits’ which electrons can take up. Hydrogen, in row one, can only have one electron because it only has one possible orbital for an electron to take up around its nucleus. All the elements in row 2 have two orbitals for their electrons, and so on.

Sodium, for instance, sits in the third period, which means a sodium atom typically has electrons in the first three energy levels. Moving down the table, periods are longer because it takes more electrons to fill the larger and more complex outer levels.

The columns of the table are arranged into ‘groups’ from 1 to 18 along the top. Elements that occupy the same column or group have the same number of electrons in their outer orbital. These outer electrons are called ‘valence electrons’. The electrons in the outer orbital are the first ones to be involved in chemical bonds with other elements; they are relatively easy to dislodge, the ones in the lower orbitals progressively harder.

Elements with identical ‘valance electron configurations’ tend to behave in a similar fashion chemically. For example, all the elements in group or column 18 are gases which are slow to interact with other chemicals and so are known as the inert gases – helium, neon etc. Atkins describes the amazing achievement of the Scottish chemist William Ramsey in discovering almost all the inert gases in the 1890s.

Although there are 18 columns, the actual number of electrons in the outer orbital only goes up to 8. Take nitrogen in row 2 column 15. Nitrogen has the atomic number seven. The atomic number means there are seven electrons in a neutral atom of nitrogen. How many electrons are in its outer orbital? Although nitrogen is in the fifteenth column, that column is actually labelled ‘5A’. 5 represents the number of electrons in the outer orbital. So all this tells you that nitrogen has seven electrons in two orbitals around the nucleus, two in the first orbital and five in the second (2-5).

 

The Periodic Table. Karl Tate © LiveScience.com

Note that each element has two numbers in its cell. The one at the top is the atomic number. This is the number of protons in the nucleus of the element. Note how the atomic number increases in a regular, linear manner, from 1 for hydrogen at the top left, to 118 for Oganesson at the bottom right. After number 83, bismuth, all the elements are radioactive.

(N.B. When Atkins’s book was published in 1995 the table stopped at number 109, Meitnerium. As I write this, 24 years later, it has been extended to number 118, Oganesson. These later elements have been created in minute quantities in laboratories and some of them only exist for a few moments.)

Beneath the element name is the atomic weight. This is the mass of a given atom, measured on a scale in which the hydrogen atom has the weight of one. Because most of the mass in an atom is in the nucleus, and each proton and neutron has an atomic weight near one, the atomic weight is very nearly equal to the number of protons and neutrons in the nucleus.

Note the freestanding pair of rows at the bottom, coloured in purple and orange. These are the lanthanides and actinides. We’ll come to them in a moment.

Not only are the elements arranged into periods and groups but they are also categorised into groupings according to their qualities. In this diagram (taken from LiveScience.com) the different groupings are colour-coded. The groupings are, moving from left to right:

Alkali metals The alkali metals make up most of Group 1, the table’s first column. Shiny and soft enough to cut with a knife, these metals start with lithium (Li) and end with francium (Fr), among the rarest elements on earth: Atkins tells us that at any one moment there are only seventeen atoms of francium on the entire planet. The alkali metals are extremely reactive and burst into flame or even explode on contact with water, so chemists store them in oils or inert gases. Hydrogen, with its single electron, also lives in Group 1, but is considered a non-metal.

Alkaline-earth metals The alkaline-earth metals make up Group 2 of the periodic table, from beryllium (Be) through radium (Ra). Each of these elements has two electrons in its outermost energy level, which makes the alkaline earths reactive enough that they’re rarely found in pure form in nature. But they’re not as reactive as the alkali metals. Their chemical reactions typically occur more slowly and produce less heat compared to the alkali metals.

Lanthanides The third group is much too long to fit into the third column, so it is broken out and flipped sideways to become the top row of what Atkins calls ‘the Southern Island’ that floats at the bottom of the table. This is the lanthanides, elements 57 through 71, lanthanum (La) to lutetium (Lu). The elements in this group have a silvery white color and tarnish on contact with air.

Actinides The actinides line forms the bottom row of the Southern Island and comprise elements 89, actinium (Ac) to 103, lawrencium (Lr). Of these elements, only thorium (Th) and uranium (U) occur naturally on earth in substantial amounts. All are radioactive. The actinides and the lanthanides together form a group called the inner transition metals.

Transition metals Returning to the main body of the table, the remainder of Groups 3 through 12 represent the rest of the transition metals. Hard but malleable, shiny, and possessing good conductivity, these elements are what you normally associate with the word metal. This is the location of many of the best known metals, including gold, silver, iron and platinum.

Post-transition metals Ahead of the jump into the non-metal world, shared characteristics aren’t neatly divided along vertical group lines. The post-transition metals are aluminum (Al), gallium (Ga), indium (In), thallium (Tl), tin (Sn), lead (Pb) and bismuth (Bi), and they span Group 13 to Group 17. These elements have some of the classic characteristics of the transition metals, but they tend to be softer and conduct more poorly than other transition metals. Many periodic tables will feature a highlighted ‘staircase’ line below the diagonal connecting boron with astatine. The post-transition metals cluster to the lower left of this line. Atkins points out that all the elements beyond bismuth (row 6, column 15) are radioactive. Here be skull-and-crossbones warning signs.

Metalloids The metalloids are boron (B), silicon (Si), germanium (Ge), arsenic (As), antimony (Sb), tellurium (Te) and polonium (Po). They form the staircase that represents the gradual transition from metals to non-metals. These elements sometimes behave as semiconductors (B, Si, Ge) rather than as conductors. Metalloids are also called ‘semi-metals’ or ‘poor metals’.

Non-metals Everything else to the upper right of the staircase (plus hydrogen (H), stranded way back in Group 1) is a non-metal. These include the crucial elements for life on earth, carbon (C), nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), oxygen (O), sulfur (S) and selenium (Se).

Halogens The top four elements of Group 17, from fluorine (F) through astatine (At), represent one of two subsets of the non-metals. The halogens are quite chemically reactive and tend to pair up with alkali metals to produce various types of salt. Common salt is a marriage between the alkali metal sodium and the halogen chlorine.

Noble gases Colorless, odourless and almost completely non-reactive, the inert, or noble gases round out the table in Group 18. The low boiling point of helium makes it a useful refrigerant when exceptionally low temperatures are required; most of them give off a colourful display when electric current is passed through them, hence the generic name of neon lights, invented in 1910 by Georges Claude.

The metaphor of the Periodic Kingdom

In fact the summary I’ve given above isn’t at all how Atkins’s book sounds. It is the way I have had to make notes to myself to understand the table.

Atkins’ book is far from being so clear and straightforward. The Periodic Kingdom is dominated by the central conceit that Atkins treats the periodic table as if it were an actual country. His book is not a comprehensive encyclopedia of biochemistry, mineralogy and industrial chemistry; it is a light-hearted ‘traveller’s guide’ (p.27) to the table which he never refers to as a table, but as a kingdom, complete with its own geography, layout, mountain peaks and ravines, and surrounded by a sea of nothingness.

Hence, from start to finish of the book, Atkins uses metaphors from landscape and exploration to describe the kingdom, talking about ‘the Western desert’, ‘the Southern Shore’ and so on. Here’s a characteristic sentence:

The general disposition of the land is one of metals in the west, giving way, as you travel eastward, to a varied landscape of nonmetals, which terminates in largely inert elements at the eastern shoreline. (p.9)

I guess the idea is to help us memorise the table by describing its characteristics and the changes in atomic weight, physical character, alkalinity, reactivity and so on of the various elements, in terms of geography. Presumably he thinks it’s easier to remember geography than raw information. His approach certainly gives rise to striking analogies:

North of the mainland, situated rather like Iceland off the northwestern edge of Europe, lies a single, isolated region – hydrogen. This simple but gifted element is an essential outpost of the kingdom, for despite its simplicity it is rich in chemical personality. It is also the most abundant element in the universe and the fuel of the stars. (p.9)

Above all the extended metaphor (the periodic table imagined as a country) frees Atkins not to have to lay out the subject in either a technical nor a chronological order but to take a pleasant stroll across the landscape, pointing out interesting features and making a wide variety of linkages, pointing out the secret patterns and subterranean connections between elements in the same ‘regions’ of the table.

There are quite a few of these, for example the way iron can easily form alliances with the metals close to it such as cobalt, nickel and manganese to produce steel. Or the way the march of civilisation progressed from ‘east’ to ‘west’ through the metals, i.e. moving from copper, to iron and steel, each representing a new level of culture and technology.

The kingdom metaphor also allows him to get straight to core facts about each element without getting tangled in pedantic introductions: thus we learn there would be no life without nitrogen which is a key building block of all proteins, not to mention the DNA molecule; or that sodium and potassium (both alkali metals) are vital in the functioning of brain and nervous system cells.

And hence the generally light-hearted, whimsical tone allows him to make fanciful connections: calcium is a key ingredient in the bones of endoskeletons and the shells of exoskeletons, compacted dead shells made chalk, but in another format made the limestone which the Romans and others ground up to make the mortar which held their houses together.

Then there is magnesium. I didn’t think magnesium was particularly special, but learned from Atkins that a single magnesium atom is at the heart of the chlorophyll molecule, and:

Without chlorophyll, the world would be a damp warm rock instead of the softly green haven of life that we know, for chlorophyll holds its magnesium eye to the sun and captures the energy of sunlight, in the first step of photosynthesis. (p.16)

You see how the writing is aspiring to an evocative, poetic quality- a deliberate antidote to the dry and factual way chemistry was taught to us at school. He means to convey the sense of wonder, the strange patterns and secret linkages underlying these wonderful entities. I liked it when he tells us that life is about capturing, storing and deploying energy.

Life is a controlled unwinding of energy.

Or about how phosphorus, in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is a perfect vector for the deployment of energy, common to all living cells. Hence the importance of phosphates as fertiliser to grow the plants we need to survive. Arsenic is such an effective poison because it is a neighbour of phosphorus, shares some of its qualities, and so inserts itself into chemical reactions usually carried out by phosphorus but blocking them, nulling them, killing the host organism.

All the facts I explained in the first half of this post (mostly cribbed from the LiveScience.com website) are not reached or explained until about page 100 of this 150-page-long book. Personally, I felt I needed them earlier. As soon as I looked at the big diagram of the table he gives right at the end of the book I became intrigued by the layout and the numbers and couldn’t wait for him to get round to explaining them, which is why I went on the internet to find out more, more quickly, and why Istarted my review with a factual summary.

And eventually, the very extended conceit of ‘the kingdom’ gets rather tiresome. Whether intentional or not, the continual references to ‘the kingdom’ begin to sound Biblical and pretentious.

Now the kingdom is virtually fully formed. It rises above the sea of nonbeing and will remain substantially the same almost forever. The kingdom was formed in and among the stars.. (p.75)

The chapter on the scientists who first isolated the elements and began sketching out the table continues the metaphor by referring to them as ‘cartographers’, and the kingdom as made of islands and archipelagos.

As an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Jena, [Johann Döbereiner] noticed that reports of some of the kingdom’s islands – reports brought back by their chemical explorers – suggested a brotherhood of sorts between the regions. (p.79)

For me, the obsessive use of the geographical metaphor teeters on the border between being useful, and becoming irritating. He introduces me to the names of the great pioneers – I was particularly interested in Dalton, Michael Faraday, Humphrey Davy (who isolated a bunch of elements in the early 1800s) and then William Ramsey – but I had to go to Wikipedia to really understand their achievements.

Atkins speculates that some day we might find another bunch or set of elements, which might even form an entire new ‘continent’, though it is unlikely. This use of a metaphor is sort of useful for spatially imagining how this might happen, but I quickly got bored of him calling this possible set of new discoveries ‘Atlantis’, and of the poetic language as a whole.

Is the kingdom eternal, or will it slip beneath the waves? There is a good chance that one day – in a few years, or a few hundred years at most – Atlantis will be found, which will be an intellectual achievement but probably not one of great practical significance…

A likely (but not certain) scenario is that in that distant time, perhaps 10100 years into the future, all matter will have decayed into radiation, it is even possible to imagine the process. Gradually the peaks and dales of the kingdom will slip away and Mount Iron will rise higher, as elements collapse into its lazy, low-energy form. Provided that matter does not decay into radiation first (which is one possibility), the kingdom will become a lonely pinnacle, with iron the only protuberance from the sea of nonbeing… (p.77)

And I felt the tone sometimes bordered on the patronising.

The second chemical squabble is in the far North, and concerns the location of the offshore Northern Island of hydrogen. To those who do not like offshore islands, there is the problem of where to put it on the mainland. This is the war of the Big-Endians versus the Little-Endians. Big-Endians want to tow the island ashore to form a new Northwestern Cape, immediately north of lithium and beryllium and across from the Northeastern Cape of helium… (p.90)

Hard core chemistry

Unfortunately, none of these imaginative metaphors can help when you come to chapter 9, an unexpectedly brutal bombardment of uncompromising hard core information about the quantum mechanics underlying the structure of the elements.

In quick succession this introduces us to a blizzard of ideas: orbitals, energy levels, Pauli’s law of exclusion, and then the three imaginary lobes of orbitals.

As I understood it, the Pauli exclusion principle states that no two electrons can inhabit a particular orbital or ‘layer’ or shell. But what complicates the picture is that these orbitals come in three lobes conceived as lying along imaginary x, y and z axes. This overlapped with the information that there are four types of orbitals – s, p, d and f orbitals. In addition, there are three p-orbitals, five d-orbitals, seven f-orbitals. And the two lobes of a p-orbital are on either side of an imaginary plane cutting through the nucleus, there are two such planes in a d-orbital and three in an f-orbital.

After pages of amiable waffle about kingdoms and Atlantis, this was like being smacked in the face with a wet towel. Even rereading the chapter three times, I still found it impossible to process and understand this information.

I understand Atkins when he says it is the nature of the orbitals, and which lobes they lie along, which dictates an element’s place in the table, but he lost me when he said a number of electrons lie inside the nucleus – which is the opposite of everything I was ever taught – and then when described the way electrons fly across or through the nucleus, something to do with the processes of ‘shielding’ and ‘penetration’.

