Fear Is The Key by Alistair Maclean (1961)

Up till now we had no evidence whatsoever, all along the way your back trail was divided into a series of water-tight compartments with locked doors. Royale locked the doors by killing everybody and anybody who might talk. Incredibly, there wasn’t a single solitary thing we could pin on you, there wasn’t a person who could split on you for the sufficient reason that all those who could were dead. The locked doors. but you opened them all today. Fear was the key to all the doors. (Chapter 12)

Categorising MacLean’s novels

Fear Is The Key was the sixth novel Alistair MacLean published. I devoured them aged 12 and 13 in the early 1970s but by the time of Dusty Death and Breakheart Pass were published (1973 and 74) I felt they’d gone badly off; that or I’d outgrown them. Now, thanks to his Wikipedia entry, I learn that MacLean’s 28 novels are divided into four periods (by whom? fans? scholars?):

  1. HMS Ulysses through to The Last Frontier. Four novels with third-person narratives, a somewhat epic tone and are mostly set during World War II. The Last Frontier contained overt philosophical and moral themes that were not well received. MacLean then switched gears to…
  2. Night Without End through to Ice Station Zebra. Six novels all featuring first-person (and sometimes unreliable) narration laced with a dry, sardonic, self-deprecating humour, and were all set in contemporary times. These are MacLean’s most intensely plotted tales, masterfully blending thriller and detective elements.
  3. When Eight Bells Toll through to Bear Island – six novels that still maintained a generally high quality, with some books harking back to each of the first two periods but usually taking a more cinematic approach (not surprising since he began writing screenplays during this time).
  4. The Way to Dusty Death to the end (twelve novels). No more first-person stories, and his prose is thought to have often sagged badly, with excessive dialogue, lazily described scenes, and under-developed characters. Some show these faults more than others, and all the books sold reasonably well, but MacLean never regained his classic form.

Unity of time

Probably not deliberately, MacLean falls in with Aristotle’s unity of time: once the plot gets cracking it unfolds in nearly real time ie you follow the harassed protagonist minute by minute as he breaks out of the court-room, kidnaps the girl, gets involved in a long car chase, returns to the motel and gets knocked unconscious. All in the first few pages…

Eight minutes after Larry had died and exactly twenty minutes after I had left Kennedy and Royale in the cabin I was back there, giving the hurriedly pre-arranged knock. (Ch 11)

Trivial as it may sound, the unity of time means there is no let-up: from the minute the touchpaper is lit the plot consists of relentless hi-tension drama: every minute is crucial, even a slight distraction could spell disaster for the hero and his machinations. That’s why this book is so hard to put down.

The Volta or Anagnorisis

Anagnorisis is the term Aristotle used in his Poetics for the moment in a play when a character makes a critical discovery. It originally meant ‘recognition’ in its Greek context, not only of a person but also of what that person stood for. Anagnorisis is the hero’s sudden awareness of a real situation.

Similarly, the volta is the moment in a sonnet (or, by extension, other type of poem) when the train of thought takes a dramatic turn or swerve.

Both of these could be applied to the moment in this novel when the truth is revealed. For the first half of the novel we think John Talbot really is the hardened criminal who shoots his way out of a court-room in small-town Florida, killing a policeman on the way and kidnapping an innocent bystander woman, before engaging in a prolonged and thrilling car chase, before stealing another car and returning to the motel where he was arrested, before being knocked unconscious by a corrupt cop who heard the police alert and is determined to collect the reward in person from the father of the kidnapped girl, who turns out to be a multi-millionaire oil tycoon. The revived Talbot is taken along to the country mansion of the tycoon who seems to be surrounded by surprisingly tough thugs, who seem to dominate his life.

By this point I’d been wondering about Talbot, whose first-person narration was zippy but essentially innocent. I mean there was no psychology, no sense of emotions or conflicts or any psychological depths. The first person narrator is just a peg to hang a relentless sequence of nailbiting incidents on. No sense of criminal motivation or remorse for killing the policeman.

All is revealed when the volta or anagnorisis comes and Talbot reveals he is in fact a special agent working for the British government. The arrest and the entire court-room scene down to the shooting of the cop were staged and fake. The judge was in on the scam and had invited the millionaire’s daughter so that Talbot could stage the break and kidnap. the crooked cop who sapped him in the motel room was, in fact, his partner. The entire plot has been a scam to inveigle his way into the tycoon’s house, and into the good graces of the mob who are using him and his oil rig because — because all along it turns out a plane crashed off the Florida coast carrying hundreds of millions in gold and jewels, and the baddies have stolen an experimental bathyscaphe, concealed it aboard the tycoon’s oil rig, and now need a salvage expert to fix and drive it for them to the underwater crash site.

