This curious novel, which is partly mystery and partly action-suspense begins in contemporary England -- at a "dreadful little house" in Suffolk that is being sold because the Holland family needs money. The family (which owns a decrepit shipping line based in Australia) is British in nationality, but its soul is rooted in Melanesia. It has a bloody history, including a bit of fratricide, and it seems to be under a curse. A clue to the origin and meaning of the curse, which is put on sale along with the house, is a pair of Victorian-vintage stamp albums containing some odd items of highly specialized interest. From this point of departure, the book ventures widely in time and space, from an attempted murder long ago at an Australian gold mine to a contemporary revolution in the Solomon Islands.
That's a lot of territory to cover, but Hammond Innes ties it into a neat bundle with his usual skill. He sets a leisurely pace, pausing to examine interesting bits of landscape along the way: the Cargo religion of the Solomon Islands; the intricacies of selling Victorian stamp albums at auction; the dynamics of a coup d'etat on a small island that has recently emerged from the Stone Age into large-scale industrialization. He pauses to sketch vivid characters and strange situations: Tim Holland slowly dying of unexplained causes, and his sister, Perenna, who seems to be an ordinary member of the British middle class until she explains that he is being killed by sorcery, and then adds: "If ever I catch up to the man who did that to him, I'll kill him."
Perenna, it turns out, has killed a man before. Her cousin Hans warns a would-be suitor: "You marry Perenna, you marry the Holland Line. . . . You do that, and you marry a curse." The book's antihero, Roy Slingsby, who receives this warning, is plunged into a complex tale of blood, exotic scenes and generations-old grudges because of his romantic interest in Perenna. He wanders through the story, spending most of his time in a state of mild confusion but somehow precipitating key events while he tries to figure out what is happening.
At one point, he is being told about an incident of World War II (which may have contemporary relevance) by a salty old sea-dog who has just single-handedly taken control of a ship from a crew of mutineers armed with machine guns. "He turned to face me again," says Slingsby, "fastening me with those pale, watery eyes, so bright and birdlike I was reminded of the Ancient Mariner." As usual, Slingsby is slightly off target. That particular sequence of events should remind him of "Treasure Island."
Along with echoes of Robert Louis Stevenson, Innes includes evocations of Joseph Conrad, elements of the Gothic novel and the atmosphere of one of those splendid, slow-moving detective stories that the British do so well. When he is not exploring odd corners of the human psyche, the author gets into pop geopolitics, playing off the fact that the islands of Buka and Bougainville are geographically linked to the Solomon Islands but administratively a part of Papua New Guinea, with a population only recently brought in touch with the rest of the world, a long history of civic unrest and a central government 600 miles away.
All of this -- plus the semi-epic tale of Hans Holland and his effort to foment a revolution for personal gain -- is neatly enclosed in a story that ends as it begins, with the question of whether Slingsby will propose marriage to Perenna. It is a tribute to Innes' skill that one remains concerned about this question after all the bloodshed and tumult, the intimations of occult forces and the curious historical tidbits that have gone before.