The conspiracy of shielding and penetration ensure that the 2s-orbital is somewhat lower in energy than the p-orbitals of the same rank. By extension, where other types of orbitals are possible, ns- and np-orbitals both lie lower in energy than nd-orbitals, and nd-orbitals in turn have lower energy than nf-orbitals. An s-orbital has no nodal plane, and electrons can be found at the nucleus. A p-orbital has one plane, and the electron is excluded from the nucleus. A d-orbital has two intersecting planes, and the exclusion of the electron is greater. An f-orbital has three planes, and the exclusion is correspondingly greater still. (p.118)

Note how all the chummy metaphors of kingdoms and deserts and mountains have disappeared. This is the hard-core quantum mechanical basis of the elements, and at least part of the reason it is so difficult to understand is because he has made the weird decision to throw half a dozen complex ideas at the reader at the same time. I read the chapter three times, still didn’t get it, and eventually wanted to cry with frustration.

This online lecture gives you a flavour of the subject, although it doesn’t mention ‘lobes’ or penetration or shielding.

In the next chapter, Atkins, briskly assuming  his readers have processed and understood all of this information, goes on to combine the stuff about lobes and orbitals with a passage from earlier in the book, where he had introduced the concept of ions, cations, and anions:

  • ion an atom or molecule with a net electric charge due to the loss or gain of one or more electrons
  • cation a positively charged ion
  • anion a negatively charged ion

He had also explained the concept of electron affinity

The electron affinity (Eea) of an atom or molecule is defined as the amount of energy released or spent when an electron is added to a neutral atom or molecule in the gaseous state to form a negative ion.

Isn’t ‘affinity’ a really bad word to describe this? ‘Affinity’ usually means ‘a natural liking for and understanding of someone or something’. If it is the amount of energy released, why don’t they call it something useful like the ‘energy release’? I felt the same about the terms ‘cation’ and ‘anion’ – that they had been deliberately coined to mystify and confuse. I kept having to stop and look up what they meant since the name is absolutely no use whatsoever.

And the electronvolt – ‘An electronvolt (eV) is the amount of kinetic energy gained or lost by a single electron accelerating from rest through an electric potential difference of one volt in vacuum.’

Combining the not-very-easily understandable material about electron volts with the incomprehensible stuff about orbitals means that the final 30 pages or so of The Periodic Kingdom is thirty pages of this sort of thing:

Take sodium: it has a single electron outside a compact, noble-gaslike core (its structure is [Ne]3s¹). The first electron is quite easy to remove (its removal requires an investment of 5.1 eV), but removal of the second, which has come from the core that lies close to the nucleus, requires an enormous energy – nearly ten times as much, in fact (47.3 eV). (p.130)

This reminds me of the comparable moment in John Allen Paulos’s book Innumeracy where I ceased to follow the argument. After rereading the passage where I stumbled and fell I eventually realised it was because Paulos had introduced three or so important facts about probability theory very, very quickly, without fully explaining them or letting them bed in – and then had spun a fancy variation on them…. leaving me standing gaping on the shore.

Same thing happens here. I almost but don’t quite understand what [Ne]3s¹ means, and almost but don’t quite grasp the scale of electronvolts, so when he goes on to say that releasing the second electron requires ten times as much energy, of course I understand the words, but I cannot quite grasp why it should be so because I have not understood the first two premises.

As with Paulos, the author has gone too fast. These are not simple ideas you can whistle through and expect your readers to lap up. These are very, very difficult ideas most readers will be completely unused to.

I felt the sub-atomic structure chapter should almost have been written twice, approached from entirely different points of view. Even the diagrams were no use because I didn’t understand what they were illustrating because I didn’t understand his swift introduction of half a dozen impenetrable concepts in half a page.

Once through, briskly, is simply not enough. The more I tried to reread the chapter, the more the words started to float in front of my eyes and my brain began to hurt. It is packed with sentences like these:

Now imagine a 2 p-electron… (an electron that occupies a 2 p-orbital). Such an electron is banished from the nucleus on account of the existence of the nodal plane. This electron is more completely shielded from the pull of the nucleus, and so it is not gripped as tightly.In other words, because of the interplay of shielding and penetration, a 2 s-orbital has a lower energy (an electron in it is gripped more tightly) than a 2 p-orbital… Thus the third and final electron of lithium enters the 2 s-orbital, and its overall structure is 1s²2s¹. (p.118)

I very nearly understand what some of these words meant, but the cumulative impact of sentences like these was like being punched to the ground and then given a good kicking. And when the last thirty pages went on to add the subtleties of electronvoltages and micro-electric charges into the mix, to produce ever-more complex explanations for the sub-atomic interactivity of different elements, I gave up.

Summary

The first 90 or so pages of The Periodic Kingdom do manage to give you a feel for the size and shape and underlying patterns of the periodic table. Although it eventually becomes irritating, the ruling metaphor of seeing the whole place as a country with different regions and terrains works – up to a point – to explain or suggest the patterns of size, weight, reactivity and so on underlying the elements.

When he introduced ions was when he first lost me, but I stumbled on through the entertaining trivia and titbits surrounding the chemistry pioneers who first isolated and named many of the elements and the first tentative attempts to create a table for another thirty pages or so.

But the chapter about the sub-atomic structure of chemical elements comprehensively lost me. I was already staggering, and this finished me off.

If Atkins’s aim was to explain the basics of chemistry to an educated layman, then the book was, for me, a complete failure. I sort of quarter understood the orbitals, lobes, nodes section but anything less than 100% understanding means you won’t be able to follow him to the next level of complexity.

As with the Paulos book, I don’t think I failed because I am stupid – I think that, on both occasions, the author failed to understand how challenging his subject matter is, and introduced a flurry of concepts far too quickly, at far too advanced a level.

Looking really closely I realise it is on the same page (page 111) that Atkins introduces the concepts of energy levels, orbitals, the fact that there are three two-lobed orbitals, and the vital existence of nodal planes. On the same page! Why the rush?

An interesting and seemingly trivial feature of a p-orbital, but a feature on which the structure of the kingdom will later be seen to hinge, is that the electron will never be found on the imaginary plane passing through the nucleus and dividing the two lobes of the orbital. This plane is called a nodal plane. An s-orbital does not have such a nodal plane, and the electron it describes may be found at the nucleus. Every p-orbital has a nodal plane of this kind, and therefore an electron that occupies a p-orbital will never be found at the nucleus. (p.111)

Do you understand that? Because if you don’t, you won’t understand the last 40 or so pages of the book, because this is the ‘feature on which the structure of the kingdom will later be seen to hinge’.

I struggled through the final 40 pages weeping tears of frustration, and flushed with anger at having the thing explained to me so badly. Exactly how I felt during my chemistry lessons at school forty years ago.


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Psychology

Kolymsky Heights by Lionel Davidson (1994)

‘Many tricky dicks walk the trail.’ (Jean-Baptiste Porteur, p.88)

I saw this book in several second-hand bookshops before I picked it up for a pound imagining, from the stylish cover, that Davidson was one of the new young generation of thriller writers.

How wrong I was. Davidson was born in 1922 and published his first novel, The Night of Wenceslas, in 1960, the year before John le Carré made his debut – i.e. he is very much one of the old generation of thriller writers.

After Wenceslas Davidson published a novel every couple of years throughout the 1960s and early 70s until 1978 when he disappeared from view. After a gap of 16 years he returned with Kolymsky Heights, his last novel, which gained rave reviews.

Is it any good? What’s it about? Does it make me want to go in search of his other seven thrillers?

Kolymsky Heights

Kolymsky Heights is relatively long at 478 pages and quite quickly you realise this is because Davidson’s defining quality is a long, drawn-out and frustrating, round-the-houses approach.

We are introduced to a fusty old don in Oxford, Professor Lazenby. His secretary, Miss Sonntag, opens a letter from Sweden which turns out to be empty. Until the prof roots around in the bottom of it and finds some cigarette papers. These contain indentations. He calls in a pupil of his who now works in ‘Scientific Services’ and who, a few years earlier, had called on the Prof and asked him to do a little gentle spying – in fact more like ‘alert observation’ – when he was attending a conference in the Eastern Bloc.

Lazenby calls up this man, Philpott, to come and interpret the cigarette papers. They realise the bumps on the surface contain a message coded as a set of numbers. These turn out to relate to books of the Bible, giving chapter and verse numbers. By piecing together the fragmented quotes they arrive at a message which, in an elliptical way, refers to a dark-haired man from the north who can speak tongues and who the writer wants to visit him.

If you like crosswords, I think you’d like this book. Or if you’re partial to railway timetables. Precise hours and timings are given for everything, and become vitally important in the later stages of the book.

Philpott passes the message up to a level of the British security services where it is shared with the Americans. They have spy satellites patrolling the earth and photographing every inch of Russia, especially secret installations. Recent satellite photos indicate that a well-established camp in the heart of Siberia has had an explosion and fire, and shows figures tramping amidst the ruins. The guy in charge of monitoring this, W. Murray Hendricks, calls in a second opinion, a naturalist who confirms that… the figures walking around appear to be… ape-men! They have the stance of men but… their arms and legs are the wrong shape!

This chimes with the opening section of prose right at the start of the book, a (characteristically unexplained) preface which appears to be a message written from someone working at a Russian security base, writing to a colleague who is about to join him. It describes the way a baby mammoth was found deeply embedded in ice, was chipped out and transported back to the base, where it turned out not to be a mammoth at all but a human, a woman lying on her side, who had fallen into a crevasse along with some bags and a tusk, and was heavily pregnant (big and bulky with tusks – that’s what caused the initial mistaken diagnosis).

So we have learned that: a 40,000-year-old frozen pregnant woman is brought to a top secret Russian research base. Some time later, American satellite photos show ape-like men at a top secret Russian research base. Are we dealing with a 1990s version of The Island of Dr Moreau?

If we are, it takes a bloody long time to get there, because we are still with Philpott and Lazenby trying to interpret the coded and elliptical cigarette-paper message. Eventually it dawns on the Prof that the reference is to a dark-haired, native American from British Columbia, a man known by his clan name of ‘Raven’, a man he met at a scientific conference in Oxford some 15 years back, which had also been attended by some Russians.

About the Raven

The novel then switches to give us Raven’s complicated biography. Christened Jean-Baptiste Porteur, he was brought up in the matrilinear society of the Gitksan people in the Skeena river region of British Columbia, north-west Canada, before being dumped into the care of a local missionary. Porteur was taught English enough to excel in his studies but then ran away to sea for a few years. Eventually he returned to settled society and took up serious studies, becoming known as Johnny Porter.

Porter is a super-gifted linguist, one of the few people to be in a position to make academic studies of the families of languages spoken by the natives of the Pacific North-West from the inside. He publishes work on the subject, is awarded a PhD and academic prizes, but remains, nonetheless, a surly non-player of the academic game.

Now he comes to think about it, Prof Lazenby remembers getting really drunk with Raven and another man, a Russian research scientist named Rogachev, at a conference in Oxford years ago. This Russian, Rogachev, then disappeared off the grid some 15 years ago, rumoured to have joined some secret research facility. They have (through a series of deductions which I found too obscure to follow) decided that the man sending the cigarette messages must be Rogachev. And that he wants to talk to Raven.

So then the CIA are tasked with tracking down Johnny Porter and find him in a remote fishing village in British Columbia. Lazenby flies out there accompanied by Philpott who hands him over to a fresh-faced young CIA man  named Walters. The CIA are now heavily involved. At least I think it’s the CIA. Langley is referred to (the world-famous headquarters of the CIA) but the agency itself is not mentioned explicitly. Davidson prefers to keep things shadowy and instead refers to ‘the plan’ which appears to be shared by the Brits and the Yanks.

They finally track down Porter to a backwoods cabin, and present him with all the evidence that Rogachev wants him to travel to a top secret Russian research base in deepest Siberia. In fact, its precise location is still unknown (I found this a little too obscure to understand: I thought they had satellite photos. Like most of the novel, these early passages required rereading to try and figure out what was going on, and even then I often gave up trying to understand the minutiae and just read on regardless.)

Raven becomes a Korean seaman

A vast amount of effort then goes in to describing Johnny’s trip by tramp steamer from Japan up into the Arctic Ocean.

As soon as he said yes to the mission, Raven (shall I call him Raven or Porter? Raven has more mystique) was taken to some kind of camp where he was trained in spying and spycraft.

This experience, which took several months, is not actually described in the book, simply referred back to as and when necessary. During his time in ‘the camp’, the surly, secretive multilingual academic Raven has been rather magically transformed into a kind of superspy, a man who will turn out to be capable of carrying out secret rendezvous with other agents, of picking up new outfits and passports and changing identities and carrying himself off as a whole range of different people, fluent in an impressive array of languages (English, Japanese, Korean, half a dozen tribal languages and Russian) which I found increasingly unbelievable.

Thus the next chapter skips over the training camp episode to give us Raven flying into Tokyo where, with typical stubbornness, he promptly refuses to do what the Japanese CIA agent, Yoshi, tells him.

The CIA plan is for Raven to masquerade as a Korean merchant seaman aboard a Japanese tramp steamer, Suzaku Maru, which is scheduled to puff up along the northern, Arctic coast of Siberia, till it gets to the nearest port to the fabled research base.

I still didn’t understand how they know where the base is, or how Johnny will know that, or how they know the ship will stop there, or anywhere nearby. Probably I should have reread the first hundred pages again, to try and piece together the highly elliptical clues. Davidson keeps his cards very close to his chest and only tells the reader the relevant bits of the plan, just before they fall due, and are about to kick in, sometimes only after they’ve happened. The result is a permanent sense of confusion.

