Archive for the ‘Hammond Innes’ Category

The Land God Gave to Cain by Hammond Innes ~ 1958. This edition: Collins, 1958. Hardcover. 255 pages.

Oh, golly.

This earnest adventure novel, which I’d been looking forward to reading with some anticipation – raw and gritty Canadian setting, meticulously researched in person by the far-travelling Innes – turned out to be something of a dud, a rather “dull thud”, as my mother used to say when finishing off a disappointing novel.

Harsh, aren’t I?

Kind of like that brutal Labradorian setting, which is quite possibly the best thing about this logically unlikely effort by the otherwise careful Innes.

Herein we have a young Scottish engineer, Ian Ferguson, a charmingly fresh and enthusiastic twenty-something-year-old, son of an over-anxious mother and a crippled and brain-damaged army veteran, who stumbles upon a family secret while attempting to vindicate his father’s dying claim of having intercepted a crucial radio transmission on a shortwave radio, an improbable 2000 miles away from its alleged source in the wilds of northern Canada.

For much more detail and an ambitious analysis of the plot I will pass you over to the Books & Boots post of fellow blogger Simon, who has delved into the finer points of Hammond Innes’ many macho adventure tales, with intriguing conclusions.

I must say I am in total agreement with all that Simon says there, in particular his accurate assessment of Innes’ “formula”:

Innes’ novels are very strong on setting and atmosphere, but I’ve come to realise a central characteristic is that the reader spots what’s going on, or sees the danger signals, way before the central protagonist. There are two aspects of this: the protagonist is slow to the point of being dim; and a key figure who knows the secret of the riddle at the centre of the plot just obstinately refuses to reveal it, unnecessarily prolonging the agony (and the text).

Bingo. He’s got it.

Well researched though it may be, The Land God Gave to Cain is riddled with glaring inconsistencies of logic, not least in that Innes fails to take into consideration (or deliberately ignores) the real results of bodies left lying about in the Canadian wilderness.

For example, a perfectly preserved two-week-old (or thereabouts) corpse is found lying out in the open, sightless eyes staring at the sky (or something to that effect.) Well, sorry to be gruesome, but it begs the question: are there no crows/ravens/bears/other scavengers in the wilds of Labrador? It beggars this country dweller’s belief that a dead thing of any species would lie utterly undisturbed for any length of time, though Innes’ version is convenient of course to his narrative, and less harrowing to the squeamish reader.

The Land God Gave to Cain is very readable, as are all of Hammond Innes’ books, but it was also deeply frustrating in its eventual disintegration of already sketchy plot into pure melodrama, with a perfectly preserved scene of (possible) crime, and impossibly perfect clues such as handfuls of gold nuggets strewn about in telling locations, all ready for our amateur sleuth to find in his ultimate “aha!” moment.

Now for the rating. From what I’ve said above you’re doubtless expecting a dismal grade here, but I’m going to step back and be charitable, for I knew (to some degree) what I was getting into when I started this book, having a long experience with Hammond Innes and a fondness for his work possibly due more to nostalgia (his books were well represented in my teenage reading years) than to stellar literary merit.

Let’s see now…how about a generous 6.5/10, because I read it end to end without pause (if you don’t count my many muttered “Oh, really, Hammond!” asides), and the fact that despite my persistent annoyance with this writer his novel still very much a keeper, joining his many others on the re-read shelf.





Read Full Post »

solomons seal hammnd innes 1980Solomons Seal by Hammond Innes ~ 1980. This edition: The Book Club, 1981. Hardcover. 320 pages.

My rating: 5.5/10

At one point in my reading life (late teens) I read a fair bit of Hammond Innes, mostly because I had read everything else handy and he was still “there”. I must say that I found his dramatic, testosterone-infused stories acceptable enough, though ultimately easy to re-shelve. This renewal of my acquaintance with Innes reminds me of just how readable-but-not-great he can be.

Please forgive that “astounding breasts” reference in the post header. Coupled with my last post featuring an almost-nude woman on a book cover, you might think I’m reading some pretty risqué stuff these days, but as with Dodie Smith’s allusive-but-not-explicit sex scenes, Hammond Innes avoids most of the details. He does, however, go on at some length about his female character’s physical attributes. Those breasts are mentioned numerous times; the hero describes them as astounding both before and after he has had some hands-on investigation. As a female reader I must say I found this rather off-putting. Hey, dude, what colour are her eyes?

This is merely a digression, though, a side note of personal annoyance regarding what is actually quite an initially promising story of mystery, suspense, and manly derring-do.

Trying to sort out the many plot strands to present them in logical order – more difficult than you’d think, as Innes has obviously decided that more is better in this case – and I am going to refer you to the Kirkus Review of 1980. Whoever penned this summation has neatly separated out the main points. I left the Big Plot Spoiler in, such as it was. See if you can make sense of this:

An improvement over Innes’ recent, dullish adventures – with stamps and sorcery (instead of, as usual, wildlife and armaments) helping to give a lift to at least the first half of the proceedings. Ex-naval officer Roy Slingsby, a temperamental property appraiser for a law firm is sent out to size up the auctionable holdings of the Holland family – and native-looking beauty Perenna Holland (whose twin brother Timothy is supposedly dying of sorcery) shows him the family treasures: carvings and stamps from Papua New Guinea. But before Slingsby can decide how much the stamps are really worth, Perenna disappears…and Slingsby himself quits his job, accepting an offer to relocate to Australia and settle a huge estate down there. Once Down Under, however, the Slingsby/Holland paths will merge again: in Sydney Slingsby meets Jona, a part-native Holland relation who captains an LCT (WW II landing-craft transport), and goes on a cruise with him to Bougainville in the Solomons, working as a navigator for his fare. Re-enter Perenna, of course, who is soon Slingsby’s shipboard bedmate – and the lovers then discover that Jona is delivering a cache of arms to rebels in Bougainville (where the Holland family has a long history). They all become involved in this insurrection (which fails) – and, while in the ancestral area, they uncover family secrets. Above all: grandfather Holland fathered Perenna on his own daughter-in-law – which is partly responsible for the family curse…The stamp stuff is fine, the rest is familiar and foolish but reasonably atmospheric – and none of it is as soporific as The Big Footprints or other Innes super-duds…

