Feminine power: the divine to the demonic @ the British Museum

This is the first major exhibition ever held at the British Museum focusing solely on goddesses – on female spiritual beings from mythological traditions from around the world – and it is absolutely fabulous!

Queen of the night relief, c. 1750 BCE, Iraq, painted clay © The Trustees of the British Museum

Questions about women and femininity

The exhibition sets out to ask questions about images and ideas of the divine: How do different traditions view femininity? How has female authority been perceived in ancient cultures? Are sex and desire the foundations of civilisation or their disruptors? To what extent do female deities reinforce patriarchal social systems or subvert them? What relevance to goddess from ancient or remote cultures have for us, here, today?

To ‘answer and explore’ these questions the exhibition brings together female divine and demonic figures feared and revered for over 5,000 years from traditions all round the world. It includes painted scrolls from Tibet, Roman sculpture, intricate personal amulets from Egypt, Japanese prints, Indian relief carvings, statuettes and figurines, alongside contemporary sculptures.

Ancient and modern

It’s important to realise that the exhibition combines ancient and modern. It brings together historical artifacts – ancient sculptures and sacred objects relating to female goddesses from all around the world – but also includes modern and recent works of art by contemporary female artists such as the renowned American feminist artist Judy Chicago, and the creations of less well-known woman artists from various cultures, such as this fearsome headpiece from India.

Dance mask of Taraka, workshop of Sri Kajal Datta (1994) India, papier mâché © The Trustees of the British Museum

The aim is to explore the multitude of ways in which femininity has been perceived, conceived, created and depicted across the globe, from the ancient world to today. The exhibition explores the embodiment of feminine power in deities, goddesses, demons, saints and other spiritual beings, associated with the widest possible range of human experiences and attributes, from sex and fertility, through wisdom, passion and nature, to war, mercy and justice.

18th century Chinese porcelain of Guanyin, the Chinese translation of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, with child and attendants © The Trustees of the British Museum

Treasures

What makes the exhibition so enjoyable is not necessarily its feminist aims (although many visitors will, of course, identify with these) but a much simpler factor. Recent British Museum exhibitions about Nero or Stonehenge featured fabulous objects but also a lot of run-of-the-mill coins or skeletons or shards of pottery. These were important because they tell us about the subject’s archaeology and history, but sometimes they can get a bit, well, boring.

Here, by contrast, having selected 50 or so of the most interesting, relevant or thought-provoking goddesses from traditions around the world, the curators were free to pick only the very best objects to represent them. Almost all of the objects are from the museum’s own collection and they showcase its extraordinary breadth and range. But more importantly, lots and lots of them are really beautiful or, if not beautiful, then striking and fascinating.

Statue of Venus, 1st to 2nd century Rome © The Trustees of the British Museum

I studied the labels and read the extensive feminist commentary but then I have read the same kind of thing thousands of times, and read it every day in the papers and hear it every day on the radio and TV. Discussions of gender and sexuality and gender stereotyping and #metoo and the gender pay gap and female empowerment and strong independent women and women pioneers in culture and science and sport are now part of the permanent background hum of modern life.

What is not an everyday experience is to be able to take a walk through the mythologies of the world, to savour the beauty and force of a carefully curated selection of exquisite and surprising and fascinating historical and cultural artifacts.

Not all the objects on display are masterpieces, but many of them are really, really beautiful, and all of them have fascinating stories to tell and many of them shed lights on countries and cultures I knew little or nothing about. The exhibition amounts to a kind of David Attenborough odyssey through the weird and wonderful products of the human imagination.

Mami Wata headpiece, Nigeria, early 1900s, painted wood and metal © The Trustees of the British Museum

Five themes

One of the curators explained that they went out of their way to consult far and wide, with heads of departments across the museum, with stakeholders and members, in order to draw up a long list of themes and subjects relating to female power. Alongside this they drew up a long list of objects to illustrate the themes, at the same time drafting a list of feminist commentators who might be interested in commenting on them.