Thus it was only a hundred pages later that the reader learns that ‘they’ (presumably the CIA) had approached one of the crew of this tramp steamer, Ushiba, and bribed him with a lot of money to take a pill which mimics the symptoms of yellow fever. He becomes extremely ill just as they dock in Japan. The captain transfers the sick sailor to an ambulance, and Raven just happens to be hanging round and have contacted the ship’s manpower agencies, as it arrives. So he is quickly hired, masquerading as a rough Korean merchant seaman, Sun Wong Chu, complete with pigtail, speaking the language with a slight speech impediment to the Japanese crew, who despise and ignore Koreans anyway.

There’s some tough sailor stuff, in particular a brutal fight with the bosun, who breaks his nose, but Raven works his passage and is gruffly accepted by the others. The ‘plan’ is for he himself to take a yellow fever pill so that, as the ship approaches Green Cape on the Arctic coast of Siberia, it is forced to put in to port and unload him. This he does, and the captain and bosun think he has somehow picked up the earlier sailor’s disease, maybe from infected sheets, mattress etc.

He is treated at Green Cape hospital by several doctors including a woman, Dr Komarova. Then, in a move which bewildered me, Dr Komarova hands him over to the Russian militia who put him on a flight to Yakutsk, where he is transferred to an Aeroflot flight to Murmansk – because that is where the steamer Suzaku Maru, was heading and where, they assume, he will want to rejoin his ship once he is well.

Except that, after recovering for a day or two at a seaman’s mission, Raven goes to a rendezvous with an agent, picks up from him a suitcase containing new clothes and identity papers, goes to the gents loos and shaves off all his hair and Korean pigtail, and emerges with a new identity as Nikolai (Kolya) Khodyan, a member of the Chukchee people from the Siberian east, and catches a plane to Irkutsk, changes to one to Yakutsk, then another local flight on to Tchersky, the nearest airport to Green Cape.

Hang on. If it was so easy to get there, to fly there – what was the point of the scam about him pretending to be a Korean sailor? Why the enormous complication of bribing the seaman he replace to take a pill giving him fever (and trusting that the feverish sailor wouldn’t give away the plan) – and then making Raven grow a ponytail and pretend to be Korean for weeks, and get beaten up by the bosun and nearly crushed by dangerous equipment and then take the same damn pill and seriously endanger his health when… he could have just flown there in the first place?

I read all this carefully, but remained completely puzzled. I am obviously missing something and I would say that that sense – the nagging sense of missing some vital piece of the jigsaw – is the permanent and frustrating feeling given by reading this book.

So Raven is now Nikolai (Kolya) Khodyan. As planned, he proceeds to the vacant apartment of one Alexei Mikhailovitch Ponomarenko. It turns out that this man was on holiday in the Black Sea when he was approached by the CIA who knew he was a drug smuggler. They threatened to tell the authorities unless he extended his stay on the Black Sea and let his apartment in Tchersky be used by their man Raven. More, it turns out that Khodyan is a friend of Ponomarenko’s, whose identity they have borrowed to create a ‘legend’ (fake identity) for Raven.

Raven discovers Ponomarenko had a gossipy old housekeeper, Anna, and a big brassy girlfriend, Lydia Yakovlevna, both of whom we are introduced to, and both need careful (though very different) handling. Our suave superspy is up to both challenges.

Once unpacked and settled in, Raven goes straight to the Tchersky Transport Company and get a job as a long-distance lorry driver. A great deal of description goes into detailing the work of truck companies in the frozen north of Siberia, and the organisation of this particular company, and the shouty director, Bukarovksy, and various foremen who Raven has to sweet-talk into getting a job – and then we learn a great deal about the different types of trucks.

Davidson very powerfully transports us to a completely strange world, with its language, customs, slang, prejudices and the sheer, backbreaking nature of the work. In summer everything melts, the ships can bring in goods but they can’t be distributed because the countryside is a bog. In winter the ocean freezes over – no more ships – but so does the landscape and so trucks can now drive across it. Especially, it turns out, along the rivers, whose flat, deep-frozen-ice surfaces make perfect highways.

(Davidson gives historical background to the economy of the area, which began as appalling forced labour camps in the 1930s and 40s, but was transformed by the discovery of gold and other minerals in the 1960s to something like a viable, if gruelling, mining economy, pp.188-189)

Raven of course knows how to drive all the trucks (including the small, all-purpose ‘bobik’). He has – by impersonating a Korean seaman, surviving a brutal fight with the bosun, surviving a bout of yellow fever, carrying out a secret rendezvous in an airport and completely transforming his appearance and emerging a fluent Chukchee-speaking truck driver – established himself as a kind of spy superman, speaking as many oriental languages as required and capable of blending in anywhere as a member of the minority Siberian native peoples.

Raven is signed up as a driver and does the work well, earning respect and friendship among the rough crews. At a party of truck drivers Raven is horrified to notice the woman doctor Komarova, who treated him as the sick Korean seaman a few weeks earlier, taking an inordinate interest in him. (Didn’t anyone writing this grand plan foresee that he would meet one set of people as sick Korean and then, returning in a completely different guise, risked bumping into the same people again?)

She comes over and talks. She is interested that he is a Chukchee. She invites him to come and meet her mother who lives in a community of Chukchee. Raven goes and we meet the little old lady and her Chukchee friend who, it turns out (the Chukchee community being so small) was present at his birth!!

Luckily, Raven has memorised the ‘legend’ prepared for him so immaculately that he is able to talk to this old lady about his numerous relatives and their mutual acquaintances (all the time, obviously, speaking in Chukchee). I found this wildly improbable.

On the way back from the little tea party, Raven determines to kill the doctor who has been asking more and more suspicious questions about his background. He gets as far as putting his arm round her neck and is on the verge of snapping it (he is a big, strong lad) when she squeals that she is in on The Plan, she is part of The Plan, she is his contact with Rogachev!

After that they go back to her place, she explains some of the background (her father and Rogachev were in the same labour camp together; she knew him as a kindly uncle when she was a girl), and the big revelation that it was she who bribed a merchant seaman who she was treating to take the coded cigarette papers which Rogachev had smuggled out to her, placed in a letter and addressed to Prof Lazenby, the fateful letter which was opened by his secretary in her calm Oxford office all those months earlier.

Then they have sex. Obviously. Most women I know like to shag a man who’s just tried to murder them.

She was not as well found as Lydia Yakovlevna; lankier, less yielding. But she was lithe, controlled, and quite used, as she said, to getting what she wanted. She was also very much more genuine, arching without histrionics when her moment came, and he arched at the same time, and afterwards she kissed his face and stroked it. (p.247)

Now they work together to smuggle Raven into the research base. This new plan stretched credibility to breaking point and beyond. It turns out the research base is very heavily patrolled and guarded (of course), but is serviced by a rotating squad of native Evenk people, selected from the large Evenk tribe which makes a living herding reindeer nearby. The Evenk are honest and reliable and deeply clannish i.e. don’t talk to outsiders, and, anyway, don’t do anything more secret than laundry, cooking, humping heavy equipment about. None of them has any idea what the research going on at the base is about.

Dr Komarova will smuggle Raven in by using a ruse. The ruse is this:

Rogachev, head of the research station, is attended by one of the Evenk tribe, Stepan Maximovich. Stepan inherited the job from his father. He never leaves the base. Raven will be taken to meet the clan leader of the tribe, Innokenty, and pretend to be one of them, an Evenk, but who moved as a boy to Novosibirsk in the distant south (to explain his rickety accent). He will then give a long complicated story about how he met down in the south some members of a white (Russian) family, worked for them, got to know and admire them, but how the father, some kind of scientist, was sent by the state off to some kind of ‘weather station’ in the north 15 or 16 years earlier. Money was sent the family, but no letters, Then the mother of the family died young, but the daughter survived, grew up, got married and is now pregnant. But she herself is now ill. A few months ago he got a letter from the daughter begging to see him. Raven goes sees her and she begs him to track down her father for her, name of Rogachev. He poked around in local offices and got a hint that M. Rogachev was posted somewhere in the Kolyma region. This woman begged Raven to travel to the north to find her father, and ask him to give her unborn child a name, it being the role of parents to name new babies.

This sob story will persuade the Evenk to smuggle Raven into the top secret research facility, hand him on to the personal assistant Stepan, who is the only one who can gain him admittance to the presence of the legendary scientist, Rogachev – so that Raven can hand deliver to him the letter written by his daughter.

And this is what happens. Dr Komarov takes Raven to a meeting with Innokenty and the tribe (flying there by helicopter on the pretext of making a routine medical visit). The Evenk elders completely accept Raven’s long cock-and-bull story (pp.262-268). They offer to give him all the help he needs (incidentally, also accepting his use of the Evenk language, which is different from the Chukchee Raven has been using in his persona as Kolya. He is, it will be remembered, a super-linguist).

There then follows the cloak and dagger business of smuggling Raven into the site. Raven poses as the driver of a lorry full of parts and goods which Dr Komarova is taking to the base. They pass through the security barrier, the guards checking her and her Chukchee driver (Raven)’s passes and wave through. Then, as is usual, some of the Evenk porters come out into the snow to help unpack the truck in the sub-zero conditions.

Komarova chooses a moment when the guards’ backs are turned and Raven swaps clothes with one of the Evenk tribesmen. This Evenk dresses as Raven, then accompanies Pomarova back to the truck, heavily swathed in scarves and muffles and is signed back out of the complex, while Raven, also heavily muffled, is accepted on the inside by the cohort of Evenk tribesmen currently working there – because they are all in on the conspiracy of him smuggling the letter from the pregnant woman to Rogachev, as agreed off by headman Innokenty. In fact they are almost too much in on the conspiracy as they all smile and grin and wink at the doctor and Raven so much they become tensely afraid the Russian guards will notice something is wrong. But they don’t. They think the native peoples are nuts, anyway.

There follows yet more cloak and dagger as, late that night, when the Evenk have gone to bed in their dormitory, Stepan the personal assistant comes and smuggles Raven out of the Evenk dormitory, through secret passages in the research base, and finally into an enormous luxury underground library, with a gallery running round the bookshelves dotted with masterpiece paintings by Picasso, Rembrandt and so on, and leaves him there.

There’s a whirring of motors and Rogachev, the man who started this whole preposterous series of events, whirs into the library in his wheelchair. Wheelchair. That explains why he couldn’t have gone anywhere to meet a western representative.

First Raven explains the subterfuge which has got him this far, i.e. that he’s delivering a letter to Stepan from his pregnant but ill grand-daughter, and they get an envelope and scribble on a blank sheet which Raven can show to the Evenks as the grateful father’s reply.

That out of the way, Rogachev can at last explain to Raven, and to the impatient reader, what the devil the whole thing is about. What it’s about is this:

The mystery at the heart of Kolymsky Heights

Rogachev tells Raven that the Russians have been experimenting for generations to try and breed a type of intelligent but hardy ape who can function as labour in this bleak, sub-freezing terrain.

(I blinked in disbelief at this point. We know that during the 1930s, 40s and 50s they used slave labour to work these areas. If Russians don’t want to do it nowadays, why not pay the local tribespeople, or do what the rest of the West does and import cheap immigrant labour? Breeding an entire new species seems a rather costly and unpredictable way of solving your labour problem, the kind of fantasy idea which only exists in science fiction novels.)

Rogachev tells a cock-and-bull story (this novel is full of them) about his predecessor, Zhelikov, being in a labour camp, but being plucked out and flown to Moscow after the war to meet the great Stalin because the dictator had read a scientific paper about hibernation. This planted the seed in Stalin’s mind that he might not die but be preserved alive. Zhelikov listened to Stalin’s musings and realised they were his passport out of the labour camp, and so nodded wisely, and agreed to set up a research base to bring suspended animation / hibernation/ cryogenics to the peak of perfection which would be required before they could try it on the Great Leader. Stalin rang up Beria and told him to make it so.

Zhelikov asked that the existing weather research base at Tcherny Vodi, near the labour camp of Tchersky, be greatly expanded. They’d have to dig down into the small mountain it was built on, to build multiple levels below the surface, levels for scientists, for ancillary workers, all the laboratories and so on. Stalin said, Make it so.

With the result that the best of Soviet engineering built the James Bond-style secret underground base which Raven now finds himself in, quaffing sherry amid the bookshelves, surrounded by masterpieces by Mondrian and Matisse. All quite bizarre. I didn’t know if I was meant to take this as a parody of a James Bond movie, where the mad scientist reveals his plan for world domination amid symbols of uber-wealth and corruption. All it needed was for Rogachev to be stroking a white cat. Are we meant to take it seriously?

Once the base was established Zhelikov wrote to Rogachev describing the work they were doing and inviting him to join. So he came and had been there ever since.

Now the mad scientist in the wheelchair introduces Raven to his star patient. It is an ape named Ludmilla, lying in bed in a dress, wearing lipstick and glasses and reading. She says hello to Raven. Raven says hello to Ludmilla. The reader wonders if he is hallucinating.

Rogachev explains that the research program to breed intelligent apes made great advances but suffered a fatal flaw: they found they could produce either intelligent apes, or hardy apes, but never the two together. They had been exploring all aspects of the problem including brain circuitry. The discovery of the pregnant neolithic woman and her foetus led to a breakthrough, but not the one they were expecting.

By a series of accidents the research stumbled across discoveries to do with eyesight. Davidson goes into mind-numbing but incomprehensible detail as Rogachev describes the step-by-step progress made, first with rats, then with experimental apes, by which they blinded the subjects – but then used a ‘harmonic wave’ which they had accidentally stumbled across, and which turned out to ‘restore eyesight’ (explained from page 315 onwards).

This ‘harmonic wave’ had several practical applications and Rogachev shows Raven one of them. Turns out Ludmilla the talking ape had been badly injured in the explosion at the research lab which had been detected by American satellites all those months earlier. Her eyes had been damaged and infected (the explosion released some kind of contamination, we aren’t told what).

The point is that Russian grasp of this harmonic wave technology is so advanced that they were able to build a) glasses which convert light into digital information which is then b) transported along wires in the wings of the glasses to electrical contacts which c) interact with contacts embedded behind the subjects’ ears, contacts which they have wired up to the optical regions of the subject’s brain so that d) the blind can see through their glasses!

