"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Saturday, January 6, 2018

A Cornish thriller: Wreckers Must Breathe by Hammond Innes (1940)

....Hammond Innes, who was to enjoy huge success in the Fifties, had published four novels before the war, but it was his three war stories – Wreckers Must Breathe , The Trojan Horse (both 1940), and Attack Alarm (1941) – which were to lay the foundations of his post-war bestselling career. Three excellent thrillers in less than two years is an impressive enough feat for anyone, let alone someone serving as an anti-aircraft gunner during an actual war. The imaginative and, no doubt at the time, sensational, if not terrifying Wreckers Must Breathe , about a secret U-boat base in the coastal caves and tin mine workings of Cornwall, was supposedly written as a result of a holiday in Cornwall by Innes and his wife in the late summer of 1939. 

-- Mike Ripley, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang: The Boom in British Thrillers from Casino Royale to The Eagle Has Landed (2017).

Slowly going broke

Mike Ripley's 2017 history Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang: The Boom in British Thrillers from Casino Royale to The Eagle Has Landed is a reader's daydream of a book: belles lettres synopses and celebrations of a pivotal quarter century in popular literature. The book is also the royal road to bankruptcy for thriller readers.

(What made the period 1950-1979 so rich in thrillers of surpassing quality? Ripley suggests it was because so many of the writers were journalists who had seen something of the real world. I would add: a world of wars, revolutions, and fermenting liberation movements.)

I decided over Christmas, after finishing KKBB in about 17 hours, to read some of the writers Ripley warmly praised. I was aware of most of them, but had never been motivated before.

My first plunge was The Ninth Directive, followed quickly by Horse Under Water. The momentum was great enough to give me confidence to finally finish Deighton's opus Winter.

Now I'm back to my KKBB list.

A war thriller

This is the author dedication of Wreckers Must Breathe:

To The village of Cadgwith in Cornwall. Where I spent my last holiday before the war and where I hope to spend my first holiday when it is all over.

Wreckers Must Breathe is an outlandish thriller, but that is not necessarily a negative.

It begins calmly enough, with splendid evocations of the Cornish coast. But this is not Doc Martin: there is nothing quaint about the lawlessness on display. It is deadly.

Vacationing London drama critic Walter Craig befriends local charter boat captain and man-mountain Big Logan. Together they determine something more than fishing is happening at night on their slice of coast.

After Craig and Logan disappear, the novel takes a very hard turn. Craig's employer dispatches novelist and former Fleet Street reporter Maureen Weston to find Craig. Her search takes her into the bowels of an abandoned coastal tin mine.

....I don't know why the discovery that the level just ended in a sheer drop should have upset me so much. I think there must always be something very unpleasant about finding a sheer drop underground. Probably it is the immediate and involuntary feeling that if one had no torch and stumbled on it in the dark one would now be lying at the bottom where the water was splashing. I felt rather foolish really, because quite automatically I had clutched at Alf's arm—and as a one-time Fleet Street woman I pride myself on being tougher than most females. I mean, damn it, one knows quite well that mine shafts are put down and levels cut at various depths.

We retraced our steps and went down the winze into the next level. At the bottom we turned left until we came to what Alf described as a cross-cut. We took this and at the end turned right. By this time I was feeling an uncomfortable desire to cling on to his arm. With all these bewildering turns and the memory of that drop into the old shaft, I was terrified of being separated from him. I remembered all sorts of ghoulish stories about the catacombs of Rome, and pictured myself wandering alone in the place till I either died of starvation or killed myself by falling down a shaft in the dark. It was from this point, I think, that I began to get really frightened of the dark. It seemed to press in on us from every side as though endeavouring to muffle our torches. The air was warm and stale and damp, and the echo of our footsteps had an unpleasant habit of coming back at us down the disused galleries long after we had moved.

Quite often now Alf would pause and listen, with his head cocked on one side. I asked him once whether he was listening for ghosts, thinking of the miners who had been trapped. But he didn't smile. His round craggy face was set and taciturn. Every time we paused we could hear that faint roar, as of an underground waterfall, and the echo of footsteps came whispering back at us. It was then I began to feel that we were being followed. I no longer felt sure it was the echo of our own footsteps. Again I remembered the men who had lost their lives in that disaster ten years ago. We were nearing that section of the mine and I began to see in every shadow the ghost of a dead miner. Once I cried out at my own shadow cast against a wall of rock ahead of me. I tell you, I was really frightened.

By this time we had descended another winze and Alf announced in a whisper that we had reached the lowest level in this section of the mine. And a second later down the gallery behind came the whisper—'the lowest level in this section of the mine'—with the sibilants all magnified. It was uncanny. There was a good deal of timber in this section, not all of it sound. Much of it was green and beginning to rot. Once I stumbled on a piece of rock and clutched at a prop to save myself from falling. The outer surface of the wood crumbled in my hand, all wet and sloppy.