The outcome of this long process of consultation and consideration has been to divide the exhibition into five themes, each of which is introduced and explained by the curators – and then a leading contemporary feminist was invited to contribute thoughts on the theme and reflections on the objects.

The five themes are:

  • Passion and Desire, introduced and analysed by Classics Professor Mary Beard
  • Magic and Malice, commented on by writer and podcaster Elizabeth Day
  • Forces of Nature, commented on by psychotherapist and campaigner against violence against women, Dr Leyla Hussein
  • Justice and Defence commented on by human rights lawyer Rabia Siddique
  • Compassion and Salvation commented on by writer, comedian and podcaster Deborah Frances-White

Thus each section each of the individual exhibits has two panels, one a factual description by the curators and one a subjective and thoughtful comment by the contributors. There are also some standalone video ‘thought-pieces’ of the five commentators giving their thoughts about women and power.

Creation and nature

To give an idea of the sheer number and range of goddesses and deities involved, this is a list of some of the exhibits in just the first section, devoted to ‘Creation and nature’.

  • Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes with flaming red hair and a fiery temper
  • Sedna, the Inuit mistress of the sea
  • Lashmi, the Hindu goddess of abundance
  • Oshun, the Yoruba orisha of water, coolness and healing
  • Mami Wata, the mother water of African spiritual traditions
  • Izarami-no-mikoto, a creator deity of both creation and death in Japanese Shinto mythology
  • sheela-na-gigs, the primitive stone figures found in the Middle Ages across Britain, France and Spain
  • Papatūānuku, the mother earth figure of In Māori tradition, who gives birth to all things, including people

You get the idea. Not so much about the goddesses as such, but the impressive range and diversity of cultures represented.

Kali

The exhibition includes a newly acquired icon of the Hindu goddess Kali by contemporary Bengali artist, Kaushik Ghosh, the first contemporary 3D representation of Kali in the collection.

As one of the most prominent and widely venerated goddesses in India, this devotional image of Kali reflects the living tradition of her worship, important for millions of Hindus around the world today.

The statuette was commissioned especially for the exhibition, together with the London Durgotsav Committee, who run the annual Kali Puja festival in Camden, in Kali’s honour.

According to the curators: ‘Loved and feared for her formidable power and aggression, Kali is the goddess of destruction and salvation, who transcends time and death, destroys ignorance and guides her followers to enlightenment. Although superficially terrifying, the bloodied heads that she wears and carries represent her power to destroy the ego, setting her followers free from worldly concerns, and the belt of severed arms signifies that she liberates them from the cycle of death and rebirth, by the many weapons she wields.’

Kali Murti, Kaushik Ghosh, India, 2022. Image © The Trustees of the British Museum

Ancient and modern

There’s a kind of doubled or paired approach to everything. I’ve mentioned the way many of the exhibits feature a panel giving the historical and cultural facts, as written by the curators, and next to it a panel giving the more subjective view and reflections of the guest commentator. Doubling. Two perspectives.

But I mean it in another way as well, which is the curators’ deliberate juxtaposition of the very old and the very contemporary. This is announced right at the beginning of the exhibition (although it was only when the curator pointed it out that I understood it).

Right at the beginning of the ‘Creation and nature’ section they have two exhibits, not quite next to each other, a bit more subtly placed than that. One is a trio of Cycladic figurines of women, those primitive, flat faced half-abstract figures which date from as long ago as 3,000 BC.

A figurine of a woman, from the Cyclades, over 4,000 years old.

These are so beautiful as objects and shapes that I could look at them all day. Anyway, just round the corner from them the curators have hung a print titled ‘The Creation’ by the American feminist artist, Judy Chicago (born in 1939 and still going strong).

I needee a bit of help deciphering this but it is an image of a woman giving birth, taken from between her parted thighs, with her two breasts as hills on the horizon, one a volcano exploding. Obviously it’s heavily stylised, and features strata of creation on the right including sea life and, above them, lizards and apes and humans.

