Delta Connection by Hammond Innes (1996)

It was getting hard to recognise myself. There was Kasim, too, the sudden impulse to seize his legs and throw him over the pulpit into the sea. And I was just a very ordinary young man, a mineralogist with a degree in economics…It didn’t make sense. Nothing made sense. For God’s sake, I wasn’t a killer. (p.276)

Innes’ final novel and, at 426 pages, the longest and strangest of the lot. It has all the strengths which make him compelling and intriguing, along with many of the weaknesses which make him frustrating and perplexing and have probably helped him go so very out of fashion:

  • Exotic foreign locations First half set in Romania just as Nicolae Ceaușescu’s communist dictatorship was collapsing (December 1989); second half set in lawless Aghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal (February 1989).
  • Everybloke narrator Paul Cartwright, who works for a mineral and metals company, the oddly-named Resource Potentials, reclaiming scrap in developing or ex-communist countries.
  • Everybloke narrator’s personal problems His mum & dad moved to Australia, where his dad died and his mum took up with a wife-beating b*stard, Kasim, while young Paul was packed off to boarding school. The Traumatic Moment in the past (which dogs so many Innes’ protagonists) is when Paul goes sailing with Kasim; the boat gets caught in a storm and is rolling madly and suddenly Paul has the urge to throw Kasim overboard, and then there’s a moment when he could have reached out and helped pull Kasim back onboard – but he doesn’t – he watches the waves break over him, he watches Kasim drown. Nightmares wake him in various foreign hotels. [The thriller protagonist must be psychologically scarred.]
  • Gothic family secrets The novel starts with Paul meeting an ageing dissident Romanian writer – Mihai Kikinda, and there is a lot of tortured, evasive non-communication about Mihai and his wife, Ana, and about their, ‘daughter’ Vikki, who Paul fell in love with years ago, on his previous trips to Romania when he was a teenager. Through the fog of evasions it seems as if Vikki isn’t Mihai and Ana’s daughter at all but was adopted: Paul is stunned: Who from? Why? Nobody will tell us.
  • Sex What the narrator does tell us about the mysterious Vikki is:
    • that since childhood she’s been obsessed with dancing, solitary dancing, going through steps and motions in the privacy of her bedroom or the house’s living room
    • that her need for solitariness feeds into a gift she has for computers: she recently told her adoptive father she has begun to hack into government computers (p.38)
    • that she took the narrator’s virginity. She ‘raped him’. They were both about 17, they were dancing together and, at the end of the dance, hot and sweaty she forced him to the floor, unbuttoned his flies etc. Innes has always had a robust, straightforward heterosexual eye for the ladies and over the years has described male desire in all its glory and humiliation: for every game-hunter’s daughter ripping open her blouse and pulling the narrator’s head to her breasts (The Big Footprints), there’ve been episodes like his going to bed with Barbara Ward but being unable to get an erection (Target Antarctica) or being interrupted just as things were getting steamy (Medusa). Innes isn’t salacious or pornographic; he just notices, as most men do, when a woman’s top highlights her breasts or when her nipples show through her blouse – notices it, notes it, before moving on to think about the weather, or reefing in the sails, or estimating the flight time to the destination. It’s part of his narrator’s life, but not an all-consuming part.

Anti-suspense The most characteristic feature of Innes’ novels is the pathological inability of anyone to tell anyone else what is going on. There’s lots of dialogue in which people seem go out of their way to be evasive and non-committal and the text refers again and again to the same four or five physical gestures: pause, hesitate, shrug, shake the head, go silent.

He paused… I shook my head… A pause.. He fell silent… He hesitated.. He didn’t answer that for a moment… Silence then… He was silent for a time… He shook his head… He didn’t say anything for a long time… He hesitated… He shrugged.. Mihai shrugged… He shook his head… He shrugged…

On page after page after page. With these kinds of evasions Iain Ward spent the two preceding novels completely failing to explain to the different narrators why the devil they were sailing to the Antarctic, and Iris Sunderby systematically refused to clarify her relationship with Angel Gomez or Eduardo and then Pete Kettil refused to tell anyone what he’d seen out on the ice. Innes characters shrug so much I’m amazed their heads don’t fall off and go rolling across the floor.

The plot

The dissident writer

Paul Cartwright is in Constantza, a port town in south Romania, on a job to assess the scrap value of the port workings and rusty old ships. But he has taken advantage of the trip to visit the old dissident writer, Mihai Kikinda, who he used to visit when he was first brought to the country by his uncle Jamie. During the visit there’s a knock at the door and Mihai hussles Paul behind a curtain, then opens the door to a brutal Securitate man, Miron Dinca, who asks him where’ he’s sent his latest dissident pamphlet to be published, then starts to strangle him. Paul comes out of hiding to attack the policeman but in the midst of the struggle Mihai stabs the cop, killing him.

Paul and Mihai throw the body off their balcony onto a passing lorry, then Paul drives in a state of high anxiety towards the capital, Bucharest. Mihai has given him instructions to drop off the text of his latest pamphlet at a printer, then make contact with one Luca, a Jewish dissident, who will help him.

Before and after the killing we learn in Innes’ roundabout fashion about Mihai’s wife, Ana, who, at a grand assembly of artists and poets in front of Ceaușescu, was foolhardy enough to protest the regime’s brutality, and especially its treatment of her husband and got as far as slapping the dictator in the face before being dragged off to be tortured. Mihai eventually shamefacedly admits that Ana was operated on to make her infertile, allowed back to her sorrowing husband, before being arrested, disappearing again and is probably now dead. We also hear about Mihai’s numerous arrests, tortures and beatings, painting a grim enough portrait of Ceaușescu’s Romania.

But it isn’t all communist brutality, as Paul finds himself describing his unhappy childhood and his recurring nightmare of watching his bully step-father drown. We learn that Paul, on his frequent trips to Romania, watched little Vikki grow into a young woman and then was astonished when she took his virginity in this very house (p.68). She is now, apparently, a computer hacker and was smuggled out of the country towards the East, into Asia, by some ‘sponsor’.

This is a lot of information to process in just 40 or so pages. Paul drives the dead Securitate man’s car to his hotel where he receives a telegram from the boss of Resource Potentials, Alex Goodbody, instructing him that his next trip will be to central Asia to assess scrap opportunities in the former Soviet Republics, and to replace Zelinsky, an RP employee, whose dead body is being ‘brought down’ from the interior. Paul broods. What did Zelinsky die of? What is the assignment, exactly?

The overthrow of Ceaușescu

Still in a sweat of fear, Paul drives to Bucharest where he checks in to a high-class hotel for foreigners, and gets chatting to a French freelance news photographer, Antoine Caminade, who fills him in on the political situation ie Ceaușescu’s rule is collapsing. In fact it collapses the next day, a few days before Christmas 1989, when Ceaușescu calls a mass rally in Bucharest’s main square to rail against the dissidents who have been fomenting revolt in the provincial town of Timișoara, only to be horrified when the vast crowd in front of him starts chanting insults and abuse. He and his wife flee the building and are helicoptered away, while disorder takes over the streets.

Meeting Anamaria

It is against this backdrop that Cartwright gets a coded message from Luca, Mihai’s contact, telling him to be outside the house with the tame boar in the garden (!) at 10pm. Once there, a shambling figure walks over to his car, gives him the password and gets in. It turns out to be a very bossy, very capable young woman who Luca has assigned to help Cartwright escape because she herself must flee the country. He notices she has a badly disfiguring hairlip and a limp from a damaged leg, but this makes her take no crap from anyone. She demonstrates her toughness by the unflinching way she attacks guards at an Army checkpoint then looses off a Kalashnikov at them as a thoroughly rattled Cartwright screeches the car off into the night.

But there is no high-speed car chase; this is Romania, where even the police can’t afford petrol. Paul discovers the young firebrand’s name is Anamaria, and she navigates him to the town of Tulcea, on the edge of the Danube marshes, where it is arranged for them to be smuggled aboard a Greek merchant ship. Here they rendezvous with a young fisherman, Rudi, son of a contact of Luca’s. He ferries them out to an island in one of the many channels through the marshes, and there follows a scene which is very Innes in being wildly improbable and somehow very powerful.

Rudi leaves Paul and Anamaria in the depths of winter on a reed island with a foodbag cobbled together by his mother, matches and some plastic sheets, and that’s it! For 36 hours, two nights and a day, they are thrown into an extreme survivalist situation, trying to light a fire, trying to cook fish they catch, and then huddling together for warmth under a plastic sheet while snow falls on them. It’s a great opportunity for some powerful writing about raw winter nature and human endurance. Why are they there? The only safe place to hide out from the police while they wait for the ship which will take them to freedom.

Anamaria’s story

But also, and typically Innes, the narrator relentlessly badgers the girl about her background, and she for her part squirms and evades for page after page. Eventually, after lots of shrugging and hesitating and long silences, he extracts the full story: Anamaria is in fact Mihai and Ana’s natural child, who was taken away from them at an early age and dumped in a state orphanage. (That is the reason Mihai and Ana adopted Vikki.)

Anamaria had a hard upbringing, running away at various times and living on the streets, which meant prostituting herself from an early age. She was passed on to a gang of pimps and then into the control of one Gregor, a real monster, who pimped her out and raped her continually. But it was only when he took the baby which resulted from all this sex, stole her baby away while she was still breast-feeding it, never to be seen again that he snapped. The next time Gregor was raping her, Anamaria killed him with a long hairpin inserted into his coccyx. Ugh. (It is typical of Innes’s narrative strategy that the rapist is made to be Gregor Dinca, brother of the Securitate man, Miron Dinca, who we saw being killed in the opening chapter. Always the characters come in family sets in Innes.)

Anamaria made her way back to her natural parents who didn’t want her, her ugly hairlip, her limp, her shattered body, preferring the beautiful, nimble, clever dancer, Vikki. And so she was out on the streets again, homeless and hussling – more or less her condition when she approaches Cartwright.

Suffering women

Once again, as at the core of Target Antarctica, Innes has embedded a terrible story about the appalling lives, the terrible suffering and abuse, which women can be subjected to in our day and age. It is put down, along with the sterilisation of Ana, as a documentary fact, an incident in the narrative, like many others; it is up to us what we make of it, what value we give it, whether to be disgusted or outraged or whatever – but it is noticeable, this awareness or concern and the urge to record, the plight of women in so much of the modern world.

On board the Baba Tonka

Rudi turns up and ferries them back from the island to a derelict quay while they wait for the ship to arrive. When it does he rows them out to it, they climb a rope ladder up the side, Cartwright finds himself agreeing to pay Anamaria’s passage as well as his ($50 for him, $25 for her) and collapses asleep in the mercifully warm clean cabin he’s been given. There’s a small interlude when she appears at his bedside worrying that Customs will search the ship and what to do about the Kalashnikov we know she has rolled up in her bedclothes. ‘Throw it over the side,’ Paul says and turns over and back to sleep.

Istanbul

They bid the captain farewell and walk out into the bustling streets of Istanbul. Earlier, the captain of the merchant ship had let him use the ship-to-shore radio, over which his boss, Alex, in London, had given him instructions on who to meet and where to pick up the plane ticket for his flight on to Pakistan. Cartwright picks them up then checks into one of the swankiest hotels in town, with a breath-taking view over the Hagia Sofia mosque and the Golden Horn. He walks the streets and, returning to the hotel, recognises Anamaria amid the crowd. She is on the streets again, nursing her cash for a flight East, to Alma-Ata (characteristically, it’s not completely explained why).

Generously, Cartwright invites her for a meal – but she hasn’t got anything to wear – she can borrow something – but she needs a bath – she can have a bath in his room etc — and it leads to her walking, amazed, into his luxury hotel room – this harelipped, limping, used and abused street urchin – Cartwright running a massive bubble bath for her, giving her chilled champagne in the bath, then giving her lovely pyjamas and a nightgown to wear to sit on the balcony eating caviar then steak as the sun sets. At one point he’s chatting on about something, looks round and realises she’s fast asleep. Tenderly, he lifts and carries her to the other of the twin beds, tucks her up then goes back to the balcony to enjoy the sunset. In the middle of the night he’s awoken by her kissing his hand then pressing something into it, he begins to murmur something but the door has shut and she has disappeared out of his life. (Forever?) Next morning he wakes to discover he is grasping a small gilt crucifix.


Briefing on Central Asia

Cartwright checks out of the hotel and takes a cab to the airport. In the departure lounge he is surprised to recognise Antoine Caminade from Bucharest. He walks right up to Cartwright and makes no bones about it – he’s following him. For the length of the flight from Istanbul to Karachi (pages 206 to 224) Caminade engages in a long rambling stream-of-consciousness monologue: this includes the fact that his grandfather, Pierre Caminade, died while exploring up in the Pamir mountains, north of Afghanistan, following in the alleged footsteps of two hardy Victorian women explorers, until he was lost in a snowstorm, dug out a snow-hole near the Khunjerab Pass, wrote up a diary of his adventures, before dying of exposure, the diary found by rescuing Gurkhas and eventually mailed home to his wife and for young Antoine to stumble upon and read.

But Caminade’s monologue also extends over lots of other issues affecting Central Asia – from the folly of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, to the warlike mentality of the Mujahideen, with repeated emphases on the wickedness of Stalin’s policy of relocating entire populations throughout the region, and the horror of Soviet policy in Chechnya. Between him and Cartwright the text makes lots of references to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, as well as to the various mountain ranges – the Hindu Kush, the Pamirs, the Karakorams and so on.

In short the flight serves to indicate that Caminade is up to something (typically, we aren’t told what) and has a typically Innesesque family story (his dead grandfather leaving a ‘secret diary’ which contains hints or suggestions of… what?) along with a great deal of background information on the part of the world Cartwright is flying into. All useful preparation for part two of this long story.

Cartwright lands in Karachi and goes to a good hotel. He meets the contact Alex Goodbody had told him about, who gives him tickets and preparation for the internal flight north to Peshawar, capital of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan. Here these is more local description, before he is being shaken awake in his hotel bedroom by his local contact, Abdullah, telling him he has to run to meet the man he’s come this far to locate, one Laun Said.

The train chase

Laun Said is the native name adopted by a Welsh Army officer, at one time (apparently) a Brigadier. He mentions (and brings to mind) the ‘Great Game’, the term every public schoolboy uses to refer to the competition between Imperial Britain and Imperial Russia to control Afghanistan and the Khyber Pass, gateway to the great northern plain of India.

Laun’s native fixer wakes Cartwright from a deep sleep in his hotel, hussles him into his clothes and drives him quickly to a crowded market place in Peshawar. Here Laun Said turns up and plunges the text into a panic as he says, ‘Get in the bloody Land Rover,’ and off they drive at top speed to intercept the puffing old steam engine which has just set off to climb up through the Khyber Pass. Throughout this breakneck, harepin-bend, terrifying high-speed drive up into the mountains, Laun, in typical Innes fashion, refuses to say what Cartwright’s mission is or why they’ve been appointed to meet, nor does he tell us why they’re driving after the train in such mad fashion.

A long silence… Another shrug… The answer was another shrug… (page 236)

Eventually they park on the road near a siding ahead of the train and, just as it passes them, a man in native costume jumps off, comes running towards Cartwright followed by shots. The man nearly makes it before being hit and skidding forwards over the rubble of the siding, while Laun calmly takes sight and shoots two of the shooters on the train. One of them falls off and under the wheels of the following carriage, being immediately sliced in half in a squelch of blood and guts.

Then the train has passed a corner and is gone. Laun comes ambling back across the rubble to confirm what he feared. His man is dead. He was Ginger McCrae, his best friend, the two of them had been on many dangerous missions together. Laun thinks the assassins were from the Chechen mafia, revenge for some former operation. They drive up the trail a bit more to an old British graveyard and here Laun gets Cartwright to help him bury McCrae in a shallow grave. Before doing so Laun closes the corpse’s eyes and kisses him on the cheeks and lips. A little later, when they’ve got to a town, Laun jokingly says their host offers everything, food, drink, girls, boys, to which Cartwright emphatically replies that he is not interested and he is not homosexual. There is one other fleeting reference to the fact Cartwright has realised that Ginger and Laun had been lovers.

— Like lots of other sexual references in Innes this is mentioned, noted, and then the plot continues. I admire his acceptance of the sexual side of human nature. These may be preposterously Gothic adventure yarns, but the author is neither salacious or moralistic about sexuality. This is human nature; OK; now, what’s next?

Laun Said

Laun and Cartwright drive on up the mountain into the Khyber Pass, while Cartwright continues his luckless attempts to find out what the hell is going on. ‘How did Zelinsky die?’ he asks. ‘Exposure in the snow,’ Laun replies. ‘What is my assignment?’ ‘Haven’t a clue, old boy,’ say Laun. ‘Got to find out what Ginger was trying to tell me. Here, see this scrap of paper; it has something scratched on it before Ginger jumped off the train: What do you think he was trying to tell us?’

And thus, not too subtly, we feel Innes shifting the narrative from being (at least a bit) rooted in a sort of mundane reality (scrap metal dealing), onto pure John Buchan adventure yarn territory – our hero the passenger of a battered Land Rover driving up the main Khyber Pass road towards the Afghan border with a heavily disguised British Army officer, in pursuit of some undefined mystery. Come on, chaps.

Ahmed Khan

They stop at a walled citadel – an opportunity for Innes to tell us about the design and purpose of these buildings, as strongholds for the numerous competing warlords who are the region’s natural rulers – for Laun to ask the whereabouts of the master. He is further along the road at Landi Khotal, and here they meet Ahmed Khan at his well-defended warehouse. There is a typically evasive Q&A about Zelinsky’s mission: Khan thinks he was heading north-east and it was something to do with jewels. Thinks.

Laun parks the car at a spot along the highway with a stunning view of the mountains. He thinks Ginger had come down from another mountain range, further to the east. Is Cartwright willing to chance it? Chance what, Cartwright asks. Obviously Laun doesn’t tell us: ‘He shook his head, sitting silent and very still.’ But Cartwright agrees to follow Laun’s hunch.

Laun drives them back down to the plain, through Jamrud, through Peshawar and into Islamabad. There Cartwright spends a bad-tempered week wondering what the hell’s going on. All he knows is that Laun is buying snow equipment, thermals, masks, skis, the lot. And somehow that perishing Frenchman, Antoine, manages to track him down.

In an intense 1-on-1 interview, Antoine discloses that he’s found the final pages of his grandfather’s diary in the hands of a storyteller in the souk. He knows Cartwright has been making enquiries about jewels, about lapis lazuli, rubies and sapphires. Does he know why Zelinsky was murdered? No. Does he know why McCrae was murdered? No. Does he know why his company wants the jewels? No. Caminade offers him the final pages of the diary for $20 million.

(All the way through, the evidence has been that Cartwright is more than a humble mineralogist and now he phones Goodbody in London and conveys Caminade’s message in code. He seems to be morphing, in front of our eyes, into a special agent of some kind.)

Into the mountains

Cartwright is shaken awake by Laun. Russians are making enquiries about them, maybe the KGB, maybe the mafia, who knows. Hurry. They bundle downstairs, into the Land Rover to find a new character, Kuki, an Urdu taxi driver, and they’re off on another long distance drive, through Peshawar and right up the road towards the Malakand Pass. They rough it as the cold becomes more intense, snow almost blocking the pass. Once over they stop for hot coffee and Laun has a pee. Cartwright notices with shock that his penis is mutilated. Bunch of Tibetan guards on the China-Tibet pass, apparently; began hacking at him thinking he was a Russian till the Chinese guards arrived and saved his life. Atrocity. Danger. Fear.