It is here, confined in the tiny machine, 500 feet under the storm-tossed Atlantic that there is a second and genuinely chilling volta: for here Talbot reveals that he was partner in the air charter firm whose airplane full of treasure was shot down by the baddies; and that aboard were his brother and wife and three-year old son. It is this rather harrowing revelation which convinces the baddies when Talbot says he’s disabled the flotation tanks and they are all going to die with him in this underwater tomb. As the oxygen runs out and they panic, Talbot gets the baddies to confess every detail of their elaborate plot.

Only then does he make the final revelation – he can refloat the scaphe and the microphone has not only been on all the time, but their confessions have been recorded by agents back on the oil rig, and will certainly send them to the electric chair.

Technical expertise

As always MacLean’s technical knowledge – of guns, airplanes, submarines and oil rigs – is fascinating (for this very untechnical reader, anyway). This is particularly true of his depiction of the sea. The second half of the novel is set aboard an oil rig off the coast of Florida and includes numerous details about the rig and the pressurised equipment necessary to raise and float the thing, and then drill down into the earth’s core, as well as very detailed descriptions of the bathyscaphe which is, after all, the setting of the novel’s final scenes.

Pushed to extremes

I felt old and tired and empty and dead. (Ch 6)

‘What does it matter now?’ Even to myself I sounded tired, defeated. (Ch 8)

I felt unutterably tired, I didn’t know whether it was because of the pain or the foul air or just because of the overwhelming sense of the emptiness of living. (Ch 11)

It is part of the genre that the male hero is stretched to the limit. They generally start severely tired and then get pushed way beyond the bounds of endurance. No surprise, when they have to cope with the hailstorm of nailbiting situations which their author throws at them in quick succession with no time to rest.

The scenes on the oil rig are set as a major storm approaches. At its height characters can only make their way across the platform by clinging onto wires stretched between key locations, while they’re nearly blown overboard by the gale force winds.

We had to lean at an angle of almost forty-five degrees against the wind to keep our balance and at the same time hang on to one of the life-lines. If you fell and started rolling along that deck you wouldn’t stop until the wind had pushed you clear over the side: it was as strong as that. It sucked the breath from your lungs and under its knife-edge hurricane lash the rain flailed and stung the exposed skin like an endless storm of tiny lead shot. (Ch 9)

All the shooting, beatings and suspense take place in a context where people are already stretched to the limits of survival.

Typically for the genre – think of the beating James Bond takes in every one of his novels – Talbot gets pretty badly damaged. A particularly unpleasant sidekick, a bug-eyed junkie, not only shoots him in the shoulder but smashes his teeth and lip with the barrel of a gun so that the hero is in agony for the last few hours of the plot.

Psychologically, this kind of story exercises and exorcises the male wish to be tried, to be physically tested to the limit, and to come through. Dr Johnson said every man thinks less of himself for not having been a soldier, and these novels cater to that male wish to have taken part in trial unto death (without actually having to move from the comfort of your sunlounger).

The dead sidekick

If the hero gets a beating it is nothing compared to his faithful sidekick – in this instance, the corrupt cop Jablonsky, who turns out to be his partner and one of the good guys – who is shot dead. The consistency with which this happens in MacLean or Bond or Chandler suggest it is a corollary of the above psychological need to be tested: the death of the closest associate demonstrates a) just how close death is, just how damn serious this job is, and b) allows the hero to show how toughly male he is by rejecting sappy feelings and determining to get his revenge. ‘It’s what X would have wanted,’ he says, tight-lipped.

It is the transparency of these psychological gratifications which makes thrillers – despite being so gripping – ultimately so childish, which disqualifies them from literature ie from the more concerted attempt to depict psychological depth or complexity.

Mary the heroine

The kidnapped heroine is called Mary (Ruthven). In line with the dictum that the hero must suffer, although she slowly realises he is a good guy and, by the end, is risking life and limb to help him – and he saves her life – in the end she stays true to her love for the family chauffeur (who had turned out to be a rock of dependability in a number of hairy moments). It’s a Hemingwayesque tough guy moment in a style that, as soon as Hemingway invented it just after the Great War, flooded literature, flooded books and movies and discourse, and survives to this day: this style, this attitude, this tough way of being a man which would have been a mystery to Dickens or Collins or Ruskin or Morris or Wilde, let alone George Eliot, Henry James or Virginia Woolf.

