Friday, 18 January 2013

BOOK REVIEW

The Trojan Horse by Hammond Innes (1940)

This week Evan Lewis at Davy Crockett's Almanack of Mystery, Adventure and the Wild West is doing the Friday’s Forgotten Books honours usually handled by Patti Abbott at Pattinase or Todd Mason at Sweet Freedom.

“Deed-boxes make good coffins.”

A replica of my book.
There are two kinds of WWII stories: those about the actual war between the Allies and Germany and those revolving around it. The Trojan Horse falls in the second category and, while it does so, its outcome—were it to succeed—would have been no less significant than an open conflict on the battlefield.

In his fifth novel, British author Hammond Innes creates a peripheral war that is as frightening as the real thing.

Franz Schmidt is a shabby old Austrian Jew and a brilliant engineer. He discovers a special light alloy and decides to build a prototype of a new diesel engine that will give any air force vast superiority in the air and a sure-fire way to win the war.

When Hitler invades Austria, Schmidt flees to England on a false passport and with the engine design in his head.

In England, Schmidt lives with his dead wife’s family at Swansea, Wales. His brother-in-law Evan Llewellin, an undercover British agent, offers him money and a workshop where he builds his diesel engine. What he does not know is that the Nazis are already hot on his trail. Llewellin is killed and Schmidt is framed for the brutal crime.
 

On the run from Scotland Yard, Schmidt approaches Andrew Kilmartin, a famous criminal lawyer of London, and pleads for help. The 42-year old barrister is initially reluctant to believe Schmidt’s story till he reads about Llewellin’s murder in the papers. He decides to defend Schmidt but the old man vanishes without a trace.

This is where the story begins.

Kilmartin is a combination of a legal eagle and a private eye—his sense of justice evenly matched by his thirst for reckless adventure. With nothing more than a mysterious sealed envelope left with him by Schmidt, the attorney starts investigating the engineer's disappearance and his fantastic claim that the Nazis are after his invention.

Over the next 100-odd pages Kilmartin, with the help of his close friend and studio photographer David Shiel, unearths a sinister conspiracy involving a powerful banker and shadow minister, Baron Ferdinand Marburg, who connives with the Nazi-controlled Calboyds Diesel Company to steal Schmidt’s diesel engine from under the nose of the British government. He also meets Schmidt’s beautiful daughter Freya, also an engineer, and falls in love with her. The novel ends in a high-octane drama on the high seas.
 

British author Hammond Innes
The Trojan Horse is a page-turner in spite of the author’s obsession with the details. In fact, it is the details that make this 190-page thriller gripping.

For instance, in a 19-page chapter titled Lead on, Sewer Rat, Hammond Innes takes you through London’s filthy rat-infested underground sewer system that Kilmartin uses to escape from the vault of Marburg’s bank where he has been imprisoned by Nazi gangster Max Sedel. Just before that, the attorney has spent agonising hours lying in a foetal position in a deed-box that nearly becomes his coffin.

The author’s description of Andrew Kilmartin’s claustrophobic and nauseating experience, with Nazi agents in hot pursuit, is so vivid as to make the reader relive it. The book owes its unsparing details to the author’s proclivity for six months of travel and research and six months of writing.

The conspiratorial and anti-establishment tone of the novel, with its Nazi sympathisers and collaborators in Britain (and in America), is reminiscent of many fictional and non-fictional books that came out during and after World War II. Hammond Innes, an ex-artillery major and a yachtsman, gives the reader an unusual insight into one such anti-national plot which, in real time, could have had serious implications for Britain's war against Germany.
 

“Once I nearly panicked. Only the dial of my wrist-watch saved me. It was a friendly face and gave me courage.” 

Hammond Innes, author of some thirty novels, has a clean and imaginative style of writing. He does not confuse you with too many characters. The main ones have names and faces, the rest are nondescript. The emphasis is on the plot and suspense on every page. It builds up slowly and, like a locomotive, gathers speed and then races towards the climax, one that I did not quite 
anticipate.