The Creation, Judy Chicago, USA, 1985, coloured screen print in 45 colours on black paper. Image © The Trustees of the British Museum

In other words, it’s a stylised image of the creation of life on earth. An interview with Chicago is quoted in which she jokes that Michelangelo’s famous image of the ‘Creation’ depicts a man (Adam) lying lazily on his back while a complacent God reaches out and touches his finger. Chicago wanted to counterpoint this patriarchal fantasy with a depiction of the more effortful, bloody and seismic moment of creation in a woman giving birth, but at the same time give it modern mythic overtones, reflecting our knowledge of geology and evolution.

So far so interesting and both works are examples of what I meant by saying that all of the exhibition’s artefacts are powerful and beautiful. It also exemplifies the juxtaposition of ancient and modern I was talking about.

History and art

But it is a dichotomy or duality on another level, as well, which is that the Cycladic figures are conventionally thought of as being of predominantly archaeological and historical interest whereas the Chicago piece is clearly a modern ‘work of art’.

So the curators are enacting another form of doubling: they have deliberately mixed together works which come from the staid academic world of history and anthropology with living works of art.

So there are, arguably, three sets of pairing or doubling going on throughout the exhibition: ancient and modern, curator and commentator, history and art.

These juxtapositions set up forcefields of energy between ancient objects of worship and veneration whose purpose was clearly ‘religious’ and modern works of art whose purpose is, well, what?

In her speech the curator said she was explaining the difference between the consciously ‘sacred’ objects (depicting goddesses and ritual) and the modern ‘profane’ art works to an exhibition sponsor, and the sponsor asked: ‘Is there a difference?’

Good question, and the exhibition provides a fascinating field of study for similar questions and reflections, either prompted by our own impressions as we stroll among these weird and wonderful objects, or by the factual summaries of the curators, or by the reflections of the feminist commentators, or by the vibrant juxtaposition of objects from such different times, places and cultures.

The visitor strolls not only between beautiful objects but amidst a complex matrix of factual information, aesthetic experiences, and intellectual discourses, jangling and buzzing, prompting all manner of thoughts and feelings.

Lilith

Take the figure of Lilith. Since the late first millennium AD, Lilith has been known in Jewish demonology as the first wife of Adam and the consort of Satan. Her origins are thought to lie in Mesopotamian demons. The exhibition includes several representations of this talismanic figure, including a ceramic incantation bowl from Iraq (500 to 800 AD), featuring a rare early image of Lilith in female form. Buried upside down under the thresholds of houses these bowls were inscribed with charms to protect the owners (who are named in the text) from demonic forces. They regularly name Lilith as a demon to be warded off, sometimes as grammatically singular and feminine, but also masculine or plural, one among many indications of the gender fluidity found in many mythologies.

Ceramic incantation bowl from Iraq (500 to 800 AD) © The Trustees of the British Museum

So far, so historical or archaeological. But the exhibition also includes a very striking sculpture of Lilith by American artist Kiki Smith, made in 1994. Smith’s sculpture is cast from the body of a real woman and the striking thing is that this life-size black metal sculpture is attached half way up the gallery wall. This would be a striking installation in a gallery of contemporary art but in the staid world of the British Museum with its glass cases carefully spotlighting tiny coins and bits of pottery, it makes a huge statement, visually and physically. The artist herself writes of her work:

Lilith becomes this disembodied spirit that goes off and wreaks havoc and doesn’t want to be subjugated. Here she is transcending gravity and the constraints of her body.

Yes, the legends about Lilith and the havoc she wrought we may or may not be familiar with. But it’s the fact that she is a life-size sculpture hanging upside down on the gallery wall which makes the statement.

Lilith by Kiki Smith (1994) image © Pace Gallery

The exhibition poster

Of all the objects in the exhibition, the Lilith sculpture is the one the curators chose to go on the poster and promotional material. Personally, I think that was a mistake. I think it would have been better, more accurate, to use a montage of 3 or 4 of the most striking objects to give a true sense of the exhibition’s breadth and diversity. It’s also a bit boring that out of all the cultures of the big wide world, the curators have chosen an artist from America. Disappointing. As if we don’t hear enough about American artists already. Would have been more genuinely diverse to promote a work by a Hindu or Nigerian or Inuit artist.

