Tuesday, 13 March 2018

The Lonely Skier - a proto-Bond novel?

In her introduction to the Vintage edition of the novel The Lonely Skier, former MI5 head Stella Rimington describes its author, Hammond Innes, as the first of the post-war generation of thriller writers - a group that includes Ian Fleming - whose writing was informed by their wartime experiences and who broke away from the strait-laced style of adventure set by Buchan and others. And indeed, while The Lonely Skier, published in 1947, is Ambler-esque in its plotting and intrigue, it has a more than a dash of the sort of thrills and spills that Ian Fleming would make his own.

In the book, Neil Blair, demobbed and unemployed, is asked by an acquaintance and former British military intelligence officer, Derek Engles, to travel to a mountain resort in the Dolomites in Italy under the guise of a screenwriter and report back with information about what he sees and the people he encounters. He finds himself high up on the snow-covered slopes sharing a ski lodge with a group of dubious individuals, among them a Nazi collaborator, a former prostitute, and a deserter from the British army. Eventually he learns that everyone is there for a single purpose: to find a cache of gold stolen and hidden at the end of the war by a German officer.

As a main character, Neil Blair is too much the everyman to be a true proto-Bond, and the cast-list generally wouldn’t be out of place in an Eric Ambler novel, but the book touches on themes that would later be explored by Fleming. The theft and recovery of gold at the end of the Second World War form the backdrop to the short story ‘Octopussy’, while skiing would be a major element of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Stella Rimington notes that Innes, like Fleming, was a journalist before becoming a novelist, and similarly wrote with first-hand knowledge and convincing detail. That is certainly true; The Lonely Skier includes plenty of information on the technicalities of skiing (Christiana turns and such like) and the mountain landscape. I would say, though, that there is much more detail in Fleming’s skiing adventure; one would probably learn more about skiing in the mid-20th century from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service than Innes’ novel.

Interestingly, The Lonely Skier is set around the ski resort of Cortina D’Ampezzo, and Tofana is mentioned. The location would be visited in the film of For Your Eyes Only, and I must admit that as I was reading the book, I had scenes of the film running through my mind. 

The Lonely Skier was itself filmed soon after publication. The film, released in 1948 as Snowbound, starred Dennis Price as Blair and Robert Newton as Engles, and featured Herbert Lom as the Nazi collaborator. Both the film and the novel are tense and exciting, and well worth checking out.

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