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Finding Gold

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Those 150 pages were very timely, I now remember, because in just a few escapist hours they cleared my head of the months of swotting for university finals. The weekend before my exams started, a friend who’d left the college sent me a small package containing a paperback which he’d inscribed with a line from Wordsworth, ‘Up up my friend and quit your books’, and his own suggestion that I take his gift and a bottle into a field somewhere, and indulge myself in a sunlit afternoon of plain pleasure. Two weeks later, exams over, lying not in a field but on a sofa, I opened the book without great expectations, but from the gripping first chapter I was hooked. I read it through in one go. With or without a bottle, I can’t say, but definitely it would have been with cigarettes.

The book in question was Moving Target (1966), a man-on-the run thriller by a New Zealander called Jack McClenaghan. After I left university, I forgot about the book. Then, last year, decades later, sorting out drawers, I happened upon an empty packet of Gold Flake. A faint aroma of Virginia tobacco lingered still. The sight and smell of that neat packet transported me in a trice back to the summer of Moving Target. In my mind’s eye, I suddenly saw its cover, title, author’s name and a wintry scene in which a packet of Gold Flake featured prominently. Now I wanted that book again, to hold it, to reread it. Inevitably, my copy had vanished. And it was out of print. So I resorted to the Internet.

Days later, there it was in my hands, Moving Target, in the Panther Crime series. My memory hadn’t played tricks. I’d forgotten the words splashed above the title, assuring me I wouldn’t read a more exciting novel that year. I’d forgotten too the blurb on the back which told me that this was the best manhunt since Rogue Male. But the cover illustration was indeed a wintry scene, a snowfield on which were scattered a few objects evocative

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Those 150 pages were very timely, I now remember, because in just a few escapist hours they cleared my head of the months of swotting for university finals. The weekend before my exams started, a friend who’d left the college sent me a small package containing a paperback which he’d inscribed with a line from Wordsworth, ‘Up up my friend and quit your books’, and his own suggestion that I take his gift and a bottle into a field somewhere, and indulge myself in a sunlit afternoon of plain pleasure. Two weeks later, exams over, lying not in a field but on a sofa, I opened the book without great expectations, but from the gripping first chapter I was hooked. I read it through in one go. With or without a bottle, I can’t say, but definitely it would have been with cigarettes.

The book in question was Moving Target (1966), a man-on-the run thriller by a New Zealander called Jack McClenaghan. After I left university, I forgot about the book. Then, last year, decades later, sorting out drawers, I happened upon an empty packet of Gold Flake. A faint aroma of Virginia tobacco lingered still. The sight and smell of that neat packet transported me in a trice back to the summer of Moving Target. In my mind’s eye, I suddenly saw its cover, title, author’s name and a wintry scene in which a packet of Gold Flake featured prominently. Now I wanted that book again, to hold it, to reread it. Inevitably, my copy had vanished. And it was out of print. So I resorted to the Internet. Days later, there it was in my hands, Moving Target, in the Panther Crime series. My memory hadn’t played tricks. I’d forgotten the words splashed above the title, assuring me I wouldn’t read a more exciting novel that year. I’d forgotten too the blurb on the back which told me that this was the best manhunt since Rogue Male. But the cover illustration was indeed a wintry scene, a snowfield on which were scattered a few objects evocative of toughness and just a little tenderness – a pocket compass, a metal whistle stamped with the maker’s name (Adie Bros., Birmingham, 1941), a mountaineer’s piton, a clip of five brass-tipped bullets, a black-and-white photo of a pretty woman whose blouse failed to hide much of her left breast, and a packet of Gold Flake cigarettes, lid open. Jack McClenaghan was born in 1929, but whether he’s still alive I haven’t been able to ascertain. I can only hope he is. He’s published at least two further novels and a couple of geographical guides. At the time of Moving Target he was a journalist based in Invercargill, the most southerly city in New Zealand, where he was assistant editor of the Southland Daily News and made a bit of a name for himself as a feature writer with a particular knowledge of Fiordland, New Zealand’s largest national park. In web searches, Moving Target is the title that pops up most frequently. It tends to get mentioned in the same breath as Rogue Male – that yardstick again – Geoffrey Household’s 1939 classic of the manhunt genre (see SF no. 22). Moving Target is set at the very south-west tip of New Zealand’s South Island, in rough country clearly modelled on Fiordland. The action takes place during the Second World War in a range of mountains called the Yeleas, sixty miles long and between eight and fifteen miles wide, wild terrain much better suited to animals than humans. (As I haven’t found them on any map, I have to assume the mountains are fictitious.) Despite the harshness of the landscape, gold prospectors have sought their fortunes in its rivers and some are still working their concessions when war breaks out. The New Zealand government has served call-up papers on a young bushman and prospector called Jim Dougherty. In his own good time, Dougherty reports for training. But he and the army don’t mix. It’s not that he’s weak or cowardly – far from it – or that he doesn’t like human company. Nor is he a conscientious objector or pro-German. He’s no thinker; he’s not in any way political, unlike the hero of Rogue Male. It’s simply that army life is incomprehensible to him and he wants none of it. After a few uncooperative months, Dougherty walks out and heads back into the Yeleas. If nations want to squabble with one another, that’s their affair. It’s not his business. He lives life differently, by instinct and reflex. What he resembles is an intelligent animal superbly adapted to its environment. He’s outside human morality; he’s a loner whose affiliation is to nature. During his short time in the army, he behaves like a cat that can’t be herded. Taken miles from its home, it turns around and finds the way back. The army, however, has to herd its cats in order to function. Strays are not permissible. A search party under the leadership of Sergeant Campion is sent out to bring Dougherty in. Which is where the story begins. Dougherty the animal and Campion the tracker are well matched adversaries. But while Campion’s five senses are sharp enough, they’re nothing like Dougherty’s and, besides, Dougherty seems blessed with a sixth. He’s in a different league altogether, and even the other mountain men know it well. As soon as I’d finished Moving Target, with its surprising end which I won’t reveal, I wanted to go straight to Rogue Male. I’d read Household’s story once, as a teenager, but couldn’t remember much about it except that an English aristocrat ends up trapped below ground somewhere in the West Country but contrives an ingenious escape. I got hold of a copy easily enough and found that Household’s story gallops along just as quickly as McClenaghan’s. I enjoyed it hugely, but on this second reading it seemed a mad fantasy. I half-expected the last page to reveal that the hero has just woken from a nightmare, not in a filthy subterranean hideout in Dorset but in his club in St James, with only thirty minutes for breakfast and a visit from the barber before reporting to his Control. Moving Target, on the other hand, is a story with its feet firmly on the ground, a tale of the perfectly possible, economically told in clean prose. Well before its last, powerful page, I’d become fully engaged with that untamed mountain creature called Jim Dougherty, tough and rough maybe, but as human and vulnerable underneath as the rest of us. If ever I find myself banished to a desert island, or a mountain cabin, I’d like to have Moving Target with me. It’s my favourite thriller. And to be honest, I wouldn’t mind a packet or two of Gold Flake.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 35 © Martin Sorrell 2012


About the contributor

Martin Sorrell continues to read, teach and write about literature of all kinds, still without cigarettes.

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