Bear Island by Alistair MacLean (1971)

According to the Alistair MacLean Wikipedia entry, Bear Island ends his third period, the one from 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).’

This adventure novel is not as persuasive as the earlier ones, in fact the plot is too preposterous to be really enjoyable. Even as I read it I was thinking, this is twaddle. The flaw is in the basic premise, that a full film crew with all the directors, cameramen, assistants, make-up, technicians and a roster of actors would be persuaded to board a disintegrating converted fishing trawler in order to steam in a furious winter storm to one of the most inhospitable places on earth, to arrive at the time of year when there are only a few hours of daylight, in order to  make a script none of them has seen.


Wikipedia informs me that Maclean had been writing screenplays during this period (1967-71) and was involved in the production of several movies of his novels, the most famous one probably being Where Eagles Dare of which, I was surprised to learn, he wrote the screenplay and the novel simultaneously, and both at the personal request of Richard Burton who wanted to star in an old-fashioned boys adventure story.

Fair play that, like Chandler or Fitzgerald, or anyone else who gets involved in the practical aspects of move-making, Maclean decided to use the knowledge as the basis for a novel. The problem is the notion that all these expensive people would set off on an extremely dangerous journey on such a flimsy pretext: it’s just not believable; it’s too transparently a pretext to assemble a large cast of grotesques and eccentrics (justified as they’re in ‘showbiz’) and then enjoy knocking them off one by one, while Dr Christopher Marlowe (I kid ye not) races to try and establish the killer and save everyone.

Although all the page-turning elements of a thriller are present, the basic premise is much more like Agatha Christie and, in its exotic setting, reminiscent of Death on the Nile or Murder on the Orient Express.

The number of characters is also a surprise – there must be around 30 named characters – so caring for many of them or even being able to remember who is who is quite challenging and lessens the reader’s involvement.

The Volta or Anagnorisis

In a previous post I mentioned anagnorisis – the name Aristotle gave to the moment in a play when a character makes a critical discovery- and volta – the ‘turn’ in a poem or narrative. Here it is pretty much the same plot device as in Fear Is the Key ie for half the book we think the first person narrator, Dr Marlowe, is just the doctor hired to attend on the production who is thrown in the deep end as people start to die from food poisoning and then more macabre causes.

Until – ta dah! – it is revealed he is in fact a British government agent sent to track one of the directors of the film company. Although complicated by Cold War elements, the basic premise is simple: after the War Germans spirited away vast amounts of treasure and bullion. Some of this is buried on Bear Island. Someone knows where it is and has concocted the entire preposterous film project as a cover to travel there and then use the fake submarine which has been shipped there as a prop (!) to smuggle the bullion back to Britain.

HM Govt have a good idea who it is, but it is up to Marlowe as the man on the spot to find the bullion and identify the murderer. This he does as the book winds up after 200 tense pages with the sudden arrival of the cavalry ie British army and police, just in time to save our hero from being shot.

Technical expertise

Maclean’s technical knowledge of film-making seems, to me, flaky. The whole premise that an entire film production team would get aboard a leaky tub heading into an Arctic storm to a remote island just doesn’t stand up.

The sea, the sea

That said, MacLean is back on the familiar territory of his first novel, and many of the best subsequent ones – the freezing cold inhospitable storm-torn Arctic ocean. His descriptions of the ship yawing and reeling in heavy seas, of the rigging and layout, of the feel of ice and snow, carry complete conviction. Much more so than the plot. And there is one standout passage on page 122 of the Fontana edition where the ancient captain, Imrie, during the burial at sea of the latest murderees, describes his memories of Bear Island being the ‘gate’ for the Murmansk convoys which sailed through these waters to Russia during the War, convoys MacLean served on and which, famously, form the subject of his first and best novel, HMS Ulysses.

Pushed to extremes

As usual, once the touchpaper is lit, the plot doesn’t let up and, as usual, it starts in the first few pages while Marlowe is doing his routine rounds of the passengers only to discover two dying of food poisoning. From that moment for the next few days there is no let-up and the protagonist Marlowe gets little or no sleep as events ie murders and assaults, mount up with dizzying speed.

I was so tired that I could think of nothing other than my cabin and my bunk. (Ch 4)

I was feeling tired again, tired enough to drop off to sleep at any moment. (Ch 5)

I felt savage but I know I didn’t sound that way, I think I only sounded tired. (Ch 8)

The sidekick

Obviously he has an assistant – the first mate on the Morning Rose, Smithy (I remembered that Smith is the uninspiring name given to the Richard Burton character in Where Eagles Dare). As with Jablonsky in Fear, this sidekick is murdered, bringing death as close to the protagonist as possible, granting him permission for revenge (Marlowe engineers the death of the murderer in the books hurried last pages).