The story of the old Buddhist

They are marooned in the next settlement, below the Shandur Pass, while the snow is cleared further up and here Camanide catches up with them. This time he tells them a long story which gets to the heart of the plot: His grandfather was travelling through the mountains in the footsteps of two lady explorers when he stumbled across a Buddhist stupa almost buried in the sand. As he excavated it he came across the mummified body of a Chinese man with a leather satchel. Inside the satchel was an account by the man, a Buddhist monk, who had travelled far and wide. It contained a description of a mysterious lost valley, which he nicknames Nirvana, long and narrow with an emerald-coloured lake at the end. If you stand at the right place at the right hour a tall mountain in the north-west appears completely black. In a crack in that mountain is the gateway to the home of the troglodytes. These are tall, fair-haired strangers who carry double-edged axes and speak an unknown tongue. In the depths of the mountain is the shrine to their fearsome thunder god with a huge hammer.

a) The text has prepared us for this rather amazing revelation on a several occasions, having the narrator remember stories about ancient Russia and the tradition that it was founded by blonde Vikings from Sweden and that these wanderers roamed far and near, founding Rus and the city of Kiev, penetrating as far as Constantinople.
b) There had been hints scattered throughout the text of a lost kingdom or scattered references to hobgoblins and troglodytes. Now the whole narrative has exploded into an unashamed homage to the lost world genre, as pioneered by Henry Rider Haggard in the 1880s.

Just to push it way over the bounds of plausibility, Caminade’s parting shot is that the ruler of this lost world is said to have a sultana who dances for him, a beautiful slender girl who dances night and day. Of course – it must be Vikki, from part one of the story when it still inhabited the real world. Now she has morphed along with the rest of the narrative, to become part of a fairy story!

The lost river

Did I mention the lost river? At several points in their earlier conversations, Laun had mentioned that the Russians began two road tunnels under the Pamirs to provide access to Afghanistan. Tunnel two was completed and used extensively. Tunnel one is less well-known because the Russians abandoned it half built. This is because they discovered an underground river running across the intended route. A hot underground river, as if fed by hot springs. Does this recall Rider Haggard or Jules Verne? Up in the mountains Laun and Cartwright blunder on through snowstorms, abandoning the Land Rover and proceeding on skis with Everest-style one-man tents. Conditions get really rough until they can’t see any way forward, with only the GPS and the co-ordinates Caminade gave them to guide them.

(Caminade had wanted to make a deal with our guys: his translation of his grandfather’s notes, descriptions of the magic valley and the Black Mountain, in return for letting him come along. After he’s left, Laun and Cartwright debate it. But amid all the detail of his story, Caminade had mentioned that he’d got a professor in Peshawar to translate the dead monk’s text. Laun and Cartwright both realise this academic must have circulated or at least mentioned the text and the secret valley, along with its rumoured treasure; somehow word had got to the KGB or Chechens, resulting in Ginger’s death and Laun being followed. On this basis (and for the simple reason that he’s French) Laun refuses to take Caminade with them. He and Cartwright set off in the middle of the night to elude him.)

Now, days later, snuggled up close to each other for body warmth in the tent high in the snowed-in mountains:

a) Cartwright parallels the situation with the night he spent bundled together with Anamaria in the freezing cold island of reeds in the Danube delta
b) Cartwright nervously worries about Laun’s homosexuality, mentioned a few times earlier – but Laun doesn’t try anything
c) Instead, Laun tells him another tall tale. This time Laun was a young man travelling through the area and manages to hitch a lift from a metal contractor up to the tunnel diggings, where he helps the contractor unload and then – ta-da! – changes into the Soviet officer’s uniform he just happens to have smuggled in the lorry – bluffs his way past the guard at the entrance, and gets himself given a guided tour of the long well-engineered tunnel that goes thousands of metres into the mountain, until, sure enough, they come to the river bed, open and revealed with a walkway across it. It is at this moment that Laun sees a stocky blonde-haired, blue-eyed underground Viking people. He shouts across the river in an unknown language. The Russian engineer shouts back that they’re closing the tunnel off. The Viking nods in approval and disappears into a crack in the wall.

If I was Cartwright I might have shouted, ‘Well, why the devil didn’t you tell me any of this before?’ But Laun has fallen asleep. As usual in Innes, the characters know almost all the story beforehand, they just refuse to tell anyone else about it. Next day they stagger on through a permanent blizzard, several times barely escaping falling over cliff edges or into crevasses, all very filmic, until the snow lightens for a moment and they can see the suggestion of Nirvana Valley beneath them and a tall dark mountain looming out of the gloom. They press on and camp for another 48 hours in a howling blizzard. When it stops – they are woken by voices outside their tent. Laun tries Pathan and Urdu, no response, Cartwright tries some simple Swedish he picked up working with Swedish navvies in Canada – and the voices respond, telling them to stay there till they return. They have met the Lost Viking Tribe!

In the underground kingdom

They are led down into the mysterious underground kingdom in scenes reminiscent of HG Wells, Jules Verne and Rider Haggard – are given the kind of tour of the facilities all characters are given in pulp sci-fi stories, having it all explained to them, how the thermal energy is converted to the electricity that powers the fluorescent lighting everywhere, and the lifts and the computer terminals (!) and the radio aerial. And there to greet them – in a scene beyond parody – is that damn Frenchman Antoine again. Turns out he had been there once before and knew the way into the front entrance (Why didn’t he tell them? Why doesn’t anyone tell anyone anything in an Innes novel?)

But what Laun and Cartwright quickly discover is there is trouble in Paradise. As so often in the lost world genre, outsiders arrive in an idyllic secret kingdom to find it isn’t so idyllic after all, and their arrival brings a smouldering situation to a head.

Turns out the current king, Ali Khan, is an outsider who made himself powerful as Chief Secretary before almost certainly murdering the old king and marrying Vikki. For – beyond the bounds of the wildest fantasy – it is indeed Vikki, Paul’s old friend from Romania, who is the now the aloof and powerful Sultana of Nirvana. And Vikki has secured the rescue of Anamaria, the street urchin he shared those nights with on the reed island, finding her and having her flown to join her in her underground kingdom. (Did Anamaria know this was in the offing when she made her hasty escape from Romania? Why was she set on getting to Alma-Ata, had she had word from Vikki? And I thought she was meant to bitterly resent the way Vikki usurped her in her parents’ affections?)

Vikki has just given birth to a baby. However, the baby is a girl, not the boy child required by the psychotic Khan. And at that moment, as all of this is being breathlessly explained to Paul and Laun, the king returns from a foreign visit and sweeps into the chamber demanding to know whether it is true that the child is a girl, well Is she, is she?,He rips open its swaddling clothes to confirm it, and in an excess of fury, dashes its brains out against the rock walls. Vikki shrieks, Anamaria sneaks round behind the king and slips one of her fatal hat-pins into his belly just as Cartwright, reacting on instinct, draws his gun and fills Khan full of bullets. He’s only been there a few hours and now he’s shot the king of the place. Terrific.

There is a moment of silence before all hell breaks loose. Fortunately, Erik Bigblad arrives, the figurehead of the traditional Swedish faction against the Asiatics represented by Khan, and he quickly takes control. He and his men disarm the Asiatic men, and the coup is complete.

(Note, even in this adventure fantasy setting, the odd parallelism with the earlier narrative, for this is the second time Anamaria has murdered a man for killing a baby – the first time it was Gregor, her pimp, who took away her own baby. And note also the heedless, almost unstoppable, brutality of men towards the most innocent and vulnerable in society.)

Back in London

Surreally, the last chapter is set in London three weeks later, where Cartwright is making his report to his nominal boss, Alex Goodbody, all the while trying to decide whether to strike out and set up his own company. That damn Frenchman turns up again and describes some of the scenes Cartwright missed back in the valley, namely the swearing-in ceremony of his Vikki as new ruler of Nirvana. Antoine reveals that he wants to leave the French mineralogy firm that employs him – why don’t they pool their resources and set up a company to work with the Vikings to exploit their mineral discoveries? Cartwright decides: Yes! He will!


Thoughts

Quite obviously the text is a farrago, a dog’s dinner of a text mashing up half a dozen different stories into one overcharged fantasia. The first two settings are reasonably realistic – communist Romania and Pakistan at the end of the Russo-Afghan War… and the plot up to that point had made use of Innes’ traditional technique of basing far-fetched coincidences around families with dark secrets – Cartwright’s recurrent nightmare memories of killing his step-dad prepares us for the voodoo theme of the two sisters, offspring of the ill-fated Kikinda marriage, deformed by communism’s brutalisation of women, whose story plays out against two continents.

Innes’ last three novels – IsvikTarget Antarctica and Delta Connection – contain particularly harrowing episodes, scenes which are so intense as to be almost visions, barely related to the mundane world which surround them or the workaday plots which frame them: the poor wretches in the ship’s hold being sprayed with anthrax toxin in Isvik; the devastating story of La Belle Phuket’s capture, torture and rape in Antarctica; Anamaria’s brutalisation in the orphanages and streets of Romania.

There aren’t many articles about Innes on the web, but the half-dozen I’ve read all say that he became more concerned about environmental issues in his later years – and he certainly wrote novels which feature oil pollution, deforestation and us hunting Africa’s mammals to extinction. But I think this final batch of novels go deeper than that; their far-fetched plots and dizzy coincidences are merely the framework he uses to deliver his deeper message:- it is not just that we can’t get on with the natural world without destroying it; we can’t even get on with each other.

This novel abounds in many throwaway visions of horror: Cartwright recounts flying over a bush fire in Western Australia and watching it catch and overtake a herd of kangaroos, turning them to twisting chunks of burned flesh. Laun spends a page remembering a doctor who accompanied a detachment of troops and civilians through the Khyber Pass until ambushed by Pathans, who shot all the soldiers before running down to cut the women and children to pieces. At several places (to prepare us for the Secret Valley ending) Cartwright thinks about the Rus, the legendary Viking travellers who sailed up the inland rivers of Russia, who launched their ships over the bodies of women sacrificed to their gods, the sound of their screaming as their bones were pulverised… and so on.

I think these last novels are about man’s inhumanity to man – and the central part played by the terrible stories of la Belle Phuket and Anamaria are intended as a searing indictment of how, for all the wonders of the internet and the gee-whizz gadgetry of space travel, we are unable to protect even the most vulnerable and innocent on this, our own, terrible planet.

What is harder to reconcile, or process, is the way this, Innes’ final story, turns away from these earlier levels of meaning to mutate into a late-Victorian romance of almost fairy-tale simplicity. It is so weird it is almost avant-garde. The inhumanity which I thought it was about until the last 70 or so pages, is completely trumped by the strange fantasy ending. The gripping chase in a car across night-time Romania, the survivalist episode on the reed island, the high-tension pursuit of the old steam locomotive up into the mountains – these are traditional thriller episodes.

But the fairy-tale ending – did Innes know this would be his last book? Did he write brutal, brutal, brutal episodes and then – sick of his depiction of such a violent world, decide to turn his grim tale at last into a kind of melodramatic pantomime? Or did he just run out of puff?

What a long, strange, compelling and mysterious book.


Credit

Delta Connection by Hammond Innes was published by Macmillans in 1996. All references are to the 1997 Pan paperback edition.

Ceaușescu’s death

As a corollary to the 200 pages set amid the confusion of Ceaușescu’s overthrow in Romania – and a grim testimony to man’s inhumanity to man – there’s footage on YouTube of him and his formidable wife, Elena, being tried by a kangaroo court and then executed by a shambolic firing squad.

Related links

Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines reveals an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land; features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute battle 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 lady journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm –


1946 Dead and Alive –
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 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 complicated 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 leads 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 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 cause he champions.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this time one convinced he can prove his eccentric theories about the origin of Man, Ice Age sea levels, the origin 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 the invitation to visit from a rancher’s daughter he’d met. 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 persistent 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 complex 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, all tied 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 old 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, the last surviving son of which 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, 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 gone aground 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 Lloyd’s 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 in time?
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 Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cartwright is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to rescue a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. It takes a lot of shenanigans, 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 a scam to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, diamonds like the ones the survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a story which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania during the chaotic days leading up to the overthrow of the communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller with car chases and shoot-outs – before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s boys adventure stories as Cartwright 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.

Target Antarctica by Hammond Innes (1993)

Antarctica. The same setting as Innes’ previous novel, Isvik, and we are introduced almost immediately to one of that book’s central characters, the mysterious moneyman, entrepreneur or spy (we never really learn which), Iain Ward. But it was only around page 200, when the narrator of this novel, Ed Cruse, actually joins the crew of the Isvik, setting sail with the same characters we met in the previous book – Iris Sunderby, Nils Solberg and the previous novel’s narrator, Peter Kettil – that I realised it was a full-blown sequel, though, at 416 pages, it’s a longer and more complicated book than Isvik.

(In an odd manoeuvre, that book is itself referred to by the characters as a factual record of what happened on Ward’s previous expedition, as a true account written by its actual narrator, Peter Kettil, but published as fiction in order to get round a D-notice banning accounts of it (p.161). As such it is read by the narrator of this text, Ed Cruse, on the flight to the south Atlantic, so that Cruse is briefed about the events of the previous adventure and knows the peculiar histories of the characters, especially the hot-tempered Latina, Iris, and her bizarre love affair with her half-brother and evil murder Mario Ángel Gómez – before he meets the same characters in real life.)

Plot summary

Michael Edwin ‘Ed’ Cruse has been in the RAF all his life, like his father before him. But he is an irresponsible daredevil and has got into trouble – and become notorious – for at least two stunts: During the Falklands War his Harrier jet was running out of fuel when he spotted an Argentine plane, a Pucará, apparently abandoned on a makeshift airstrip; he made a vertical landing with a view to siphoning out the Pucará’s fuel, but then heard on its radio, warning of two other Argentine bandits flying in to attack our forces; so he took off in the Pucará and attacked the bandits with it, forcing them to abandon their attack. Mad, irresponsible, but brave and it worked.

Then on a training exercise back in Britain, Cruse was ducking and diving among fighters along the river Severn and at the last minute realised he was going to have to fly under the Severn Bridge. In a Hercules transport plane! For this and other more traditional misbehaviour (trashing the mess one drunken night) he is discharged from the service (after a memorable farewell party from his admiring squadron, complete with bridge-shaped cake!).

Before he’d even left the force, Cruse was approached by a woman, Kirsty Fraser, on behalf of Iain Ward, to do a job. Ward is involved with an organisation which was building a mining base in Antarctica, run by a company called KLME, and which was being supplied by a Lockheed C-130 Hercules. One night the ice shelf fractured and the base was split in two, half the buildings, the aircraft hangar, the C-130 and half the runway marooned on a vast block of ice which detached from the mainland and floated slowly out to sea. The job is to fly the C-130 off the drastically shortened runway, then to the nearest base, to be refuelled and reused. A simple but very risky job many people think is impossible. Someone had heard about Cruse’s high profile antics and thought he’d be the man for the job.

The first hundred pages of the novel comprise a busy sequence of meetings with numerous colourful characters in London, Scotland and Paris, introducing us to the details of Cruse’s business deal and, in a larger perspective, to the network of characters and relationships who will feature in the story:

  • Ward’s secretary tips him off that Ward’s wife, Barbara, is bored and lonely because her husband is always gallivanting off round the globe, so she’s taken to placing small ads in the paper looking for company. Cruse calls the phone number and makes a date with Barbara in order to find out more about his mysterious employer. She turns out to be a respectable middle-class, middle-aged woman who is simply bored and frustrated. Cruse eventually coaxes her to describe her husband’s history and character as he treats her to an expensive meal at The Compleat Angler in Marlow, giving us useful background info before Cruse meets the man himself. Some weeks later, most of the arrangements for the trip in place, Cruse takes Barbara out for another date before he flies south, since he warmed to her on their first meeting. After dinner they go back to her place for a ‘romantic interlude’, but he finds himself impotent, his mind obsessed with the harrowing story of La Belle Phuket (see below). After the time spent on describing her and their meetings, I thought Barbara would become the ‘love interest’, but no, the novel – like real life – is more complex and confused than that, and we don’t hear of Barbara again.
  • Iain Ward Centre of the story, as he was of its prequel. Ward has a long, colourful past, starting as the son of a Glasgow prostitute, gravitating to small-time crook in London’s East End, and then getting to a scholarship to Eton, paid for by his crooked mentor, before getting involved in dubious deals in the Middle East and elsewhere. This is all before the adventure described in Isvik – travelling across the ice to find Eduardo Connor-Gómez, the sole survivor of an Argie ship loaded with political prisoners who had been deliberately infected with anthrax as part of a mad scheme to infect the Falkland Islands and make them uninhabitable. (Anthrax? You have to read Isvik to savour the full Gothic horror of the story…)
  • Travers, the original pilot of the C-130, repatriated to Scotland after the ice shelf broke off. He gives Cruse a typically spooky, atmospheric description of what it was like to be woken by the banging and creaking of the ice break and find the end of your hut ripped off as the crack spread across the camp (pp.68-72). He thinks he saw a ship or maybe a whale for a moment in the black night-time sea which opened up. Could it have been saboteurs who laid explosives to cause the calving? People like…
  • Bjorn Lange a youthful activist with Greenpeace who trails Cruse from his London meeting with Kirsty Fraser and confronts him in an underground car park to explain that Antarctica should remain a World Park unsullied by mineral exploitation. He is given some naive speeches about Man’s Greed and Inhumanity and we’re wiping out the world’s species and decimating the Last Wilderness etc, enough to make us think he is going to play some kind of sabotage role in the story…
  • Cruse travels to Paris, to the HQ of CALIB insurance, to tie up details of the deal on the C-130 which Ward has suggested to him. Here he discovers the boss is a formidable woman, La Belle Phuket, an extraordinary character, a south-east Asian woman raised in Phnom Pen whose family fled before the Khmer Rouge and were hiding in a remote village when a Khmer gang arrived. She saw her father bayoneted to death, her mother eviscerated before being beheaded, then was gang-raped for weeks, before the platoon moved on and she was thrown into a burning hut to die. But she survived, horrifically scarred, and walked across country to the coast, stole a fishing boat and made it to Thailand, to the island of Phuket which is where she was discovered by a French film crew, organising local crime. From there she made her way to Paris where she is now a powerful and feared businesswoman. — It is typical of Innes to include such a grotesque horror in the book; all his novels start off about rational, sensible men, trained in a sober profession, they include lots of technical details about flying or sailing as well as scads of stuff about stocks and shares and takeovers and shell companies and so on: yet always at the core, there are dark, murderous and often incestuous narratives about doomed and ill-fated families – like biting into a fairy cake in a Cotswold tearooms and tasting fresh blood.

Back in the daylight world, the deal is that Cruse will contract with the insurance company, CALIB, to buy the C-130 for a nominal sum ($10,000), to have his expenses for the flight to the Falkland Islands and beyond paid in full, and then will contract with KLME to do their flying and pay CALIB back from the KLME fees. All assuming he can fly the plane off the truncated runway. If he can’t, he’s stuck with a worthless heap of scrap metal and faced with the cost of disassembling it and getting it shipped somewhere. So it’s a big financial gamble for him, personally.

