I wanted to like this book. Firstly, because Hammond Innes wrote over thirty novels, so if I liked it I’d have a rich new source of reading material. Secondly, because the story seemed to promise so much. It’s an adventure/thriller set in Norway a couple of years after the Second World War ended, and the legacy of war makes for an intriguing backdrop. This manifests itself in physical ways: part of the plot hinges on the actions of fisherman who are diving for sunken aircraft off the coast, and one character greets the protagonist and his party wearing jackboots that the German occupiers had left behind. It is also evident in the mindset of the Norwegian characters: in the aftermath of occupation, they all claim to have been part of the resistance, and accuse each other of having been collaborators. Motivations during wartime were murky, and the confusion and resentment continued after the war ended.
Englishman Bill Gansert is sent into this uneasy postwar situation by his employer to search for new deposits of the rare mineral thorite. The only clue they have as to its whereabouts is a cryptic note wrapped around a thorite sample that was smuggled into England in a consignment of whalemeat shipped from Norway. The signature on the note belongs to Gansert’s former colleague, a brilliant prospector of dubious morals who had been convicted of swindling his business partner, and had died under suspicious circumstances shortly after sending the information. But Gansert is not the only person on the trail; new mineral deposits make the fortunes of those who discover them, and he has rivals who will stop at nothing to be the first to find this one. The adventures that follow include attempted murders, the exhumation of a corpse in a remote graveyard by moonlight, and an exhausting chase on skis across the icy mountains.
The blue ice is at its best when Innes describes unusual places, such as when Gansert first encounters a whaling station:
I ordered half speed and we drifted quietly into the quay. The water became oily and streaked with a black, viscous excretion. Pieces of grey, half-decayed flesh slid by. The smell of the place closed in on us like a blanket. A Norwegian tock-a-tock moored to the quay was loading cases of whale meat. Beyond was the slipway leading to the flensing deck. The place was littered with the remains of the last whale. Long, straight-bladed steam saws were tearing through the giant backbone, slicing it into convenient sections. A little group of men stood at the end of the quay, watching us.
Another thing I liked was the generous sprinkling of Norwegian words and phrases. Norwegian, like English, is a West Germanic language, so it’s possible to get the gist of what the Norwegian characters are saying. It’s also a wonderfully expressive language, as shown in this exchange:
“Han unnslapp og hoppet overbord.”
“De fordomte udugelig idiot!”
[“He escaped and jumped overboard.” “You damn inept idiot!]
And yet, in spite of all this promise, I didn’t enjoy this book that much. There were several reasons for this. One was that the first third of the book was stuffed full of sailing terminology. Now, I like a bit of mainsail or starboard as much as the next person if it provides a faint nautical flavouring, some background music to the main story. But this is too much. It’s whole paragraphs of gybes, booms, port watches and rigging. I had a similar problem with Arthur Ransome, which is why I never finished Swallows and Amazons. Ditto Alistair MacLean, except that involved less rigging and more rivets.
Once they reach Norway the number of sailing terms decreases. But the other major problem remains, which is that the quality of the writing is not very good. I’m not a literary snob – not all novels require outstanding prose to make them enjoyable. I said in my review of The mystery of the the yellow room (see below) that certain genres of mystery novels don’t need it, as they are logical puzzle games. But this is an adventure story, whose strength lies in the emotional effect it creates on the reader. When reading an adventure novel or thriller it’s vital to be nervous, excited, shocked, tense, startled, to share in every sensation the protagonist is experiencing. Most of the time, Innes just doesn’t do that. He has a limited range of words. He tells rather than shows. At one point, he admits that his writing skills are inadequate, resorting to saying weakly that “The gloom of the place was something that only Milton could have described”.
There are other flaws. The male characters are pretty much interchangeable. (Although one is rather distinctively named Dick Everard). The sole female character is only there to provide an unconvincing romantic subplot that I couldn’t bring myself to care about. The protagonist and the villain both have the same motivation in chasing after the thorite – money, basically – and both act immorally during the chase, so why should we be cheering on the protagonist as the ‘hero’? These problems all combine to produce a book that at times is just plain boring.
A film based on this book – taking the evocative setting and the exciting elements of the plot and negating the need for good prose – could improve on it immensely. In fact, several of Innes’ novels have been adapted for cinema. I’m not going to bother reading any more Hammond Innes novels. But I can see myself settling down on the sofa on a lazy Sunday afternoon to watch one of those films.