16 comments:

  1. Innes could definitely write. He was somewhat slow for modern readers but just perfect for the age he wrote for and still readable.

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    1. Charles, he really could tell a story and you are right that his writing was "perfect for the age he wrote for." I enjoyed his traditional style of writing.

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  2. I read one of Innes' books while on a trip somewhere, but there were so many distractions I was never able to really sink into it. This looks like a great place to give him another try. Thanks, Joe!

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    1. Richard, you are welcome. In this novel at least Innes focuses more on the situation, as it develops, rather than on the characters and places that are secondary to the plot. I hope to read some of his other novels.

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  3. There's nothing like a pursuit through the sewers to enliven a book. Victor Hugo knew it. I find copies of Innes' THE WRECK OF THE MARY DEARE in every bookstore I ever set foot in, but I woudl never read it because when I find a certina title of a book repeatedly in used book stores I tend to think it's bad because everyone dumped the book. Rarely do I find anything else by Innes. I know he was very popular and prolific when he was being published. People must keep his other books because they're better! This is a book I would buy and read if I ever come across it. thanks for an enticing review on a writer I might never otherwise sample.

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    1. John, thanks for the appreciation. Innes definitely livens it up with his graphic description of the sewer network and Andrew Kilmartin's escape through it. You can smell the stench as you read it, so to speak. I haven't seen too many of Innes' books in used bookstores but I intend to track down some of them. I really liked his writing. Besides, I want to find out if his other novels are set in the backdrop of real-life events like WWII.

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  4. This sounds like a book I would like a lot. I will have to look for it. I have heard of the author but don't know much about his books. Thanks so much for pointing this out. And I love the vintage covers.

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    1. You are most welcome, Tracy. Considering your interest in war-related fiction I am sure you will like THE TROJAN HORSE a lot. I read Innes a long time ago though I don't remember which of his books I did. I found this book by chance, one among a hundred-odd paperbacks at the used bookstore I frequent. Innes is a very readable author.

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  5. Been such a long time since I have read him. Always mix him up with Michael Innes. Thanks for the reminder.

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    1. My pleasure, Patti. I haven't read any books by Michael Innes who, I have just found out, was a Scottish novelist and whose real name was J.I.M. Stewart. Another new writer to track down.

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  6. Very nice review of an interesting-sounding novel, Prashant! Hammond Innes has always been on the periphery of my book buying. I've never read any of his works, but this sounds like a good place to start. I like how you mention that the book succeeds because of, and not in spite of, the details Innes includes. Some authors bog their writing down with way too much esoterica, but judiciously chosen details can really make the world depicted in the pages come alive.

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    1. Thank you, Jeff! THE TROJAN HORSE is an interesting novel, indeed, and I found it especially so owing to my interest in WWII fiction. Like Charles mentioned early on, Innes' prose is slow but not slow enough to put off a reader unused to his style of writing. There is little torture but not in an explicit way and yet you can visualise Kilmartin's helpless situation. Innes is also "judicious" with his language, neither too tame nor too melodramatic.

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  7. well reviewed. Like you, I find stories about traitorous villains nicely dark and nightmarish.

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    1. Thank you, Ron! This book has its fair share of villains and though Innes mentions one main traitor among the high-and-mighty of Britain, you know there are many more in disguise, aligned secretly with the Nazis.

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  8. Nice review. I quite like Innes - what I've read of him that is - but most of his stuff has been long out of print. I have maybe four or five of his titles on my shelves and read The Lonely Skier over the Christmas break - a cracking post-war mystery/adventure with a nice claustrophobic feel.
    I noticed on Amazon.uk that a bunch of his titles are being republished in paperback in June of this year, so I'll try to pick up a few of them then.

    Colin

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  9. Thanks very much, Colin. Innes' books have long been out of print and I am glad that they will be republished in June this year. If his other novels are anything like the one I read then I am queuing up to buy some of the titles. I haven't read THE LONELY SKIER but it sounds a lot like THE TROJAN HORSE. WWII was a major influence on British authors of the early to mid-20th century. I guess they had little other distraction at the time.

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