Saturday, May 7, 2016

The Blue Ice by Hammond Innes

Hammond Innes (1913-1998) was one of the big guns in the British thriller scene in the postwar years. His first novel appeared as early as 1937 and by 1948 when The Blue Ice was published he was already a very well established writer.

Innes differed slightly from other popular British thriller writers of his era (writers like Ian Fleming, Alistair MacLean, Gavin Lyall and Desmond Bagley) in that his books were adventure fiction rather than dealing with espionage or organised crime or similar subjects. 

The hero of The Blue Ice is also not in any sense a professional. He is not a secret agent or an undercover cop. He is a mining engineer. The heroes of the earlier generation of British thriller authors who flourished during the 1920s and 1930s were also usually not professionals but they were enthusiastic amateurs who actively sought out adventure. Innes’s hero is not of this type. After retiring young (he’s thirty-six) following a meteoric business career all Bill Gansert wants to do is to sail his yacht to the Mediterranean, soak up some sunshine, lie on some beaches and sample the local wines. He has no desire whatsoever for adventure.

Gansert’s plans change when his old boss asks him to go to Norway instead of the Mediterranean. Another minerals expert, George Farnell, has just been found dead there. Gansert knew Farnell quite well and he’d like to find out what happened - the story doesn’t quite add up. Before his death Farnell had sent a mineral sample (of a very valuable mineral indeed) to Britain, hidden inside a chunk of whale meat. 

Gansert is certainly intrigued by the puzzling circumstances of Farnell’s death but the main reason he agrees to go to Norway is the thought that Farnell really had made a very major and very valuable find. It’s not that Gansert is motivated by money - he’s simply obsessed with minerals and loves the challenge of developing a new mine. He’s like a butterfly collector on the trail of an exceptionally rare specimen - he just can’t help himself.

Gansert will have some uneasy company on the trip. Firstly there’s Jill, who knew Farnell very well (although just how well Gansert isn’t sure). Secondly there’s a shady Norwegian businessman who happens to represent a competitor, or possibly a future partner, to Gansert’s old company. And thirdly there’s the crippled Dahler, a Norwegian exiled from his country for collaborating with the Nazis.

The most interesting character in the tale is Farnell. Even though he’s dead when the book begins his shadowy presence in the background dominates the story. Farnell had been obsessed by mineralogy to an extreme degree, he had been convicted of fraud and during the war had worked (in slightly mysterious circumstances) with the Norwegian Resistance. The war is yet another shadow looming over the story. It seems like everyone involved claims to have fought for the Resistance but all have also been suspected of collaborating with the Nazis. There’s an atmosphere of suspicion, deception and betrayal and when you add the lure of greed the combination is obviously going to be explosive.

Innes made something of a specialty of maritime adventure tales and a large part of this novel takes pace at sea, or by the sea, or even under the sea. Later the action moves to the snow-covered wastes of a glacier with an epic ski chase. The British thriller writers of the postwar period seemed to be strangely drawn by settings involving ice and snow. Alistair MacLean was of course famous for his superb use of such settings in novels like Night Without End but Desmond Bagley (in Running Blind) and Gavin Lyall (in The Most Dangerous Game) also used such settings with considerable skill. Innes certainly makes the most out of the Norwegian locales. 

Innes was noted for spending a great deal of time researching his novels and the effort obviously pays off in this case. Modern readers might not be too thrilled by the detailed descriptions of a whaling station but it does add atmosphere.

This is not what one would call an action-packed story. There’s not much action at all until quite late in the story. Mostly Innes relies on slowly building up the tension, and he does this very successfully. When the action does pick up it does so quite effectively.

The Blue Ice is more a psychological thriller than an action thriller but the author carries it off with both flair and subtlety. Highly recommended.


  1. I enjoyed this post. I am just now reading Alistair MacLean for the first time (Guns of Navarone) and enjoying it very much. Not the type of book I usually read, but sounds like I should try this one and Desmond Bagley also.

    1. I am just now reading Alistair MacLean for the first time (Guns of Navarone) and enjoying it very much.

      It's always fun exploring a new genre or sub-genre. I devoured his books as a young 'un but hadn't read him since. I was pleasantly surprised to find that he was actually even better than I'd remembered.

      MacLean was at his peak from around 1959 up to 1971 - anything he wrote during that period is worth reading. Bear Island from 1971 is usually regarded as the last of his great thrillers.

      Surprisingly enough most of the film adaptations of his books are pretty good and a few are superb.

  2. Nice to see you reviewing an Innes book. I haven't read this one, but it does definitely sound worth reading. I'm generally more fond of adventure thrillers than psychological ones, but from your description I do think I'd like this.

    Will have to try to pick up a book by Gavin Lyall as well, I guess. Do you have any particular recommendations? The closer they are to the MacLean/Bagley fare, the greater the chances I'll like them... :)

    1. Gavin Lyall is a new discovery for me. I've only read The Most Dangerous Game but that one is very much in the MacLean mould.