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Obituary: Hammond Innes

LIKE JOHNNY Appleseed, the legendary American frontiersman, Hammond Innes had a kindly obsession for planting trees - acres of trees, forests of trees; in places as far apart as Suffolk, Wales, Canada and Australia - perhaps as some kind of atonement for all the quantities of timber cut down and processed into the hundreds of thousands of copies of his best- selling adventure novels.

And perhaps not, for Innes was "green" decades before the notion was at all sexy, although he did not view, or write about, the environment sentimentally. During the 1950s, sickened by the long-drawn-out death agonies of whales not quite killed by defective grenade-harpoons, he championed the idea of electrical harpoons to ensure instantaneous death: both British and Norwegian money was poured into the project but in the end the technical problems proved insurmountable.

This was characteristic of Innes; he was ever a practical man - at the time whale-hunting was an economic necessity - yet with a strong humane streak in his make-up. He was also, as he once admitted, intoxicated by the sheer thrill of the chase, the careering dash through mountainous waves and the pitting of the whalers' wits against a leviathan that might weigh as much as 90 or 100 tons, and still drag the dead weight of a small whaler through the water, venting blood in scarlet plumes as it died.

Innes himself had experienced in full the "thrill of the chase", as well as its attendant dangers. In 1947, researching for his The Blue Ice (1948), he lived with Norwegian whalers on the islands off Bergen, on occasion hunting with them, often in the dirtiest weather, with a full gale blowing and ploughing through what the whalers themselves referred to shruggingly as "choppy seas" (in reality, waves as high as the mast-tip). His gruelling experiences, as well as a stint on the flensing decks of the factory-ships where he helped cut the meat out of the dead giants, were later put to even better use in his epic novel of survival in the vast Antarctic icefields, The White South (1949; a Book Society Choice and filmed in 1954 as Hell Below Zero, with Alan Ladd and Stanley Baker), the book that was instrumental in lifting him out of the general ruck of thriller writers, establishing him as a writer that serious critics (such as Elizabeth Bowen and J.W. Lambert) took seriously.

Ralph Hammond Innes was born in Horsham, Sussex, in 1913 and educated at Cranbrook School, Kent. Leaving at the age of 18 he oddjobbed during the early Depression years, successively in publishing, teaching and finally journalism, in 1934 joining the staff of the old Financial News under Brendan Bracken. In 1936, poorly paid and needing money to get married, he banged out a supernatural thriller and sent it to an agent in Fleet Street. The agent, who normally only handled articles and short stories for syndication, managed to sell the manuscript to Herbert Jenkins, a publisher whose chief asset was P.G. Wodehouse but who also issued light romances, cheap thrillers and westerns for the less exalted circulating libraries.

To his horror, Innes discovered he had been tied down to a four-book contract, with the distinctly ungenerous advance of only pounds 30 per book (at the time pounds 45-plus was the norm for a non-"literary" novel) and a two- year deadline, which turned what had started out as a quick way of raising the wind into fearsome drudgery. Even so the four thrillers he produced - The Doppelganger and Air Disaster (both 1937), Sabotage Broadcast (1938) and All Roads Lead To Friday (1939) - are certainly no worse than most actioners churned out by those publishers (such as Jenkins, Stanley Paul, Melrose, Skeffington or Hurst & Blackett) who specialised in providing high-octane thrills dashed off in low-octane prose.

Indeed, in some ways they are rather more interesting, Innes (then an ardent socialist) managing to infiltrate into his plots a mildly subversive anti-establishment undercurrent unusual in genre fiction of the period, when the status quo was rarely questioned. In later years, however, he disowned them - not because of his political stance (his politics were always leftish), and "not because", as he later explained to the writer Peter Tremayne, "they are particularly bad, but because mixed in with the main body of my work they would look a bit ham-fisted". None of them ever earned much more than their initial advances, although, as Innes pointed out, "I couldn't really complain, because writing those four books I more or less taught myself how to do it".

