Wreckers Must Breathe by Hammond Innes

There was a time, and not so many years ago, when the shelves of bookshops and the racks in newsagents positively heaved with titles by thriller-writer Hammond Innes. You tend not to see them around so much these days, though the lovely Pan paperback editions are a staple of many a second-hand book-dealer. Most writers go through an eclipse in the first few decades after their deaths. Some are lost for ever. Others get rediscovered by new generations of readers.

When I was younger, (Ralph) Hammond Innes’s name was a byword for good story-telling, every title a best-seller. I’ve started to read him again, and with great pleasure. His fast-moving thrillers deserve a new readership. I shall look at several of his books over the coming months.

Wreckers Must Breathe is one of his early titles, written during the first year of World War Two and published in 1940. Like his hero, Walter Craig, Innes was in Cornwall during the first weeks of the war. He watched the British Naval Fleet go to action stations in the English Channel. He heard stories of U-boat sightings. Hammond Innes put all of this atmosphere and more into his novel.

The premise is dazzlingly simple: In the years before the war the Nazis have been secretly building a hidden submarine base in an abandoned tin mine under the Cornish Coast. His hero and a fisherman friend are captured and held prisoner in the base. A woman journalist, Maureen Weston, sent to discover what has happened to the missing Craig, suffers the same fate.

It’s all here; storms at sea, the wild Cornish coast – and Innes is as good as Winston Graham at evoking Cornish villages and atmosphere – desperate fights underground, the claustrophobic tunnels and galleries of tin mines, the terror of being depth-charged in a U-boat.

Where Hammond Innes differs from his contemporaries, say Alastair MacLean, is that his heroes tend not to be heroes in the traditional sense. They are not supermen or trained killers, but ordinary men and women drawn by pure fluke into a world of adventure. This makes it very easy for the reader to identify with them. Walter Craig might work on a newspaper, but he’s not some ace reporter – he’s a drama critic. Maureen Weston, a feisty heroine, might have worked in journalism, but is trying to write a novel when she’s caught up in this adventure

The first-person action – related by Walter Craig and Maureen Weston – never stops. The menace is always there. If you want to know how to write a thriller then it’s worthwhile studying Innes’s technique. He had a talent of pitching you right into the scene alongside his characters.

Hammond Innes’ settings are always wonderful. As a keen sailor himself, Hammond Innes knew a great deal about the sea and ships. His portrayal of Cornwall is spot-on as well, reminding me of the places I knew there as a boy, when we walked the cliffs, strolled through its fishing villages and went out in boats. Sadly, it’s changed a bit since then.

And I think it’s interesting that this is an early thriller with a World War Two setting, written at a time when it looked improbable that Britain could survive.

Such reading as this, where right triumphs over might, must have been a real comfort to its first readers; the civilian army of Britain, facing the dangers of combat for the first time; the volunteers of the Home Guard, armed sometimes only with broomsticks as a weapon; the civilians huddled in their air-raid shelters and the schoolchildren who would have found this story very exciting as they were evacuated to the countryside.

Wreckers Must Breathe is a cracking read by a true master of the art of the thriller. Hammond Innes is a writer who deserves a new audience.

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