In the concluding scenes of the UK section:

  • Cruse goes for a last date with Barbara Ward, the one where he can’t get it up because he is so haunted by La Belle Phuket’s life story.
  • His last visit to Ward’s London office is marked by a remarkably intimate hug and kiss and good luck send-off from the secretary, Kirsty, who I also speculated might become the ‘love interest’. Wrong again…
  • He is contacted by the head of Greenpeace who says the boy he met, Bjorn Lange, has gone missing on an Antarctic Survey ship that was heading south, so can he please keep an eye out for him (this storyline is obviously going to be important and probably, if I know Innes, head for tragedy).
  • He does his last-minute shopping (thermal undies, toothbrush), and then meets up with the flight engineer he’s tracked down and sub-contracted to check the engines before he’ll even consider flying the Herc off its truncated runway (drunk, randy but brilliant engineer Charlie Pollard).
  • Then the pair drive to RAF Brize Norton to catch an RAF TriStar flight to Ascension Island; refuel in the blistering sunshine; and the seven-hour flight on to the Falklands.

In the Falkland Islands

Cruse, Charlie Pollard and Ward arrive on a plane at Port Stanley to a) a highly detailed description of the military and administrative set-up in the Falklands, as well as the geography, the sight and smell of the place (obviously a result of one of Innes’ famously detailed research trips) and b) to discover the place is in a flap because an unknown boat was seen dropping an unknown dinghy which desposited some unknown men on the other side of the island. At the end of his first day there, Cruse is having a drink in a pub when the cook brings him a note from someone wanting to meet him down at the War Memorial.

Lange’s warning

Predictably, it is the young environmental zealot, Lange, who tells Cruse:

a) that he hates La Belle Phuket because she masterminded a hostile takeover of his father’s company, KLME, leading his dispirited dad to eventually commit suicide (typical Innes family tragedy)
b) that, despite this, he must see Phuket to warn her and he must be smuggled aboard the Isvik when it sets off south. Very typically for an Innes novel, Lange refuses to explain why he must do either of these things to Cruse, who becomes nearly as frustrated and exasperated as the reader.

Eduardo returns

In a surprise development, Ward arrives on the boat and introduces Ferdinand Barratt (p.225) who turns out to be none other than Eduardo, Iris’s half-brother. It was he, who, in the previous novel, had been revealed as surviving on the ice-bound frigate for over two years after the ‘passengers’ – political prisoners of the Argentine dictatorship locked in the hold – had been sprayed with anthrax and thus doomed to a horrific death. Afterwards, Eduardo spiked the crew’s drinks, managing to get rid of them at gunpoint by making them clamber into one of the life-rafts, never to be seen again. But alone on the giant three-master sailing ship – the Santa Maria del Sud – Eduardo lost control so that it drifted with the Trade Winds south, before finally coming to rest amid the ice of Antarctica, where Eduardo was able to survive on the ship’s rations and fish he caught through ice holes and birds he shot. It was when an English glaciologist spotted the ice-bound ship on a flight over the ice, that the plot of Isvik began, for that prompted Ward to commission the expedition to find her, which is the subject Isvik.

It had been given out in the press that Ward had returned from that expedition with a sole survivor, Eduardo, who then died of his fragile condition. Iris even attended the official funeral. But Eduardo obviously didn’t die for here he is! – though why Ward went to so much trouble to conceal his identity, why he lied to Iris about it, and why he has smuggled Eduardo all the way from Britain to the Falklands, remains shrouded in mystery.

La Belle Phuket arrives

In another surprise development it turns out La Belle Phuket has herself flown out to the Islands. She is collected by our team – Cruse, Ward, Nils, Iris – and insists on being transferred, via a tug’s inflatable dinghy, to another ship. This is a tortuous pretext for the dinghy she’s in to be hijacked – it’s found floating with the sailor coshed and unconscious – and this kicks off a furious chase. Ward grabs control of the Isvik from an angry Kettil, and we share his and the narrator’s terrible fear that Phuket has been kidnapped and is being tortured, raped and murdered by the survivors of the gang who raped her back in Kampuchea!

There are several pages of desperate night-sailing out into the open sea, high waves, struggling with the seas and the cross-winds, gambling that she’s been taken to one of the several shipwrecked hulks around the Falklands coast. Ward and Cruse anchor the Isvik before taking its dinghy and motoring quietly out to the likeliest candidate, the Suzie Whittaker. Here they tie up and step gingerly onto its sloping deck and then… hear a heart-rending scream of agony from the bowels of the ship! Like so many scenes in Innes, the story has somehow morphed into horror.

The suspense is too much for Cruse who goes running down the steps and bursts through a cabin door, gun in hand to find – a man tied spreadeagled to a mattress made out of a filthy old sail, his trousers pulled down and his genitals reduced to a pulp, beaten and mashed, his lower guts cut open and his viscera spilling everywhere – and La Belle Phuket standing frozen in shock, the rusty, jagged spar, covered in gore, which she has used to castrate him, still in her hand.

One by one, we learn, she has tracked down the men who raped her and personally, or had people do it for her, castrated, crippled or blinded them. This was the last, the leader, Tan Seng. She knew he was following her (and so did Lange; this is what the boy so desperately wanted to tell Cruse back at the Falklands Memorial) and she had allowed herself to be captured as a calculated gamble. Ward and Cruse are stunned, but then move to tidy up: they take the bloody corpse up to his dinghy, set off in both dinghies, throw the weighted corpse overboard, set Seng’s dinghy adrift, then return to the Isvik where they cobble together a story about finding Phuket being beaten up, there’s a fight, Ward fires in self-defence etc.

Two things are notable about this long and searing episode.

1. Its randomness: this is another novel about a carefully-planned, financed and resourced expedition to the Antarctic, presented by another sensible, sober, professional Innes narrator (Cruse, the professional RAF pilot). Yet somehow Innes has worked into it a fictionalised reaction to the horrors of the Cambodian killing fields and the Khmer Rouge’s murderous regime. What? Why?
2. Despite its completely random insertion into the plot, it is nonetheless hair-raisingly powerful. The horror of Phuket’s personal story and the blood-thirstiness of her revenge are convincing at a deeper level than mere plausibility. Once they are safely back on the Isvik and sailing back to shelter, it seems wildly inappropriate yet is, at some primitive level, satisfying, that Cruse is astonished to find this little, horribly scarred Asian woman suddenly clinging to him, kissing him and saying, ‘It is over now. Here in the wild sea in the rise of the big waves, it is over. I am reborn.’

It is the main characteristic of Innes’s fiction to have these gruesome, intense, almost mythic experiences embedded in texts which appear on the surface, or start off being about, reinsurance values and cargo manifests and mining companies. It is as if the immensely detailed descriptions of planes and boats and corporate law and mineralogy are the booster rockets, the boringly believable first stages which are necessary to launch the bizarre, psychologically compelling and irrational core subjects which are what you remember of Innes’s strange and compelling narratives. Almost like therapy which takes hours and days and weeks to dig through layers of mundane detail and workaday life to suddenly strike the phobias, terrors and traumas which lie beneath.

She turned her head and smiled. There was a strange serenity about that smile, so that I suddenly felt I was looking at an older world in which vengeance, justice, call it what you like, was a matter for individuals. (p.297)

Something which redeems or helps the process is the way the narrators are themselves generally puzzled and bewildered by the experience. Innes’s narrators are not masters of the situation – by and large they are deeply in the dark about what the hell is going on – and quite routinely they are exposed to situations and feelings they don’t know how to deal with. The narrators’ own shocked reactions help the often bizarre climaxes and horrors at the core of his books be that bit more acceptable, or less absurd.

The Falklands War

Although eclipsed in imaginative power by this torture scene, it should be noted that the Falklands section is 130 pages or so long and contains detailed descriptions not only of the islands, their geography and especially the sailing conditions around them, but makes continual reference to the War, the casualties and to the several moving memorials to the war dead.

It adds nothing to the plot that the narrator sits on a local plane next to the mother of one of the young British soldiers who died at Goose Green and who has saved up to fly the length of the planet to visit the memorial cross on the hilltop there, and is crying as she tells Cruse about her boy. Adds nothing to the plot, but contributes to the sense, as in so many Innes novels, of tremendous emotion, of loss and grief and conflict and death, just below the surface of the narrative.

Incidents like this and numerous references to the battles, the dogfights, the missiles exploding, the corpses laid out on the green grass, make the novel upsetting, maintaining a continuous level of emotional disturbance. It isn’t like a thriller or a detective story where you are kept on tenterhooks trying to figure out what will happen next. It is more emotionally gruelling than that, the ‘plots’ such as they are, are often just vehicles for delivering these primal feelings, of upset and horror and hurt.

Towards the ice

After farewell dinners and drinks, the crew of the Isvik (Cruse, Nils, Iris, Peter, Charlie, Phuket and a newcomer, Geordie Gary McShane) set sail. As in the previous novel, there are long and convincing descriptions of the day-by-day sailing east towards South Georgia, of crossing the Antarctic Convergence, before turning south towards the ice, wind and waves and fogs, maps and navigation aids and the endlessly rolling of the ship. Ward, we discover, is also heading south but travelling separately, along with others and his mysterious cargo, on an ice-breaker he’s chartered.

In fact, after the horror interlude in the ruined wreck, the rest of the plot proceeds fairly logically. After scores of pages of vivid description of sailing in the Antarctic, the Isvik finds the leads or passages the ice-breaker has carved through the ice towards the free-standing ice floe which is still upright and on whose surface can still be seen huts, tractor and the hangar containing the plane, all covered in a winter’s worth of snow. Crew from the ice-breaker have already created a scaffold of steps up to the top and have begun clearing the ice.

The big take-off

There are several pages giving a detailed account of how you clear a Hercules transporter of ice, de-ice it, check all the equipment until Cruse and Charlie are ready to risk their lives taking it off but – fog descends, the weather worsens, and they sit around drinking too much coffee brooding on the high-risk, one-off feat they are about to undertake: trying to fly a C-130 plane which requires 500 feet of runway off an icy slippery runway which is just 450 feet long.

Finally, conditions clear up and it is time to discover whether Eddie will earn his money, fly the C-130 (and survive). This is a genuinely tense scene, a couple of intense pages describing fear and anxiety which have to be read to be fully experienced because the reader all the time suspects the unsurprising answer – Cruse succeeds.

The plane dips towards the sea 200 feet below but then Cruse pulls on the handles and it flies, IT FLIES! Cruse flies over to the Ronne Ice Wall where the ice-breaker has dropped Ward and others at the original main KLME base. Here the KLME personnel have used a bulldozer to create a regulation length runway where Cruse lands – though also not without risk.

From this point the novels moves very fast. Ward is on Cruse’s back to fly south as soon as possible to locate the position of the frigate. They see it far below, embedded in the ice, and Ward again bullies Cruse to find a large area of apparently flat ice where he lands the C-130, not without anxiety that the ice will be too thin and crack. It doesn’t.

Diamonds!

They hurriedly deposit some of the men and a ‘mole’ or mobile drilling device. And at last we find out what the whole plot has been about. Turns out that at the conclusion of the previous novel, Ward discovered – along with the grotesque story of the ghost ship full of anthrax victims – that during the two years Eduardo had survived alone in the frigate, eating the crews’ rations and catching fish, he had happened to scour up stones from the seabed not far beneath the ice. When Eduardo had shown them to Ward the latter immediately realised they were – diamonds. Raw diamonds. Lots of them. It was to confirm their provenance that Ward took Eduardo back to the UK so abruptly at the end of Isvik. It was to escape possible revenge by the Argentinians that he faked Eduardo’s death, to the extent of deceiving his own sister.

Now Ward feverishly sets about organising a camp near the frigate, setting up the mole to drill rocks up from the seabed, another machine to sort and grade the resulting slurry, with tents for a small crew of men to manage the process round the clock. Cruse belatedly realises that at least three of these men, and the taciturn Gary who sailed with them on the Isvik, are SAS men, complete with an impressive amount of weaponry.

All this may be needed since, from as far ago as South Georgia, the Isvik knew it was being tailed by another ship. That has been nearly a hundred pages. Only here in the last few pages is Cruse able to fly Ward over the pursuing ship and confirm it is an Argentinian warship. It anchors at the edge of the ice field and they guesstimate it will take a team travelling over the ice maybe three days to reach the frigate.

Out with a bang

So it’s the third or fourth day of drilling when they watch the soldiers in snow kit arrive at the frigate half a mile away. Will there be a firefight? Will Cruse have a machine gun thrust into his hands and watch his colleagues get mown down? No. The Argentines seem interested only in the old ship. Our chaps watch from a distance as they rig the old ship with explosives. Presumably they want to remove all evidence of the mad plot-to-infect-the-Falklands-with-anthrax.

And so, boom go the charges as our boys watch the remains of the frigate blown sky high. But then they are horrified to see the Argentinians turn and run towards them: the vast iceberg which the frigate had come to rest against all those years ago, undermined by the explosions, starts to collapse onto the frigate and the Argentinians. But not only that, as it does so, huge gouts of steam appear where is had been and cracks radiate out from the site. Ward, Cruse and the SAS boys run like hell for the plane and are cranking the propellers as they begin to see gouts of magma erupting into the air. The whole area, we had been told earlier, is at the junction of tectonic plates – and the Argentine charges appear to have blown open vents to the liquid rock beneath. In a hair-raising few paragraphs Cruse takes the C-130 off across ice disintegrating with cracks and blown apart by powerful geysers and the germ of small volcanoes. Up, up into the air the big plane escapes, Ward haggard in the back, clutching a bucket of stones, his dreams of untold wealth crumbled to dust.

That’s it. No epilogue or tying up of loose ends, no information about what happens to Lange the environmentalist – who had jumped ship when they anchored off the ice – no news about how Cruse’s burgeoning affair with Phuket will pan out, no follow-up on Eduardo or Peter Kettil or Iris, let alone on Barbara Ward back in London or Ward himself, or the narrator. It just ends.


Credit

Target Antarctica by Hammond Innes was published by Chapmans in 1993. All references are to the 1994 Pan paperback edition.

Related links

Hammond Innes’ novels

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


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

Isvik by Hammond Innes (1991)

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

Norfolk

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

London

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

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

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

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

On the plane

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

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

In South America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The boat Isvik

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

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

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

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

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

The voyage south

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

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

On the ice

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

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

The death ship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Falkland Islands

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

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


Credit

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

Related links

Hammond Innes’ novels

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


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

Medusa by Hammond Innes (1988)

Mike Steele, the first person narrator of this adventure yarn, is a man with a past, a past which is only slowly revealed in this 350-page novel, Innes’ longest work.

Minorca

The novel opens with Mike going about his business on the island of Menorca in the western Mediterranean, where he runs a boat chandlery shop above the harbour of the capital, Port Mahon, has bought a couple of villas to rent out to tourists and manages his moody, pregnant wife Soo (Suzanne).

Mike’s a well-known figure about the harbour and among the ex-pat community on the island and we are plunged immediately into his networks of business and social contacts, checking the builders and decorators at the new villa, touching base with the crew of his two fishing boats, having lunch with local businessmen and attending a big gala hosted by the mayor to celebrate the opening of another urbanización, or building development.

The assassination

Mike is invited to the event and makes a little speech before introducing the charismatic mayor, Jorge Martinez, who stands and begins to say how valuable building developments like this are for the local economy etc. In mid-sentence, to the surprise and shock of the audience (and this reader), there’s the whip crack of a rifle shot and the back of his head is blown open by a sniper bullet (p.98).

Suddenly a lot of earlier incidents, a lot of scattered events from the first hundred pages, come into sharp focus. There’d been scattered references in the text to a political problem with ‘separatists’. Among other things, villas owned by foreigners are routinely broken into and daubed with graffiti (‘Minorca for the Minorcans’ etc) or squatted in. Is the assassination something to do with them?

Bosomy Petra

One of Mike’s wide circle of acquaintances is a young woman archaeologist, Petra Cassis, who Mike is strongly attracted to (he rarely encounters her without referring to her full shapely breasts – indeed, Innes is something of a boob man: all the female leads in the last four or five novels tend to have heaving bosoms – who can forget the passionate love-making on a mountainside in a storm between Colin Tait and Mary Delden, who rips open her blouse for the purpose?).

The cave paintings

Petra offers to show Mike round the archaeological dig she’s carrying out in caves near the villa he’s doing up for tourists. Soo comes along, heavily pregnant and grumpy with Mike, though flattered to be escorted by Gareth Lloyd Jones, a naval officer who’s visiting the island, has been introduced to the Steeles as local luminaries, and who Soo has taken a shine to.

Instead of the neolithic cave paintings Petra is so excited about, she and Mike discover someone has been digging through the back of the cave and, when they wriggle through a narrow gap in the rubble, find themselves emerging into a well-provisioned secret cave, complete with beds, heater and cooker, chemical lavatory and the cave mouth looking out over a ledge 20 yards below, at sea level. A perfect secret hideaway, but who for?

Soo loses her baby

Mike is at the cave mouth when he hears a cry from back at the rubble hole, two strange men have emerged from nowhere and pushed past Petra. Mike wriggles through the gap in pursuit, up to the landward entrance to the cave, emerging just in time to see figures in the distance jumping into a car. But then he is distracted by moaning nearer at hand. His wife, Soo, had left the safety of the car to come up to the cave entrance and had arrived just as the thugs ran out, pushing her out of the way. She had stumbled and fallen some yards down the steep gully, landing awkwardly on hard rock. Mike rushes her to the hospital where they operate to save her, but discover the baby was crushed to death in her womb. It was a boy.

Captain Lloyd Jones

Now more prominence is given Gareth Lloyd Jones, a Royal Navy officer who is on leave on Minorca before taking up captaincy of a ship, and has become friendly with the Steeles. A number of plotlines converge on this hesitant, troubled figure. 1. Soo, disgruntled with flashy Mike and his obvious attraction to Petra, quite quickly slides into friendship and then something more, with Jones. 2. Jones claims to be on holiday, but in fact is asking around whether anyone has seen the man shown in a photo who, it slowly, emerges, is one Pat Evans, a Brit with a long criminal record.

Pat Evans and his catamaran

Evans does show up, sailing into Port Mahon in a sleek catamaran, Thunderflash, which moors just below Steele’s shop. When Steele inevitably meets him he is amazed that Evans is prepared to sell the catamaran in exchange for one of Mike’s fishing boats, the Santa Maria, and one of his tourist villas. Mike sees it as a business opportunity, a chance to run much higher-class charters and make more money and so he agrees. But the assassination of Martinez takes place the same night as the deal is clinched with Evans and Mike suddenly has a bad feeling. Early the next morning he gets up, goes down to the cat and searches every inch of it. He is appalled to find a recently-fired rifle tied up in a bag and hidden in one of the hulls of the cat (p.110).

Mike breaks out in a sweat as he realises Evans is involved in the assassination and that he, Mike, is the victim of an elaborate frame-up. Flushed with panic, Mike carries the rifle off the boat in a bundle of linen, gets into his car and drives out to the villa he’s just sold to Evans. Finding it deserted, he gets in with the key he’s retained, and carefully conceals the rifle under floorboards in the kitchen.

The police interrogate Mike

Not before time, because when he drives back to the cat he finds the police waiting for him. Obviously they have been tipped off. One of Mike’s talents is as a sharp shooter and he shot for England, training at Bisley, and has a number of competition medals and cups in his living room. The police now suspect a well-known sharp shooter carried out the assassination, one Antonio Barragio (p. 121), and Mike has to admit he knows him, or has met him, at international shooting events. Then the police commence a detailed search of every inch of the cat and it becomes clear they’ve been tipped off where to find the rifle and are angry when it’s not there. The police leave, threatening to return and with the parting shot that they’ve confiscated his passport.

Escape to Malta

Now, the cat had been due to go on a test sail to Malta with his crew and Mike arranges for it to depart Port Mahon in full view of everyone, including the plain clothes cops set to watch him. But that night Mike slips out of his house and drives around the coast to a concealed bay and where he rendezvous with the cat which has doubled back, under the guidance of the entertaining East Anglian crew man, Carp (Carpenter).