All this is taking us a long, long way from the initial idea of ape-men and H.G. Wells. Now we are curing the blind. But even this turns out not to be the secret at the book’s core.

Because tests of the harmonic band wave had another unforeseen consequence: it completely disrupts the electrical signals which are used to direct guided and intercontinental missiles. By accident, the base has stumbled over a perfect defence system against all kinds of missile attack!

Rogachev now hands Raven two of the shiny square plates which we used to call computer floppy disks, back in the early 90s (p.326). These floppy disks contain all the information needed to recreate the Russian experiments and build harmonic wave machines and so develop their own anti-missile defences. But they must be opened in laboratory conditions, at lower than 240 degrees below freezing, or they will self-destruct.

I will die soon, Rogachev says (he, too, was infected in the explosion and fire). These will be my legacy. Goodbye. And he turns and whirs out of the room in his wheelchair. Raven goes back to the main door and a few minutes later Stepan opens it and lets him out, they retrace their steps to the Evenk dormitory and smuggle him in. In the morning Raven tells the Evenk that the grateful father has given him a letter and a ring to hand on to his beloved daughter. the Evenk think he is a hero and grin at their own involvement in the kind-hearted plot. A few days later Dr Komarova returns for more medical treatment and Raven is again swapped for the Evenk driver, this time the other way round, the Evenk returning to the dormitory, Raven reverting to his role as driver, driving Dr Komarova out of the complex and away, back to Tchersky. Mission accomplished. Well, first part anyway.

Complications

Unfortunately, there are two complications. One, at a literally very high level, is that the Chinese launch two test rockets during this period, designed to fly the length of China. Both fail due to direction mechanism failure. Davidson takes us into the nitty gritty of the designs and the failures but the upshot is they’re being interfered with by Russian satellites which hover in fixed position way up over the Asian landmass. Is this going to become important? Are the Chinese going to interfere in the story somewhere?

Closer to home, the drug dealer Ponomarenko, unhappy by the rainy Black Sea, hears on the radio that the state is announcing an amnesty for drug dealers. He checks with a lawyer and the cops and then comes forward to report that he has been blackmailed into lending his flat in Tchersky to some dodgy operators, who also wanted to know all about his friend Nikolai (Kolya) Khodyan.

The Black sea cops contact the small police office in Tchersky. They put out a warrant for Kolya/Raven. Dr Komorova hears about it in her capacity as a senior government official in the region. She warns Raven. One escape plan had been for Raven to fly out of the region. Or maybe take another ship. Both now impossible with the authorities checking all papers. Good job he had made a back-up plan.

The bobik

The whole Siberian section of the story has taken several months, during which Raven has wormed his way into the good books of the Tchersky Transport Company, undertaking long distance and countless short distance drives for them. The ‘plan’ had made provision for ‘extracting’ him from the location once the mission was accomplished. But Raven is stroppy and contrary by nature and had begun to make an independent escape plan. Just as well.

This plan is to a) cosy up to the chief engineer at the Tchersky Transport Company and b) persuade him to let him have all the component which make up a bobik light truck so he can build one himself from scratch.

On one of his many delivery trips around the region Raven has discovered a big cave, hidden by frozen bushes, big enough to turn into a workshop where he can secure a block and tackle to the ceiling, instal lamps around the place, store food, a sleeping bag and blankets – and then, slowly steadily, week after week, persuade the head engineer at Tchersky, to let him have more and more pieces of bobik and drop them off at the cave, and build a truck from scratch, by himself!

Implausible doesn’t seem an adequate word to describe how wildly improbable and unnecessary I found this. Why not just pile Dr Pomarova and a load of food into one of the existing bobiks he gets to use perfectly legally, set off on a long, perfectly legal trip, and just keep going? No. In Davidson’s story, he has to build his own!

The Tchersky militia led by Major Militsky become more officious and search every house. Raven hides in Dr Komarova’s cellar. Then she drives him out to the cave with food and he does back-breaking work constructing the bobik. She is due to come next night at midnight. Is hours late. He goes out to watch. Tension, stress.

She turns up with food and the battery, the last component needed to complete the bobik, and news that the hunt is getting serious. In fact it has become a region-wide hunt and a general from Irkutsk has flown in to take charge of it. Pomorova tells Raven how much she loves him. Oh darling. Oh sweet man. Yes, yes, says Raven, but realises that she is the only official allowed into Tcherny Vodi. They will interrogate her. They go over her story, trying to plant red herrings. Then kiss goodbye. ‘I will see you again, won’t I, my love?’ She asks. ‘Of course,’ he replies, lying.

She leaves. He tries to sleep. He can’t. He gets up and starts the bobik and inches out onto the frozen river. Half an hour later a military patrol passes by. He has got out just in time.

Raven on the run

Raven drives east. On the map there is a tributary of the main river-highroad which the map says is impassible. It is certainly strewn with rocks embedded in the ice, but he drives slowly and carefully and the bobik is designed to be indestructible. After several hours Raven comes to a hump-backed bridge which carries the highway from Tchersky to Bilibino (p.377). At a succession of Road Stations, Raven cruises in silently with his lights doused, parks and siphons petrol from the tanks of other bobiks in the car parks, the drivers tucked up inside the warm lodges. Not weather to be outside. He is heading east into a big range of mountains known as the Kolymsky Heights. Aha.

In parallel, a security forces general flies into Tchersky from Irkutsk and takes charge of the search. Having interrogated Ponomarenko, he realises this is a sophisticated spying project mounted by foreign powers. He realises the agent will have left the area. He orders all transport within a 500 mile radius to be frozen and checked.

Basically these last 100 pages turn into quite a nailbiting chase, Raven a clever resourceful fugitive, pitted against the General who is also a very intelligent and thorough investigator. While Raven drives East in a bobik the General is misled by several false clues into telling his forces to search to the south for a missing rubbish truck. But when that avenue runs dry, follows other clues, until he is right on the tail of our man.

The cold calculation of the fugitive, and the clever deductions of the general (I don’t think we’re ever given his name) reminded me strongly of the similar set-up in Frederick Forsyth’s classic thriller The Day of the Jackal. A chase.

Raven drives on on on through the snow, hiding under bridges for snatched sleep, surviving on bread and salami, driving over a thousand kilometers, with a number of close shaves, and just squeezing past security barriers along the way, until he arrives at a tiny settlement named Baranikha which has an airport sure enough, but no flights in our out due to a fierce blizzard.

Raven hooks up with a drunk Inuit who he lets drink all his vodka till he passes out, whereupon Raven takes his coat and boots and backpack and skis and identity papers and hustles himself onto the first plane which is now leaving the airport as the snow lifts, to a tiny place out east, towards the Bering Strait, named Mitlakino.

Here he signs in with a jostling noisy scrum of other workers but in the dead of night retrieves his papers, backpack and steals a snowplough. The geography now becomes crucial. Baranikha and Mitlakino are way out at the easternmost tip of Siberia, on the blocky peninsula which sticks out into the Bering Strait and faces on to Alaska. Raven hadn’t planned it this way, it was pure fluke that the only plane flying from the airport was heading here. But now he’s here he conceives the plan of crossing the Bering Strait from the Russian side to the American side, and freedom. (Although Davidson nowhere explicitly explains this, the reader eventually deduces that at this time of year – the winter solstice – the Bering Strait is completely frozen over. Since it is only 50 miles wide, a man could walk it, admittedly hampered by the fog, snow and frequent blizzards.)

To cut a long story short, the security general has caught up with Raven’s trail, they’ve found the drunk Inuit at the airport as he sobers up and complains that someone’s stolen his papers, they’ve followed the trail to the workers dormitory at Mitlakino, the general yells down the phone to the dopy head of the Mitlakino settlement who does a search and discovers a snowplough is missing. They deduce Raven must be heading to the coast and the general dispatches helicopters from a nearby military base.

The border between America and Russia runs down the middle of the Bering Strait. There are two islands there, the Greater Diomede Island is on the Russian side of the sea border, the Lesser Diomede Island is on the American side.

Raven drives his snowplough through a blizzard along the coast till he gets to a settlement called Veyemik. He hides the plough and knocks on the door of the biggest house, waking the headman of the local tribe of native peoples, Inuit. Here he pretends to be an Inuit on the run from the authorities. The people take him in. Next morning they all go out fishing to iceholes they cut in the deep frost covering the sea. Raven asks to go with them. They take him in a motorised ski-bus out to the hole where the Inuits split up to fish different holes. Raven has asked a series of questions establishing that they are almost within sight of Greater Diomede Island. He slips away from the Indians and sets out on skis.

But there is unusual helicopter activity overhead. The general has figured out where he is, and even has men at Veyemik interrogating the inhabitants, and now knows the fugitive is out on the ice. The general mobilises the defence forces on Greater Diomede who turn out in ski busses, little ski scooters and on skis. Plus the helicopters overhead.

After some complicated hide and seek, during which Raven, in the ongoing blizzard fog, isolates and knocks out a security soldier and steals all his equipment, he eventually realises the general has created a solid wall of trucks and soldiers with headlights and torches on, 250m from the border. Raven climbs up a cliff on the eastern side of Greater Diomede and hides in a cave, but then a helicopter flies slowly low along the cliff, guiding a truck of soldiers which uses a mortar to fire gas mortars into every cave. Raven tucks himself back against the wall but the mortar which shoots into his cave bounces on to his chest and explodes leaving him deaf and half blind. Only a little later do we discover it blew out one of his eyes.

Half-blinded he crawls to the cave entrance and shoots down the militia in the jeep, then half climbs half falls to the ground, crawls to the jeep, and half drives it. The chase becomes horrible now, as the militia close in and shoot out the tyres and lob mortars at the engine (the general has shouted down the phone to the local commander that the fugitive must be taken alive). A mortar detonates on the bonnet which blows shards of metal into Raven’s body. He cannot hear and barely drive or think. The wrecked jeep slews in circles but…

Once again and for the final time I was confused by Davidson’s elliptical descriptions and by the way he intrudes into this vivid description, parallel accounts of the aftermath and what the Russian authorities discovered in the cave and along Raven’s trail. All of this fooled me into thinking he made it just to the edge of the international border but was captured by the Russkies.

Which turns out to be wrong. The first the reader realises of this is when we are told that Raven is being rushed to hospital in Anchorage. I.e., although it is nowhere explicitly stated that he crossed the border, and there is no description of anything the American troops did on their side or how his body was recovered or anything – next we know we have entered a different type of register as the book becomes like an official record of events, describing at high-level the transport of the body. Then we are told that Raven’s severely injured body packs up and he dies. Lost one eye, blinded in the other, shot through one knee, chest cluttered with shrapnel, lost one lung, it packs up and Raven dies. His funeral is attended by officials from Russia, who apologise for this sorry incident and for how a confused native must have wandered by accident into a military exercise. And who, naturally, make a note of everyone who attends the funeral.

Which is why none of the CIA officials attend, obviously. In fact no-one attends except the mortician and coroner.

But another reason no-one attends is that Raven isn’t dead. Davidson’s last trick in this very tricksy narrative is the not-altogether-unexpected revelation that the agency spirited the heavily-wounded Raven away to a super-advanced hospital, and swapped his boy with that of an unknown vagrant who had been – very conveniently – run over and trashed. That’s the heavily-bandaged body which is placed in a coffin and whose funeral the Russkies attend and who is cremated.

Meanwhile, Raven recuperates, given the best medical treatment the agency can provide.

And, in the final pages, there is the ring. You may recall that Rogachev gave Raven a ring, supposedly a blessing to his ‘daughter’, part of the cover story which got Raven into the compound. The ring was in fact Rogachev’s weeding ring which, knowing he is soon to die, he gives to Rogachev. Inside is engraved the motto As our love the circle has no end. After he’d been extracted from the base, among many other things Raven showed the ring to Dr Komarova, who has fallen deeply in love with him. Later, after he has fled the tightening net, Komarova goes to check out the cave where Raven had built the bobik. He has very professionally completely emptied it of every trace of his presence (loading it into the bobik and disposing of most of it in faraway ravines on his escape drive east). But she finds a small scrap of paper scrunged up. Inside is the ring with its motto.

Now, on the last page of the book, Dr Komarova has quit her job in Kolymsk and moved west to Petersburg (despite a shrewd interrogation by the general, she managed to throw the investigators off her trail and survived the whole episode without reproach). And three months later she receives a letter, containing an open-ended air ticket to Montreal, an immigration department slip bearing her correct name and passport number. And tucked away at the bottom of the envelope a tiny slip of cigarette paper bearing a single line of writing: As our love the circle has no end.

As love stories go, it has to be one of the weirdest I’ve ever read, but then the entire novel is meticulously detailed, powerfully atmospheric, often completely preposterous, sometimes incomprehensible but despite everything, exerted a very powerful tug on my imagination and memory.


Maps

There are four maps in the novel (more than you sometimes get in history books). Good quality ones, too, showing

  1. the whole of northern Asia (pp.32-33)
  2. the coast of British Columbia, where Lazenby and the CIA man go to find Raven (p.76)
  3. Cape Dezhnev and Bering Strait region (p.158)
  4. the Kolymsky Region (p.417)

But there is the same sense of oddity or something wrong about these as theres is over the whole book. Very simply, the two latter maps should be reversed.

The central section of the novel is set in the Kolymsky region, so the detailed map of the area – which shows Cape Green where the ship docks, Tchersky where the doctor lives and Raven gets his job on the lorries, the location of the research centre and even of the cave he discovers and uses to build his bobik – quite obviously this map should go at the beginning of that section instead of where it is actually positioned, well after that whole section has finished (?)

Whereas it is only on page 410 that we first hear of the small settlement of Mitlakino and Raven decides to take the plane there. At which point the precise geography of the area becomes vital to his plans for escape, and for the final nailbiting descriptions of his escape across the ice – and so this is where the map of Cape Dezhnev and Bering Strait should go – not 250 pages earlier, where it was completely irrelevant and didn’t register as important. It wasn’t important, yet.

Is this an editorial mistake, a mistake in the printing of the book? Or yet another subtle way of blindsiding the reader and keeping us puzzled, as the suppression of so many other key facts in the narrative succeeded in puzzling me all the way through.

