The Last Frontier by Alistair Maclean (1959)

The Hungarian Uprising against the communist government and rule from Moscow took place in October 1956, so MacLean was writing this spy story set in Hungary just a few years after it was brutally crushed, while the memory was still fresh, while the harsh repressions, imprisonments, tortures and executions were recent events. It was his first foray into writing an espionage thriller as opposed to war stories, with mixed results.

As usual the hero has a bland, everyman sort of name – Michael Reynolds – and is an unspecified age, maybe mid-30s. He is a highly-trained British special agent, smuggled into Hungary to retrieve an idealistic British rocket scientist who has defected in the naive belief that the Soviets will use his knowledge to bring about world peace. Things go wrong from the start, and our hero is thrown into a series of tense and dangerous situations.

First or third person narrator

Unlike the later novels a) it is told in the third person b) the protagonist, Reynolds, is a rather unrealistic character – he is, at least to start with, just a bit too much of a cold, calculating espionage machine. Possibly the two are connected. Describing someone else allows you to romanticise or exaggerate their abilities, possibly a little too far. Inhabiting a character in the first person:

  • Tends to bring them more down to earth – as author you can express, as reader you can experience, their worries and calculations.
  • Allows you to be aware of their mistakes – it seems to be a characteristic of the thriller genre to insert regular ominous proleptic comments – ‘If I hadn’t forgotten that key fact, lives wouldn’t have been lost later that could have been saved. I’ll have to live with that knowledge.’ This conceding of mistakes makes more of a psychological impact if done in the first person. It adds greatly to the sense of realism (we all make mistakes) and to the tragic, gritty, it’s-a-man’s-world ideology which is what these books are for.

So the switch to first-person narratives after this novel may have come because MacLean realised the advantages it gave in terms of psychological impact and narrative flexibility.

Physical trials and tragedy

A key characteristic of the thriller is the extreme physical trials the hero must undergo. In HMS Ulysses and Night Without End and even the Guns of Navarone and in the hurricane scenes of Fear Is The Key the protagonists fight not just the enemy but really extreme weather conditions. The elements, the very universe, is against them in a King Lear kind of a way.

It was hopeless, he told himself, worse than hopeless. With a steadily increasing wind gusting up to forty, perhaps even fifty miles an hour and the train doing the same speed diagonally into it, the combined total strength of that now howling wind outside was that of a whole gale, maybe a little more – and a whole gale that was no gale at all, just a screaming white wall of almost horizontally driving snow and ice. (Ch 10)

And the enemy fights them. They are always getting beaten up and injured, pretty badly. Shot, beaten, broken nose, broken limbs, smashed teeth, pumped full of mind-bending drugs to drive you insane or having headphones clamped to your head which play the chimes of massive bells at earsplitting volume, designed to kill (Puppet on a Chain).

And almost always a close colleague dies:

  • making the danger seem real and close
  • giving the hero and the reader an opportunity to deal with his emotions in a tight-lipped, tough guy manner (‘I pulled his coat up over his face, but there was no time to lose…’)

The intensity of these physical and emotional trials connects them with the literary tradition of tragedy, where men are stripped back to their raw essence in face of a cruel world; and back beyond that, to rites of passage and trials of manhood or to earn kingship, which are routinely found in pagan, ancient or primitive societies. The hero is put through a physical wringer but also learns about the world and emerges dis-illusioned, with clearer insight into Life, Humanity, the World as, of course, we the reader, the vicarious partaker of these extreme experiences, also does.

But, completely unlike tragedy, there is a conventional love component i.e. the (always) male protagonist, almost always stumbles across an eligible, single, child-rearing-age woman in the course of his adventures and, whatever else the mission started off being about, now at least part of it ends up being about saving the girl. Thus the air stewardess in Night Without End, the heiress in Fear Is The Key, the girls in Puppet on a Chain and When Eight Bells Toll.

Against this background, then, it is no surprise that in The Last Frontier the hero is arrested several times, badly beaten (face smashed, lips burst, loses some teeth) and undergoes experimental chemical treatment designed to drive him out of his mind, along with torture based on extremes of heat and cold, plus the basic challenges of surviving the intense cold of the Hungarian winter. All of which he walks away from to still, single-handedly, save the day. One of his closest colleagues ‘tragically’ dies but, of course, our man saves the girl, and they both eventually make it back to Austria and ‘freedom’.

