Puppet on a Chain by Alistair MacLean (1969)

The protagonist is Major Paul Sherman. (How evocative the name is of the bland but manly heroes of 1970s TV series like The Persuaders, The Protectors or The Champions.) He tells his story in a breathless first-person narration.

He has come to Amsterdam to track down the bosses of an international heroin smuggling operation. Within minutes of touching down, the contact (and friend) who is meeting him with important information is shot down before his eyes, and from that moment onwards the tension and the pace rarely slacken as (I think it’s) three nightmarish days and nights unfold in the Dutch capital, packed with incident – beatings, drugs, revelations and numerous murders – as Sherman goes well outside the law to provoke the drugs gang into increasingly grotesque and cruel violence.

Maimed…

Of course our hero is maimed – sometimes it’s psychological (brother, wife and child murdered as in Fear Is the Key), here it is physical: he was burned in a plane crash and the plastic surgery repairs are far from perfect leaving him, quite literally, a marked man.

… and beaten

By the end Sherman has been shot, beaten, half drowned, nearly frozen to death, beaten again – it’s amazing, in fact it’s preposterous that he can still stand let alone think clearly let alone win against all the odds. Although the self-deprecation emphasises his fallibility, the narrative itself enacts a superhuman power of endurance and survival. Like all the MacLean protagonists he is in some sense a superman, an übermensch, albeit a very crumpled post-War one who, despite living in a state of almost continual failure and physical victimhood, just about finally triumphs. But triumphs with that special kind of bitter, ashes-in-the-mouth triumph which is hollow and defeated. Reminds me of Smiley at the end of John Le Carre’s Karla trilogy (Smiley’s People, 1979). Yes, he’s won. But the victory feels like defeat. Us men, eh. We’re just so damn tough.

Pretty sidekicks…

In a variation on the theme – and a concession to late 1960s culture – there are two sidekicks and they are both pretty women. Of course they are Interpol agents, but they also happen to be a blonde, and a black hair, both given to wearing mini-skirts and clutching Major Paul’s arm at moments of danger – or kissing him at moments of relief.

‘Well, well, well,’ she said. ‘What a healthy-looking ghost. May I kiss you?’
‘Certainly not,’ I said with dignity. ‘Relationships between employer and employed are -‘
‘Do be quiet, Paul.’ She kissed me without permission. (Chapter 10)

The element of cheesey wish-fulfilment is right on the surface here. He is casually patronising to both of them in a way, I think, no-one would dream of today. In this respect the novel is as much a period piece as Miss World TV specials.

I made to move past them towards the door, but Maggie barred the way, reached up and kissed me. Only seconds later Belinda did the same. (Ch 9)

OK so you get beaten up, deafened, half drowned, shot and smashed in the face with any blunt instrument to hand: but hey – you get kissed by pretty girls, too!

Belinda kept quiet. She just gave me that devastating smile again, kissed me without any great haste, gave me some more of the same smile and went inside. (Ch 4)

… but No sex, please

However, it is 1969 and it is the Daily Mail-reading class we are appealing to so there is no sex, no impropriety. They may wear mini-skirts and rather sheer nightdresses, but there is only hearty flirting. No mention of the word breast. An attractive figure remains just that, with no detail gone into. Unlike the sado-masochistic sex in Ian Fleming’s novels from the beginning (Casino Royale, 1953).  Is it because MacLean came from a more restrained era (born 1912)? Well, Fleming was born in 1908. Because of his Scottish heritage (he was the son of a Church of Scotland minister)?

Or is it technical? Flirting can come and go, can be dropped in the flash of an eye, or the wave of a .22 automatic. A scared girl clutching your arm is only natural in a scary situation, a swift kiss only takes a second. Whereas full-blown sex would wreck the speed of the story, would slow it right down and then would introduce all kinds of emotional and physical complications. When Sherman tries to save his assistants Maggie or Belinda it is ultimately because they are fellow Interpol agents; if he had an affair with either of them the clarity and simplicity of his actions would be lost.

Prolepsis

Prolepsis is, strictly speaking, the raising of an objection in an argued speech or lecture, often in a weak form, in order to dispose of it before your opponent has a chance to raise it, probably in a stronger form. But more generally, it means anticipation of something, and I use it here to mean the ominous reference to something bad which the narrator interrupts the flow of his narration to foreshadow.