Do I detect more than a whiff of damning with faint praise in those first and last lines? If so, I must agree. This was a bit of a dog’s breakfast, and I notice that the Kirkus reviewer left out the cargo cult stuff, which Innes tosses in to justify the mindless actions of his “indigene” characters – the “fuzzy haired” (which epithet occurs as often as the breast reference, and is as equally irritating – did the man not have access to a thesaurus?) natives of Australia, Papaua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands who, in a mostly amorphous mob, get to play the crowd scenes during the bizarre and hardly believable “political insurrection” bits.

Here’s another excerpt from a contemporary review, this one more openly annoyed.

Anatole Broyard, writing in the December 12, 1980 issue of The New York Times, has this to say:

Everyone, even V.S. Pritchett, praises Hammond Innes. But I wonder what they will say about Solomons Seal. It did not work for me, but then perhaps I have the wrong attitude in reading suspense novels. Since they are supposed to be entertainments, I refuse to work very hard in reading them. I tend instead to sit back and wait for the book to come to me, to manipulate me as a skillful masseur might… Mr. Innes’s ambitions, apparently, are of a higher order. Solomons Seal is a heavy stew of voodoo death, cargo cult, family curses, philately and South Pacific politics – plus a dash of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and a soupçon of The Ancient Mariner… Much of the action occurs off stage, and we are given huge chunks of plot in summary. I think it was novels like Solomons Seal that inspired Edmund Wilson’s famous attack on the detective story, in which he said that reading them was like looking for a rusty nail in a crate of straw…

Well, this isn’t much of a review so far, dear readers, being mostly a presentation of other people’s words with me fervently nodding in agreement off in the wings.

I liked the set-up, and greatly enjoyed the details of the stamp collecting sub-world, as well as the introspective passages during the at-sea times, as multi-talented Slingsby contemplates the ocean during his solitary time on the bridge of the sturdy but wallowing Landing Craft Transport he finds himself piloting. There was also a short but good description of open pit copper mining which I greatly appreciated for its verisimilitude, for my husband works in just such a mine here in the interior of B.C. and Innes has obviously paid close attention during his research visit to a similar late 1970s mine site. He even references the many Canadians working in the mine, which I appreciated as evidence of the author’s keen eye for scene-setting detail. (Innes famously travelled for six months of every year, examining story settings and taking notes, then spent the next six months writing up his latest adventure tale. He also had a soft spot for Canada, and was warmly appreciative of the Canadians he met on his research journeys here, as portrayed in his autobiography, Harvest of Journeys, which I think I must really re-read some time soon, since he’s back on my radar.)

Where Innes lost me (setting aside the trying-to-be-sexy bits and the pervasive offhand racism) was in his failure to bring all of the story strands together in an interesting and understandable way. There is a Great Big Secret, which men are prepared to kill (and to die) for – this turns out to be some sort of muddly your-father-betrayed-my-father-therefore-I-don’t-like-you-very-much-and-oh-yeah-if-I-can-I’ll-do-you-down melodrama. The lone female character turns out to have a slightly complicated ancestry (see the Kirkus excerpt), but I was never quite clear on why that really mattered. There is a convenient maybe-suicide of the conflicted primary bad guy, who is really a mix of admirable initiative and evil genius – our hero admires him as much as fears and hates him. The two “native sorcerers” at the heart of the mostly-off-stage insurrection have a weird mental showdown; one mysteriously wins and the other “wills himself to die.” The few stray bodies (all of expendable bit players) are apparently easily disposed of with no apparent qualms or consequences – “These country bumpkin black fellas are continually bumping each other off, no need to interfere” seems to be the attitude of both the local and post-colonial management level and police types. The cargo cult and voodoo elements are continually mentioned but never really detailed, almost as if Innes expects his readers to be completely au fait with this sort of arcane knowledge and able to figure out these references by themselves.

As a plus point, the book title is a neat triple entendre, as the stamps which start the story-ball rolling are actually shipping company business seals versus true postage stamps, and they are embellished with an actual seal-on-an-ice-floe picture cribbed from a Newfoundland postage stamp design, and much of the action concerns the Solomon Islands.

This wasn’t a painful read, but it wasn’t great, either. It was, in fact, resoundingly okay-ish.

I’m eyeing the other Hammond Innes books tucked away on the “B-List” cabin bookshelves with mild surmise; we are about to head out on a longish road/camping trip and much not-too-hard-going reading matter will be required. Solomons Seal was needlessly convoluted, but some of Innes’ earlier works were much more linear in construction, if memory serves. Perhaps I should take along The Wreck of the Mary Deare (ghost ship!), or The Doomed Oasis (Arab chieftans and oil!), or The Land God Gave to Cain (murder and meanderings in desolate Labrador!) Or maybe the autobiographical Harvest of Journeys, which I remember from a long-ago read as being a very good memoir, with the bonus element of being eligible for inclusion on my Canadian book list, as it is much concerned with Innes’ travels in Canada.

Keep an eye on this space, and in the meantime, consider that you’ve been given the heads-up on how well (or not well) Hammond Innes travels through time from his heyday as a bestselling “blue collar” action-suspense writer.

Read Full Post »