Style

Flat descriptions Although the book is set in some dazzling and awe-inspiring landscapes (the seascapes and frozen landscapes of Siberia) Davidson is not that at descriptions. He gives the facts, but they rarely come to life. Here’s an example of his prose.

He got up and walked about the room. In a recess beside the stove an icon was on the wall. The stove was cold, the house now electrically heated, very stuffy, very warm. Books were everywhere, on shelves, tables. He couldn’t make out the titles in the dark. (p.243)

You can see the bit of effort Davidson has made to create something more than flat factual description in the use of the verbless phrases ‘very stuffy, very warm’. Not very inspiring, though, is it?

Martin Cruz Smith’s sequel to Gorky ParkPolar Star, finds his Moscow detective, Arkady Renko way off his beat, working on a factory ship in the Bering Sea. It’s the same location as the coastal scenes of Kolymsky Heights, at about the same time (Polar Star 1989, Kolymsky Heights 1994). Smith’s book is sensationally vivid in description and atmosphere. I think it’s the best of the eight Renko novels because you can feel the icy temperature, the salt spray in your face, the harshness of frozen metal.

None of that is captured by Davidson’s prose. It is flat and functional. Eventually, by dint of repetition of the facts, you get the powerful sense of brain-numbing cold, of ice and snow and blizzards. But it is done rationally, by repetition of factual information, not by the style.

Instead of jazzy and vivid description, Davidson has a few mannerisms of his own.

Echoing One is a kind of dumb, blank repetition of events. Very often he’ll end a paragraph saying so-and-so plans to do x, y or z. And then the next paragraph begins with ‘And so-and-so did x, y, or z.’

‘I have thought how this could be managed’.
He explained how this could be managed. (p.306)

He was contacting them himself immediately.
Which, immediately, he did. (p.443)

It’s a kind of rhetorical echolalia. It doesn’t add to atmosphere or even tension. The opposite. I found it helped harden the colourless carapace of Davidson’s prose, often making it even harder to work out what was happening and, in particular, why.

I suppose, it also creates an effect of inevitability. Someone says something is going to happen. And that’s what happens. Maybe the effect is to create a subtle sense of fatefulness and predestination, to give the narrative a very slightly mythic quality.

‘Sure, Kolya. You’ll take the job – just when we get the call.’
And they got the call, and he got the job. (p.197)

It all falls into place, more as if it’s a myth or legend or fairy tale, than an ordinary sequence of contingent human events.

Phrase reversal Another tic is reversing the usual structure of an English sentence, from subject-verb-object to object-subject-verb.

His present job he greatly disliked. (p.281)

With his security chief Beria he had discussed this idea. (p.299)

This idea he suddenly found himself discussing in the most bizarre circumstances… (p.300)

The route to Anyuysk she knew, and he stayed under a blanket in the back while she drove. (p.348)

This ridiculous situation he had promptly ordered Irkutsk to deal with… (p.385)

It’s a stylistic mannerism, a not very successful attempt to jazz up Davidson’s generally flat prose.

I suppose it might be argued that playing with the word order of conventional English like this goes a little way towards mimicking the various foreign languages that are spoken in the book, and maybe creating a sense of the ‘otherness’ of Russia and the Russian-speakers who the second half is set amongst. Maybe.

Her intense nervousness she covered with an air of impatience. (p.386)

To Zirianka a long-distance helicopter was required… (p.404)

Italics In the extended account of Raven’s meeting with Innokenty and the Evenks, Davidson used an excessive amount of italics to make his points, often rather unnecessarily. This reminded me of John le Carré’s nugatory use of italics to try and make his dialogue more dramatic.

Since they started their careers at almost the same time, this made me wonder if it’s a feature of the fiction of the time: was there something about emphasis in the late 1950s, a historic idiolect from that period which lingered on in their prose styles.

If they merely hovered over his route, they would catch him now. How far, in three or four minutes, could he have gone? (p.444)

For me, the random use of italics didn’t intensify the reading experience but created a rather annoying distraction.

Gaps and absences

I read the book with a permanent sense that I kept missing key bits of information about who was going where, and why.

Unless this is simply part of Davidson’s technique: to leave key bits of information and motivation out of the novel so as to leave the reader permanently off-balance.

Possibly, a second reading of the book, knowing in advance information which is only revealed later on in the text, would help you make sense of all the hints and obliquities early on in the narrative. Maybe the pattern only fully emerges after several readings. Maybe this is why Philip Pullman is liberally quoted on the front, the back and in the short introduction he provides for the book, describing it as ‘the best thriller he’s ever read’. In the introduction he says he’s arrived at this opinion after reading the book four times. Maybe that’s the amount of effort required to see the full pattern. But certain inexplicabilities would still remain: why did Raven undertake the long sea voyage if he could just have flown to Tchersky any day of the week? And nothing can eliminate the truly bizarre scene where Raven shakes hands with an ape in a dress named Ludmilla. The final hundred pages of fast-paced chase revert to something like conventional thriller style. But shaking hands with a talking ape? I still have to shake my head to be sure I actually read that. Did someone spike my drink?


Related links

Goldfinger by Ian Fleming (1959)

Murder in Mexico

Bond dislikes killing and it gives him a bad conscience. He tries to persuade himself it’s just part of the job, he does it then moves on, but in reality he broods and worries. Thus Goldfinger opens with Bond in the departure lounge of Miami airport, obsessively going over his most recent job in Mexico. Fleming gives a brief description of how an informal heroin smuggling circle was set up by a posh, amateur Brit which led from poppy fields in Mexico via a courier to Victoria Coach Station and then distribution via Soho. Bond tracks the pipeline to its source and blows up the heroin warehouse, but then is approached in the street that night by an assassin hired by the gang, and after a brief intense fight, kills him. But Bond broods.

What an extraordinary difference there was between a body full of person and a body that was empty! Now there is someone, now there is no one. This had been a Mexican with a name and an address, an employment card and perhaps a driving license. Then something had gone out of him, out of the envelope of flesh and cheap clothes, and had left him an empty paper bag waiting for a dustcart. And the difference, the thing that had gone out of the stinking Mexican bandit, was greater than all Mexico. (p.7)

This passage, especially its portentous final phrase, reminded me of Fleming’s contemporary, Graham Greene (b.1904). (This brooding over the mystery of death, the extinguishing of life, also reminds of the shock Bond feels at the death of Darko Kerim, the one-man life force, in From Russia with Love, p.277.) At the end of the novel Bond will feel the same way about the broken rag-doll body of Tilly Masterton.

Bond stood and looked down at the little empty tangle of limbs and clothes. He saw the bright, proud girl with the spotted handkerchief round her hair in the flying TR3. Now she had gone. (p.205)

Death is the great mystery, the real puzzle, at the heart of these books.

Goldfinger exposed

As he sits worrying, Bond hears the announcement that his flight to New York has been cancelled, and then is approached by a middle-aged American. He introduces himself as Junius Du Pont, one of the couple who were sitting next to Bond during his climactic card game which forms the centrepiece of Casino Royale. Briefly, he is a millionaire but has a problem: he’s been playing canasta with a fellow millionaire, strange guy called Goldfinger, Auric Goldfinger, and has consistently lost, far more than the odds would predict, losing some $25,000. Having seen Bond in action and knowing him for an expert, he invites Bond to stay over in Miami a night, all expenses paid, then pose as a businessman come to visit Du Pont and in reality figure out how Goldfinger is cheating.

Excellent! This is just the kind of relaxing, easy, no pressure break Bond needs to take his mind off death and destruction. He goes with Du Pont in his chauffeur-driven car to a luxury hotel and has the best meal of his life: crab in melted butter with toast, washed down by pint mugs of pink champagne.

So Bond goes along next day to the poolside table where Du Pont plays and meets Goldfinger. As with all the Bond villains he is distinctively misshapen and ugly, really a kind of cartoon. Goldfinger is just five foot tall, tubby, with no neck and an enormous round moon-shaped head, topped by a crew cut of bright red hair. He is very rich and very cool. Bond is introduced and sits idly reading his paper and half watching the game. He watches Goldfinger win hand after hand of canasta, fleecing Du Pont, and eliminates all the usual card sharping tricks. When Goldfinger says he never moves from his chair because he doesn’t like the view over the sea, it gives him agoraphobia, Bond gets a clue. He realises Du Pont is sitting with his back to the hotel so someone in an apartment could, in theory, look over his shoulder and see his cards.

He gets a camera from his apartment and the well-connected Du Pont gets a pass key from the hotel manager. Then, during the afternoon game, while Goldfinger is fleecing Du Pont again, Bond sneaks into Goldfinger’s room to discover a beautiful posh English woman wearing only bra and panties (p.34, and is first seen from the back, just like Tiffany Case in Diamonds). She is looking through binoculars down at Du Pont’s hand and giving Goldfinger detailed instructions. This is how he wins so consistently.

Bond startles the girl by taking a flashlight photo of the set-up, then chatting to the (obviously) alarmed and scared woman, who gives her name as Jill Masterton (p.39). She is Goldfinger’s private secretary. As they chat, and Bond explains he’s working for Du Pont and simply wanted to discover the scam, she relaxes and even begins to warm to Bond. Having not told him the winning cards for quite a few moments, Goldfinger has begun to lose. Now Bond decides to put the finishing touches: he takes the radio microphone from Jill, and dictates his terms to Goldfinger: he will send the photo and full details of his scam to the police and FBI unless Goldfinger a) admits to Du Pont he’s been cheating b) writes and gives him a check for $50,000, including all the money he’s won off him as well as a tidy fee for Bond. And then, to rub it in, Bond insists Goldfinger pays for a luxury train sleeper compartment for him and Jill to New York. Reluctantly, Goldfinger agrees and does these things.

Bond gets effusive thanks from Du Pont, then takes the sleeper to New York (all told in retrospect) where he makes passionate love to Masterton, five times, apparently (p.43 – almost as soon as they met, she was looking at him with a look of submissiveness and longing, and later says she will do anything if Bond doesn’t hurt Goldfinger: ie she is much more quickly submissive than either the feisty Tiffany Case or distant Gala Brand, falling more into the ‘immediately seduced’ category of Solitaire, who fancied him straight off). But when they get to New York, Jill insists on going back to Goldfinger, despite both their misgivings about how he might react to having been so systematically humiliated…

Back in London

Cut to Bond back in the Secret Service building overlooking Regent’s Park, where he has been assigned night duty and is logging calls from stations round the world. Fleming has just explained how much he actually enjoys being up through the night, when he is called in for a breakfast meeting with M. Surprise surprise, it concerns the man he just happens to have met on Miami, one Auric Goldfinger who, M tells him, is the richest man in England. (It has rather the same effect as the way Sir Hugo Drax is introduced in Moonraker as the most popular man in England.)

The Bank of England

His name is mentioned as M describes having dinner with the Governor of the Bank of England the previous night and listening to his concerns about the drain of gold from England. A certain Colonel Smithers is Head of the Bank’s research department and an expert on the subject. ‘Go and meet him 007.’ So off Bond goes and submits to a long, detailed history of gold, its use, importance and why the Bank is concerned it is being drained out of the country. Smithers gives us the backstory to Goldfinger: refugee from Riga before the war, set up a chain of pawn shops which now operates round the country, paying cash for small gold trinkets; these are melted down in his smelting works / factory near Reculver in Kent, which also deals in fertiliser and other chemical works. Goldfinger had been exporting fertiliser to India for years but when one of his ships was wrecked off Goodwin Sands, scientists found traces of gold in a chemically treated form had soaked into the hold. Smithers deduced Goldfinger has been converting the gold into a brown powder which passes customs as fertiliser, then having it restored to gold and selling at a big profit in India.

Bond reports back to M at 6 that evening, where M has more to tell him. They know Goldfinger marks his ingots (out of vanity) with a tiny incised ‘Z’. The most recent ingots the Service has come across thus marked have all been recovered from SMERSH operatives! Yes! From being some cheating millionaire, Goldfinger has suddenly been revealed as SMERSH’s banker! Bond is ordered to find him, confirm his activities and stop him, so he motors down to Kent in a work DB III, along the way filling in Goldfinger’s backstory, mainly from speculation: trained and briefed by SMERSH, despatched to Britain in 1937, told to lie low and set up a network of pawnbrokers as a front; while all the time he was given greater and greater responsibility as SMERSH’s overseas banker. Who knows how many deaths, assassinations and terror attacks he has helped organise and fund (pp.62-64).

As Umberto Eco points out, unlike Sherlock Holmes, Bond rarely has to detect anything and certainly never discovers a baddie behind a criminal activity: the baddies are always identified early on in the text, Le Chiffre, Mr Big, the Spangled Mob etc, the only interest is what form the confrontation and final struggle will take. (In this respect, From Russia With Love is an exception, since Bond is unaware of the conspiracy to entrap him and doesn’t know who his opponents are – Klebb and Grant – until very near the end: maybe it’s this element of genuine puzzlement and revelation (for Bond) which explains why many people think Russia is the best Bond book.)

A game of golf

In Miami, during the open social chitter chatter, Goldfinger and Bond had both admitted a fondness for golf, and even promised to play each other one day. Now Bond drives down to Goldfinger’s house in Kent and on to the famous golf course of Royal St Marks. Says hello to his old caddie and trainer, Blacking, and we learn that the teenage Bond was a golf prodigy who his trainer thought could have gone professional. While they’re chatting Goldfinger’s immense canary-yellow car comes rolling up the gravel drive, driven by the striking figure of a bowler-hatted Korean chauffeur. Bond makes like them bumping into each other is a happy accident and after some banter, Goldfinger challenges him to a round, with the stakes being the $10,000 he took off him in Miami.

