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H L Humes: Men Die

As with his previous novel, Humes starts with the end, the men dying of the title. In this case, the dying takes place shortly before World War II on Manacle Shoals Rock, in the Caribbean. It is a small island where the US Navy is storing ammunition and it is a disaster waiting to happen, which it does in the very first sentence – When the blast finally came it came foreseen, like the end of the world. The survivors are Lieutenant Sulgrave and six of the men (all black) who were prisoners for mutiny, at least as defined by the commander.

Much of the book tells the story of the island. It is commanded by Commander Bonuso Hake, a troubled man, an alcoholic, an inveterate reader (he can prove that Shakespeare translated the Psalms) and a commander not liked by his men (a violent man who didn’t know it). He feels he has been sent there as a punishment for running a ship aground on a sandbar. The men call him Commander Meander while Dolfus calls him Admiral God. His second-in-command, Lieutenant Dolfus, is a former Rhodes scholar. We follow the difficult work, the strange behaviour of the commander and the strained relation he has with his men, as well as the relationship between Dolfus and Sulgrave. Mixed in with this, is the story of events after the explosion, including the funeral, Sulgrave’s relationship with Vanna, Hake’s beautiful widow, and Sulgrave’s discovery of the relationship between Dolfus and the Hake family beforehand.

Though not nearly as good as The Underground City, this book is still very well worth reading. It does suffer from faults, including, in particular, Humes’ attempt to do stream of consciousness in a bits and pieces which does not really work. However, he once again tells a good story of men in action and men under stress. It is a pity that this was his last book.

Publishing history

First published 1959 by Random House