Mary saw me, hesitated a moment, then came across the sidewalk, to where I was standing. Her eyes seemed dark and curiously blurred but maybe I was imagining it. She murmured something, but I couldn’t make out what it was, then suddenly, careful not to hurt my left arm still in its sling, she put her two arms around my neck, pulled down my head and kissed me. Next moment she was gone, making her way back to the Rolls like a person who couldn’t see too well. Kennedy looked at her coming towards him, then lifted his eyes to mine, his face still and empty of all expression. I smiled at him and he smiled back. A nice guy.

It is cinematic, made of understated gestures which convey more than they say, and everything is about the manly suppression of emotion, focusing on actual bodily movements and practical details (the sling) and avoiding all possible psychology, any hint of feeling.

Related links

Like almost all MacLean’s novels, FITK was made into a film which is available on DVD. The clip below is just a part of the 20-minute long car chase which made it notorious in its day, complete with jazz-funk soundtrack and hi-intensity strings which make it sound like an episode of Starsky and Hutch.

The first 22 Alistair MacLean novels

Third person narrator

1955 HMS Ulysses – war story about a doomed Arctic convoy.
1957 The Guns of Navarone – war story about commandos who blow up superguns on a Greek island.
1957 South by Java Head – a motley crew of soldiers, sailors, nurses and civilians endure a series of terrible ordeals in their bid to escape the pursuing Japanese forces.
1959 The Last Frontier – secret agent Michael Reynolds rescues a British scientist from communists in Hungary.

First person narrator – the classic novels

1959 Night Without End – Arctic scientist Mason saves plane crash survivors from baddies who have stolen a secret missile guidance system.
1961 Fear is the Key – government agent John Talbot defeats a gang seeking treasure in a crashed plane off Florida.
1961 The Dark Crusader – counter-espionage agent John Bentall defeats a gang who plan to hold the world to ransom with a new intercontinental missile.
1962 The Golden Rendezvous – first officer John Carter defeats a gang who hijack his ship with a nuclear weapon.
1962 The Satan Bug – agent Pierre Cavell defeats an attempt to blackmail the government using a new supervirus.
1963 Ice Station Zebra – MI6 agent Dr John Carpenter defeats spies who have secured Russian satellite photos of US missile bases, destroyed the Arctic research base of the title and nearly sink the nuclear sub sent to rescue them.

Third phase

1966 When Eight Bells Toll – British Treasury secret agent Philip Calvert defeats a gang who have been hijacking ships carrying bullion off the Scottish coast.
1967 Where Eagles Dare
1968 Force 10 From Navarone The three heroes from Guns of Navarone parachute into Yugoslavia to blow up a dam and destroy two German armoured divisions.
1969 Puppet on a Chain – Interpol agent Paul Sherman battles a grotesquely sadistic heroin-smuggling gang in Amsterdam.
1970 Caravan to Vaccarès – British agent Neil Bowman foils a gang of gypsies who are smuggling Russian nuclear scientists via the south of France to China.
1971 Bear Island – Doctor Marlowe deals with a spate of murders aboard a ship full of movie stars and crew heading into the Arctic Circle.


1973 The Way to Dusty Death – World number one racing driver Johnny Harlow acts drunk and disgraced in order to foil a gang of heroin smugglers and kidnappers.
1974 Breakheart Pass – The Wild West, 1873. Government agent John Deakin poses as a wanted criminal in order to foil a gang smuggling guns to Injuns in the Rockies and planning to steal government gold in return.
1975 Circus – The CIA ask trapeze genius Bruno Wildermann to travel to an unnamed East European country, along with his circus, and use his skills to break into a secret weapons laboratory.
1976 The Golden Gate – FBI agent Paul Revson is with the President’s convoy when it is hijacked on the Golden Gate bridge by a sophisticated gang of crooks who demand an outrageous ransom. Only he – and the doughty doctor he recruits and the pretty woman journalist -can save the President!
1977 – Seawitch – Oil executives hire an unhinged oil engineer, Cronkite, to wreak havoc on the oil rig of their rival, Lord Worth, who is saved by his beautiful daughter’s boyfriend, an ex-cop and superhero.
1977 – Goodbye California – Deranged muslim fanatic, Morro, kidnaps nuclear physicists and technicians in order to build atomic bombs which he detonates a) in the desert b) off coastal California, in order to demand a huge ransom. Luckily, he has also irritated maverick California cop, Ryder – by kidnapping his wife – so Ryder tracks him down, disarms his gang and kills him.

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