But then again, it is a strange and disturbing object. Maybe it recaptures, in our blasé culture, some of  the shock and mystery and weirdness that many of the more obviously ‘religious’ objects on display conveyed to their contemporaries, long ago and far away.

Lots of goddesses

If nothing else, the exhibition shows that there have been lots of goddesses and female spirits, in all societies, at all times. In the second half of the show I noted a fourth kind of doubling, which is where the curators have a panel describing an important goddess in a general sense, and then introduce a specific instance of the goddess, drawn from their vast collection.

So there’s a curator panel describing the figure of Eve, explaining her provenance and significance in Christian theology; the curators then give an example of the iconography of Eve in the form of a striking woodcut by Renaissance artist Cranach the Elder. Then one of the feminist commentators gives a more subjective assessment of the importance of Eve in shaping and projecting ideas of femininity in the Christian tradition.

A similar two-panel treatment (general explanation, then specific artifact) was meted out to (to name just the ones that really struck me):

  • Radha (Hindu)
  • Ishtar (Babylonia and Assyria)
  • Aphrodite (Greece)
  • Lilith (Jewish-Christian)
  • Tlazo Iteotl (Aztec)
  • Hekate (Greek)
  • Circe (Greek)
  • Cihuateteo (Aztec)
  • Rangda (Bali)
  • Taraka (Hindu)
  • Sekhmet (Egypt)
  • Athena (Greece)
  • Luba (Congo)
  • Mahadevi (Hindu)
  • Kali (Hindu) Isis (Egypt)
  • Maryam (Islam)
  • Mary (Christian)
  • Guanyin (China)
  • Tara (Tibet)
  • Medusa (Greece)
  • witches (Christendom)

Women and gender identity

The curators assert that the representation of feminine power in world belief and mythology has played – and continues to play – an important role in shaping global cultural attitudes towards women and gender identity.

I suppose this is true of many places, still, but…. there’s something not quite right with that statement. On reflection I think it’s that the curators are pushing it a bit far when they say the exhibition explores or investigates the role religion, and female deities, goddesses and spirits have played in representing, defining, limiting and empowering women through the ages. To really properly do that would require a library full of books and studies of religious sociology and anthropology. To be blunt the exhibition, big and broad though it is, only scratches the surface of a vast, global, pan-historical subject.

As an example, the exhibition includes a section devoted to the Virgin Mary who is (obviously) the most prominent female figure in Christianity, itself the most widespread religion on earth. This section contains five artefacts connected with her veneration, which is more than most of the other goddesses get, but, still… It would obviously need quite considerably more than that to amount to a proper ‘investigation’ or ‘exploration’ of the role of Mary in defining and limiting women’s roles in Western society over the past 2,000 years. Vastly more. Thousands of books and objects. A huge exhibition could be devoted to Mary alone. And that’s just one among the 50 or 60 female deities on display here.

And that thought brings out the exhibition’s weakness, which is that a lot of the very broad (and very familiar) generalisations which the feminist commentators make about gender and identity are not really supported by the exhibits.

The curators tell you the facts about Rangda (Bali) or Taraka (Hindu) or Sekhmet (ancient Egypt) and then the commentators shoehorn onto them one of the handful of familiar feminist concerns about gender stereotyping or gender fluidity or the power of desire or women as strong independent figures and so on. Sometimes it works, sometimes it’s spot on. But sometimes it feels…contrived. You feel the unknowable weirdness of some of these objects, the strange worlds they inhabit and the fearsome spirits they represent are being hijacked to pad out a Guardian editorial.

