By Richard Wiley
This past June saw the death of the prolific British adventure writer Hammond Innes. Innes was best known for his thrilling action novels set in ruggedly exotic locations. When I was a kid I thought they were the best thing going. They were pulp, but they were good pulp. I remember one of them, The Big Footprints, was about elephant poachers in Kenya.
Which brings us to Ahmed’s Revenge, a novel about a colonial Kenyan named Nora Grant and her attempt to uncover the mystery behind her husband’s involvement in an ivory smuggling scam, and his not-quite accidental death. I couldn’t help thinking that it was just the kind of story Hammond Innes might have come up with. And how he would have done a better job.
In the first place, Ahmed’s Revenge has what is known in film as an “idiot plot,” defined as any plot containing problems which would be solved instantly if all the characters were not idiots. Which is not to say they aren’t helped along by the improbabilities in the plot itself. There is, for example, a letter written by Nora’s husband before his death that explains pretty much everything that is going on. Unfortunately, when Nora’s father gives her the letter it blows away in a sudden gust of wind! And then the one page she can’t retrieve is the most important page! I just hate it when that happens!
Despite all this silliness, things do get interesting. For some odd reason, however, none of the characters are very involved. Time and again Nora appears on the verge of clearing everything up, only to decide that she has better things to do.
I can’t remember the last time I read a book with such a disengaged protagonist. Has her father just been kidnapped? Maybe so, but it’s late, so she has to go to bed. Should she dig up the mystery treasure buried in her yard? No, she might as well wait till morning. Will she stay at a bar where she has arranged to meet with the detective investigating her husband’s case? Not our Nora! She gets tired of waiting, so she goes for a walk instead. (Indeed, when the detective does show up Nora can no longer remember why she wanted to talk to him, and wishes he would go away!)
It gets worse. When the villain’s father offers to explain to Nora why his son is doing so many bad things to her, she tells him that she is no longer interested! (This despite the fact that she was the one who brought the subject up in the first place.) It then takes Nora most of the rest of the book to find out what it was she wasn’t interested in knowing.
Best of all is Nora’s response to the confessional letter from her husband explaining what is happening and what she needs to be doing about it. She sits down to read it, tormented by unanswered questions.
The torment is too much for her. She falls asleep, the letter unread.
All of this would be funny if it didn’t take itself so seriously. Unfortunately, Richard Wiley is a “real” writer, a past winner of the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award and a professor of “fiction writing.” He proves he is of the quality by dividing his drama into “Acts,” and indulging in literary stunts like beginning and ending the book with the same three sentences.
There are, in addition, the throwaway bits that let you know this is high-brow stuff. The first chapter is titled Jules et Jim (ah, yes) and the finale takes place at a performance of Madama Butterfly. None of this has any connection to what is going on, but that doesn’t really matter since it’s only there to remind you that you’re not reading a hack like Hammond Innes.
You only wish you were.
Review first published July 25, 1998.