‘I’m sorry Maggie… God knows I make more mistakes than you do.’ I did, and I was making one of my biggest then: I should have listened to what the girls were saying. (Ch 6)

I reflected that Marcel must have the most remarkable powers of recuperation. I was to remember this with bitter chagrin on an occasion that was to be a day or so later and very much more inauspicious for me. (Ch 8)

I was glad to be alive. The girls were glad. The jonge Genever was happily chasing the red blood corpuscles in a game of merry-go-round, all the coloured threads were weaving themselves into a beautiful pattern and by day’s end it would be over. I had never felt so good before.
I was never to feel so good again. (Ch 10)

‘George can stay where he is. He’s in no danger.’ I couldn’t remember later whether that statement was the sixth or seventh major mistake I’d made in Amsterdam. (Ch 8)

It has at least three functions:

1. to add to the suspense by hinting that something bad is going to happen – but what?
2. to add to the tone of self-deprecation: all MacLean’s protagonists are fallible and they know it and they make a habit of pointing it out. ‘If only I’d realised X, then more lives would have been saved…’

I had behaved like a moron, with a blundering idiocy for which I would have bawled out anyone else, and it looked very much as if I might pay the moron’s price. (Ch 7)

3. but also to emphasise the seriousness of the issues: ‘Peoples’ lives are at stake here!!’

Heavy-handed humour

I was surprised when I read When Eight Bells Toll by the narrator’s tone of heavy, sardonic humour. Now I realise it’s intrinsic to his style. If Ian Fleming deploys a tone of classy savoir faire, MacLean’s narrators use flippancy and black humour. Why?

  1. It makes the books easier and quicker to read than a straight litany of encounters, attacks and speculation.
  2. Along with the steady self-deprecation, it humanises the protagonist and makes him easier to identify with.
  3. It allows the protagonist to display a kind of jaded satirical weariness with the modern world. All of these books remind me of Daily Mail editorials against the madness of health and safety or trendy vicars or gay marriage or young people these days with their scruffy clothes and spiky haircuts and cacophonous ‘music’! Many of the reviews on the jacket are from the Mail or Express suggesting that was his core demographic – older lower-middle-class men who resent the modern world and fantasise about leading lives of adventure helped by mini-skirted dollybirds.
  4. On another level, it betrays MacLean’s own jokey attitude to his writing, to his own novels. He knew he was writing entertainment, potboilers. They’re very good at their key aim of keeping you turning the pages, but fine writing they ain’t and the protagonists’ jokiness flags that.

But the jokiness is mostly very heavy-handed. This novel has a running joke in the first half that outside his Amsterdam hotel is a blind tramp playing a barrel-organ which murders the music of classical composers. Each time Sherman encounters him he is torturing the music of a different composer. Takes Sherman some time to realise he is spying on his movements and the bored youths who hang around him are actually spies set to track his movements. The composers are, of course, top five Classic FM ones that even Daily Mail readers have heard of and recognise as Culture.

It was classical night that night at the Hotel Rembrandt with the barrel-organ giving forth a rendition of an excerpt from Beethoven’s Fifth that would have had the old composer down on his knees giving thanks for his almost total deafness. (Ch 3)

Quotes

As part of the general jokiness of tone and the superior levity the narrator brings to his role – even when he’s being beaten up or tortured – the text features numerous quotes: Shakespeare is quoted on pages 71, 170 and 198. Possibly this is to flatter the middle-brow audience who are gratified to recognise them (they are, after all, a Classic FM level of literary reference). But at some level it’s as if the text wants to subvert itself and its pretensions. It is a very self-aware text.

This is true of the most spectacular quote, when he uses a line from Raymond Chandler, from Farewell My Lovely: She was ‘a blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.’ (Chapter 4) I think the use of quotes indicates MacLean’s anxiety about being an author, his knowledge that – as he freely acknowledged in interviews – he wasn’t much of a writer, but a very talented creator of fast-paced adventure thrillers.

This anxiety, the sense he’s walking in the shadow of giants, comes out in another exchange.