A friend of mine, a designer, goes to lots of exhibitions and makes a point of never reading the labels. She likes to engage directly with the objects on display, unmediated by the curators’ editorialising. The commentators opinions are over familiar and tend to drag you into the squabbling world of the modern media and culture wars and twitter and so on.

Whereas the exhibition’s great strength is the way the objects themselves open doors in your head to weird and wonderful otherplaces and otherminds, leading you through the looking glass, through the back of the wardrobe, into a huge range of times and places and cultures.

And the way these beautiful or fascinating objects have been carefully juxtaposed with notable works of contemporary art to set up all kinds of resonances and vibrations. This – the often strange, haunting beauty of the objects themselves, and resonances set off by their artful positioning – is what I responded to, what I found very stimulating and rewarding.

(To be fair, the exhibition is accompanied by a big heavy catalogue packed with essays by feminist academics, and this does go into considerably more detail about the issues around women and gender and sexuality which the exhibition references. Read the catalogue blurb to get the publishers’ summary of it. ‘The publication concludes with a discussion of contemporary feminism…’)

The curators speak

Here are the voices of two women closely involved with the exhibition. Belinda Crerar, curator, British Museum, writes:

This exhibition is a tour through history and around the world to see the different ways that female power and authority have been perceived in spiritual belief. The diversity of these goddesses, spirits, enlightened beings and saints, and their profound influence in people’s lives today and in the past, gives us pause to reflect on how femininity – and indeed masculinity – are defined and valued now and in the future.

Muriel Gray, Deputy Chair of Trustees of the British Museum, writes:

The Citi exhibition Feminine power: the divine to the demonic is brimming with magic, wisdom, fury and passion. I am very proud that through the breadth and depth of the British Museum’s collection, alongside special loans, we can tell such powerful and universal stories of faith and femininity from the most ancient cultures to living traditions around the world. I would like to thank Citi, whose ongoing support has allowed the Museum to realise this ground-breaking exhibition.

A word from our sponsor

The exhibition is sponsored by Citi. Citi is the swish new name of what used to be Citigroup Inc, an American multinational investment bank and financial services corporation headquartered in New York (where Kiki Smith lives and works). A spokesman for the bank writes:

As a global bank, our mission is to serve as a trusted partner to our clients by responsibly providing financial services that enable growth and economic progress. Success in our mission is only possible if we can continue to foster a culture of equality and inclusion that enables and encourages diversity of thinking. To drive that message of equality and the power and influence of women over time, we are delighted to see the Museum use its collection, along with some spectacular loans, to create a thought-provoking look at the diversity of representations and complex meanings of the divine female over time.

So the exhibition, which the curators and contributors like to see as ‘subverting’ the patriarchy and ‘questioning’ masculinity and ‘interrogating’ gender stereotypes etc – is wholeheartedly aligned with the values of American multinational investment banks and financial services corporations.

Whether you like it or not, ‘equality’ and ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity’ are now fully integrated into the lexicon of international capitalism, and it is money from American capitalism which makes possible exhibitions like this, makes possible the curators’ good intentions and the feminist commentators’ ‘subversive’ comments. What do you think of that, O goddesses of fire and flood and fury?

Tiare Wahine, Tom Pico, Hawai’i, 2001, Ohi’a wood © The Trustees of the British Museum

I’m not especially singling out this exhibition. It’s the same kind of irony which meant that the huge sculpture lamenting the transatlantic slave trade made by the American artist Kara Walker (also based in New York) was hosted at Tate Modern, a gallery founded by sugar plantation owner Henry Tate who, although he never owned slaves, made a fortune out of black labourers descended from slave in the Caribbean, whose name the Tate organisation insists on retaining despite protests.

Or that until recently Tate, whose exhibitions routinely campaign for a better world, was funded by BP, the oil corporation, which is actively engaged in destroying the world.

Ditto the National Portrait Gallery, which is only ending its funding by BP this year, having only just noticed global warming and oil companies’ role in creating it.