Mary the heroine

Wikipedia tells me that later MacLean books reused the same plots, down to particular phrases which had, in his hands, become dead cliches. I particularly like the idea that he couldn’t be bothered to think of names for the woman interest (love interest is wrong, since there is no romance or love in these novels – there isn’t the time). He just called them Mary. Fear Is The Key had one Mary but Bear Island trumps it by having two!, the lead actress and a continuity assistant who I found, in fact, difficult to tell apart.

Dying style

The most obvious contrast with Fear Is The Key (1961) is how deteriorated MacLean’s style has become. Fear has quite a lot of snappy phraseology, of a kind of sub-Chandler briskness. For some reason, ten years later and MacLean’s style has become extremely long-winded and repetitive. One adjective isn’t enough when two can be used, dependent clauses build up, there is lots of periphrasis or roundabout ways of saying things which could be said much quicker.

On the other hand, it could be effective in stilling any qualms of conscience – true, this was the world of the cinema but Heissman would be unlikely to overlook even the most remote possibility – that might have arisen had the project been denied even this superficial official blessing, and the very fact that they were being made privy to the secret inner workings of Olympus would tend to bind both cast and crew closer to the company, for it is an almost universal law of nature that mankind, which is still in the painful process of growing up, dearly loves its little closed and/or secret societies, whether those be the most remote Masonic Lodge in Saskatchewan or White’s of St James’s, and tends to form an intense personal attachment and loyalty to other members of that group while presenting a united front to the world of the unfortunates beyond their doors. (Chapter 5)

It’s as if he’s forgotten how to write. Compare the opening of Fear:

If you could call a ten by six wooden box mounted on a four-wheel trailer an office, then I was sitting in my office. I’d been sitting there for four hours, the headphones were beginning to hurt and the darkness was coming in from the swamps.

With the opening of Bear:

To even the least sensitive and perceptive beholder the Morning Rose, at this stage of her long and highly chequered career, must have seemed ill-named, for if ever a vessel could fairly be said to be approaching, if not actually arrived at, the sunset of her days it was this one.

No page is without a stinker of a long strangled sentence which you feel you ought to help across the road to its destination.

For the interest in the food was not all-absorbing: frequently, but very very briefly, a pair of eyes would break of their rapt communion with the stew and beans, glance swiftly round the cabin, then return in an oddly guilty defensiveness to the food as if the person had hoped in that one lightning ocular sortie to discover some unmistakable tell-tale signs that would infallibly identify the traitor in our midst. (Ch 10)

Some kind of defeatism or no longer taking it seriously maybe also explains the use of quotes. In Fear Is the Key the style is snappy and to the point. In Bear Island, if the characters words go near one, MacLean will let them quote: from Shakespeare, the Bible, hymns, songs, poems. Almost as if he wants someone else to do the writing. As if the creating of new sentences and phrases is impossibly wearisome. One of the last sentences in the book is a quote from King Lear, Shakespeare’s most despairing play.


According to Wikipedia, MacLean ‘struggled constantly with alcoholism’. Certainly his characters put away an astonishing amount of booze, almost all of it spirits. It is one of the leitmotivs of Bear that hardly any of the men can exchange words without pouring out one, two or three glasses of scotch. In fact the getting and drinking of hard liquor is a real obsession of the book, and one of the less forgettable characters is one Lonnie, a complete alcoholic who is never sober right up to his death by poisoning.

This obsessive hard drinking reminded me of Raymond Chandler’s alcohol novel, The Long Goodbye, which features not one but three alcoholics, including the heavy drinking first-person narrator Marlowe. Is that why the narrator of Bear is named Marlowe? It’s not in homage to Chandler’s style which MacLean completely lacks.

I wondered uncharitably, what hour struck when captain Imrie poured himself his first restorative of morning but then recalled that as he had been up since 4am he was no doublt now rightly regarding the day as being pretty far advanced, a supposition which he proceeded to prove correct by replenishing his glass without, however, interrupting the smooth flow of his monologue. (Ch 6)

The last sentences in the book describe Lonnie’s death from alcohol poisoning and exposure to the bitter Arctic climate, and reference a conversation he’d had with the narrator about whether there would be bars in heaven. Hard drinking is the central theme of the book, right up to its final words. This was MacLean’s last novel in the first person and, arguably, his last decent novel.

Paul Wright illustration

I read it in one of the classic Fontana paperback editions. The cover illustration is an evocative painting of Bear Island by Paul Wright. This reproduction doesn’t do it justice. Wherever Paul Wright ism, and whatever else he did, respect for this wonderful cover, evocative both of the Arctic seas, and of my youth in the 70s when these covers first appeared.

Cover of the 1973 Fontana paperback edition of Bear Island

Cover of the 1973 Fontana paperback edition of Bear Island

Related links

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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