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

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

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

The periodic table explained

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Periodic Table. Karl Tate ©

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The metaphor of the Periodic Kingdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life is a controlled unwinding of energy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I felt the tone sometimes bordered on the patronising.

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

Hard core chemistry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He had also explained the concept of electron affinity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Golden Soak by Hammond Innes (1973)

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

Hammond Innes has three great strengths:

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

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

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

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

Golden Soak part 1

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Minor characters

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

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

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

Mystery and stasis

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

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

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

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

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

Falls tries to talk to Ed Garratty:

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

Falls tries to get answers out of Janet Garrety:

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

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

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

Falls tries to get answers from the barkeeper Prophecy:

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

Falls tries to get answers from the aborigine, Wolli:

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

Falls tries to get answers from Phil Westrop:

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

Falls meets Chris Culpin in Kalgoorlie

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

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

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

Golden Soak part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Fathers and sons

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

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

A tale of two women

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

Related links

Fontanta paperback cover of Golden Soak

Fontanta paperback cover of Golden Soak

Hammond Innes’ novels

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

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

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