‘Brown stain?’ De Graaf blinked at me, then smiled widely. ‘Oh no, Major Sherman! Disguise! In this day and age? Sherlock Holmes has been dead these many years.’
‘If I’d half the brains Sherlock Holmes had,’ I said heavily. ‘I wouldn’t be needing any disguise.’ (Ch 5)

Heavy-handed

Heavy is the word. Clunk clunk clunk go MacLean’s sentences. If Raymond Chandler’s books are a marvel, wrought by a true artist of the language, and on every page containing phrases which amaze and enrich, MacLean’s novels have on every page real clunkers of sentences which you want to help him rewrite into fluent English.

That some of the adjacent buildings had been in even greater danger of collapse was evidenced by the fact that a large area of building on the canal side beyond the church had already been demolished: a giant crane, with the most enormous boom I had ever seen almost lost in the darkness above, stood in the middle of this cleared lot where rebuilding had already reached the stage of the completion of the reinforced foundations. (Ch 5)

I see the scene, and it’s important for the plot: but I feel I’ve had to work hard against the tide of the clunky phrasing.

The First Reformed Church, I had to admit, had certainly done their level and eminently successful best to comply with the exhortations of the avant-garde clergy of today that it was the Church’s duty to keep abreast with and participate in the technological age in which we live. Conceivably, they might have been expected to be taken a degree less literally, but then unspecified exhortation, when translated into practice, is always liable to a certain amount of executive misdirection, which appeared to be what had happened in this case: this room, which took up nearly half the basement area of the church was, in fact, a superbly equipped machine shop. (Ch 7)

The taste for laboured periphrasis and deliberate formality of language is perhaps intended to be humorous and often is. But what a heavy touch!

The priest was shaking his fist at me in a fashion that didn’t say much for his concept of brotherly love and appeared to be delivering himself of some vehement harangue but I couldn’t hear any of it. (Ch 7)

‘Delivering himself of”? Lots of starchy, official language like that.

The entire operation had been performed with the ease and surety which bespoke a considerable familiarity with the technique just employed. (Ch 10) — …’bespoke’?

The grotesque

This strikes me as being the cruelest and most grotesque of the MacLean novels I’ve reread to date. The baddies

  1. try to drive Sherman insane by clamping headphones to his ears and then playing the very amplified tone of lots of clock chimes going off at once
  2. orchestrate the sadistic gruesome murder of his assistant Maggie, who is stabbed to death by a group of Dutch farmer’s wives with pitchforks (!)
  3. kill the girl he’s trying to help, Astrid, piercing her broken neck with a thick hook and suspending her corpse from a chain outside a warehouse loading bay
  4. and, in the climax of the novel, Sherman causes the lead baddie to plunge to his death, skewered by the hook at the end of the cable hanging from the arm of a building crane

There are also number of grotesque characters including:

  • the unctuous Reverend Goodbody, who turns out to be a psychopath
  • the two obese warehouse owners Morgenstern and Muggenthaler
  • the creepy figure of Trudi, the 18 year-old heroin addict who pretends to have a mental age of 8 but turns out to be the demented mistress of the chief baddie

The imagery of the spooky puppets which recur throughout the book, the notion there’s something uncanny about lifesize puppets (let alone a warehouse full of them among which a killer is hiding) reminds me of the terrible Anthony Hopkins film, Magic, which features a demonic ventriloquist’s dummy. And the taste for macabre deaths reminds me of the movie, The Omen where everyone who opposes the little devil is disposed of in increasingly gruesome ways. All part of a very dated taste.

Conclusion

Why, if I am so critical, bother to read this book or any Maclean novel? Because, in the best first fifteen or so, the plot itself ie the pell-mell onrush of incidents, is so imaginative and suspenseful and gripping that your eye and mind skip over the clunky sentences and ‘wry’ humour to find out what happens next. The fundamental psychological pattern of the single man/hero in extremis, battling against overwhelming odds, and just about surviving and prevailing over every threat, plays to something so deep in the psyche that superficial criticism of some elements of style can do nothing to impede it. It’s a cracking good read.

Movie

Like most MacLean novels, this was made into a rather poor film, and very soon (1971) after the book’s publication (1969). If the movie of Fear Is the Key is notable for its twenty-minute (!) car chase, Puppet On A Chain features one of the earliest movie speedboat chases (through the canals of Amsterdam).

Related links

Cover of the 1971 Fontana paperback edition of Puppet on a Chain

Cover of the 1971 Fontana paperback edition of Puppet on a Chain

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.

Bad

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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