Or that the Serpentine Gallery in London has only just (2021) dropped ‘Sackler’ from its name because of the Sackler family’s involvement in selling the opioid painkillers which have made large numbers of Americans into addicts, wrecking hundreds of thousands of lives. (A link I was making two and a half years ago, Patrick Staff: On Venus @ Serpentine Sackler Gallery.)

In fact I attended a press launch of an exhibition at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery which was addressed by its Chief Executive, Yana Peel, and I squirmed a bit as she imperiously lectured us about sexism and racism (it was the exhibition by African-American female artist Faith Ringgold). So I was all the more surprised and amused when Peel was then forced to step down from her post after the Guardian revealed her involvement in ‘the NSO Group, an Israeli cyber intelligence company whose software has allegedly been used by authoritarian regimes to spy on dissidents’.

And then, of course, there are the many, many art galleries and cultural institutions which have spent the last 30 years deeply entwining themselves with the money or support of Russian oligarchs. Russia. Oligarchs. Putin. Nice company to keep.

So I’m just adding this exhibition to the many which promote high-minded values about gender and race, and advocate for sweeping social change, while being funded by money from harmful or immoral  or deeply reactionary sources. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to find this kind of irony hilarious. There’s no point getting upset, it’s the way of the modern world. But you are allowed to smile at the ironies.

For young readers

There is, of course, a sumptuous catalogue accompanying the exhibition, but a book has also been written for younger readers, what the press release describes as a ‘fascinating and empowering introduction to 50 female figures from around the globe’, entitled Goddess: 50 Goddesses, Spirits, Saints and Other Female Figures Who Have Shaped Belief, written by Janina Ramirez and illustrated by Sarah Walsh.


Related links

Other British Museum reviews

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.

The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum (1980)

Robert Ludlum (1927-2001) was a phenomenally successful author of international thrillers, publishing some 24 novels plus the three Bourne novels, and lending his name to another dozen or so books either co-written with, or entirely written by, other writers. Thus, after Ludlum’s death, with the full permission of his estate, the splendidly named Eric Van Lustbader has produced a further ten Bourne novels.

Like most modern American thrillers this is a long book, at 566 pages. If you see a few of the Bourne paperbacks side by side you get the feeling that, like so much else in American culture, American authors and publishers in this genre measure by size – and this text is as big and unsubtle as a Texas steak, packed with protein, big in size, scope and ambition, raw and bloody.

However, The Bourne Ultimatum is the only one of this large brood I’m likely to read because the price of being so productive, of churning out so many very long texts, is a concomitant thinness of fabric and style and a curious metallic emptiness of character. In fact this is one of the very rare books which I eventually found so insulting to my intelligence and taste that I abandoned it around page 300. I was hoping it would be gripping and intelligent and found it the opposite. Ludlum makes Frederick Forsyth look like Tolstoy.

The plot

There are a lot of facts to digest, but the basic idea is that Jason Bourne’s body is found floating at sea by fishermen who bring him aboard and hand him over to a portside doctor who nurses him back to health. He is fit and intelligent but has lost his memory. Stitched into his body is a microfilm with the address of a bank in Zurich, so the doctor gives him some money to travel to Switzerland where the novel becomes very violent. At the Swiss bank he runs foul of its strict security measures and is attacked on the way out by men with guns; he manages to fight his way free and get back to his hotel where he is again surrounded by a number of armed men so he grabs a hostage, a woman lecturer named Marie attending the economics conference being held at the hotel.

Jason drags Marie out the back of a packed auditorium using her body as a shield against the bad guys, shoves her into a car and forces her to drive around town, while she has hysterics, tries to escape, panics, cries, pleads to be released etc. They go to the house of a legless old concentration camp survivor – Chernak – whose name Jason had been given as a contact, but when Jason turns his back the old man pulls out a gun and is about to shoot him, when Jason shoots first.

Back on the street they are caught by three goons. The boss despatches goon 1 with Marie, saying take her to the river, shoot her and dump her in it. After some interrogation Jason manages to shoot or disable his interrogators and escapes, going down to the river to rescue Marie who he finds being raped in the back of a car by goon one, prior to being shot dead.