The half-brothers

If Innes’ plots often don’t really stand up, if the psychology of his main characters is generally flat and uninvolving, he is good at creating a large cast of secondary characters and spending time filling in their backstories. Once he’s aboard the cat (illegally) heading towards Malta a) Innes can indulge his enthusiastic description of sea sailing b) Carp is able to fill in a lot of background about Captain Lloyd Jones.

Turns out Carp comes from the same small town on the Suffolk coast where Jones and Pat Evans grew up. Turns out the boys were both tearaways, brought up in the home of a local woman, Moira, the sons of the same father but by different women. After various tribulations as schoolboys roaming over the mudflats and learning to sail, they both ended up at HMS Ganges, a training camp for young would-be sailors. As so often with Innes, at the core of what is supposedly an adventure or thriller novel, there is an eerie, Gothic tale of twisted family ties, doomed siblings – here a pair of half-brothers, one on the right one very much on the wrong side, of the law, whose lives seem fated to intertwine.

After three blissful days free on the ocean, the cat arrives at Malta where they are surprised to see a British frigate, the Medusa, in the main harbour. Mike has no passport and is now on the run from the Spanish police, so he hesitates to go aboard until he realises the frigate is the one on which Jones has taken up his captaincy, he gets Carp to motor him over in the cat’s dinghy.

Aboard HMS Medusa

Jones welcomes Steele aboard and there now begins a long section set aboard the ship where Steele becomes a kind of spooky shadow to the captain. Surprisingly, improbably, Jones opens up about his eerie half-brotherhood with Evans, then tells Steele several stories: how he was forced on his first day to go up the mast of an old sailing ship kept at HMS Ganges, and it was Pat who came and rescued him, talking him down.

And how, a few years later, staying out late on the mudflats on the Suffolk coast, bird watching, he accidentally saw a catamaran, Pat’s catamaran, come inshore in complete silence and then start unloading crates to the beach. Hearing Irish voices, Jones’ worst suspicions are confirmed – Pat is mixed up with IRA terrorists. At which point, one of the terrorists emerges from the darkness and coshes him.

Jones awakes on the catamaran at sea and Pat hisses at him to keep quiet, the ‘clients’ wanted to kill him, Pat managed to persuade them to keep him alive, and then… Pat lets Jones escape over the side upstream of a famous buoy. Jones floats downstream to it, clambers aboard, and is rescued several hours later by a passing boat. This strange incident has blighted his professional career in the Navy but also dented his confidence. And why, we wonder, is he telling Steele all this. Because, in the few days’ leave he had on Minorca, Jones has developed this rather improbable crush on Soo, which she has responded to. Which means Mike is in the cabin of a Royal Navy ship, listening to the captain reveal some of the most shameful memories of his life, all the time an undercurrent of tension because Mike knows Jones is, or is about to, have an affair with his wife.

It just seems so misleading to market Innes’ books as thrillers, when they’re not very thrilling – the ‘action’ part of the plot often very unconvincing – whereas they all have these strange twisted melodramatic relationships which are actually what often drives events.

The Malta incident

We see Jones’ hesitancy in his new command in action when a crowd of Malta locals assembles at the foot of the Medusa‘s gangplank, shouting and jeering anti-British slogans. A shore party has to return through them so captain Jones despatches a sergeant with a small platoon down to the dockside to protect them on their return. But the crowd surges round them, starts rocking their car and eventually pushes it onto its side. As the shouting and threatening escalate a shot suddenly rings out and a British officer who was clambering out of the car window cries out and slumps bleeding. In a flash the sergeant tells his platoon to shoulder arms and fire over the heads of the crowd, which immediately disperses and runs in every direction. But the damage has been done. Within the hour the incident is being reported on the BBC World Service, and Jones is ordered to weigh anchor and leave port. In fact, he is ordered to steam to Minorca, where there have been some kind of civil disturbances.

At every step of these incidents Mike has asked to be allowed to go ashore or return to the cat but Jones finds a reason not to let him go. It reminds me a little of Conrad’s story, The Secret Sharer, about a doppelganger who is taken onboard a ship at sea and comes to haunt the captain. After supervising their departure to sea, Jones slumps in his cabin and, over a glass of booze, tells Steele more about his Gothic entanglement with his no-good half-brother, a section which creates a compelling fireside yarn atmosphere.

Back on Minorca

Captain Jones finally allows Steele to leave the Medusa as it steams into Minorca harbour. He lays on a windsurfing board and wetsuit, thus allowing a disguised Steele to appear in the harbour looking like any tourist, and not officially disembarking from the frigate. There is a passage of typical Innes, rejoicing in the innocence pleasure of pure physical exercise and is just one of the many passages which rejoice in the physical exuberance of sailing, being at sea, driving a fast car late at night, standing under the Mediterranean stars, putting his arms around a woman.

It was over two years since I had been on a sailboard. The technique doesn’t leave one, but, like skiing, the muscles lose their sharpness. I flipped onto it all right, but instead of getting myself and the sail up in virtually the same movement, it was all a bit of a scramble. The wind was funneling down the harbour, a good breeze that had me away on the starb’d tack and going fast before I was visible to the escort vessel, which was on the far side of Medusa and lying a little ahead of her, one of the old minesweepers by the look of it. There was a moment, of course, when I felt naked and unsure of myself, but as my arms and knees began to respond to the drive of the sail, confidence returned, and after I had snapped the harness on I began to enjoy myself, steering close to the wind, my weight a little further aft and the speed increasing, my exhiliration, too. (p.220)

Steele navigates to Bloody Island, in the middle of Mahon harbour, which just happens to be the location for sexy Petra’s main dig. He beaches the windboard and waits for her arrival not long after. a) She is robustly amused and delighted to see him, as he strips off his wetsuit he finds her getting involved with kisses and tickles and they are soon both naked and about to make love when b) there’s the buzz of an outboard motor approaching and she remembers she’s arranged for Lennie to come over with food and provisions.

Lennie is another one of Innes’ very believable secondary characters – an Aussie beach bum, described as completely indifferent what he wears or looks like or what work he does, forever cadging drinks and lifts BUT fanatically dedicated to his diving equipment, the best that money can buy. He was meant to be working on some of Mike’s villas but has transferred to Petra, picking up some pocket money helping her. Lennie and Petra bring Mike up to speed: while he was sailing to Malta and then caught up on the Medusa, bombs have been going off on Minorca. There is to be an election for a new Alcalde and the bombs are creating an atmosphere of crisis.

Lennie adds that he’s seen Mike’s old fishing boat in the cove beneath one of the clifftop villas he’s been working on for some German millionaire. Evans! More smuggling! So, with the unerring instinct of an Innes hero for getting himself into the wrong place at the wrong time, Steele decides to drive with Lennie and Petra to the suspicious villa. Here they discover that the underground wine cellar has a hole knocked through into a warren of tunnels looping down towards a big cavern open to the sea, in other words yet another handy place for smugglers to bring guns and weapons ashore. At which point a car and lorry come sweeping up and our heroes hold their breath, watching from the dark as the gang load the dodgy cases onto a lorry. They follow the lorries with their car lights off to another cove where they see the fishing boat guiding in two landing craft. From these emerge two armoured cars and several hundred armed men. Mercenaries!

Lennie, Petra and Mike sneak back to their car and drive at breakneck speed back to Port Mahon. Petra advises them to go into the port garrison and report what they’ve seen but Mike thinks they’ll arrest him first and ask questions later, so they all jump into the outboard and putter out to the frigate which has anchored by this time. Mike yells up at the duty officer to be taken onboard to see Captain Jones. Unfortunately, he’s barely begun explaining it all to a woken-up captain when firing starts ashore. The coup has started.

The coup

Briefly, the mercenaries are well armed and organised and take over the barracks, airport and radio station. Their president, the communist Ismail Fuxá, announces that the island is now an independent nation and calls on other nations to recognise the new regime. In and out of captain Jones’s cabin, Mike gathers that Soviet ships are on their way to Minorca. It is at this point he realises that Jones’s orders are to stay where he is and use the frigate to block the entrance to the largest harbour in the western Mediterranean. Suddenly the Americans and the Russians are sounding off at each other and Jones finds himself at the epicentre of a major international crisis.

And it is now that the personal relationships which we’ve heard so much about earlier in the book come into prominence. Because his brother, Pat, has kidnapped Soo, Mike’s wife, the woman Jones has come to love and threatens something very unpleasant will happen to her unless Jones orders his frigate to the leave the harbour. But Jones is under explicit orders from HM Government to stay put.

The stand-off

Several deadlines come and go and nothing happens. After Evans has delivered the ultimatum in person, Jones lets him and Mike go by dinghy to Bloody Island where Petra appears and is inadvertently grabbed by Evans, a knife to her throat, before there is a scuffle in which good old Aussie Lennie is badly carved up by Evans who makes his escape.

This final section is very characteristically and oddly Innes, because nothing happens. Once back on the island Mike is completely out of the picture, he just has a horrible foreboding that the Russian ships steaming towards them will arrive soon and then all hell might break loose, but he doesn’t really know what is going on, has no radio, and spends the night worrying about Soo. As the last deadline arrives captain Jones does something very weird and weighs anchor but the ship behaves very oddly as if its engines are broken and to Evans’ anger, the frigate steams backwards until it runs aground on the rocks of Bloody island.

Mike realises captain Jones has squared the circle: his ship can’t move now, there is no point bullying him or blackmailing him. His guns are still trained on the seized barracks, a British ship still has possession of Minorca harbour. It’s a very Innes’ non-event, a fitting climax to a novel which is full of blockages, hesitations, shrugs and mis-communication. None of the characters seems capable of normal, open conversation, nobody gets to the end of a paragraph without shrugging, breaking off, shaking their head and generally avoiding communication.

Innes’ dialogue is the opposite of snappy repartée, it is a kind of anti-dialogue. And, far from being full of action, his novels are full of inaction. The characters travel round and do things, but never seem able to shed light on anything, never tell each other what is going on. The ultimate destination of the inaction is complete stasis, frozen paralysis and at numerous points all dialogue and communication winds down to complete silence. The strange eerie silence which seems to be at the heart of Innes’ imagination.

Soo is found and rescued

Mike is woken in Petra’s tent on Bloody Island by Petra who tells him it’s all over. The Russians were deterred by the presence of the frigate, the Spanish navy has arrived in force to re-establish order, the temporary president and the mercenaries have fled. But no indication as to the whereabouts of the kidnapped Soo.

Mike immediately takes a dinghy to the mainland and spends a day on the phone to everyone he knows asking if they’ve seen Soo. Then it occurs to him – the villa he and Petra and Lennie investigated – the hole down into the caverns by the sea. What if the bad guys dumped Soo there? What if she’s dead? He drives like a madman out to the villa, now dark and deserted, breaks in, goes down to the cellar, then along the tunnel to the hole above the cavern – and here he finds Soo, dishevelled, hysterical, bruised, with a cut hand, but essentially safe. He helps her up out of the cavern, up the slippery tunnels, into the cool fresh air and she is delirious at being released, wants to run and shout and sing and insists on being taken to her favourite restaurant, before arriving back at their ransacked home.

Here she is irritated to find Petra, her husband’s fancy women, but there is another odd Innes scene when they discover captain Jones, the crisis completely over, has left the ship with his first officer, come ashore, and is now completely plastered in their living room. He drunkenly sways to his feet, calling out how relieved he is to see Soo alright, but she turns on her heel and walks out, Petra following.

In the realm of personal relations, like the realm of island politics, and in the overworld of superpower politics, the novel is about stasis, frustration, anti-climax, lack of fulfilment.

Court of enquiry

This long tangled and frustrating story comes to an end with a ten-page epilogue describing the court of enquiry the Navy holds on captain Jones for running his ship aground (reminiscent of the courts of enquiry in Maddon’s RockThe Wreck of the Mary Deare and Atlantic Fury to name only a few of its predecessors). Mike sticks up for captain Jones at the enquiry, and catagorically denies that he was having an affair with his wife. Next night the officer in command holds an informal party for Mike and Soo, Jones, a few Navy officials and some Spanish officers. Soo behaves perfectly, relaxed and friendly but obviously not intimate with Jones. To the latter’s surprise the Spanish official steps forward and awards him a medal from the King of Spain.

And then the captain of the enquiry announces that captain Lloyd Jones will be completely exonerated and the poor Welshman, who has grafted his way up from the ranks, dragged back on so many occasions by his wayward brother and his own emotional vulnerability, for once lets go, and bursts into tears.

Related links

Hammond Innes’ novels

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


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

High Stand by Hammond Innes (1985)

This is the fourth Innes novel I’ve read in a row and I think it’s fair to say that, although the locations are always original and refreshing, the background and subject matter are thoroughly researched, his evocations of place, and especially seascapes, are always enjoyable – nonetheless, his plots are often strangely and frustratingly static, depending on a large dollop of voodoo-Gothic melodrama to convey a menacing mood often unjustified by the actual action – but that by far his worst fault is the extremely limited range of behaviour his characters display.

She seemed on the point of saying something more, but then she turned her head away, locking whatever it was up inside herself, the silence dragging. (p.15)

Sometimes it seems like all the characters do in an Innes novel is shrug, mumble, break off in mid-sentence, stare away into the distance or get stuck in long meaningful silences. The frustrating thing is that most of them aren’t that meaningful at all – in general the characters actually have very little to say to each other but take ages, sometimes scores, in a few cases, hundreds of pages, not to say it.

The plot

The story is told in the first person by a typically ordinary Innes’ protagonist – staid Sussex solicitor, Philip Redfern. He has set up a nice little practice near Ditchling on the South Downs and has just bought a sailing dinghy, his new pride and joy, which he fits up and sails across the Channel to France. Into his boring world come the Halliday family.

Grandfather Josh Halliday struck it rich in the Yukon gold rush of the 1890s, buying up the land around his claim high in the Rocky Mountains of western Canada, setting up various companies and then dying. It was all inherited by his son, Tom, who has never had to work in his life but has enjoyed a jetset lifestyle and a fondness for sports cars. Philip Redfern ended up acting as his solicitor because Halliday’s English country house was a nice big place tucked away in a fold of the Downs near his office. One day Tom Halliday appears out of the blue and asks Philip to write and witness a codicil to his will, leaving the area of timber planted by grandfather Halliday in the area below the gold mine to his second son, Brian.

A few days later Tom’s wife, Miriam, arrives and asks Philip if he knows where Tom is: he’s disappeared, hasn’t been home, hasn’t left a message as he usually does: mystery. And this is where the novel begins.

Now, Innes tells us, Redfern has always had a bit of a thing about Mrs Halliday (Miriam), bumping into her at various official parties in the neighbourhood and – on one memorable evening – giving her a lift home from Brighton when she invited him in for coffee and one thing led to another… Even as she tells her story, Redfern is distracted by the sight of her cleavage showing through her blouse; he really is an everybloke figure.

Over the following weeks it emerges that old Josh’s goldmine has been running empty for some time and that playboy Tom had been living on an extended bank overdraft which has now been terminated. Suddenly the bills for the house are no longer being paid, ditto the bills at his son’s company. Philip (characteristically for Innes) hasn’t a clue where Tom has disappeared to and isn’t surprised when, a few days later, he learns Miriam has sold some of the family silver and set off for the mine in Western Canada to find out what’s going on. He gets a few postcards from her detailing her progress, saying he’s the only one she can write to, and so reviving the torch he carries for her but then – typically – silence…

Redfern next gets a disconcerting visit from Tom’s son by his first wife – by all accounts a fiery Latin American – the improbably named Brian, whose dark colouring and impulsive (ie angry) temperament reveal his Latino origins. Brian has also come to find out what Philip knows about his father’s disappearance, but ends up discussing the stand of timber old man Halliday planted over a hundred years ago and the ‘curse’ old man Halliday put on it.

As his ancestor is to the Indian, so will I be to my trees. They are my Totem. Let any man fell even one of them, even in the interests of sound forestry, then with the first cut of the saw or swing of the axe my curse will be upon him. Do that and I will never leave you, day or night, till your nerves are screaming and you are dead by your own hand, dead and damned for ever to rot in Hell. (p.41)

Quite a curse.

Despite it, though, it is now emerging that the redwoods old Josh planted (‘the finest plantation of western red cedar he had ever seen’) are probably worth something like $600,000 – a lot of money to the newly-impoverished family. This must be why Halliday turned up a few days earlier to change his will to leave the trees to Brian; Brian alone has a mystical feeling for the trees. He explains their life-giving attributes, their aura, the mystical importance of trees, with a vehemence the dull solicitor finds unnerving.

Thus, after 60 pages or so, we have all the ingredients of a classic Innes yarn: farflung location (Western Canada); Gothic family legacy (the old mine and the curse on the trees); mystery (where’s Tom?); violence (‘I’ll kill any man who touches those trees.’).

In Canada

Redfern sails across to France again, but lies lonely and bored in the bunk of his dinghy – and it’s then he conceives the plan of taking some time off to go and find Miriam. Just as Trevor Rodin drops everything to go off to the Persian Gulf (in Innes’ novel The Black Tide), Roy Slingsby drops everything to go off to the Solomon Islands (Solomons Seal), and Colin Tait drops everything to go into the Kenyan bush (The Big Footprints), so Philip Redfern decides to drop everything to go in quest of Miriam Halliday, to check on the mine and the famous stand of pine, and generally find out what’s happening.

Next thing we know he’s on a flight over the Arctic to western Canada, to Vancouver. Here he has interviews with Halliday’s lawyers, with the timber firm and shipping firm. Turns out some of the timber has been chopped down and is being brought by tug to Vancouver. Already Brian Halliday is being true to his threats, and has steered a dinghy in front of one huge log-bearing tug, wearing a Greenpeace T-shirt and nearly getting himself killed. All this by page 70 of this 330-page book.

From Vancouver Redfern flies to Edmonton and on the flight is lucky enough to run into a guy who can offer him a lift up into the mountains, to the Front Ranges and to Lake Dezadeash. He stays in the lodge here, asking after the Halliday mine – the Ice Cold mine, it is called – and meeting the usual Innes round of surly locals, Kevin and Eddie and Tony, who are obviously hiding something…but what?

And so the narrative continues, mixing improbable motivation with characters who adopt, who only seem capable of, the very limited gamut of Innes’ postures – shrugging, breaking off in mid-sentence, mumbling and just being plain silent – but all set against vivid descriptions of the breath-taking West Canadian landscape.

The rock-scoured mountain that overhung the town gleamed wet and wicked where the great slide had gashed it, tumbling millions of tons of debris down into the waters of the loch to form the hard standing that reached back from the quay. (p.221 cf p.243)

Geography and a map

There is a lot of travelling, travelling vast distances across western Canada. In fact the middle two hundred pages of the book barely make sense without a map and the book really should have included one. I also didn’t understand why Tom and Redfern went by boat into the Yukon, crossed the border into America, then crossed out again and sailed down past Vancouver Island – an entire section that was quite hard to follow unless you were studying the correct maps pretty closely.

I also found it hard to follow when Tom made Redfern travel by coastguard cutter upriver from the sea across numerous lakes to be dropped at a derelict lakeside town, Ocean Falls, before getting a canoe and carrying it up scrabbly rocky hillsides to higher lakes in order to eventually reach the lake above the famous high stand of timber, to look down on the activities of the (illegal) loggers.