Chapters eight and nine contain a very detailed description of each of the eighteen holes the two men play during the ensuing game of golf. Goldfinger has a good game so that it is very close, plus he cheats by a) putting Bond off his stroke b) tamping down the ground around his ball to make his shots easier. Eventually Bond and his caddy decide to cheat back and swap Goldfinger’s ball for a different make on the last hole. Thus at the moment that Goldfinger wins the round, Bond is able to reveal it is with the wrong ball thus, technically, losing the match. Goldfinger sputters with fury, almost declares Bond guilty of cheating, then contains his anger, and invites Bond to dinner at his house that evening.

Dinner at the Grange

1. Goldfinger welcomes Bond, but says he unfortunately just has to pop out to sort out some trouble one of his servants has got to in Thanet; back in 30 minutes. Bond sees this as a transparent invitation to go snooping round Goldfinger’s house. A doorway takes him into the overseer’s office of the factory, from where he looks down into a workshop and sees men fiddling with the door of Goldfinger’s Rolls. Back in the house he pokes around in the upper floors, coming across a male bedroom, all the way followed by a friendly ginger cat. Everything in the bedroom is pure and clean until he follows a whining sound to discover cine-camera film from three concealed cameras whirring round their spools in a concealed closet: obviously turned on when Goldfinger left, to monitor Bond’s movements. Bond deliberately exposes the film strips all to the light, then puts the cat into the container where the film had been spooled, as a feeble attempt to explain his sabotage.

2. Goldfinger returns and treats Bond to a quality dinner: curried shrimp and rice, with a Moselle, the Piesporter Goldtröpfchen ’53; roast duckling with Mouton Rothschild 1947; cheese soufflé and coffee.

3. Throughout the book there has been mention of Goldfinger’s Korean servants: he employs five of them. Now he gets his personal servant, Oddjob, to demonstrate his skills, and Oddjob proceeds to: slice through the wooden banister on the stairs with his bare hand; create a divot in the mantelpiece with a flying kick; destroy a wall fixture with his steel-rimmed bowler hat, thrown as a weapon.

Goldfinger explains that all five are Karate experts, Oddjob being one of the only three karate black belts in the world. (It is striking that Fleming feels he has to explain from scratch what karate is and give its history.) Goldfinger claims the Koreans are ‘the cruellest, most ruthless people in the world’. The cat which Bond left in the cinefilm basket? Goldfinger hands it to Oddjob and tells him he can eat it for his dinner.

Throughout there is the strong sense of menace and threat, while Bond plays his role of pretending he is fed up with Universal Exports and wants a way out, a way to make easy money. He even retells the story of the heroin business he foiled in the opening chapter, but casting himself as one of its organisers. Goldfinger listens impassively and hints that he may have a role for Bond in his organisation.

Across France

Goldfinger had mentioned that he was flying out of Lydd airport the next day, with his Rolls Royce Silver Ghost. Bond gets the Service to book him a ticket on the next flight following. He drives up to the airport before Goldfinger is due and tells the Customs people he’s with Scotland Yard. They let him inspect the Silver Shadow after Goldfinger and Oddjob have boarded the plane, giving Bond the opportunity to insert a primitive homing device into it.

Two hours later Bond’s flight carries him and his DB III over to Le Touquet where he picks up the trail of the Silver Ghost. There follows a long knowledgeable tour across northern France, down to the Loire and then East heading towards Switzerland. Fleming knows his French Routes Nationales and shows off his acquaintance with the best hotels and Michelin restaurants along the route. On the first night Goldfinger stops at Orleans where Bond checks into the Station Hotel and enjoys ‘one of his favourite meals’: two oeufs cocotte à la crème, a large seule meunière and an ‘adequate’ Camembert.

Next day Bond tracks Goldfinger south and east along the N73 when he stumbles across the car pulled over for a picnic by a river. Bond just has time to drive off down a cart track and isn’t noticed, but after Goldfinger and Oddjob finish their picnic and drive on, Bond goes to investigate and discovers, under some freshly disturbed turf, a big gold ingot (with the tell-tale ‘Z’ scratched into it). He takes it with him a) causing Goldfinger and SMERSH inconvenience b) maybe saving lives in whatever schemes it would have financed.

Slowly he realises that another car is tailing Goldfinger, a nifty little Triumph driven by a pretty woman wearing a pink head scarf. Now he thinks about it he realises the same car was at Lydd airport. In the busy streets of Mâcon he sees it behind him and deliberately reverses into it, writing off the bonnet and fan belt. He apologises profusely while the pretty woman gets out and is livid, saying she must get to Geneva to play in some golf tournament. Bond discovers her name – Tilly Masterton – aha! she is the sister of Jill Masterton, Goldfinger’s confidential secretary. Bond offers her a lift and so they share the rest of the journey to Geneva.

Bond drops her at a hotel on the outskirts of Geneva, then trails Goldfinger’s Silver Ghost to a large mansion behind high railings, with a sign reading ‘Enterprises Auric A.G.’. He parks in nearby woods and doubles back to a vantage point where he sees technicians come out of a factory-like building and start to disassemble Goldfinger’s car. Then he drives on into Geneva and contacts the Service’s man there. 1. He hands over the gold bar and tells him to send it with a message confirming Goldfinger’s role as SMERSH banker, back to London. 2. The Service man knows about Auric Enterprises: it makes metal-work products, most notably chairs for Mecca Charter Airways planes, a company Goldfinger part owns and which flies to India. Aha.

Everything clicks into place. After his boat was wrecked and investigated off the Kent coast, Goldfinger abandoned gold smuggling by sea: now he fits his ‘armour-plated’ Rolls Royce with gold panels, drives it across France to his factory in Switzerland, where the panels are extracted from the car, and remoulded, with alloy, as airplane seats, installed in planes which are flown to India, there melted back to gold and sold at a terrific profit.

Captured

That night, after checking into a Geneva hotel etc, Bond drives back out to the woods above the Goldfinger mansion. He is creeping towards a good vantage point when he sees a slender figure in black lying by a tree ahead of him: it is Tilly. He jumps her from behind, putting his hand over her mouth, then slowly freeing her once she knows it is him. Furious she tells him her story: Jill Masterton returned to Goldfinger after her train trip of passion with Bond in the early chapters, and Goldfinger killed her, in a typically macabre Fleming way: he had her body painted with gold paint all over so her pores couldn’t breathe, evacuate sweat etc, poisoning her. (Fleming adds the gruesome detail that Goldfinger likes sex once a month with prostitutes who Oddjob paints with gold, but leaving their backs free to ‘breathe’ before the furious animal act. Then Oddjob sluices them down in a chemical shower to retrieve the gold.)

Well, Tilly is Jill’s sister; so she has come here with a rifle to take revenge. While they’re still squabbling about who is getting in whose way a crossbow bolt thwacks into the tree above them. Oddjob and some other Korean guards. Bond tries to make light of it, claiming Tilly is his girlfriend and they’ll call in on Goldfinger tomorrow, but the Koreans shepherd them down through the fence and towards the house, through the front door and into the main room where Goldfinger is waiting. Now Goldfinger knows Bond is an enemy agent and spy, and after a bit of banter, orders him to be taken to ‘the Pressure Room’.

Bond throws himself across the table, head butting Goldfinger in the chest, and gets as far as throttling him with his bare hands, when Oddjob hits him very hard and the lights go out.

Sawn in half

Bond awakes to find himself tied to a large table with a circular saw designed to cut right across it, up between his legs and carve him in half. ‘Talk,’ says Goldfinger, ‘or you’ll be sawn in two; and then the girl will be handed over to the Koreans for their sport.’ Bond swears (he’s taken to swearing four letter words a lot in the last few books –  e.g. ‘You can go —— yourself’, p.149). As if the saw wasn’t enough, Bond is worked over by Oddjob who knows exactly how to hurt him very much. Fleming, as so often, takes us into Bond’s mind as he tries to master the pain, control the pain, rise above his body…

Next thing we know it’s a new chapter and Bond thinks he’s died and gone to heaven, complete with white lights, nice music, warm woozy feelings. Slowly he interprets the succession of lights and faces to mean he’s been doped up and flown somewhere, the American accents suggesting the USA. Eventually he regains consciousness in some kind of sealed accommodation, in a bed in a room with his clothes and case all carefully returned. Goldfinger enters with a handgun and explains: he was on the verge of wiping Bond out when he realised he may actually be of some small use in his next and final crime. Like all Bond villains Goldfinger has to unburden himself of his plans and so tells Bond that he plans to go down in history for pulling the biggest crime ever, and stealing the entire American supply of gold from Fort Knox! —Fleming always thinks with a kind of cartoon, bravura excess, egged on by his uninhibited villains.

The preparation

Briefly, Bond and Tilly have been kept alive to act as secretaries to the organisation of the job. The building they’re in is some kind of warehouse near the river in New York. At Goldfinger’s instruction, Bond types out and copies the agenda for a meeting with the six biggest organised crime gangs in America. When they arrive they are a suitably florid and ugly bunch, but the stand-out member is one Pussy Galore, leader of a lesbian gang in New York.

Goldfinger gives these men and Pussy a detailed explanation of  his plan: to slip sleeping powder into the water supply of Fort Knox; to put the word out that there’s been some kind of attack or medical emergency; to organise a special medical emergency train to go into the danger zone, staffed by his own Korean and German guards along with selected members from each gang; to secure the perimeter of the Knox building, then to blow open the stainless steel doors of the vault with a small nuclear device!

Nuclear device!!

At this point Bond realises Goldfinger is a megalomaniac genius, and the reader realises how preposterous the entire scheme is. This warhead has been bought through bribery and corruption from the US Army in Germany, and is – allegedly – one of a new generation of fallout-free weapons. Yes. So the first men in will need radiation suits but will be able to pass the gold safely out to the gangsters waiting in their long lines of lorries to take their share of the gold wherever they want to.

Five of the gangsters sign up for the deal on the spot. The fifth says he’s not interested and leaves. Moments later Goldfinger tells the assembled hoods, the leaver has met with an unfortunate accident, fallen down some stairs and is dead.

After the hoods have gone, Goldfinger reveals that a) it is not going to be sleeping chemicals his men slip into the dam, but a deadly nerve gas which will kill the entire 60,000 population of Fort Knox, b) he is in fact going to take his $5 billion of gold to the coast where it will ship onboard a Russian submarine. The money will be used to fund SMERSH operations for decades. (For some reason, for the first time, the way everything comes back to SMERSH seemed silly to me, and also very small-minded: oh it’s another SMERSH operation.)

Next day Goldfinger, Oddjob, Tilly, Bond and others take a charter jet to fly over Fort Knox and check everything is as per the detailed map he had displayed at the meeting. In fact this is a plot device to allow Bond to scrawl a very long detailed account of the plan, roll it into a tight tube, write a warning message on the outside, that anyone taking this document to Felix Leiter at the Pinkerton Agency in new York will get a reward of $5,000 on the spot, and sellotape it to the underside of the toilet seat.

For the rest of the flight, and then for the next few days, Bond is in an agony of uncertainty, not knowing whether the message will be found at all, whether it will be acted on, or whether it’ll be found by Goldfinger’s people and he can expect a bullet in the neck at any point.

D-Day

In the event, on D-Day, the poison is put into the drinking water, news gets out and Goldfinger and his team man the rescue train into stricken zone posing as medical emergency team. As it enters Fort Knox they see cars which have crashed, people fallen across their lawns and washing lines, prone bodies everywhere, even with pinkish foam at the lips. Bond’s heart sinks. My God he is responsible for the deaths of 60,000 people; he should have murdered Goldfinger before this, even at the cost of his own life, done anything. (Bond is prone to a lot of self-doubt and worry and even guilt, throughout the books.)

The bluff

But it’s an immense con trick. A maroon warning flare is shot into the sky and thousands of people, including a lot of US Army troops spring to their feet and begin a terrific firefight with Goldfinger’s people and the assembled crooks. Bond jumps off the cab of the train which he had been viewing everything from, along with Tilly but they’re immediately pursued by Oddjob who has been tasked with keeping tabs on Bond throughout. Tilly turns to run back to Pussy but is immediately killed by Oddjob using his steel-rimmed bowler hat, and then throws himself into a flying karate kick at Bond, knocking him to the floor. He is moving in for what will no doubt be the kill when the train starts to pull out and Oddjob runs and jumps on to it. At that very moment Bond’s old pal Felix Leiter emerges with half a dozen soldiers and a bazooka which Bond seizes and fires at the escaping train, damaging the rear engine but not the front one and it steams over a river bridge and is gone.

Bond walks back down the track and looks down at the poor, huddled rags of the dead Tilly.

On the plane

Days later, after a full debriefing over the phone to M, then the FBI and then an embarrassing 15 minutes of thanks from the President himself (!), after a lot of joshing and ragging with Leiter, Bond is dropped at the BOAC terminal outside New York, checks in his bag etc but is then told he has to have a vaccination jab (!). No sooner is he injected than he passes out. When he awakes it is tied by the wrists and arms to the seat of an airliner which is airbound and next to the ever-vigilant Oddjob. Goldfinger comes strolling down the aisle: ‘Well, Mr Bond, I underestimated you’ etc.

Bond asks to be served Bourbon and ice to free his hands. To his surprise the coaster the drink arrives on has a message from Pussy reading ‘I’m on your side’. This gives him the courage for a desperate plan. He pretends to drowse and nod of and slowly Oddjob eases his supervision so that, with a sudden lunge, Bond leans across him and stabs the dagger concealed in the heel of his trick shoe, through the perspex window. It shatters and all hell breaks loose, the cabin depressurising, the plane going into a nose dive and Oddjob, sitting next to the window, is very gruesomely sucked into it and then squeezed through it like toothpaste.

When the plane has levelled out Bond undoes his seat belt and encounters Goldfinger in the aisle, for once in his life going into a complete berserker frenzy and strangling him to death in a hard-fought physical battle. He takes Goldfinger’s gun into the cabin of frightened pilots, gets the radio, establishes they don’t have enough fuel to get to any dry land, and contacts a radio ship in the north Atlantic, asking it to put out a flare landing path (?). It does this and an hour later the airliner hits the choppy sea, almost immediately breaks up, Bond and Pussy just having time to escape through an emergency exit with a life raft. The plane, with its cargo of $5 billion, and the crew, breaks up and sinks to the bottom of the Atlantic.

