Hammond Innes: Dead and Alive
Fontana 1990 (1946)
With a title doubtless designed to recall those wanted posters from the wild west of America, Innes’ novel is about an equally lawless region, Italy in the immediate aftermath of the second world war. And yet it opens, not in the dry, fly-ridden south of that Mediterranean peninsula but on the cold, wet North Cornish coast.
Intriguingly, the star turn opening the show is a wreck. Specifically a landing craft, an LCT Mark 4, stranded on Boscastle beach not far from King Arthur’s Castle at Tintagel. And it will lead to a quest in which narrator David Cunningham will play the chivalrous knight seeking a damsel in distress.
But not before he, his business partner and his crew of two have black marketeers, gun runners, resurgent fascists, gangsters, a forger and a rapist to cope with, and a ruined infrastructure to negotiate.
Dead and Alive is an old-fashioned adventure novel, a mix of traditional virtues and of stark realism that typified stiff upper lip thrillers of a certain period: the hero would like to be morally unambiguous but has to make compromises, turning a blind eye to some activities that he finds repugnant but is powerless to affect. There is an insular righteous streak to Cunningham’s narrative when he describes an Italy that the Allies sought to liberate but which is still ruled by sharks and shysters.
Innes was in a good position to reflect the postwar picture on the peninsula: he rose to the rank of Major with the Royal Artillery during the war in Italy; after being demobbed he remained for a while in the country and was able to witness conditions first hand before completing the novel in 1946 in Rome. This was to reflect his later habit of researching for half the year before writing up during the following six months.
He was also a lifelong sailor (the novel is dedicated to his wife Dorothy with whom he was to sail around the world) and this informs the first part of the book in which the landing craft is refloated, outfitted and taken down to the Mediterranean. My father, just a few years younger than Innes, was a marine engineer and I could recognise the same practical enthusiasm for nautical matters that the two shared. I recognised too the culture of hard drinking and smoking that was prevalent then and for many years afterwards, and which now seems very alien.
Very much of its times, Dead and Alive also reflects a sexism which was all-pervasive then. Yet along with his own leftish leanings Innes displays an instinct for sexual equality in his treatment of Monique Dupont, a victim of abuse but one who’s able to brave danger and elicit Cunningham’s admiration and, ultimately, love.
Finally, I want to draw attention to the author’s literary skills. Whether he is describing Cornish cliffs or Neapolitan tenements, moonlit nights at sea or scrubby sun-baked Italian earth he manages to make the scene vivid without any sense of artifice. The skill of rendering a text effortless to read is one I admire as it’s one I find difficult to manage myself! Even the slightly convoluted opening sentence made me want to read on:
As soon as she opened the door I was certain I should not have come.