A lot of the story is made up of journeys, full of detailed geographical references which are, presumably, accurate, but are just so many words without having a large scale map of the region open in front of you. Much of the text reads like a travelogue – here Redfern is describing the river journey he and Brian take in the coastguard cutter Kelsey, commanded by the friendly captain Cornish:

Ocean Falls was little more than thirty miles away… By the time we had finished lunch we were back in the Fisher Channel, just passing the entrance to Lama Passage. We continued northwards past Evans Inlet and into the narrows by Bold Point… Now the mountains above us were bleak as we followed the King Island shore until we came to the Dean Channel junction and headed up Cousins Inlet… Soon she would turn north-east up the Dean Channel to pass Echo Harbour and Mackenzie Rock and on towards Kimsquit until they opened Cascade Inlet and reached the Halliday Arm of it. (pp.221-222)

A map would have been a very good idea.

I reckoned by then we should be past the entrance to Cousins Inlet and headed into the Fisher Channel. Presuming they followed the same course as before, midnight should see us approaching the point where we altered course to the westward to pass through Hakai Passage. (p.293)

Tom Halliday is alive

Redfern finally makes it up to the old mine and is poking around when he is astonished to bump into a small mining operation further down the hillside being run single-handed by — none other than the missing Tom Halliday! Tom Halliday alive and well, though looking the worse for spending the past month drilling and surveying to little effect. He needs the gold, and he’s irrationally, almost feverishly convinced there’s more gold in the lower valley, if he only had time! As they talk Redfern becomes aware of Halliday’s mania and realises the gossip about him and drugs may be true…

Miriam is kidnapped

But hardly have they clambered back up to the cabin for some outback coffee and Tom goes to an outbuilding to get something, than he comes hurtling back to reveal he’s found a message slipped under the door – ‘They’ve got Miriam! They’ve kidnapped Miriam!!’ So that’s why her postcards to Redfern back in Sussex came to abrupt halt. Although Redfern has no idea who ‘they’ are and Tom is characteristically hesitant, shruggy and pausey about explaining anything…

The loggers want more

It takes the next hundred and fifty pages to screw out of the narrative and the usual network of shrugs, turning away, mumbling and silences from all the characters, the basic fact, the premise of the novel, which is – Tom, in his desperation to pay for his lifestyle and to fund his frantic efforts to strike a new claim further down the mountain, agreed to sell the right to fell some timber from the stand of old redwood planted by his father to an American company. Brian the activist and Redfern, from his own investigations, have realised the timber company has gone beyond the agreement and continuing to fell, shave and send downriver by vast logging barge more trees than was agreed or paid for.

So Brian and Redfern continue their journey to the logging camp under the misapprehension that some Latin American hoodlums – who we met earlier on in the book, back in Lake Dezadeash – a couple of ‘hunters’ with guns and a bad attitude, are probably involved in kidnapping Miriam in order to pressure Tom into signing over the rights to chop down the entire stand – worth a genuine fortune.

Tom is a cocaine addict

During these pages we see it confirmed that Tom Halliwell is indeed a cocaine addict, something the lawyer Redfern deprecates but accepts. His addiction explains why Tom’s speech and behaviour are often so unpredictable. It is only in the final desperate pages that Tom reveals to Redfern and Brian, hunkered down in the woods above the timber operation, hiding out from the timber company and their shady Latino henchmen, that the the whole thing isn’t about illegal timber felling – the timber operation is an elaborate front for the massive drug smuggling operation. The Latin Americans bring in large amounts of cocaine, which is hidden in the logging barge, which then sails freely across the relatively open border between Canada and so into America.

Miriam is being held hostage in the cabin on the lake

Redfern had met Brian at one of the myriad of places mentioned in the text, and Brian drags Redfern across the western outback to the series of lakes above the stand of trees. It is dark and they are hiding or aware they might be followed. They sneak past a cabin which has noisy guard dogs tethered outside on their way to paddle across the final lake, to beach the canoe and then look down at the timber operation. It is only hidden in the trees here that Redfern suddenly realises the significance of the dogs: that must be where they’re keeping Miriam hostage!

Shootout at the cabin

As he realises this, they see the boss man of the timber crew, Wolchak, despatch the two Latino goons, Camargo and Lopez, up the hill towards them. Brian vows to stay on the scene, so Redfern – the boring solicitor from Sussex – finds himself scrambling fast uphill through the trees to the lakeside. He pinches the bad guys’ powered boat and sets off cross the lake, beaches on the other side and creeps up towards the cabin in the dark.

At that moment the front door opens and the man inside, one of the shady characters who have threaded in and out of the narrative, at the Ice Cold mine and on various boats since, emerges saying goodbye to a companion. They walk down to the lake and this gives Redfern the opportunity to dart into the open doorway and immediately see two doors inside barred by makeshift timber bars.

He opens one and is appalled to see Tom Halliday in a wild and crazy state and another man lying badly beaten on the bed. In a rush Tom explains the body is the corpse of Thor Olsen, Tom’s forest manager for the stand of timber, who they were beating in front of Miriam to get her to say how much she and Tom knew about the drug smuggling operation. In the middle of the beating Olsen had a heart attack and died. (p.266)

And Miriam is in the other, barred, room. As Redfern turns to it he hears footsteps towards the main door, springs to it and locks it on the inside. An angry face appears at the window shouting to be let in as a) Redfern opens the other door to release a dirty, dazed-looking Miriam b) incensed beyond words, Tom grabs a hunting rifle lying against the wall and shoots the man knocking at the window, Aleksis.

Tom and Miriam and Redfern emerge, stunned, into the night air, Redfern having to restrain Tom from shooting their guard – now lying moaning on the ground nursing a shattered knee – in the face or heart to finish him off. Redfern warns that he pinched the goons’ powered dinghy but they’ll have found his canoe and be rowing after him across the lake. Let’s go, says Tom and leaps into the dinghy, kicking off the motor.

Half way across the lake they see the canoe with Camargo and Lopez in it, but to Redfern’s horror Tom turns the tiller and sets course for a collision. As the bad guys raise their guns, the powered boat crashes into the side of the canoe, tearing it in half, the goons miss their shots and are thrown into the lake. ‘Shouldn’t we go back and help them?’ Redfern asks. ‘You don’t understand’, Tom replies. He had overheard the radio conversation – the two guys were on their way to ‘play’ with Miriam till they could get her to spill what she knew about the drug operation – ‘drowning’s too good for them.’ (p.270)

Tom is killed by a chainsaw

It’s in this vengeful mood that Redfern, Miriam and Tom beach the dinghy on the shoreline above the stand and begin going down into the woods. Here Brian reappears, the first time he has seen his father since he went missing a month before. He surlily ignores him but is overjoyed to see his (step)mother released from captivity. Together they look down on the timber operation, two big burly lumberjacks chainsawing the trees, while Brian boils over with anger accusing his father of all kinds of derelictions of duty, of betraying Grandad Halliday’s wishes, of ‘raping’ the beautiful landscape out of greed, and so on.

Thus taunted, the (already coked-up) Tom snaps and steps out of their hiding place and walks towards the lumberjacks, shouting at them to stop, he is the owner of the land etc. But they lazily, arrogantly tell him to **** off, they have their orders, doesn’t matter who he is etc. At which Tom really loses it, fires off one shot with the rifle he’s brought and then, discovering there’s no more ammo, charges the lumberjack with the gun above his head like a club. The lumberjack swings the chainsaw round in front of him as a warning or defence but Tom keeps on charging him and at the critical moment, probably, it all happens so fast, stumbles, and falls full onto the roaring chainsaw which rips right through his chest, blood and flesh spurting everywhere (p.279).

Miriam screams, Brian launches forward with his gun as the two lumberjacks turn tail and run down the track back towards the camp to warn everyone. Old man Halliday’s curse has been fulfilled. Tom allowed the high stand to be injured and paid for it with his life!

Hiding on the barge

Our heroes take a moment to get over their shock, Miriam kneeling by the gory remains of her husband long enough to get her blouse and skirt covered in blood. They can hear the dogs being alerted down in the lumber camp and have to make a decision. Brian convinces them not to run back up to the lake and try and escape that way, but – as the heavens open into a torrential downpour – to double back towards the camp – they won’t be expecting that.

In fact, from the trees at the edge of the camp they can see the enormous barge moored in the river, already piled high with lumber. ‘Follow me’, says Brian and goes skidding across the mud in the torrential rain, up the barge ramp and into the (deserted) wheelhouse (p.285).

It turns out to be hours and hours until the now fully-laden barge is hooked up to a tug and begins the long journey across a lake into a river and out to the sea passage next to Vancouver Island. Early on they manage to use the short wave radio to get a message out to the Captain Cornish who piloted the coastguard cutter which brought Brian and Redfern up the river. Now they send out an SOS, with a coded message implying the barge is stashed with drugs and giving their position. Then they climb down into the hold, squeeze among the massive redwood logs and find good hiding places.

All this takes over 24 hours, during which they become very hungry, very thirsty and shivering with cold from the heavy downpour of rain. They lie in their hideouts, hearing the clumping of men overhead, the change of the roll of the barge as it leaves the river and enters the open sea. Being a sailor (the importance of Redfern’s forays across the Channel at the book’s opening become more relevant here, as they were at various points, in Captain Cornish’s cutter, and paddling across various lakes) Redfern can see in his mind’s eye the route the barge is taking.

This goes on for a long time, until they have been without food or water for three days and are in a bad way. The text gives detailed descriptions of the route east of Vancouver Island the narrator and the coastguard cutter think the barge will take, and the actual route they take around the west of the island, rolling along in high seas and through a thick fog.

Climax and arrest

It’s when they eventually spot a lighthouse beam on the port bow that Miriam snaps. 18 days imprisonment followed by three days freezing and starving hidden among logs on a seabound barge have pushed her over the edge and she tells Brian and Philip that either they cut the hawser to the tug towing them or she’s jumping overboard and taking her chances swimming to the mainland. So they go carefully up the barge’s wheelhouse, rifles in hand, to find it deserted. As Brian releases the hawser for’ard, Redfern takes the radio and radios a mayday alert, picking up the coastguard cutter almost immediately, which a) heads towards them b) alerts coastal air-sea rescue helicopter c) alerts any nearby vessels. So that when the tug has swung round to come and investigate the problem, rearing up over them in the heavy seas with armed men in the bows, not only is the coastguard warning them off but suddenly a helicopter packed with customs and police officials appears overhead. Their ordeal is over.

Epilogue

Map required.

It was the Gabriello herself that towed the leaking barge clear of the rocks past Friendly Cove and the entrance to Cook’s Channel and into the quiet of the Zuciarte Channel. This took us south and west of Bligh Island to the grey rock of Muchalat Inlet and so up to the pulp mill some eight miles south of Gold River. (p.319)

Briefly, the barge is tugged to port and strip searched but, while the police concentrate on the matter of Tom’s murder and Miriam’s kidnapping, the customs can find no drugs. Until Philip has an epiphany: the drill he’d seen up at the camp and the logs on their side on a special hoist. He gets customs to try it out and they discover each log has been hollowed out and a 4.5 metre long container of pure cocaine inserted, before being sealed very carefully with the plug from the same tree, accurately positioned to completely hide the seal. Criminal proceedings begin. Wolchak turns out to be the head of American mafia family based in Chicago.

In the closing pages Miriam phones Philip in his hotel room overlooking the bay in Vancouver and takes him out for a meal. Guess what! Halliday’s men back at Ice Cold have discovered gold nuggets where Tom was prospecting. If only he’d found them a month ago, if only he’d found them a year ago, he would still be alive, sob. Philip comforts her and they are finally heading back to his hotel room, when a car tries to run them down and armed men leap out and start taking pot shots.

They run down to the marina just as a boat is docking and Philip yells, ‘Mayday mayday’, leaping aboard and shouting at the owner to pull away, they’re being chased by armed men. The owner, a phlegmatic Yank, steers them out into the safety of the bay and asks for their story. You want my opinion? he asks at the end of it. Drug cartels are tough, very tough. Go back to England and don’t come back unless you’ve got an armed guard.

And so Miriam and Philip make it back to their hotel room and perform the act of love which has been in the offing ever since Philip was entranced by her heaving breasts back in the opening pages. But afterwards he lays awake, worried how they are going to balance returning at some point to open up the new gold diggings up in Ice Cold, with what is now the permanent threat of revenge by a drug cartel.

And on this ambivalent note, the novel ends.

Related links

Fontana paperback cover of High Stand

Fontana paperback cover of High Stand

Hammond Innes’ novels

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


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

The Black Tide by Hammond Innes (1982)

I was alone now, intensely, intolerably alone, with only anger and hatred for company. (p.76)

This novel opens with an interesting ‘prelude’ which describes a vast modern oil tanker (a VLCC – very large crude carrier) the Petros Jupiter, losing power in its engines and drifting onto the rocks near Land’s End. What’s interesting is it is done in prose completely unlike Innes’, in a style which is clinical and factual, much closer to the journalistic style of a Frederick Forsyth.

The plot

But turn the page to the next chapter and Innes’ usual ‘adventure’ style begins. Trevor Rodin is a former merchant seaman who has quit the sea to settle down with the woman he’s known and loved for three years, Karen, at a cottage – named Balkaer – on the Cornish coast. The oil slick from the Petros Jupiter washes up right at the foot of their cottage, covering the rocks in thick black ooze, killing countless birds. Keen nature-lover and conservationist Karen collects some, trying to wash and save them, but it’s hopeless. In her rage and frustration, she turns on Trevor and they have a stand-up row, her shouting, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ Trevor says he’s off to a town hall meeting attended by the local MP and the man from the Ministry who, in the event, spout the usual platitudes about doing everything they can to contain and control the spill.

Karen’s self-immolation

Meanwhile, Karen, angry and upset at the ruining of the country hideaway they’ve worked so hard to build, visita neighbours to borrow a flame-based weedkiller machine, then takes Trevor’s powered dinghy out toward the tanker. When Trevor returns from the meeting the neighbour tells him this so he gets the local lifeguard to saddle up and take him out towards the ship. As they approach, through the Cornish mist, they see a light moving about the infrastructure of the tanker, and towards the (fume and oxygen-filled) tanks. They are just saying how suicidally dangerous that is when BOOM! the tanker explodes in a vast sheet of flame.

Quest for revenge

In the aftermath there’s an enquiry, the press and media descend wanting interviews, sight-seers come intruding on his land, and Trevor moves through it all in a daze, devastated by the loss of his beloved and all their plans for a quiet life. Among the other confused incidents of this period, a dubious character, Len Baldwick, comes knocking asking if he’ll need a berth on a ship again, leaving his contact details. Out of the emotional mayhem emerges a plan to track down the crew of the Petros Jupiter and discover whether it was wilfully and maliciously driven onto the rocks, to find who’s responsible for Karen’s death.

Lloyds of London

His quest takes him to Lloyds – described in some detail, presumably after thorough research and visits by Innes – where he learns several of the Petros Jupiter crew had dubious pasts, and might be connected with two other tankers which have recently disappeared, the Aurora B and Howdo Stranger. Rodin is struck to see photos of Len Baldwick mixed in with others of the ships’ crews. He conceives a plan to contact Baldwick and see what his offer of a berth involves and if it leads to the men he’s after. Via Lloyds Rodin is introduced to the firm of lawyers following up the missing ships and to one partner, Saltley, who will become a central character in the story.

We knew from various references that Rodin was not only a sailor, but grew up in the Gulf, raised by his hard-working mother, a nurse and single mum. So the solicitors, realising they have a man who is himself a sailor familiar with the Gulf, and who has a personal interest in the ship disappearances, hire him to investigate. Saltley introduces him to one of the underwriters of the syndicate which has taken heavy losses on the vanished ships, Michael Stewart. Rodin goes for dinner with him and meets his pretty daughter, Pamela, who – in a surprising sub-plot – later writes him a letter telling him how much she admires and, er, fancies him.

Nantes and Parnay

Armed with names and information Trevor sets off to track the suspect crew down. His quest takes him first to Nantes, where he rendezvous with Lloyd’s agent and then drives to the address of the crew member named Choffel. He is, disappointingly, not there but Rodin confronts Choffel’s daughter (oddly named Guinevere), who insists her father is a good man, doing his best for his family. She takes photos of Rodin and threatens him with reprisals if any harm comes to her father. But Rodin hardens his heart and flies on to the Gulf.

Dubai

Here he rendezvous with Len Baldwick and the rest of the crew, all vivid depictions of crooks and scoundrels, before they are shipped on a dhow out to a tanker anchored in a hidden bay, one of the khawrs of the Musandam Peninsula. Once aboard ship they are shepherded into their quarters and, even though nominally the boat’s officers, are forbidden from leaving their quarters by the captain backed up by surly Arabs with machine guns.

But Rodin is more disconcerted to be shoved into the presence of ‘Choffel’ who turns out to be a nervous slender man, not at all the pantomime villain he’d imagined. Morever, Choffel turns out to be Welsh and going by his actual name, David Price. In several encounters, he tells Rodin some his story, about his own wretched upbringing in Welsh poverty, his father the miner dying of silicosis, then his mother getting ill when he was only a 21 year old sailor on his first ship. He has also, Rodin realises, received a letter from his daughter warning him that Rodin is after him. Price is scared of him, trying to exonerate himself, leaving Rodin baffled about what to do next.

In among these scenes Rodin meets the captain, Pieter Hals. This bluff Dutchman reveals that the ship is the Aurora B, a 120,000 ton tanker, one of the tankers that went ‘missing’ in the past few months (causing Lloyds the concern we investigated so thoroughly earlier in the novel) and that he – Hals – is a fanatical environmentalist.

Hals gives a long speech about his lifelong hatred of the oil tankers which void, spill, wash and decant oil into the sea all around the world, destroying habitats at will. Well, now they’re going to do something which will make the governments of the world sit up and seriously address the issue! Hence getting shifty Len Baldwick to do the hiring; hence the men with guns; and hence the appearance of a very hard Arab named Sadeq who looks to be the leader.

Rodin jumps ship

Shaken by the captain’s fanaticism, Rodin is taken under guard back to his cabin where, peering out of his porthole later that night, he sees the crew, who look like Pakistanis and who have presumably been held captive in the hold, brought up on deck by armed guards for some fresh air. But when one of them makes a bid for the side of the ship, he is machine-gunned down. Stunned, Rodin is unable to sleep and, a few hours later, sneaks out of his cabin, down on to the deck, and goes exploring.

This is a very powerful account of him clambering over all the obstacles on an unlit oil tanker at the dead of night. By accident he comes across no other than Choffal/Price, the man he is after, climbing down the gangplank towards the dhow and begins to follow him: what the devil is he up to? Suddenly lights go on, there are shots, he sees the Arabs abandoning the dhow for their escape dinghy just as Price makes a jump for the dhow and Rodin, on the spur of the moment, follows him.

There is a brief view of Sadeq the terrorist firing down at them with a machine gun and then – the engine started up – the dhow reels away from the tanker, and then they are out of range, the shots cease, and Rodin is taken up with the task of navigating clear of the tanker but also avoiding the cliffs at the side of the creek.