That this was true was proved when, with some relief, he changed his publisher in 1939, moving to Collins, and proceeded to write three more thrillers which were markedly superior to the Jenkins books - although a better contract and a healthier advance cannot have hindered the creative process.

Innes was a compulsive writer. His third book for Collins, Attack Alarm (1941), was written on a gun-site after he had joined the Royal Artillery; the manuscript of his fourth, Dead and Alive (1946), emerged with him when he was demobbed (rank, Major), just after completing an arduous skiing course in the Italian Dolomites ("Stiffer than any army course I was ever on, including battle training") which he later utilised as background for his sixth, The Lonely Skier (1947), a superbly constructed and atmospheric thriller which first alerted both critics and public that here was a writer to watch.

He was also a compulsive traveller - a true been-and-seen-and-done writer, never at ease unless he had experienced for himself his backgrounds, honing his prose on the whetstone of reality. For Maddon's Rock (1948) he crewed on a friend's yacht in the Fastnet Race; he hitched a lift with the RAF into blockaded Berlin at the height of the airlift for Air Bridge (1951); and around the same time he was in San Sebastiano when Vesuvius erupted and lava rolled over the village: the result was The Angry Mountain (1950).

In the early 1950s he began a long and profitable association with the prestigious American travel magazine Holiday, whose editors virtually bankrolled his world-wide odysseys - although after 1956 the question of finance hardly arose. In that year he published The Mary Deare, which at a stroke launched him into that rarefied empyrean most writers yearn for though few attain, supersellerdom. This apparently simply tale of conspiracy and fraud on the high seas is transformed into an epic drama through Innes's consummate handling of the forces of nature. His talent for vivifying landscapes (the bleaker, the more hostile the better), natural phenomena, the weather (usually at its most implacable) had been readily apparent in the books he had published since the end of the Second World War, but in The Mary Deare his art reached a peak of virtuosity. His narrative skills, his unerring sense of pace, his vivid and enthralling descriptions of overwhelming natural forces all combine into a magnificent story of high adventure and suspense.

The hugely successful 1959 film of the book, The Wreck of the "Mary Deare", starring Gary Cooper at his craggiest, was a bonus which enabled Innes to buy his own 42ft ocean racer, not unnaturally named Mary Deare, in which, invariably accompanied by his ex-actress wife (soul mate would not be too cloying a term), Dorothy, he sailed around the coasts of Europe and Asia Minor in search of stories for over 15 years, each year made up of six months travelling, six months writing. Most of these travels were later spellbindingly logged up in Harvest of Journeys (1960) and Sea and Islands (1967).

Innes's intense love of the ocean naturally provoked a keen awareness of the environment, and the perils, mainly of human origin, facing it. His novels became increasingly propagandist, at times verging on the expository, though his narrational drive was never buried beneath a mass of accusatory statistics, sheer anger at man's folly and greed in any case bringing them alive.

When, in his late sixties, he gave up sailing, tree-planting took over as the passion of his life, particularly the planting of Sitka spruce, a fast-growing softwood - High Stand (1985) was his "tree" novel, just as The Big Footprints (1977) had been his "elephant" novel and The Black Tide (1982) his "oil" novel. Planting trees tended to keep at bay an ever- threatening pessimism about the future of the planet, and the future of man. He felt a need to return to, not precisely the simple life but a life more in tune with the natural forces he could describe so well. "As we have become more technological," he once said, "we have lost a lot. There were things those early people understood that we don't."

During his life he was constantly hailed as "a storyteller of the old school", which usually denotes a lumpen style, marked authoritarian attitudes and the sensitivity of a concrete block. Such was never the case with Hammond Innes, a man who wrote absorbing and exciting books and expressed in them, and in his own way of living, a genuinely life-enhancing philosophy. In his own field he was, as his fellow adventure writer Duncan Kyle admiringly remarked, the nonpareil.

Ralph Hammond Innes, writer: born Horsham, Sussex 15 July 1913; CBE 1978; married 1937 Dorothy Lang (died 1989); died Kersey, Suffolk 10 June 1998.