An hour later, picked up by the crew of the radio ship, Bond and Pussy are clean and in spare clothes. Pussy comes into his cabin wearing only a fisherman’s sweater. Get into bed, he orders, and she is meek and compliant. She explains she was a lesbian all her life because she was raped and abused by an uncle in the Deep South. Bond explains that all she needs is TLC (it is interesting that he has to explain that this stands for Tender Loving Care) and he commences his version of it by slipping his hand up over her flat belly to feel the curve of her breast and its hard nipple, then kissing her hard.

Lesbianism and lameness

Thus the novel ends on the ‘curing’ of Pussy’s lesbianism. Obviously, this is insulting to real life lesbians, then again Pussy is as realistic a character as Goldfinger, ie the entire thing is a preposterous fantasy. Nevertheless, even in its own terms, I think it is a shallow, lame ending.

You could possibly draw a graph showing the number of hours Bond puts into a relationship before he sleeps with a woman, in each of the novels. Thus Casino Royale invests a huge amount of time and energy in the relationship with Vesper Lynd which, unfortunately, ends up so tragically. We are in the company of Solitaire, Gala Brand or Tatiana Romanova for long stretches of their respective novels and we get to know them and share Bond’s thoughts and developing feeling for them over many chapters, before he gets anywhere near taking them to bed.

Goldfinger feels like the first novel which reflects the ‘easy-lay’ philosophy of the movies. Bond’s whirlwind romance with Jill Masterton feels shallow and porny, the way that, just five minutes after Bond bursts into her hotel bedroom to find her wearing only pants and bra, she is looking at him with need in her eyes, and offers to do anything for him – this insults, I think, both the reader and Bond as a character, when he is at his best and most feeling.

But the way a supposedly confirmed, hardened, man-hating lesbian crime leader like Pussy can – over the course of just half a dozen casual bantering exchanges in rooms full of other mobsters or Goldfinger and his gang – abruptly realise that Bond is ‘the first real man’ she’s met in her life, and therefore end up presenting herself on a plate for Bond and the reader’s pleasure, seems to me a forced and superficial ending to this book.

This is the first Bond novel which failed to convince me, even on its own pulp, comic-book level. For me the realistic descriptions of Jamaica, of meals and showers and scenery and settings, the prosaic details of Bond’s day-to-day living, along with a lot of his thought processes, in the earlier books, outweighed the silliness of the plots. This is the first one where the balance shifted and the preposterous, cartoon, wish-fulfilment elements outweighed the interesting and good descriptions.

And the ‘curing’ of Pussy stands as a fitting emblem of this tipping-over into the absurd.


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Timeframe

The novel is divided into three distinct sections, taking a supposed saying of Goldfinger’s as an organising principle: ‘Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, the third time it’s enemy action’ – and so the three parts are named Happenstance, Coincidence and Enemy Action, as Bond encounters Goldfinger three times, with mounting antagonism.

None of this is earth-shattering, but I admire Fleming’s restless drive to vary the format and structure of his fictions: sure, the fundamental narrative arc remains remarkably samey (baddie, girl, fight), but that makes it all the more interesting to note the themes and variations he plays on it.

Food

  • Du Pont treats Bond to the most delicious meal he’s ever eaten (p.22): fresh stone crabs with melted butter and thick toast, washed down with two pints of pink champagne (Pommery 1950) served in silver tankards.
  • Next day for lunch Bond and Du Pont have shrimp cocktail, native snapper with tartare sauce, roast prime ribs of beef au jus, and pineapple surprise. (p.32)

Personification

A new element enters Fleming’s writing in this book, the use of personification ie giving inanimate objects intention and agency. As Colonel Smithers warms up to deliver his lecture about gold,

Bond felt boredom gathering in the corners of the room. (p.50)

In general Fleming’s style is blunt and factual. I think it works best this way though, of course, he has been criticised for this as for just about everything else in the books. For example, back in London after the Mexico trip, Bond is on night duty:

Bond stood at the open window of the seventh-floor office of the tall building in Regent’s Park that is the headquarters of the Secret Service. London lay asleep under a full moon that rode over the town through a shoal of herring-bone clouds. Big Ben sounded three. One of the telephones rang in the dark room. (p.40)

Admittedly this passage personifies London, but in a traditional way most readers don’t register. What counts is the diminuendo towards the short factual sentences, which mimic Bond’s cold, calculating decisive actions, when he is on his mettle. Compared with all that, the half dozen personifications in Goldfinger strike a new, almost Dickensian, note.

Bond got slowly out of the car and stood looking at the house. Its blank, well-washed eyes stared back at him. The house had a background noise, a heavy rhythmic pant like a huge animal with a rather quick pulse… The quiet watchful facade of the house seemed to be waiting for Bond to do something, make some offensive move to which there would be a quick reply… The silence, helped by the slow iron tick of a massively decorated grandfather clock, gathered and crept nearer. (pp.96-97

Bond facts

M wears a stiff white collar and a loosely-tied spotted bow tie (p.46).

The Secret Service employs 2,000 staff (p.54).

For the first time Bond drives a Service Aston Martin DB III. For the first time in the series there are gadgets: the front and back lights can change colour and appearance; reinforced steel bumpers in case of ramming; a long-barreled Colt .45 in a secret compartment; and plenty of concealed space (p.62).

Bond is bored so he is working on a book to be titled Stay Alive! about all the known methods of unarmed combat from around the world (p.42) though, interestingly, he is sickened by some of the things he reads, especially in the Russian manuals.


Credit

Goldfinger by Ian Fleming was published in 1959 by Jonathan Cape. All quotes and references are to the 1961 Pan paperback, 1964 edition (price: 3/6).

Related links

Other thrillers from 1959

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.

Golden Soak by Hammond Innes (1973)

Old mines, like old houses, have their own atmosphere – a feel, an aura compounded of many things , but chiefly of the way men have handled the problems of working underground. It’s there in the construction of the galleries, the cross-cuts, drifts and winzes, the way they have stoped and handled the ore. But down here, on the third level of Golden Soak, it was something different, as though the rock itself had absorbed such a radiation of human fear that it could still infect the atmosphere of the place. (p.97)

Hammond Innes has three great strengths:

  • He writes about ordinary men who didn’t go to public school and who aren’t writers and artists – real people with real jobs: miners and engineers, merchant seamen and Royal Navy sailors, soldiers and solicitors, whalers and railroad builders, oil prospectors and surveyors, captains and fishermen, bulldozer drivers and cafe owners.
  • He describes work, real work, hard physical work, designing and building and excavating and constructing and navigating and fishing and diving and drilling.

The rig was on exploratory work, drilling a test hole high up on Mount Whaleback. Across from where it was spudded in the view was of a mountainside being gnawed to destruction by blasting and giant shovels. And beyond the huge stepped gashes of industrial erosion stretched the ever-endless wastes of the Australian outback, iron hills throbbing through a miasma of ore dust so fine it hung like a haze that half-obscured the sun. They were adding a fresh rod when we arrived, Duhamel and his off-sider working in unison, both of them stripped to the waist and red with the grime of ore dust. (p.177)

  • And – when his heroes are not battling physical and psychological odds – there is a feeling in his descriptions, especially of anything touching on his beloved sailing, of real joy, excitement and exhiliration, delight at being alive in a beautiful world.

Coming to Innes after reading Graham Greene is like stepping from a pitch-black confessional where a suicidally depressed man has told you all his pornographic fantasies, out into the light of a beautiful spring morning. Though a morning which turns out to be not without its problems…

Golden Soak part 1

The book opens at a fast pace as we watch mining engineer and surveyor Alec Falls driving drunkenly away from the meeting of the board of the tin mine in Cornwall which he set up, having punched one of the directors and facing the fact the mine was finished, all played out. Back at his house he finds his ‘bitch’ of a wife has left him and so, on a drunken whim, he fakes his own death and sets fire to his home. Drives drunk along the coast to Southampton, abandons his car and takes ship for Australia. He had met a young woman, Janet Garrety, touring mines in England who came from mining country in Western Australia and she’d invited him to go visit. By the end of chapter one he has travelled all the way out to her and her father’s ranch in Jarra Jarra, Western Australia, only to discover it is bankrupt, their mine is played out, no rain has fallen for a year and the cattle are dying.

Thus, like many an Innes’ protagonist, Alec is in a desperate plight.

I got suddenly to my feet. I must be mad even to think of it. I was a stranger in a strange land, alone, with no money and nobody to help me. (p.48)

The rest of the plot describes his attempts to secure a living in his new country and how, slowly, he becomes caught up in a web of old vendettas and allegiances to do with abandoned mines and legendary discoveries, overlaid with sharp business deals which see him accepting cash offers and then bribes to falsify geological reports, getting deeper and deeper into trouble though he doesn’t realise it until it’s too late.

Australia

As with all his novels, Golden Soak is the result of Innes’ own extensive travels through the territory described, a fact emphasised by the Author’s Note at the end of the text which carefully distinguishes the fictional locations and characters from the real-life places and people who helped and guided him on his tours. Viewed from one angle, Innes’ novels are really extended travelogues with sometimes rather contrived plots, or sometimes not even plots – just situations – embedded in them.

Golden Soak is a classic example and contains scores of passages describing the bleak desert landscape of Western Australia: in the blistering heat of the day, at the mercifully cool dusk, in the chill hours before dawn. Because it is a novel about mining, special attention is paid to the geology of the region, with quite technical descriptions of geological formations, underlying rocks, the different types of dust, and to the sun-toughened flora which just about survive in this harsh environment.

We clambered the broken rock to the small trees at the top, taking our personal clouds of flies with us. The sun was already blazingly hot and away to the south-west a salt-white glimmer marked  the flat immensity of Lake Disappointment. All to the east now was nothing but desert, speckled with the golden yellow of spinifex, and the sandridges like a flat red swell coming in from the north-north-east. High overhead two wedge-tailed eagles worked the air currents, soaring on great wing spans, intent, searching for anything that still had life in that arid hell of drought-ridden sand. (p.215)

The book does demonstrate the full force of this weird Innes ability to describe oppressive and challenging landscapes, first and foremost the unrelenting descriptions of the desert in all its varieties, the different types of rock and dust and sand, the unforgiving heat, the buzz of the insects, the flights overhead of bright colourful birds, the dingoes crying at night, the sudden appearance of kangaroos one night – the whole book does very powerfully convey the strangeness of Australia.

(I guess Innes is not much read now: the fact that most of his novels are out of print suggests that. But a great anthology could be made of all the scores of stretches where he describes landscapes and scenery – and especially seascapes – in bold and striking colours.)

The human geography is described just as vividly (and presumably, as accurately): the rundown ranches, the abandoned mine workings, the hot metal shacks, the brick hotels, the dusty roadside diners. And the novel has a large number of incidental characters, of hard-pressed ranchers and embittered miners, who clump into the kitchens of their harassed wives after a long day of hard labour in the blistering sun, their faces and backs streaked with sweat and covered in the red dust, gagging for the first stubby of the day and some hot tucker.

Minor characters

Initially I thought the action would be confined to the Jarra Jarra ranch where Falls stays for a while with Janet Garrety, her tough old father, Ed Garrety, himself the son of local legend Big Bill Garrety who founded the ranch and homestead. But the father watches him getting closer to his daughter and doesn’t like it: there’s no work for Falls, the empty mine, Golden Soak, ruined his father and is long abandoned after a calamitous flood which killed seven men. And so Garrety none too politely suggest Falls leaves, and this kicks off his travels via harsh roadside cafes and tough pubs to raw frontier settlements like Nullagine, Meekathurra, Kalgoorlie and Ora Banda.

Which gives Innes the opportunity to depict different types of harsh Aussie terrain and to introduce us to a sizeable cast of vividly drawn minor characters.

  • Alec Falls: protagonist and narrator, embittered failed mining engineer and company owner
  • Rosa: his glamorous wife who never loved him and leaves him on the fateful night when he fights with his fellow directors and sets  his own house on fire
  • Ferdie Kaden: son of a Serbian immigrant who worked himself to death in the mines round Kalgoorlie. Ferdie vows not to be like his father and becomes a sharp businessman, a chancer, who also writes to Falls offering him a job in W. Australia, and then inveigles him into a number of dodgy financial deals
  • Janet Garrety: stocky snub-nosed young woman he meets in England, who tells him all about her ranch in Western Australia and sparks the fantasy of escaping there
  • Ed Garrety: her tough rancher father, who was captured and held prisoner by the Japanese during the war, and returns afterwards to a homestead ruined almost beyond recognition
  • Big Bill Garrety: grandfather, the legendary figure who founded the homestead in the 1890s then squandered the family money on the ill-fated Golden Soak mine
  • Henry Garrety: Janet’s brother, Ed’s son: joined the Australian Army to escape the barrenness of Jarra Jarra and was one of the first Australians to be killed in Vietnam, aged 18
  • Pat McIlroy: Garrety’s partner; when the ill-fated mine failed he took off into the interior and was never seen again, leaving behind the rumour of some legendary mineral discovery
  • Andie Andersen and his Italian wife, Maria, who keep a dusty roadside pasta restaurant at Lynn Peak
  • Wolli: drunk aborigine whose father was with McIlroy during his last ill-fated expedition and who, therefore, Falls tries to get the truth out of
  • Prophecy: fag-smoking card-playing owner of the bar in the flyblown settlement of Nullagine
  • Phil Westrop: ‘just an ordinary, hard-drinking, hard-driving, mind-your-own-bloody-business Australian’ (p.83)
  • George Duhamel, owner of a mining rig Falls meets in a pub, and then hires to drill on a bluff next to Golden Soak
  • Josh: plays the guitar with Duhamel’s drilling gang
  • Chris Culpin: tough embittered miner, working for Ferdie Kadek
  • Edith: Culpin’s thin unhappy wife
  • Kennie: Culpin’s son; after an argument with his father which comes to blows, he leaves home and heads back north with Falls, thereafter becoming his sidekick
  • Les Freeman: chaiman and MD of Lone Minerals, in partnership with Ferdie Kadek, who – it turns out – is conning him with the reluctant help of Falls
  • Petersen: head of Petersen Geophysics, a small geology and assaying company, characterful Swede always slapping people on the back
  • the old prostitute who was one of the last to see McIlroy before he disappeared

Mystery and stasis

Innes has many strengths, but his novels share one massive weakness, which is they don’t really have much plot. By plot I mean a sequence of events which reveal incidents from the past or which string together current events into a meaningful pattern. Instead Innes novels tend to focus around an obsessive figure who keeps to himself what, in the final analysis, is a very simple revelation, which many of the characters know or suspect, but which everyone refuses to express, articulate, spit out or share over several hundred pages of aborted conversations, shrugs and silences.