On the dhow – backgrounds

As day dawns Rodin finds himself alone, hungry, dirty, in charge of an Arab dhow in the Persian Gulf, and the man he came all this way to confront, now lying bleeding and badly wounded in the scuppers – Sadeq’s burst of machine gun fire hit Price. Now, ironically, Rodin finds himself having to minister to his ‘enemy’, bringing water and listening to him sob out his hard-luck story: his Welsh childhood, the father whose trade of miner led to his early death from silicosis, his impoverished mother struggling to make ends meet and then falling ill; and Price, on his first voyage, presented with the opportunity of big money if he will help scuttle the ship…

All this chimes uncomfortably with Rodin’s own background. Throughout the text he has had flashbacks of his own unusual upbringing, the son of a sailor who married a Pakistani woman and was raised around the ports of Pakistan and who, when his mother, a trained nurse, died from overwork, went on an epic hike up along the coast of Pakistan and then northwards up to the Khyber Pass and into the Hindu Kush. He certainly has been about a bit…

In fact Innes goes to great trouble to present all his characters with full and persuasive back stories. We learn of Michael Stewart, the lead underwriter for the Petros Jupiter cover, that he inherited the role from his father, that the loss of Petros and Aurora B and the third ship, Howdo Stranger, is likely to bankrupt him. Hence his daughter’s perhaps excessive gratitude to Rodin. Of the baddy fixer, the man who goes round recruiting crooked crew for the wreckers, Len Baldwick, we learn that he was a communist shop steward and organiser in Sheffield. Most of the characters have these back stories, just as most of the organisational setups are thoroughly documented.

There is a powerful description of Rodin desperately trying to stay awake as he steers the dhow without compass or chart out of the Gulf, periodically checking on the mortally wounded Choffal, sometimes forced to listen to his meandering, self-pitying stories, until the inevitable happens – Rodin falls asleep at the rudder and the boat crashes into rocks near the coast. There is a nightmareish description of the boat breaking up, water rushing in, the helpless Choffal disappearing beneath the waves, his mouth open in a scream and then – oblivion…

Karachi

Rodin awakes on the shore of Baluchistan, discovered by two children who fetch an elder, who fetches the local policemen, who take him to the nearest station, who take him to their offices at the Gwadar Peninsula. The army officers here evidently don’t believe his story; of a shipwrecked dhow, yes, but the other man – there is no body – and the hidden tankers – well, they institute a search and nothing is found. Rodin had been on the dhow for two days, he realises, long enough for the Aurora B to have steamed out into the Indian Ocean.

The army fly him down to Karachi where the officials – even the man from Lloyds – are just as sceptical. Armed terrorists seizing a 120,000 ton tanker on the high seas? And hiding it? The Lloyds man points out that Rodin better hope Choffal/Price’s body doesn’t wash up because, by his own admission, Rodin had the motive and the opportunity to murder him. He is booked into a good hotel, gets sleep and a shower and new clothes and awakes to find he is being deported back to England. The officials accompany him onto the flight, right into his actual seat. 11 hours later he is at Heathrow.

Back in England

Where no-one believes him. The Lloyds people, Michael Stewart and his daughter, the Forthright lawyers and Saltley, nor the hard-faced man from Special Branch who comes to interview him. In fact the police tell him there’s every risk he’ll be tried for murder if Choffal’s corpse turns up. After holing up at his digs in Stepney, he realises he’s sick of London and catches an early morning train back to Penzance and travels back to the cottage where it all started. He sleeps on the sofa. He stares out to sea, at the mast which is all left showing above water of the Petros Jupiter. He remembers his wife’s flashing eyes and loud laugh and soft touch.

A few days in he receives a message from Saltley, who now believes him. He wants Rodin to take the ferry to France, catch a flight to Tangiers and then the ferry across to Gibraltar. Here he will be met and brought to the yacht – the Prospero – belonging to Michael Stewart’s son, Mark. And so, puzzled, Rodin obeys. He finds that Stewart and Saltley believe him; believe the two tankers are still out there. But where would they be headed and why? Rodin remembers that in one of Choffal’s delirious rants he had kept mentioning ‘the savages’. Saltley points out this could refer to the Selvagem Islands north of Tenerife, off the African coast. Aha.

There now follows a whole section devoted to life on board the Prospero, with the older lawyer Saltley, another sailor, Tony, young Mark and his sister Pamela, who Rodin finds himself rather yearningly alone with on several occasions. The descriptions of sailing in this small-ish yacht the large distance to the islands, the changing weather in the Atlantic and their eventual sighting of the missing ships close to the islands, are all masterly, evocative sea writing.

Thus they confirm the two tankers are indeed the missing ones, though now repainted and renamed and hung with the Iraqi flag. In fact they make themselves a bit too conspicuous, sailing close by to get photographs and – in a thrilling scene – find themselves being chased and nearly run down by the vast tankers.

Having survived these near misses, they sail fast for Madeira, where Saltley and Rodin ring Lloyds, then take flights to Lisbon. They say goodbye to the other three (Tony, Mark, Pamela) who are going to sail back to Blighty. At the last minute there is an excruciating scene between Pamela and Rodin, Shamefacedly she says she was inspired by his bravery and meant it when she wrote him her letter but now, well, she sort of… Rodin tactfully interrupts her, thanks her, says No need to go on. He has had lots of experience being dumped by a woman. She leaves him heart-broken, empty all over again.

The Black Tide

Back in England he finds himself back in hot water. This last section of the novel is packed with various officials whose hands Rodin passes through, from the police who meet him at Heathrow, through the hard-faced Special Branch man (again) and officials from various ministries. He is placed under surveillance in a hotel in Charing Cross, before being urgently summoned to Langdon Battery at Dover, base of HM Coastguards Channel Navigation Information Service. Here, as at the Lloyds centre at Colchester, the writing feels like an eye witness account of a visit Innes must have made, with precise descriptions of corridors and offices and viewing platforms, of map rooms and computer rooms, all of which read as if taken from a magazine article.

Here they are joined by the Secretary of State, to monitor the progress of the two rogue tankers which are now advancing up the English Channel. This whole scene has documentary accuracy, with emphasis on the different maritime law regimes affecting the French and the English halves of the channel, we being the more liberal, and so the rogue tankers steaming up the Channel the wrong way, to remain on our side.

The coastguard chopper Rodin out to the bridge of a frigate which is shadowing the tankers so he can go out on the bridge wing with a loud hailer to try and talk to captain Hals. Once there Rodin sees Hals although, as soon as he starts to parley, he sees the Dutchman being pulled away by dark men with guns. And then just when everyone is wondering where they’re headed and what their plan is, Aurora B turns and rams full steam into Howdo Stranger, ripping it open along its full length, and tens of thousands of tons of crude oil pour out into the English Channel.

So, er, the convoluted attempts of everyone over the previous 200 pages have been completely pointless. Tons of crude oil will blow onto the Kent coastline, devastating its wildlife, the same old same old that Rodin’s wife died trying to campaign against, is happening again.

Epilogue

Rodin returns, an exhausted, lonely, disillusioned man, to the empty cottage in Cornwall. As he opens the door he sees a woman sitting by the fire and for a second he thinks it’s Karen come back from the dead – and this reader thought it might by sexy young Pamela regretting her decision to dump him on the Prospero. But it is neither: it is Guinevere, Choffel/Price’s daughter, come to apologise and seek closure. The crew, freed from the tankers, confirmed Rodin’s report ie that Choffal was shot by Sadeq. Therefore she withdraws all threats against Rodin and apologises; now, will he please tell her about her father’s last days and hours aboard the dhow before it crashed.

And so the novel ends with sad lonely Rodin telling the sorry story of her father’s wretched, delirious, pain-filled, bleeding final hours to the distraught daughter. It is a bleak, comfortless end. What happens to Hals or Sadeq, to the other crew members we’d been (briefly) introduced to? Are they captured, does the SAS storm the ships (as they would in a Frederick Forsyth novel)? We don’t know. Rodin doesn’t care. The story is ended.


Knowledge and expertise

At numerous places the text evidences the research and in-depth knowledge Innes brings to his novels. The first hundred pages are dominated by a very thorough explanation of how Lloyds Insurance of London actually works, with visits to its various offices in London and Colchester (Lloyd’s Intelligence Services), lunch and dinner with underwriters who explain its procedures in detail, and then meeting the lawyers who investigate dodgy claims, descriptions of offices, desks, ledgers, microfiche and visual display unit equipment, all very modern in 1982.

Similarly, once we are in the Gulf, we are in the hands of a master sailor and the text is a supremely confident description of all aspects of sailing and shipping, from a powerful sense of being trapped aboard the Aurora B to a full description of sailing the rickety old dhow, along with precise information about the shipping lanes, the tides, the wind, the lighthouses and navigational aids.

The best bit of the novel is the voyage of the yacht Prospero, the tang of the sea, the changing weather of the Atlantic, the reefing of sails and taking turns clutching a mug of coffee in the dark watches of the night with only the stars for company.

And then the final sequence in HM Coastguard Dover Castle has the feel of a guided tour, complete with a map of the layout of the modern (Innes refers to Star Wars!) building full of computerised maps and charts and information and chaps in white shorts saluting each other. What fun it must have been researching these novels.

Place and atmosphere

The Cornish coast. London at Christmas. Suffolk (location of some Lloyds offices) in the snow. Rural France in winter. And then the bustling cities and the searingly hot open sea of the Persian Gulf. Gibraltar. Madeira. Lisbon. The Atlantic Ocean at dawn. Innes describes them all powerfully and persuasively. One of the great pleasures and strengths of his novels is his sense of place, his ability to create an atmosphere. Nowhere is this truer than of the scores of descriptions of the sea which lace the text. The Cornish sea with its fogs, the metallic flat Persian Gulf, a gale force storm in the Atlantic. The sounds and smells of boats and the sea, this is Innes’ inextinguishable forte.

We were making towards Selvagem Grande then and by the time breakfast was over and everything washed up and stowed, the sun was beginning to burn up the mist and just visible as a golden disc hung in a golden glow. Water dripped in rainbow drops from the gold-painted metal of the main boom and the only sound on deck was the tinkling gurgle of water slipping past the hull. (p.293)

Environmentalism

In one of Innes’ mysterious, almost magical, transformations, Rodin, stricken at his wife’s death, feels himself assuming her mantle, adopting her own passionate concern for the wildlife mankind is endlessly butchering and exterminating. It allows Innes, at a number of places throughout the book, to let rip at humanity’s gruesome behaviour, and at the anger at the destruction of the natural world which fuels the novel.

Greed! Stupid, senseless greed!.. It was a curse affecting us all, the whole human race, harvesting the sea till there was nothing left but oceans and oceans of dead water, drilling for energy, tanking it round the world, feeding factories that poured toxic waste into the rivers, supplying farms with pesticides that poisoned the land, pumping heat and fumes into the life-giving atmosphere until it was a lethal hothouse. (p.117)

Has anything changed in the 33 years since this novel was published?

Related links

Hammond Innes’ novels

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


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

The Big Footprints by Hammond Innes (1977)

‘Just look at these pictures. That’s what happens when there are no game laws and men are allowed to let their lust for killing run away with them. Extermination,’ he thundered. (p.75)

Innes’ novels have half a dozen regular characteristics.

1. Exotic location Here, it’s Kenya, exhausted and dilapidated at the end of a (fictional) civil war, during which armies on both sides ravaged the wildlife, sometimes going on killing sprees and decimating the large mammals, especially elephants. Wildlife is also being destroyed by a severe drought and – the general message of the novel – by the growing demands of a spiralling population.

2. Ordinary bloke hero Colin Tait, a freelance TV producer/director, is in Kenya to attend a conference of wildlife activists. Sort of interesting though this is, he harbours an ambition to travel north to Lake Rudolf to confirm descriptions he’s read in an unpublished manuscript given him by his publisher uncle, of a mountain littered with ancient buildings, where pottery has been found depicting a pyramid hill capped with buildings, indications of one of the earliest cultures in the world, the so-called rock pyramid of Porr.

3. Mysterious, older figure who bears a secret The classic example is Captain Patch from The Wreck of The Mary Deare who keeps secret from the narrator for 250 pages the fact that his ship didn’t sink as everyone thinks, but that he beached it to keep it as evidence of company embezzlement and fraud. Here the mysterious older figure is Cornelius van Delden, a legendary Africa hand, tall, white-haired, an expert on Kenyan wildlife and environments, nicknamed Tembo. He is virtually banned in this fictional Kenya for speaking out against the government’s acquiescence in the mass murder of wildlife by their troops during the war and by the runaway population, and so he makes a lightning appearance at the conference before disappearing in a well-arranged stunt. Eventually the entire novel turns into his quixotic quest to save the area’s last wild elephants from hunters, aided – or witnessed – by Colin and American TV journalist, Abe Finkel.

4. The curse of the past For a writer so at home with the modern world of travel magazines, international flights, with the minutiae of business law and practice, and capable of inspiring descriptions of physical activity, Innes’ plots almost all feature a heavy Gothic sense of doomed family relationships. Here we learn that the environmentalist van Delden was once best friends and business partner of Alex Kirby-Smith, but whereas the former has gone into sharp criticism of the government, the latter has allied with the same government, seeing it as the best way to moderate its excesses and regulate surviving wildlife, also setting up a fleet of meat freezing trucks to capitalise on his hunting activities, and generally exposing himself to accusations of being a heartless butcher.

5. Woman, carrier of the past Van Delden has a daughter, Mary, who loves him but also gets drunk and cries about how he was never around when she was small, was always disappearing off into the bush, animals more important than her or her mother etc. Tait, as so many Innes’ protagonists, finds himself attracted to this strong-minded, tough woman (and eventually, on page 250, they do have wild sex during a thunderstorm on a mountain), but she is, as so often, heir to a twisted family legacy. For half way through the book she reveals that she is in fact Kirby-Smith’s daughter. Van Delden’s wife had an affair with his best friend, impregnating her, though it was van Delden who brought Mary up and who she spent her childhood calling father. No wonder she becomes very upset as the rivalry between the two men becomes more intense.

In fact, everyone has ‘a past’, as the book reveals that Colin’s parents committed suicide by jumping off a cliff, and he was raised by an uncle in the publishing trade, and routinely bullied at school for having no parents. And Abe Finkel, who he teams up with, reveals half way through that his reason for abandoning the journalistic mission he was on, is that his wife recently died of cancer, making him realise, if you don’t fulfil your dreams of roaming in the African bush now, when will you…?

6. Hesitation and miscommunication Presumably it’s intended to create tension, but on every page occurs Innes’ trademark technique of having more or less every conversation dominated by one or both sides turning away, stopping in mid-sentence, pausing, going silent, shrugging or hesitating. It creates the sense that everyone knows something they’re not telling. Intended to create ‘suspense’ and tension, it risks leaving the reader frustrated and irritated.

On one level there is a ‘plot’ – when the other conference delegates catch the bus back to Nairobi airport, Tait, influenced by New York TV man Abe Finkel, decides to stay on, to see if there’s mileage in the van Delden story, but really planning to head north to Lake Rudolph, to the mysterious mount Kulal and the archaeological finds he’s read about in the old manuscript his uncle left him.

This sounds like it should be a dynamic situation, but on a page by page, paragraph by paragraph level, the text is made up instead of these endless deferrals, postponements and delays.

She gave a little shrug…I hesitated…He didn’t say anything after that…She didn’t answer. The silence was oppressive…After that we didn’t talk…Karanja hesitated…She shook her head…She was silent now…She didn’t answer…He didn’t say anything…He hesitated…He nodded uncertainly…He shrugged. ‘How the hell do I know? It’s just a feeling.’..’I don’t know. Maybe’…Karanja shook his head. ‘I don’t know’…He shrugged…He hesitated, staring up the road ahead…He was silent for a moment. the smile gone. Then he gave a quick little shrug…Abe asked, ‘Any game left?’ ‘I don’t know,’ he said, uncertainly…Murphy hesitated…Abe gave a little shrug…He hesitated…Van Delden shook his head. ‘Who knows?’…Van Delden shook his head…Karanja hesitated, then he shrugged…He shook his head…I shook my head…She was silent for a moment…She gave a little shrug…I hesitated…I shook my head, not wanting to talk about it…Kirby-Smith hesitated..I shook my head…But Karanja shook his head…Her gaze went back to the mountains and she was silent for a long time…She hesitated…She shrugged…

On one page, 156 in the Fontana paperback edition, Colin and Abe are asking their tracker, previously a van Delden associate, where van Delden must be hiding out and every paragraph starts this way: ‘Karanja shrugged… Karanja didn’t answer…Karanja shook his head again…Karanja was silent…Karanja hesitated…He was suddenly silent…Karanja hesitated…staring urgently at Abe, who didn’t say anything for a long time…’

On the very next page, Mary joins Abe and Colin and asks whether they think van Delden shot the Africans (see below): ‘…Silence was the only answer I could give her…I didn’t say anything…She was silent for a moment…her voice trembling into silence…She was silent for a while…I sat there, silent, not knowing what to say…’

Though they’re meant to be adventure books and are set in adventurous locations and feature violent and tragic incidents, the actual page-by-page experience of reading a Hammond Innes book is often of stasis and paralysis.

7. Participle clauses There is another mannerism or part of Innes’ style perhaps worth commenting on, his tendency to write sentences which – after an active first clause – have two or three dependent clauses containing no active verb, but instead participles (generally the present participle or the past participle) or no verb form at all.

Short simple examples are obviously designed to create breathless excitement.

We waited, crouched in the gulley, listening. (p.166)

The elephants had all swung round, trunks weaving, seeking the new source of danger. (p.191)

And the effect can be strung out over longer distances:

Evergreens and patches of thick impenetrable bush, the boles of tall trees, twisted ropes of lianas, and my heart pounding as we climbed, following the beam of Karanja’s torch. (p.163)

But longer, slower sentences using this structure crop up throughout the novel, creating a particular effect which I can’t quite put my finger on.

I didn’t answer [main verb], suddenly aware of her reaching out [present participle clause], her hand on my arm [no-verb clause], pulling me down beside her [present participle clause]. (p.249)

Two possible interpretations occur to me – pictorial and static. Pictorial The main clause with the main verb introduces the sentence, and then the successive clauses, lacking an active verb, are like pictures, images, stills – as in a slideshow.

We were heading [main verb] across country in a more northerly direction, our speed gradually increasing [present participle], patches of soft sand, the scrub thicker and more trees [no verb]. (p.204)

From where we stood in the back of our truck we could see the flat expanse of the makeshift airstrip, scrub and boulders piled along the line of its single runway, and beyond it the thicker bush that marked the line of the lugga, acacias with flattened tops, and further still the greener growth spilling from the low arms of the mountains, the Horr Valley a sharp gash between cedar-dark slopes and the sky beginning to take on colour, the first rose tints of the rising sun. (p.139)

We were climbing now, the land sloping gently upward, the heat increasing rapidly. (p.180)

Static Or, conversely, the lack of active verbs – their replacement with verbless clauses – sometimes adds to the sense of stasis and paralysis created by the endless silences and hesitations of the characters.

I sat on by the fire for a while, smoking a last cigarette and listening to the stillness. (p.110)

the present participles – ‘smoking’ and ‘listening’ – embodying the static lingering of the sitting. Or:

The argument went on for several minutes while we sat there motionless, the engine throbbing and the heat trapped in the valley. (p.111)

where the second clause gives a kind of sensual amplification of the first part, so that you can hear the engine ticking over, feel the prickliness of the African heat.

Nobody spoke, van Delden sitting silent and withdrawn, the three Africans squatting round the embers, a stillness settling on the land. (p.283)


The plot

Abe Finkel persuades Colin to stay on after the conference is over. The army officials who supervised the conference and all the delegates’ travel let them travel north on the understanding they are going to link up with Kirby-Smith’s troop who are carrying out a cull. But a pilot they chatted to saw a small camp off west of the road and here they find van Delden and three loyal African beaters/shooters, who promptly commandeer their Land Rover. A little later Colin and Abe are picked up by an army patrol of surly Africans and driven on to the Kirby-Smith camp.

Here Kirby-Smith says you’re welcome to watch and film a modern culling – and so there is a sickening description of him and his men in Land Rovers and trucks corralling half a dozen elephants into a clearing where they are shot down in seconds – and their corpses then set on by the soldiers, quickly joined by truckloads of locals (who are suffering from the drought and almost starving) who hack the dead animals to pieces.