Then we came to the bricked up foot of the new shaft. We bore away to the left along a gallery in which the timber was still grey and sound. The gallery sloped downwards and curved away to the right. Sections of rail still lay along the floor and the roar of distant water was much louder. The sound was peculiar and distorted, more like a hum, as though a rushing cataract were pouring through a narrow gorge. Remembering the disaster, I felt that at any moment we might be overwhelmed by a wall of water, though Alf assured me we were still well above sea level. My nerves were completely gone.

At length the gallery flattened out and branched into three. Alf hesitated, and then took the right-hand branch. The sound of water became even louder. The gallery here was very well built. It was about seven feet wide and the same high, and in places it was cemented to keep out the water. Then suddenly we rounded a bend and came face to face with the most ghastly-looking fall. The whole of the roof had simply caved in and the gallery was blocked by great chunks of rock that looked as though they might have been part of Stonehenge. It suddenly made me realize that it is possible to get trapped in even the soundest-seeming galleries.

Alf played his torch over the debris and at length we turned back and retraced our steps to where the main gallery had branched. We took the next branch, and before we had gone more than forty feet we came up against another huge fall. I began to have a feeling that the whole place must be unsafe. All I wanted to do was to get out of it before it caved in on top of us.

Alf spent even longer examining this fall. But at length he led me back and down the next branch. It was the same thing. Thirty feet or so down the gallery we were stopped by a fall. I guessed then that there must be a serious fault in the whole rock formation at this point. I said as much to Alf, but he only grunted and continued to poke about amongst the debris. Then he began to examine the walls.

At last I could stand it no longer. 'I'm getting out of this,' I said.

He nodded. 'All right, miss,' he said. But he made no move. He simply stood there with his head on one side, listening. Involuntarily I began to listen too. I could hear the hum of the water somewhere beyond the falls and occasionally there was the creak of a pit prop.

I suddenly clutched his arm. 'I can't stand this,' I said. 'What are you listening for? What's the matter with the place?' He seemed a little put out by my questions. 'You're uneasy, aren't you?' I went on. 'I've felt it ever since we left the old workings. For God's sake tell me what it is. Have we lost our way, is somebody following us—what? I don't mind so long as you tell me what it is.'

Then he told me. 'Somebody has been in this mine since it was closed down,' he said. He told me not to be alarmed. Then he said, 'Remember that fall we had to scramble through in the old workings?' I nodded. 'That was what first made me uneasy,' he went on. Then he explained that he thought the fall unnatural. 'Do you suppose it would have been done to discourage people from entering the mine?' he asked. Then he pointed out that the watercourse had been diverted. Normally it would have run through these workings and out beyond into the cave. And what about these falls, he asked. He took my hand and showed me clean-cut flakes on the walls and marks as though the rock had been blackened. 'These falls are not natural,' he said. He spoke fast and excited in his musical Welsh voice. 'The rock has been blasted. Those marks are the marks of dynamite. Someone has blocked off the new workings.' He swung round on me. 'Why is that?' he asked. 'Indeed, and can you tell me why you wanted to come down this mine?'

I explained that I had reason to be suspicious of the last owner. He looked at me with his head on one side. 'Mr Wilson was not a good man,' he said. 'But I did not think him dishonest.'

He took my arm and led me back up the gallery. 'Tomorrow we will come down with two friends of mine. I believe we may be able to find a way through this fall.'

And that is how things stand at the moment. We got out of the mine shortly after one. I felt pretty near exhausted and very dirty. Since then I have had a wash, a meal and a rest. I don't know what to think. I had a hunch that the mine would be worth looking at. Now I've been down it and am informed that someone has tampered with it since it was closed—in fact, that someone has deliberately produced four falls of rock. But we were able to get through the first fall—the one in the old workings. Was that design or inefficiency? Was I mistaken when I had that unpleasant feeling that we were being followed? And the three big falls—what was on the other side? What is that faint roar of water? Alf says it doesn't sound like water. Is somebody drilling? The whole thing is so fantastic. Do you remember Conan Doyle's Tales of Horror and Mystery? Well, I feel as though I'm writing the diary in one of his tales of horror that will be found after I am dead and from which others will draw the wildest conjectures. Suppose there is an underground race and they are coming to the surface to conquer us? Stupid! But when you are deep in the bowels of the earth anything seems possible. Quite frankly I'm not looking forward to tomorrow....

Wreckers Must Breathe may be a proto-spyfy novel. What our heroes discover under the Cornish coast is certainly worthy of set design by Ken Adam.

6 January 2018

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