Jason rescues Marie, though the baddy gets away in the confusion of gunshots. Marie drives Jason to a village outside Geneva where they rest and recuperate. They review the evidence – that Jason is known and feared wherever he goes, whichever contact he talks to is petrified of being seen with him. They all refer to him as Cain. Meanwhile, the men seeking to kill him appear to work for a figure called Carlos, head of some kind of gang or cartel. (We are shown Carlos, bizarrely, working out of a confessional box in a Catholic church, where he receives a succession of old, ancient men who form a network of agents and messengers. A touch of the deliberately grotesque.)

I’d just got to the scene where Jason has abducted another woman, the owner of a high-class boutique in Paris who is some kind of contact for Carlos. She explains

  • that Cain/Bourne came from a network of assassins and killers groomed during the Vietnam War for illegal operations in one ‘Operation Medusa’
  • that out of that environment came a number of killers who set up international hitman organisations
  • that Carlos has been top-dog in Europe for some time and that Cain/Bourne had carried on being ultra-cruel, ultra-effective killer in the Far East
  • but that some disruption has forced Cain/Bourne to come West and set up in direct competition with Carlos

So that’s why Carlos, via his hitmen, is out to kill him; and also explains the shadowy links to someone or something in the States, maybe the original controllers of the ‘Medusa’ set-up…

After three or four days together, the woman Jason has kidnapped, slapped and hurt and threatened with death and whose actions led directly to her being raped – has fallen in love with Jason. They have sex, and Marie begins to use her in-depth knowledge of international economics, and specifically banking practices, to figure out how to help Jason find out who he is and to counter his enemies…

Rape then love

My son, like me, gave up reading at the point where the woman who has been kidnapped and violated falls in love with Jason. This seems so unlikely as to be unpleasant and repellent. It simply defies belief and breaks the credibility of the story. I suspect any person who’s undergone such a trauma doesn’t particularly want to have sex with anyone for a while. Especially not with a man who kidnapped her and indirectly caused it all.

From this point on the novel treats both characters as if they are sincerely and deeply in love, with many paragraphs devoted to their concern for each others’ feelings etc. These struck me as unreadable, sentimental, fantasist hogwash and were the biggest reason for me abandoning reading the book.

The problem is acknowledged in the film version where Bourne abducts Marie but there is no rape scene and, after they go through some hair-raising chases and shootouts together, their slow rapprochement to becoming lovers is therefore a bit more believable. Or less preposterous than in the novel.

Suspense (lack of)

A thriller is meant to thrill. A key element in this is ongoing suspense about what’s going to happen next. The Bourne Identity suffers for the simple reason that the reader knows there are 12 or so sequels and a whole box set of movies about the guy – and the sheer fact of their existence indicates that Jason Bourne sticks around. Coming to the text with all this baggage means there is no mystery or suspense about the hero’s survival. He survives and thrives, by the look of it.

And if we know these fundamental outcomes – he survives, he will ultimately find out who he is – then the reader’s focus turns more onto the style, the page-by-page experience of reading the text. Does that grip and hold and please us?

Style

Once you stop believing in the story, you are left with the style, which is deliberately clipped, abrupt, telegraphic.

Four slaps in rapid succession, flesh against flesh, blows maniacally administered, received with muted screams of terror. Cries terminated, gasps permitted, thrashing movements part of it all. Inside the car! (2004 Orion paperback edition p.128)

Ludlum uses italics to emphasise things, particularly when a character is thinking or several characters are talking  ‘My God, what shall I do next?’ It becomes very distracting: is it meant to make the prose seem more immediate, or does it reflect a failure to make the words exciting by themselves without having to add extra shouty italics? And in case you didn’t realise that the italics are being used in urgent and exciting moments, there are lots of exclamation marks at the ends of sentences to help!