It was the sort of scene cameramen dream about, nomadic tribesmen, hunters with guns, and elephants being hacked to pieces, blood everywhere. Close-ups of men, half-naked, armed with spears and knives, dark skins stretched over staring rib cages, faces drawn and shrivelled looking, of dead elephants, of tusks and meat, of Kirby-Smith, the great white hunter, firing at a warrior with his red cloak flung back, his sleek ochred hair coming loose in coils like snakes and his knife flashing. (p.145)

The next day, the cullers head out to another location to intercept another herd but, just as the elephants come into view, warning shots are fired which make the herd turn and escape, then one of the Kirby-Smith trucks explodes in flames, burning to a crisp the Africans inside. An appalled Colin is forced to agree with Kirby-Smith and Abe’s assessment that the men in it were shot dead, then the petrol tank ignited, by van Delden and his renegades. Van Delden has crossed the line and, in his bid to defend animals, has himself become a murderer. This is the context for Mary’s agonised confession that she is Kirby-Smith’s daughter but raised by van Delden and so caught between the two enemies.

In fact Mary begs Colin and Abe slip away from their army minders and go warn Van Delden that K-S and the army will now hunt him down and kill him, and so they persuade the African scout, Karanja, to take them to an old poacher’s hideout where they think van Delden might be lurking. And so they set off on what turns into the prolonged trek which will dominate the rest of the book. Briefly they scramble through scrub, up slopes, through forest, scared by wildlife, with vivid descriptions of the landscape, the nightscape, the animals and so on.

Van Delden appears out of the darkness and takes Colin and Abe under his wing, travelling with him and his scouts in pursuit of the next group of elephants. There’s an encounter with Kirby-Smith where they interrupt his trailing of another group of elephants, commandeering his Land Rover and smashing his rifle. Now their rivalry has turned into outright hatred. Mary had been in the vehicle. Van Delden makes her choose: are you walking back with Kirby-Smith or coming with us? In fact, he bundles her into the Rover as it sets off, and so she is now part of the small team.

Colin, Abe, van Delden and his pair of scouts drive on across the bush, passing through varieties of landscape allowing Innes descriptive faculties full rein. Whenever they camp and eat and talk, conversation turns to how to help the elephants survive and, increasingly, speculation as to why so many of the groups they’re coming across are travelling north, away from the overpopulated plains, towards the bleaker landscape around Lake Rudolph. Can elephants communicate? Do they know it is safer up there? Can they sense and communicate more than humans are aware of?

Van Delden goes off with one of the scouts, leaving Colin, Abe, Mary and Karanja to trek up the side of the mysterious mount Kalula (although there are not one but two maps showing the routes of these journeys, I found it impossible to follow their paths, and the text is quite vague about which bit of savannah, scrub, forest, desert, lava bed, river, hillside or mountain they are scrambling over at any particular point). Abe is experiencing increasingly visionary episodes, at one point almost going off on his own to defend a troop of elephants from the pursuing hunters, though talked out of it by Colin.

This mountain, Kulal, within thirty miles of Lake Rudolph, is setting to the climax of the novel: beyond it is where all the elephant groups seem to be heading. At its foot is an abandoned missionary building and it is here, on the edge of a steep gorge, that van Delden leaves them, promising to return once he’s found the elephants.

Later they hear engines and realise an army patrol is approaching, and quickly slip out of the back of the building and into the foothills of Mount Kulal, climbing quickly through low forest into the mist. After hours of climbing, they get to a sort of shelter among the rocks and spend the night. Here the group split up, Abe going with the tracker Dima, downstream towards the plain and the lake, while Colin and Mary go with Karanja up the sides of the mountain; as they near the peak a violent storm breaks out and it is here, in a rock shelter, that Mary suddenly offers herself to Colin and the simmering tension between the two is lanced in a feverish act of love-making (p.249).

Climbing higher they come upon a confusion of jagged volcanic spikes and gulleys and realise this can’t be the inhabited mountain top of the old account. Maybe it is on top of Mount Porr, thirty miles to the north and west…

Descending the mountain they hear a human cry and come upon Abe badly injured. He was with Kanjara when a cow elephant came to a nearby waterhole and Abe couldn’t resist sneaking really close to take photos. Something alarmed the cow who bellowed and its nearby calf came thundering out of the bush and trampled over Abe. He has a badly broken arm and cuts to the head. Kanjara, Colin and Mary help him down the rest of the mountain and to the shores of Lake Rudolph. That night, as they camp round a fire by the lakeside, van Delden appears out of the darkness. They learn that he and his scout have disabled the plane Kirby-Smith was using, sneaking up on it as the pilot worked on it, and have stolen another army truck. Not popular.

Karanja deserts them to go contact an army patrol. He returns saying he’s made a deal, van Delden to be flown out, a nature reserve set up, Karanji in charge of it. But none of this seems real compared with the stillness of the vast lake, the flamingos in the shallows, the elephants plodding silently to the shore, the immense primitiveness of the setting which Innes conveys as the characters stay awake most of the night knowing the next day will bring the inevitable Showdown the whole narrative has been building towards.

Van Delden drops Mary and the injured Abe where they can walk, or stagger, back the Mission, then returns with his scouts and Colin to the culling zone. Here trucks appear to scare a herd of elephants hidden in the forest out into the open; they emerge and there is a moment’s pause as the Land-Rovers containing their killers approach, then they go wild, trumpeting and attacking the vehicles. Abe makes a last, mad attempt to intercede, to change their direction and Mary comes running to his help and to my surprise both are trampled to death by the elephants who go on to rampage through the hunters’ vehicles, killing and goring many men, themselves losing many to rifle shots before breaking off the attack and lumbering towards the lake.

In the aftermath van Delden and an injured Kirby-Smith confront each other over Mary’s dead body while a disbelieving Colin looks on. Karanja appears and has now secured what he wanted ever since we first met him at the conference, power and authority – the minister who van Delden humiliated at the conference has been replaced and Karanji made Warden of a new wildlife sanctuary of the north: Karanji orders Kirby-Smith to suspend the cull; van Delden’s elephants are safe.

The small group bury Mary and Abe, building a cairn over their bodies. As night falls Colin falls asleep at their camp, exhausted. In the morning he wakes to see the small figure of van Delden paddling the primitive raft they found by the lake, north, towards the elephants. Karanji stands with the other African scouts: they will give Colin a lift back to civilisation, and 12 hours later he is back in London, unable to believe everything he has experienced and felt, determined to write this account of his strange adventure.

Nature writing

Innes is not what I’d call a prose poet. He doesn’t have the magical way with words of a Chandler or Cruz Smith. But, unlike a thriller writer like, say, Desmond Bagley (who also wrote a novel set in Africa, Juggernaut) he goes out of his way to provide descriptions of animals and, especially, of natural landscapes and changing times of day. These are, I think, most effective when Innes is in his beloved environment, the sea, but there are numerous attempts in this novel to convey the immediacy of the African scene, and of the elephants which dominate the story.

We pushed on, silent again, walking in a pale, cool light that was the interregnum between night and day. But it was brightening all the time and then suddenly the sun pushed a great shield of burnished red up into the eastern sky, and instantly the land flared with colour. From the flat sepia of desert gravel it turned to a dried blood hue in which everything glistened with light, scrub and thorn and skittering birds all brilliant with the great red glow of heat to come. It was fantastic, breathtaking… (p.180)

Save elephants, save the environment

Innes presumably intended this whole novel as propaganda, warning of the consequences of unchecked population growth in developing countries and the disastrous impact on wildlife. 40 years later I, like most people, I think, take it for granted that we are poisoning the seas, wiping out most large mammals as well as countless other species, and that it is too late to prevent catastrophic global warming.

Therefore, this novel seems like a memory of a more innocent age, the 1970s, when writers and the educated middle classes founded environmental pressure groups (World Wide Fund for Nature founded 1961, Friends of the Earth founded 1969, Greenpeace founded 1971) and thought there was something they could do to protect wildlife and the environment…

[Karanja] was staring out to the darkness of the gorge and after a moment he said, ‘Is part of our heritage and one day, maybe, I live to see those same elephants crossing Kulal again, but going the other way, going south into the lands they live in when I am young man, going to protected areas where the world can see them again. Quiet, dignified elephants living in peace and rearing their calves. Not fleeing half-starved and in terror, charging everywhere.’ He shook his head, smiling to himself. ‘Is a dream maybe, but that is what I hope.’ (p.247)

Related links

Hardback cover of The Big Footprints showing Mary van Delden in front of a big elephant, with the image of her father superimposed on the elephant's ear

Hardback cover of The Big Footprints showing Mary van Delden in front of a big elephant, with the image of her father superimposed on the elephant’s ear

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.

Solomon’s Seal by Hammond Innes (1980)

He turned then, facing me reluctantly, his features crumpled by the intensity of the emotions that gripped him. He mumbled something, gripping hold of my arm, but the sound of his voice was lost in the crash of a wave. (p.140)

Roy Slingsby is a typical Innes protagonist, a decent, averagely honest man plunged into a bizarre adventure in a colourful foreign land. The book is carefully divided into five parts, but the following are my own divisions, based on the imaginative settings or backdrops which dominate.

Part one – East Anglia

Roy is 40, he’s knocked about a bit, skippered landing craft as part of his National Service, keeps a run-down sailing boat on the Suffolk coast and makes a so-so living as a contents valuer for an estate agent. A chance call leads him to a routine valuation of the now-empty home in Aldeburgh of one Tim Holland, a man about his own age who became seriously ill while working in the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific, came home to recuperate but is so poorly he’s been placed in a nursing home.

Roy is shown round by his sister, Perenna Holland, who had been looking after Tim. She is not only attractive but peculiar, showing an unusual interest in the grotesque and frightening native artifacts around the house and then revealing that her brother is suffering from a curse cast by a witch doctor among the islands. If only she could find the man who did it, she would… she would… Roy is startled by her belief in primitive magic and by her anger. Turns out there is one other sibling, Jona, who owns and runs an ex-army landing craft which he uses to trade around the islands.

Roy drives away from this innocuous-looking farmhouse in the flat Suffolk countryside, his mind fired by images of foreign lands, savage customs, the hot sun, the tang of the ocean.

In another plot strand Roy had been advising one of the firm’s clients about a farm in far away Australia. The client now wants to sell up, would Roy – a trusted agent for the firm in their English business – fly out and handle the sale, all expenses paid? In almost the same breath Roy’s employers make it plain he will never be made a partner of their firm and he has a stand-up row with the boss before walking out. Yes, he rings the client to say, yes, he’ll take the Australia job: please arrange the flights, tickets, hotels, tell the agent, the man on the ground who’s been running the farm, that he’ll be coming.

This first section is dominated by the mystery of a pair of old stamp albums Roy noted among the Suffolk house’s contents and which, being a bit of a collector himself, he knew who to pass onto for an assessment. To his surprise the expert says it contains the die for some rare stamps and the whole thing looks like a collection assembled by someone designing new stamps for a colony in the south seas. (The expert is himself a sailor; the scene where they meet aboard the expert’s boat are described with typical Innes gusto for the drift and smell and bob of the water.) The expert arranges a provisional sale and forwards the money to Perenna.

But here there is more complication, for it appears she has left the house – Roy drives there to find it stripped bare and a bonfire of most of its contents, old letters and photos – and some worryingly bizarre artifacts, arrows and barbed knives, carved from wood and painted blood colour – in the garden. Perenna left a message with her solicitor that she has taken a job on a cruise liner, all monies to be sent to the address of her Southampton bank. (Innes’ novels are always studded with the precise details of work, the practical details of everyday life.)

Part two – Australia

Roy flies to Australia, familiarises himself with Sydney before flying to Brisbane and then is driven by the agent out to the farm he’s charged with selling, with the absurd name of Munnobungle (p.85), a dried-up wreck of a place. This only happens for a few pages but Innes packs into it the familiarity with the Australian terrain, and with no-nonsense outback Aussies, which characterised his great book set there, Golden Soak. Just reading about the red soil and the dusty shack and the flaking eucalyptus trees, was pure pleasure.

Roy concludes the deal quickly and returns to Sydney where he spends time tracking down the landing craft of Perenna’s brother, among the huge throng of ships in the harbour. Eventually he finds it, goes aboard to discover the brother, the captain, Jona, pretty drunk, the first mate unconscious in his cabin, the boat crewed by various surly blacks, natives of the Solomon Islands, a typically fraught, tense, male environment.

On the spot Jona offers him a job as crew member who will, when they get out to sea, be promoted to first officer, and Roy, having come all this way, accepts it. What is he doing? Well, he has no ties back in England, his return flight is open-ended, ever since meeting that lonely woman in an empty farmhouse in the flat Suffolk countryside he has been fired by her stories of strange seas and exotic lands. Why not? The next journey is to take some Haulpaks to Bougainville island, 500 miles north-east of Australia, sandwiched between the Solomon islands to the south and Papua New Guinea, of which it is formally part, to the north-west.

Part three – At sea

Once they set sail from Sydney, Roy is a new man, confidently taking his place at the helm and his watch among those of Jona and the first mate, Luke, confidently ordering the sullen black crew about their tasks, worried by the neglect and dirt he finds everywhere, standing up to the alcoholic first officer, Mac. Innes is at sea and his prose shows his total familiarity and spirited enjoyment of the situation.

Roy learns that the ship is scheduled to land at a beach along the coastline, to lower its ramp and let a couple of vehicles drive on board. He is suspicious of this little detour, of the crew’s behaviour, of Jona’s evasiveness. Something crooked is obviously going on, but how crooked? He bullies the Indian radio officer into sending a message to Perenna’s ship, for her attention, due to be docking about now. The rendezvous on the beach isn’t for a few days: can Perenna fly to Australia, then on to this location and join the boat? It will infuriate Jona; but it will fulfil Perenna’s dream of being reunited with her brother and of going back to the islands to find the man who cursed her brother and getting him to repeal the curse.

They reach the rendezvous on the coast of Queensland, beach the landing craft, lower the ramp and the two lorries are driven on board by their surly drivers, who go back down the ramp and into a waiting car and are driven off, the ramp is raised and the landing craft steams backwards and out to sea. When, at the end of his shift, Roy stumbles down the steep metal steps to his cramped cabin, he is amazed to find Perenna in his bed: she got his message, took the first flights and a car out to the meeting place, and paid the first driver to smuggle her aboard in one of the trucks.

She stays in Roy’s cabin for the first day and they find themselves having sex, but it is an uneasy relationship. Eventually she presents herself to Jona who is angry but can live with the situation. Roy and Perenna grow more suspicious about the contents of the crates which came aboard in the trucks. In a tense scene, in the middle of the night, eluding the watchful Buka native sailors, they break one open and discover it is full of guns and ammunition.

Somewhere along the line it is revealed that, when they were living in the islands, there was an outbreak of Cargo fever (related to the religion of Cargoism) and a force of Buka men, worked up into a frenzy, broke into Perenna’s house, hacked her mother to death in front of her and began to attack her, but she fought back with a kitchen cleaver, herself killing one native and driving the others off. Not without suffering a severe cut to the neck. a) Whenever Roy sees the scar he is reminded of this terrible incident b) it explains Perenna’s obsession with native beliefs and fear of violence.

I barely caught Perenna’s words as she said, ‘Are we all going to die – violently?’ Her eyes were wide and staring, full of fear – a fear that was inside her, part of her being. ‘Did he say anything about the curse?’ she said. (p.278)

Part four – the coup

They dock at Anewa Bay to unload the Haulpaks and trucks, and there is some classic Innes research as they are met by an engineer who shows them the extraordinary amount of development which has taken place in the past decade, with the construction of a power station by the Japanese which fuels a vast copper and silver mine up in the mountain as well as power for the new towns which have grown up around it.

Driving round that night, Roy and Perenna see a lorryful of Baku natives go into the District Governor’s office with machine guns. They drive to the nearest houses to call the police but all the phone lines are down. They drive to the huge mine to find the manager is on leave, but are witnesses as the rebels blow a key bridge in the road. Ditching the car, Perenna and Roy make it by foot down the mountainside to the port and to the landing craft, seeking safety from the coup, only to be captured at the last minute.

The coup president is a native named Sapuru but most of the practical details are being organised by Hans Holland, the red-haired cousin of Jona and Perenna, one of the tangled Holland clan. Apparently his father was killed, in his own house, by being surrounded by Colonel Holland, Perenna’s father, and a band of natives who fired flaming arrows into it, causing it to burn to the ground. This was during the war when all elements of Bougainville society were caught in the fighting between Japanese and the Allies: Hans’s father sided with the Japs and that was the reason given out for years why Colonel Holland killed him.

But throughout the book Roy has been learning there may be other reasons, that the twisted history of the Holland clan lies behind many mysteries.

Part five – the haunted house

Hans shows Roy that the landing craft is now full of captured police and local officials under armed guard of the gloating Baku natives, armed with the machine guns Jona smuggled in. Jona has drunk himself incoherent, therefore can Roy captain the ship up the coast of Bougainville to the smaller island of Buka, to drop them with the Buka Co-operative, the organisation of natives which is behind the coup. There they will be safe and can be held as hostages while Suparu negotiates independence with the Papua New Guinea authorities.

So there is some fine Innes writing describing sailing by night around a south Pacific island, marred for Roy, of course, by the extreme anxiety of the situation. Ever since he joined the landing craft relations have been rocky with its 60-year-old first officer, the alcoholic McAvoy, who is kept on by Jona because he served under Jona and Perenna’s father. Now Mac comes into his own as he hexes the Buka insurgent stationed on the bridge with a machine gun to guard Roy. Mac starts using the Buka language, babbling and gesticulating, hypnotising the guard just long enough to step forward and stab him in the guts with a long knife. Taking his machine gun he gets the horrified Roy to call the leader of the Buka men, the swaggering cocky Tualeg, up to the bridge where, with no preamble, Mac riddles his body with bullets.

Invoking the native beliefs in power and magic, Mac tells Roy to display Tualeg’s dead body on the bridge wing to the armed insurgents below. This he does with the result that the four or so insurgents simply drop their weapons, seeing their omnipowerful leader dead, and the hundred or so police and officials swarm up out of the hold and commandeer the ship. They tell Roy to continue steering it up towards the north coast, near to the airport. This they successfully storm and call for planes carrying troops from Papua New Guinea. This is the beginning of the end of the coup.

Meanwhile, Perenna, Mac and Roy, with a newly sober Jona, are recovering for this stressful adventure in the channel between Bougainville and Baku, close to the tiny island Madehas, home of the old Holland clan, location of the house built by Perenna’s grandfather and where her mother was slaughtered before her eyes. Old Mac takes Roy up there in the pouring rain, to enter the big, Gothic house, with its baronial fireplace and grand staircases, all fallen into rack and ruin now, old Mac speculating about the motives and purposes of the legendary figures, Red Holland, Black Holland, Colonel Holland, muddling them up with his adventures during the war, fighting against the Japs.

Mac shows him the house safe under the stairs, opens it and reveals whole sheets of Solomon seal stamps – the stamps whose die Roy discovered in the Suffolk house so long ago, as well as ‘the letter’, the one which drove the old Colonel into such a fury. He repeats the story that the Colonel was so fired up by it that he took his native troops and surrounded the log cabin of Red Holland, setting it aflame. He adds the detail that as the other natives fled, there was a single shot from the flaming house. Red shooting himself.

