Thursday, 2 November 2000

Hammond Innes: The Doomed Oasis (1960)

Edition: Collins, 1961
Review number: 668

The legend of Lawrence of Arabia plays a large part in this thriller about oil and politics in the peninsula. Colonel Charles Whitaker is a figure clearly based on Lawrence, a European who has accepted Arab customs and who has a great deal of influence in the politics of the various small states which are mostly today subsumed into groupings such as the United Arab Emirates. Here, it is oil rather than war which is the aim, but Whitaker as he has become older has managed to destroy his reputation with the oil companies as he has put forward a theory that oil is present in vast quantities in places where it was never found.

Whitaker is not the central character in the story. This is his son David, who came out to Arabia once he had discovered his paternity. David becomes passionately involved with the desert kingdom of Saraifa, the doomed oasis of the title. Water is brought to the inhabitants through ancient aqueducts, the falajes, but now the slow process of neglect which is gradually destroying them has been accelerated by the vandalism of enemies from the neighbouring emirate. David comes up with a desperate plan to stop this brutal destruction, which the Whitakers have themselves motivated by their conviction that oil is to be found in a border area disputed by the two countries.

The Doomed Oasis has the potential to be a far better novel than it is. The contrast between the motivations of greed and romance is something which could be the basis of an interesting story. The relationship between the Whitakers, one of several broken father-son relationships in Innes' novels, has dramatic potential which is not exploited. Also like other Innes' novels, it centres around poorly written courtroom scenes; there are far better devices to use in a thriller.

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