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.

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