After returning to the landing craft, chewing things over with Perenna and Jona, and falling asleep, Roy is rudely awoken by the surprise appearance of Hans Holland. He is angry that old Mac stabbed his troops and released the police, but he thinks he can still make the coup work by driving trucks across the nearby airport, keeping the main plotters down in Anewa safe. But while they’re discussing it they hear the drone of planes flying overhead to land government (ie Papua New Guinea government) troops there. The cynical Australian who had been acting as Hans’s help and fixer says, ‘Well that’s that, then’. The coup will fail, Hans’s dreams of running a big shipping empire on behalf of the independent Bougainville organisation are in tatters.

Hans pulls a gun on Roy and insists he accompany him in a dinghy to the shore and then up the familiar path to the haunted house. Here – like many a doomed Innes character – Hans slumps in a chair and mutters fragments of the past, fragments the narrator (and the reader) struggles to put together. He is insistent on the letter, where is the letter? Has Roy shown the letter to Perenna? Again they discuss the complex fates of the Holland family but this time Roy tells him what Mac told him, about old Red shooting himself in the on-fire house.

Hans’ passion subsides and he tells Roy to get out, get out I tell you! Roy goes back down the path, catches the dinghy back to the landing craft and is wondering with Perenna what Hans will do now, how soon before police arrive to arrest him, whether he’ll get a life sentence etc, when one of the crew yells and points up the hill. The house is on fire, yes, flames are leaping up. And then they hear a single shot! History has repeated itself: Hans Holland has killed himself amid his own funeral pyre, just as his father did.

Jona, Perenna, Mac and Roy go up to the now burnt out house to find nothing but a pile of ashes and embers. Jona takes some, puts them in a tin and later carries out a formal burial at sea. Perenna and Roy wonder if Hans really was that depressed, or was it a ruse: has he faked his death and slipped away…?

Part six – savage customs

Jona receives radio orders from the police to sail back south to Anewa bay. Here there is an extraordinary scene, for Sapuru and the other failed coup men have barricaded themselves into one of the offices near the power station. They are surrounded by the armed police and NPG troops but themselves holding a number of white hostages. Standoff. They had been asking, demanding, the presence of Perenna, something to do with her father’s memory, with her influence.

And indeed Perenna consults with the leader of the Chimbu people who are surrounding the office. These native people are local to this place, the south of the island, unrelated to the Buka men from across the strait, and unhappy that their new-found prosperity, working up at the mine, is threatened.

Now they have stripped off their western clothes and painted their bodies with paint, lipstick, cosmetics, oil, whatever they can find, and similarly armed themselves with any weapons to hand, some have even made bows and arrows out of saplings.

Perenna counsels them to make a traditional show of strength outside the blockhouse and this is what they do, advancing and retreating and shouting their haka-like warrior chants. Finally the leader, Tagup, advances forward of his men and shouts for the coup leader, Sapuru, to come out and face him. And he does. Watched by police, army and the painted warriors the two men confer. And then Sapuru gives in and orders his men out, to lay down their arms, to release the hostages. The spirit has left him; he has no power. The coup is over. And later that evening Sapuru lays down and dies, all his strength, power and sorcery gone. It is at this moment, Perenna later finds out, that her brother Tim, back in England, long languishing under the curse of the sorcerer, at a stroke begins to show energy and life again.

Now, the whole coup, all the sailing about and adventures, gun running, shooting and midnight escapes are definitively, finally over, and Roy has a long shower and then sleeps for 12 hours in the lovely clean bed of a motel which the authorities find for him.

Part six – epilogue

Even the epilogue is complex.

The Holland shipping line Jona is arrested by the authorities but let off a gaol sentence for gun running because he pleaded ignorance, but more because of the key role played by his sister, Perenna, in the peaceful end of the coup. Nonetheless, his company turns out to be technically bankrupt. Roy flies to Australia and a) settles the sale of the Munnobungle ranch b) puts in time in Sydney drumming up custom for the last ship in the Holland line.

The Holland curse All the way through the book, on almost every page, running in parallel with the story of the gun running and the coup, has been the much deeper narrative concerning the Holland family and all the stories and rumours involving murder, incest, miscegenation and so on. While in the outback Roy travels to Cooktown to find the aborigine he’d heard about who is famous for killing one of the Hollands. He buys him a few drinks and wangles the story out of him, sort of, it’s still not totally clear.

In the late 1800s two adventurers tramping through the Australian outback came across a gold mine, which they named, because of their exhaustion, Dog Weary mine. One of them, Holland, took all the food and water and slipped away in the night to register the claim, leaving the other, Lewis, to die in the desert but Lewis didn’t die, he was found by aborigines who took him walkabout eventually returning him to ‘civilisation’. Here he discovered that Holland had used the money from the mine to set up a successful shipping line, the Holland line, with fine schooners and black and white photos of men in panama hats which were to find their way into Perenna’s house and the Madehas safe. Lewis, consumed with revenge, concocted a bomb and installed it on one of the line’s biggest ships but old man Holland discovered the plan, had Lewis killed and his body put in the captain’s cabin, then paddled away from the ship, clutching, among other things, his albums of stamps, until the ship exploded and went down with all hands. This man – Red Holland – was one and the same as the Carlos Holland who we’ve heard about throughout the novel, and he fled to Madehas island. And Hans Holland was his son. And the letter which obsessed Hans so much, reveals Carlos/Red’s identity and confirms that he is a callous mass murderer. It was this letter and this revelation which made Mac’s friend, Colonel Lawrence Holland, shake with anger and sent him along with a gang of natives to besiege and burn Carlos’s house. It was the knowledge that he’d murdered his own brother, which, years later, prompted the Colonel to get in his canoe and paddle off into the sea to die, seen by only a few servants whose garbled accounts have added to the legends. And it has been living with the knowledge that his father was a murderer which led to Hans becoming a wrong ‘un.

He was suddenly leaning forward, the red hair blazing in the slanting sunlight, his eyes staring into mine. ‘You marry Perenna, you marry the Holland Line.’ He came towards me, smiling. ‘You do that and you marry a curse. It was built on hate and fear and disaster and it’s done for every one of us – every man that has tried to make his fortune out of it. My father started it and he died an unnatural death. So did the old Colonel and Perenna’s mother, now Tim’s dying, he’s given up and he’ll die hating me, hating his sister, hating everyone, the whole world.’ He pointed his finger at me. ‘You too. You try and succeed where I failed and you’ll never know a minute’s peace. I’ll haunt you, Slingsby. Even as my father has haunted me. I’ll haunt you.’ (p.274)

The Solomon seal Here my understanding gave out and I admit I couldn’t follow why the old seal and the sheet of stamps Roy took from the safe in Madehas house were so important. The last ten pages are filled with astonishing detail around the history and manufacture of stamps and appear – from the author’s note at the end of the book – to be a complex fictional explanation of a historical fact which is that the reputable firm of note and stamp printers, Perkins Bacon, admitted in the mid 1850s to having a thief in their midst. Precisely how this is related to the Solomon dies I didn’t understand: maybe they are a rare example of the thief in action, the die was stolen, and so the stamps are a very rare example of illegally printed stamps fro the Perkins Bacon stable.

The practical upshot is that Roy and Perenna fly back to England to oversee the sale at auction of the stamps and albums and, because of this unique (but to me incomprehensible) history, they fetch an astonishing £30,000. This is enough to get Jona’s ship out of hock and with some left over to invest in the business. The Holland line is reborn. And brother Tim is well on the way to recovery.

Roy asks Perenna to marry him and she laughingly says yes. After all the byzantine complexity of the plot, and the bewildering detail of much of the background information, it all ends, as do so many Innes’ novels, on what you feel is a psychologically balanced and happy ending.

Maybe this happiness, this joy in life and physical activities like sailing, swimming or skiiing, combined with the baroque complexities of his plots (which generally boil down to ancestral curses and Gothic family tragedies) prevent Innes being given much due or scholarly attention. But it is a gift to entertain, thrill and then leave your readers uplifted and inspired.

The night after the stamp auction, knowing their futures are assured, Perenna and Roy walk around his old farmhouse in Suffolk, and then start fooling.

I was kissing her as I carried her over the threshold. ‘Tomorrow I’ll think about making an honest woman of you.’ We were both of us laughing as we went up to bed. The moon was very bright that night and there were owls hooting – Bougainville and the Pacific seemed a million miles away, and so did reality. What fun life is! What a glorious everlasting struggle to survive and to build something worthwhile! And as I fell asleep I was thinking of that indomitable old man, her grandfather, sailing out in his canoe towards the horizon and infinity. (p.318)

Related links

Fontana paperback edition of Solomon's Seal

Fontana paperback edition of Solomon’s Seal

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.

North Star by Hammond Innes (1974)

I went slowly out on deck, pausing a moment to see his heavy figure climbing the long iron stairway at the base of the derrick that led from pipe deck to derrick floor, climbing with a sort of punchy swagger. He flung open the corrugated iron door and stood there for a moment surveying the scene, a lone figure standing right above the pipe skid, the noise of the draw-works blasting out and the men inside dancing a strange ballet around the kelly, the tongs in their hand and the winches screaming. (p.166)

Another in Hammond Innes’ long sequence of first-person narratives in which the hero is on the run from the police, has a troubled relationship with his father, has detailed technical knowledge of the sea and ships, but finds himself drawn by forces beyond his control into disaster.

The hero as suspect

Michael Randall was brought up in America by his mother and rich step-father but came to England to study at the LSE under a Marxist tutor. After getting his degree he went north to Hull to sign on as a trawlerman to see the practical side of politics and class war. It is the late 1960s and he gets involved in left-wing activism and organising strikes. One night, after outside agitators whip up a union meeting, he realises they are going to target the foreman’s house and goes there beforehand (typically, for an Innes hero, with no plan, just on a hunch), only to witness two agitators throw a petrol bomb through the window. Unfortunately, a little girl is in the house and Michael breaks in to save her, handing her over to the neighbours who’ve come rushing out.

Flustered, stressed, partly implicated insofar as he was at the original political meeting, Michael doesn’t stick around to talk to the police but makes for his trawler which departs before dawn.

When the trawler puts back into port after its fishing trip is complete, worried about the incident, Michael finds himself ‘drawn’ – like so many other Innes heroes – mysteriously drawn to a remote land, in this case to the Shetland Islands where he’s never been before, but where he knows his father once lived.

Here he discovers a) the remote church where his father is buried (touchingly, vividly described) b) that a trawler recently ran aground nearby in a storm, the old skipper dying of a heart attack. On an obscure impulse (the same unfathomable motivation of so many other Innes heroes) he borrows the money and sets out to repair the trawler, The Duchess of Norfolk. In doing so he finds himself attracted to the young widow of the old skipper, now the trawler’s owner. And then the two are brought together in business deal when the opportunity arises for The Duchess to become a supply ship to a new oil rig, North Star, which is being set up to drill in the dangerous deep water west of the Shetlands.

Complications

Slowly these disparate threads are wound together into a recipe for disaster.

Michael’s father is not dead. Michael discovers from old-timers on the islands that his father was rescued from Norway back in 1942, badly injured by shell fragments. He is profoundly shocked to discover him staying in a remote house, aloof, unfriendly, harshly disfigured. In an even bigger psychological blow, Michael discovers his rival to buy the wrecked trawler, a local man who’s lived in Shetland all his life, is also his father’s son, by a local Shetland woman – and so is his half-brother!

And his father is part of a terrorist conspiracy. He may or may not have been – or still be – a Russian spy (conversations about this, as about most other subjects in Innes’ texts, are circular, blocked, stymied, broken off, left unconcluded…). But he is certainly now mixed up with a gang of saboteurs, themselves linked to the IRA. (The ‘Troubles’ began around 1969 and by 1972-3, when Innes was writing, were in full swing.)

The IRA contingent are helping Marxist saboteurs who want to strike a blow at capitalism: specifically, they want to create an oil rig disaster, humiliating the gung-ho venture capital owner of the rig – Villiers – discrediting the new ‘oil rush’ in the North Sea, and causing an environmental catastrophe in the important Hebridean fisheries which will tarnish the whole oil industry.

Like so many Innes heroes, Michael finds himself pushed onto the wrong side of the law by obscure and tangled forces, sometimes of his own making. In the centre of the book, he is called on to testify against the men who threw the petrol bomb and, in a terrifyingly believable courtroom scene, we watch him get out-manoeuvred by his opponents who have bribed witnesses whose testimony persuades the judge and jury that the men on trial are innocent and that Michael did it. The fact that he didn’t stick around to talk to the police deepens suspicion against him.

When the case against the accused (and guilty men) collapses, Michael is himself arrested, cautioned and, eventually, released – for the time being – but now he has hanging over his head a) the threat of being rearrested, charged and tried at any moment b) the threat of revenge by the two men and their shadowy ‘revolutionary’ organisation, which he had the bravery/foolhardiness to confront.

Hence Michael’s wish to escape to sea, to be in international waters if the police come calling. He returns to Shetland, to take over the captaincy of The Duchess of Norfolk, to his ambivalent relationship with its owner – Gertrude – and to a typically uncertain and uneasy relationship with the buccaneering owner of the oil rig – Villiers – and the tough Texan oil-man who manages the rig. These guys already knew a little about his reputation as a union organiser but when news of the court case arrives, and the fact that he has been arrested and is only out on bail, then they fire him from the job of servicing the rig.

Like so many Innes heroes, Michael just can’t seem to break free from the squid-like tentacles of the past which block his efforts at every turn.

His deputy takes over captaincy of the Duchess and Michael finds work on the other ships in the area owned by his rival and half-brother, Sanderson.

Love life

There’s a lot more to it than this summary suggests: the text is a densely-printed 260 pages long, maybe that would amount to 400 pages of a modern, larger-print paperback. There are numerous scenes elaborating Michael’s troubled relationships with his father, with his employer and with the police.

And there is a powerful thread about his love life, about his troubled relationships with his attractive but superficial (and drug addict) wife, Fiona (an echo of the beautiful, bitchy wife who appeared in this novel’s predecessor, Golden Soak) representing his troubled political Past – and with the stocky, plain but appealing Scandinavian woman, Gertrude, who owns the damaged trawler (similar to the plain, chunky but honest female lead in Golden Soak), representing the Future.

I was staring at her, seeing her large-mouthed competent face, thinking how comfortable and practical she was in comparison with Fiona. (p.226)

They argue. They make up. She bosses him around. There’s an almost romantic moment, which is interrupted by a phone call, misunderstandings. Later, after the trial, Michael makes a pilgrimage to Gertrude’s house but she’s not there. On a later occasion Fortune favours them and, after an evening of food and wine and candlelight in her remote Shetland cottage, they finally make love. But then the newspapers of his trial arrive, spreading the accusation that he is an arsonist and almost-murderer, which makes her doubt him. And then he is sacked from the oil rig job, which brings their professional association to an abrupt end. And so on and so on…

Like most of Innes’ characters’ relationships – and like the narrative itself – his ‘love life’ is made up of hesitancies, delays, misunderstandings, moody silences, shrugs and postponements. It is during a fatal failure to go visit his wife during one of her drug-induced depressions, that she (surprisingly) kills herself with an overdose of barbiturates leaving Michael bitterly blaming himself…

The sea the sea

The sea is Innes’ preferred element and the setting of his greatest novels, The Wreck of the Mary Dear and Maddon’s Rock and The White South among them.

The descriptions of trawlers and tugs, of their heavy complex machinery, of chart reading and sailing, navigating and steering, as well as of the business of running an oil rig, are conveyed with great detail and conviction, owing much to Innes’ own years at sea. In addition there is his trademark thorough research – as with many previous novels, this one has an author’s afterword thanking the many organisations and experts who helped him with factual background.

Even if the motivation of the human characters often seems puzzling, wilfully obscure and not particularly plausible, his descriptions of dawn at sea or the Norwegian mate bringing the trawler round into a headwind or of riggers wrangling rig piping always ring completely true.

I went up to the pipe deck where the engineers and a whole gang of roustabouts were working in the glare of the spotlights to wind the new cable on to No. 4 winch. It would have been better if they could have rigged it on No. 1 winch, which was facing due west now, but as Smit pointed out to me, it had to be a winch within reach of one of the two cranes, since there was no other way of hoisting a 15-ton anchor out over the side. (p.238)

I admire Innes for writing book after book which pay such careful attention to the hard physical labour that generations of men have done, for his skill at conveying the pleasure and joy of expert men doing work they love and understand. There are descriptions of love and even a little sex in the novels; but the real love affair is between big gruff men – bearded Norwegian sailors, Yorkshire trawlermen, Scottish sea dogs, tough Texan riggers – and their all-consuming vocations.

Environmentalism

There had been intermittent prospecting in the North Sea in the 1950s but the scene was transformed in late 1969 and 1970 with the discovery of massive deposits of oil and natural gas. Drilling, mapping, supplying, shipping, refining all converged to create the huge industry which has been active for the past 45 years, and not without impact on the environment.

Early on in the book Innes mentions the famous Torrey Canyon disaster of 1967 when an oil tanker broke up, spilling vast amounts of crude oil along the Cornish coast. As an experienced sailor and a man devoted to the beauty of Nature, Innes was an early advocate of environmental issues, and awareness of the environmental impact of the dastardly plot to sabotage the North Star is a thread running through the book.

Politics in the early 1970s

It is difficult now to recapture the desperation of a time which has receded into history. In his author’s note Innes mentions that his plan to start the novel in 1972 and complete it by 1974 was overtaken by events, namely:

  • a severe mining strike in 1972
  • the October 1973 Yom Kippur War which led the OPEC countries to limit oil production and prompt…
  • …the oil crisis of October 1973 to March 1974 when the price of oil quadrupled
  • leading to the imposition of a three-day week in the UK and
  • a political crisis which caused two UK general elections in the same year (1974)

Crisis followed crisis with bewildering speed and political activists on the right and left felt the existing system was collapsing and only needed a few violent nudges to bring about the revolution they hoped for. Such as blowing up an oil rig.

Innes’ novel could hardly be more topical, weaving as it does the themes of industrial action and crippling strikes, of extreme and bitter political polarisation, with the widespread hope that North Sea oil would be a bonanza which would free the UK from dependency on Arab producers.

And stirs in the threatening presence of the Provisional IRA, at their most violent following the catastrophe of Bloody Sunday on 30 January 1972 (during 1972 alone the IRA killed 100 British soldiers, wounded 500 more and carried out 1,300 bomb attacks). Innes’ protagonist is right to feel very scared when he is ordered to a remote cove to load suspicously unmarked crates from aggressive men with Irish accents.

The climax

The climax of the novel comes when Michael is tasked by his employer and half-brother with collecting these crates and sailing back out towards the North Star. As the ship makes its way towards the rig Michael is stripped of command by the gang and becomes a helpless witness to their plot to blow up the oil rig and cause a major disaster – and, with typical Innes overkill, all the time a major North Sea storm is closing in on the situation…

Do the saboteurs succeed? Is the rig blown up in a terrific fireball explosion at sea? What happens to all the crew aboard it and what happens to Michael?

You’ll have to buy the book, which is worth getting hold of for the gripping final 20 pages alone, worth reading for its descriptions of the Shetland islands and the stormy seas around them, vividly depicted in all weathers and moods, and for the detailed portrayals of men at work in hard physical jobs under extreme conditions.

Less so, perhaps, for its handling of characters who all seem incapable of decisive action or forthright conversations, or for the tone of dazed bewilderment, of obscure motivation and irrational impulses, which drive the perplexed protagonist through a plot which, despite all its naturalistic detail, often seems wilful and contrived rather than plausible or persuasive.

Related links

Fontana paperback edition of North Star

Fontana paperback edition of North Star

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.

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.

%d bloggers like this: