When writing about Mark Brend’s excellent Undercliff a few weeks ago I made reference to a predilection for maps in crime/thriller novels and suggested there is a piece to be written about this. This isn’t it, but I should say that when it ever does get written there will be a reference to Allan Mackinninon’s 1947 novel ‘House Of Darkness’. The map in its frontispiece shows an area around the west coast of Scotland, taking in Loch Linnhe, Glen Coe and the hills of Morvern, for it is in this landscape that much of the action in the novel takes place. I believe Mackinnon wrote several thrillers set in the Highlands but this is the first I have read and it is rather fine and well worth tracking down. Early in the novel Mackinnon’s Colin Ogilvy character makes humorous reference to feeling as though he is in a story by Ambler or Buchan and of course these are entirely appropriate references for as the novel unfolds Ogilvy finds himself in an extended chase scene through the Highlands that could be straight out of The Thirty Nine Steps, and, like Ambler, Mackinnon himself spent time screenwriting for cinema.
Mackinnon conjures the misty grey dampness of the Highland landscape pretty finely, though this is never at the expense of driving the narrative onwards with a pace that, whilst never frenetic, is nevertheless speedy enough to keep us eagerly turning the pages. You might realistically argue that the denouement is pretty obviously signposted through the book and so hardly comes as a surprise, but I don’t think Mackinnon ever set out to make this a complicated fair-play mystery so its a moot point.
Interestingly, from a contemporary perspective, the underlying ‘plot’ is one which sounds remarkably familiar. It is painted deftly in a few paragraphs wherein Ogilvie and another character have a conversation in which references are made to politicians, government ministers, financial ‘players’, foreign powers manipulating National Interests, collapse of British economic prospects, nationalism and a minority plotting to make significant financial profit at the expense of drastically reduced standards of living for the majority. It’s like reading a précis of the past three years of UK politics in two pages and just goes to show that there is nothing new under the sun.
Now there may be nothing new under the sun, but in his sizeable ‘Underland‘ tome, Robert Macfarlane suggests that there is plenty new under the earth, and he goes to great lengths to share some of those peculiar landscapes and the people who inhabit and explore them with us. It’s certainly an interesting enough premise for a book, although where it falls on your personal continuum of appeal will likely fluctuate somewhat from chapter to chapter. The later chapters in which he seems to spend an inordinate amount of time on and around glaciers in Greenland, for example, leave me (ahem) cold, whereas those in which he explores points in/beneath the landscape that involve explicit human intervention carry much greater appeal.
Throughout the book there is necessarily a lot of crawling through tight underground spaces and lots of heroic walking across expansive icy wastes, and if I struggle, on a personal level, to understand and connect to those physical aspects of Macfarlane’s journeys to (literally) the ends of the earth and its subterranean depths, then I think I can at least grasp that behind these exploits sits some deeply felt need to experience some kind of blissful state. A pursuit of the Other, if you like. It strikes me too that there is a relationship between the physical activities and the act of writing, between the events/places and the reality of the book itself.
For the writing throughout Underlands is undeniably fine, the words and phrases often gorgeous, and it strikes me that the process of writing and of reading can itself be that vehicle through which we encounter the Other. Those moments where our conscious perception slips away and we fleetingly glimpse the essence of bliss. Words no longer forming thoughts and meaning but instead entering the realm of feeling and sub-conscious knowing. A deep connectivity that exists outside of everything.
Nevertheless I cannot help but wonder if some people never discover the thing through which they might encounter the Other. Do they even strive to uncover it, and is the luxury to even think about such things only open to us once our more basic needs have been met? Macfarlane, having journeyed many miles through inhospitable climes in order to witness the ancient handprints of our distant cave dwelling ancestors would doubtless point to this as evidence that this ‘luxury’ is in fact as basic a need as shelter. And if I’m almost certain he would be correct in suggesting this, I cannot shake the feeling that the unfolding movement to disconnect from the networks we have created for ourselves with technologies in order to reconnect with the networks nature weaves around us seems like a luxury of an educated middle class at best, and a hipster’s fashion accessory at worst.
If only Macfarlane had included some maps.