Thus, in this novel, the protagonist soon learns there are one or two ‘mysteries’ connected with the Garrety family – What happened in the Golden Soak mine to cause it to be abandoned after Big Bill Garrety had ruined his family by spending all his capital on it and borrowing more to develop it? What happened to Phil McIlroy who had told everyone in the local bars that he’d struck it rich and discovered ‘McIlroy’s Monster’, a big copper deposit, out in the desert somewhere – and then disappeared off the face of the earth? Both events happened in 1939, on the eve of war, and thirty years ago – are they connected?

A well-constructed thriller would plant these mysteries early on and then lead the narrator (and reader) through a cunning sequence of revelations to a final understanding of the ‘real events’ behind them. Innes, however, here as in almost all his other novels, uses a peculiar technique of Obstruction: the narrator talks to a wide range of people who don’t know, can’t shed light, clam up, hesitate and shrug. The text doesn’t proceed by dramatic or subtle revelations, it doesn’t proceed in a line, but circles around the central ‘mysteries’ via innumerable inconclusive and frustrating conversations where characters don’t reveal what they know, turn away, go silent and gaze into the distance. The narrator (and the reader) never gets any further forward for literally hundreds of pages – until suddenly it all comes tumbling out in the end.

This blockage, obstruction and frustrating stasis isn’t accidental or a minor feature: it is absolutely central to Innes’ conception of the novel, to his narrative methodology, and occurs on almost every page.

After that she didn’t say anything… I sat there at a loss for words, the silence growing… There was a sudden silence and I looked up to find her staring at me… He didn’t say anything for a moment, a stillness settling on the room… I hesitated… The silence deepened, his face frozen… The stillness was absolute then… He shrugged and got to his feet… He went out then, leaving me with questions still unanswered… She didn’t seem to know… she shook her head… She hesitated… ‘I can’t explain, I don’t really understand it myself’ … She shrugged turning quickly away…She shook her head… Again she shook her head… But she shook her head… But he didn’t answer… But Lenny shook his head… She knew no more than I did… But I couldn’t answer that… It seemed a lot longer with Culpin sitting morose and tense at the wheel, not saying a word… I just stood there, silent, wondering what sort of a man I was… Kadek didn’t say anything. Nor did Freeman… He didn’t know… I shrugged… I started to say something and then I turned away… We left immediately, Culpin driving in silence… Kennie sitting beside me, tight-lipped and silent… I didn’t answer… In the end I drove in silence… ‘I hope not, but I don’t know’… He didn’t answer… Nobody said anything… A silence settled on the room… He stared at me, the room suddenly deathly silent… I didn’t answer… Ed Garrety shook his head… ‘I don’t know’… There was a long silence… ‘He won’t say what he’s up to, won’t tell me anything’… ‘It’s something else, but he won’t say. He won’t tell me anything’… ‘It was something else, but I don’t know what. I just don’t know’… He didn’t answer… Kennie shrugged… He hesitated again, as though unwilling to put his thoughts into words…We didn’t talk. We just sat huddled there… I sat down beside him, both of us silent for a long time… There were questions I wanted to ask but I didn’t know how to begin… He didn’t finish, but continued staring down at the ground… he gave me a long slow look, the nodded and turned away… He didn’t say anything, his eyes glinting in the starlight… ‘All in good time. Don’t rush me.’ He stood for a moment in complete silence… His voice trailed off… After that he closed right up on me, wouldn’t say another word… He was silent then and I didn’t know what to say… He didn’t answer, the silence heavy between us… Silence still and I had to repeat the question… And after that he wouldn’t say any more… There was a long silence… So I kept my mouth shut, the two of us staring at each other in silence… I didn’t answer… I should have warned Kennie… but I didn’t… He hardly spoke, he seemed shut up inside himself… We didn’t talk much, both of us wrapped up in our own thoughts…

Falls tries to talk to Ed Garratty:

It was a closed look, the blank stare of a man on the defensive… He didn’t answer, the silence stretching uncomfortably between us… He relapsed into silence then… I didn’t say anything for a moment… He sat there for a moment, not saying anything… But Ed Garrety didn’t answer… I asked him where he was going but he didn’t seem to hear… I didn’t know, I just didn’t know what my motive was…

Falls tries to get answers out of Janet Garrety:

But she didn’t answer, just sat there, quite still as though she’d suddenly been struck dumb (156)…’I don’t know… I don’t know’… She shook her head, God knows’, she breathed… But Janet didn’t answer… She looked away towards the window. ‘I don’t know,’ she said… She hesitated, half-shaking her head…

Falls tries to get answers out of the aboriginal woman, Brighteyes:

She shook her head… She shook her head, ‘I don’t know’… I didn’t know what to say… She shook her head… She didn’t answer but her eyes moved, evasive, uneasy…

Falls tries to get answers from the barkeeper Prophecy:

After that there was silence… ‘I don’t know. Nobody knows.’… She didn’t answer… It seemed she knew no more than I did…

Falls tries to get answers from the aborigine, Wolli:

He shook his head… To all these questions he just shook his head…

Falls tries to get answers from Phil Westrop:

He didn’t say anything, standing there with his beer in his hand…

Falls meets Chris Culpin in Kalgoorlie

He was silent for a moment… He was silent after that… He didn’t say anything more, nursing his grievance in silence…

Falls tries to get answers from Chris Culpin’s wife, Edith:

Again that hesitation, as though she wanted to tell me something else… She was silent…

Golden Soak part 2

An early narrative climax comes when Golden Soak, precariously propped up as Falls discovers when he goes illicitly poking around in it, collapses with a boom and a lot of dust. Falls and Kennie were driving out towards it, chasing after Ed Garrety who had disappeared and, for a long ten minutes they think he must have been in it when it collapsed. Until he emerges covered in dust from the nearby workings…

Thereafter Falls goes touring round various townships in Western Australia, looking for work, having threatening conversations with various rough miners and prospectors and businessmen all looking after number one. Falls finds himself reluctantly taking money from the dodgy dealer, Kadek, in exchange for giving misleadingly optimistic information to the fairly honest businessman, Les Freeman. Falls then uses the money to hire the driller Duhamel and his crew to drill up at Golden Soak but is bitterly outwitted by the harsh, unforgiving Chris Culpin who has taken the trouble to get an official ‘claim’ made for the area: anything Falls finds will belong to Culpin. Falls ceases the drilling in disgust.

Defeated and depressed, Falls drives back to Jarra Jarra to discover Janet in hysterics because her father, Ed Garrety, has driven off into the desert.

Finally, after 200 pages of incommunicative peregrinations, this is the (typically Innes) climax of the novel. Falls grabs young Kennie and together they undertake a fifty-page adventure, loading the Land Rover with petrol and water and driving off with an old map and compass into the inhospitable Gibson desert. Really inhospitable. So blisteringly hot during the day you can’t drive or be outside, so they drive at night. The journey, and the extreme conditions, force Falls to review what he’s doing in Australia and what the hell he’s doing driving into the heart of one of its worst deserts to find an ageing, bitter, dying man who possibly has gone off to end it all. However, Falls also knows Garrety has a map showing the location of the McIlroy Monster: so he’s pursuing Garrety in order to save Janet’s father for her, and to try and redeem his damn fool decision to emigrate by finding the legendary hill of copper.

But he doesn’t. When he finally catches up with Garrety it turns out the dying old man has come all the way out into the desert to find the place where, back in 1939, he shot McIlroy dead. Aha. So that’s what happened. Why? Because somehow, it is implied, McIlroy had ruined his old man, deluded him with his damn fool plans and then lured Ed into a crazy expedition into the desert so that when Ed awakes one morning to find McIlroy shooting the camels to eat, Garrety flips, they fight over the gun and Garrety shoots McIlroy dead.

That’s it. That’s the bitter secret which Garrety has concealed for 30 years, which has eaten into his conscience, which has made him bitter and grouchy and led all the local gossips to speculate whether he killed McIlroy in the Golden Soak and arranged the flooding, or whether there really is a big hill of copper which he’s keeping from everybody. After this anti-climactic revelation, Falls passes out. Next morning he wakes to find Garrety has headed off in a raging sandstorm like Captain Oates deliberately seeking the oblivion of death.

Falls and Kennie turn round and their knackered Land Rover just about makes it back to civilisation where Falls is promptly arrested. We learn that this entire narrative has been written from prison.

Coda

The technicalities of his arrest and the charges are described with typical Innes thoroughness: courts martial and trials, dodgy business deals and boardroom manoeuvres feature in many of his novels. But, in summary, Falls is eventually released and, among other developments, persuades Kennie to return with him to the Gibson Desert. Here, after further suffering, they do at last, indeed, find McIlroy’s Monster, a great plateau of copper-bearing rock but again, only to seem to be frustrated. A helicopter lands and men start staking out the claim with professional pegs: it is Chris Culpin – Falls’s repeated nemesis, who foiled him when he was drilling up at Golden Soak. At this, the climax of the novel, Innes persuades us that Culpin’s son, Kennie, is wound up to such a state that he rushes forward – father and son argue, then fight, then Kennie grabs a rifle and shoots his father dead.

The men take Culpin’s body and Kennie into the chopper and fly off.

This leaves Falls free to stake out the claim himself, then spend ten days struggling back through the desert to Jarra Jarra. During this time – symbolically – it rains for the first time since his arrival in Australia, and when he arrives at Jarra Jarra it is to find the desert blooming, the herds of cattle thriving after Janet, Ed Garrety’s daughter, followed his suggestion of watering them at the new pool formed in the crater of the ruined collapsed Golden Soak mineworkings, and Janet herself running into his arms for a Hollywood ending.

In the last pages, he says they are now a pair, awaiting his divorce to come through from Britain, and Janet is pregnant. He has never worked so hard in his life, refencing the farm, drilling waterholes, and hopes that, if the child is a girl,

pray God she grows up with the same qualities as her mother, the same love of this harsh demanding place where I have now put down my roots. (p.285)

Fathers and sons

As with Levkas ManThe Doomed Oasis and others of his later novels, Golden Soak ends up being a tragedy about a son and a father in which the father dies. Sons and fathers run like a thread through the text. Big Bill Garrety, founder of the dynasty, who goes mad and his son Ed, who goes off into the desert to die, and his son Henry, who is killed in Vietnam. Culpin’s son Kennie, who kills his father.

There is a strong Gothic element in these doomed relationships of fathers and sons.

A tale of two women

Innes also goes out of his way to contrast between the two lead female characters in the novel.

Falls repeatedly describes his wife, Rosalind, Rosa, as being stunningly good looking: there’s a page or so mulling over his marriage as he comes to realise that he never loved her, he just wanted – in the heady days of his success when the tin mine in Cornwall was showering money – to ‘own’ her, to possess her like a flash sports car.

Two thirds of the way through the story Falls is horrified to learn that Rosa has figured out he never died in the fire and tracked him down all the way to the ranch at Jarra Jarra. Falls returns from a day out drilling to find Rosa in a tense stand-off with Janet, her polar opposite. After an edgy dinner, later that night when he’s in bed, Rosa quietly slips into his room and there’s quite a powerful description of how they have sex, even though he hates her and he knows she despises him, but she is just so damn erotic. Here, as in a number of the other novels (eg Air Bridge) Innes is very good at honestly depicting the way a man can simply be overcome with lust and be attracted to a woman he positively dislikes.

All this is deliberately and repeatedly contrasted with not so attractive, stocky Janet with her turned-up nose and freckles, with her agonised love for her troubled father and her daily struggle to keep the ranch alive.

Innes is making a deliberate contrast between beautiful heartlessness and not-so-beautiful honesty and truth and, after everything they’ve been through, it is Janet and Alec’s honest, open, homely declaration of love right at the end of the story which, to be honest, brought a tear to my eye.

Environmentalism

It is fairly understated but at several points characters make the point that man has severely damaged the natural environment of Australia. Towards the end the opposition between Kennie Culpin and his father comes to represent the conflict between the older generation, grasping, selfish, only out to make a short-term profit from mining, and the younger generation who think their elders murdered the black aborigines and devastated the flora by over-farming it, until the place has become an inhospitable desert.

40 years later Australia is, of course, still inhabited, though I have read articles claiming that, with climate change, it might in the long term become unviable for human life.

Certainly Innes gives a sympathetic if unblinking portrayal of a number of aborigines, the original owners of the land who knew how to live in harmony with it, degraded by service to the white man and all too often addicted to white man’s alcohol, but many retaining their mysterious link to the soil, to their tribal languages and customs. And at one of the key moments, when Falls confronts Garrety out in the desert and he confesses his murder of McIlroy, the old man’s head is leant back against a rock covered in the strangely powerful geometric designs of the country’s long-dead aboriginal owners, as if this white man’s tragedy is unfolding against a much larger canvas of history and culture.

And the symbolic rainfall at the very end of the novel and the miraculous greening of the land, also represent an earnest, a glimmering gesture towards Garrety’s dying wish that the land not be raped for mineral deposits but that its human masters learn to use its resources more wisely to revive and restore it.

Adaptation

Golden Soak was made into a six part TV mini-series by Australian TV, which you can watch on YouTube, but only appears to be available in a version dubbed into German.

Related links

Fontanta paperback cover of Golden Soak

Fontanta paperback cover of Golden Soak

Hammond Innes’ novels

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


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

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