Here is Marie learning that the colleague she contacted back in Canada to help her track down some of the bad guys’ bank payments has himself been murdered:

‘They killed him. They killed him! My God, what did I doPeter.’
‘You didn’t do it! If anyone did it, I did it. Not you. Get that through your head.’
‘Jason, I’m frightened. He was half a world away… and they killed him!’ (p.198)

She’s scared, you see. You can tell by the italics. And the exclamation marks!! — The odd thing about this epidemic of italics is they often read, to me, to be in the wrong place, giving an odd emphasis to the sentences:

‘Why is it so important?’
‘It… just is.’
‘Don’t you know?’
‘Yes… No, I’m not sure. Don’t ask me now.’
‘If not now, when? When can I ask you? When will it pass? Or will it ever?!’
‘Stop it!’ he suddenly roared, slamming the glass down on the wooden tray. ‘I can’t run! I won’t! I’ve got to stay here! I’ve got to know!’ (p.209)

Characters like robots

Harder to demonstrate with quotes because it only emerges over lengthy sections, is the way the dialogue, the supporting text, the access to characters’ thoughts, all make them seem like robots. There is no doubt or hesitation. Bourne – none of the characters – really make mistakes or fluff things. They are relentless calculating machines, working the odds and angles, a predatory ruthless attitude which finds its fulfilment in the regular action-packed shootouts. All the accounts of actual combat I’ve read indicate how confusing and bewildering it is, involving a great deal of chaos and accident. In this text there is certainly wild firing which doesn’t hit its target, but it is always extremely clear who is where, who is good, who is bad, what are the angles. It is a fantasy of violence. A video game world with no real risk.

This mechanical, robotic, computer game element lends itself perfectly to the films which set a new standard for incredibly fast, precise, robot-like fights and shoot-outs, with Jason and his opponents converted into terminator level killing machines. As a man, it is thrilling and totally absorbing to watch these techno-fights; your body tenses and flexes as you watch, feeling yourself one of the participants.

But the ‘novel’, as developed by Defoe and Richardson and Austen as a device for the minute calibration of characters’ thoughts and feelings, for the subtle exploration of human consciousness, delicacy of feeling and sentiment, doesn’t feel the right medium for this story. To put it another way, this shallow, overblown, confusing and patronising text doesn’t feel like it belongs to the same tradition or same world at all.

The franchise

Like McDonalds or Krispey Kreme, the Bourne brand has become a franchise. The original three novels by Ludlum – known as the Bourne trilogy – have been joined by nine further Bourne books (with one in the pipeline), written by noted thriller author Eric Van Lustbader. As and when Lustbader desists there’s no reason the franchise couldn’t be taken up by another author(s) and continue forever.

It is tempting to say that Bourne franchise is as globally successful – and as tasteful and as good for you – as McDonalds and Krispy Kreme, and for the same kind of reasons: it delivers a concentrated burst of flavours/sensations/predator memes ruthlessly targeted at the most obvious taste buds/brain receptors which prompt instant and overwhelming nervous system/lower brain gratification but which, if consumed without any variety of over any length of time begin to make you really very ill, and which, even at the moment of consumption, makes you aware that what your body really wants is healthy, nutritious, more subtle, more soulful sustenance.

The movie

The three Ludlum-written Bourne novels were made into box office smash movies – The Bourne Identity (2002), The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007). Their success is down to the fact that they ditched a lot of the plot and paraphernalia of the novels, replacing Bourne’s rivalry with fellow international assassin Carlos, with a completely different emphasis on the idea that he is a CIA-trained superassassin and his worst enemy is actually his own people who are trying to track him down and kill him before he blows their (illegal) assassin-training operation.

The movies are so brilliant because the scripts so comprehensively dump much of the novel, keeping only the central idea of the super-assassin who’s lost his memory, because they are extremely well directed (Doug Liman the first one, Paul Greengrass for the second two), and because Matt Damon inhabits the role with total, blinding conviction. But also because the concept and sequences themselves belong in the flashy, fast-moving medium of film, not in the slower, more thoughtful world of prose.

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