Overdoing the enemy

And then there is the wickedness of their human opponents, who often have superhuman attributes such as: computer-like rationality, imperviousness to pain, complete absence of empathy as they torture or kill innocents. Literature is (meant to be) interested in subtlety, and is capable of investigating great psychological subtlety and complexity: the descriptions of people in these thrillers lack subtlety, they make a merit of going to extremes, of using hyperbole.

Reynolds stared at him and had to force himself not to shiver. There was something evil, something abnormally wrong and inhuman about the quiet-talking commandant with the gently humorous professorial talk, all the more evil, all the more inhuman because it was deliberately neither, just the chillingly massive indifference of one whose utter and all-inclusive absorption in an insatiable desire for the furthering of his own particular life’s work left no possible room for any mere consideration of humanity. (Chapter 8)

In my opinion MacLean routinely overdoes this. The German commandant in Guns of Navarone was described in similar terms, the baddies in Puppet On A Chain ditto, when Doc Morris looks into the eyes of the reverend Smallwood in Night Without End MacLean goes into a dithyramb about evil.

Whereas everything we have learned about evil over the past hundred years is how squalid and banal and everyday it is. It is only presented in the form of highly intelligent, suave and polite psycho masterminds who enjoy having long civilised chats about just how clever you’ve been to get this far, in this kind of over-wrought thriller and James Bond movies.

In fact, the ‘Ah, Mr Bond, we meet at last….’ moment occurs in this novel not once but several times as Reynolds is (very believably) caught and (wildly improbably) escapes – several times. Thus the commandant of Szarháza, Hungary’s most feared prison, is no thug (‘Gentleman, please take a seat’) but a refined and educated man, ‘reckoned the greatest expert on psychological and physiological breakdown procedures outside the Soviet Union’.

‘This, gentlemen, is the moment, if ever there was a moment, for gloating: a self-confessed British spy – that recording, Mr Reynolds, will create an international sensation in the People’s Court – and the redoubtable leader of the best-organised escape group and anti-communist ring in Hungary, both in one fell swoop…It is, incidentally, a pleasure to deal with intelligent men who accept the inevitable and who are sufficiently realistic to dispense with the customary breast-beating lamentations, denials and outraged expostulations of innocence.’ (Ch 8)

In Night Without End there are a lot of paragraphs repeating just how evil, wicked, cold and heartless the two baddies are: ‘I was looking into the eyes of ultimate evil…’ etc. The cheesiness of this is quickly and easily ignored because the plight of the heroes, struggling against the terrifying Arctic storm conditions, has a truly epic feel, is all-encompassing, and you skip the commentary to find out what happens next.

However, in The Final Frontier, Reynolds is confronting the entire communist system in Eastern Europe, specifically the feared secret police, or AVO, in Hungary, backed by the looming menace of the USSR. This is a big enemy, a big subject to define and describe, and in my opinion the more MacLean stops the plot to describe the AVO in detail and fill us in on the background of the Hungarian Rising, and then the background before that – the sufferings of Eastern Europeans under the Nazis, how the Russians were initially and mistakenly greeted as saviours etc – the less successful he is.

Certainly, fear and dread have to be created in a thriller to raise the stakes, in order for the events in the novel to have a high-wire, edge-of-your-seat quality – ‘Oh my God, what will happen to them if they’re caught?’ To scare the reader into turning each page with white knuckles.

Which is why although slowing the flow of events to a standstill while, for example, the underground leader’s daughter describes in some detail the harrowing suffering of her father before, during and after the war certainly adds detail and background and lays on the atmosphere of fear and menace, it also undermines the pace.

In this respect The Last Frontier is an interesting experiment, an attempt to give historical and psychological background to a story, but I’m guessing MacLean realised it was a mistake and got in the way of the main purpose of his novels – Pace: the relentless unfolding of high tension events, which the immediately following novels, Night Without End and Fear Is the Key, have in spades.

Philosophy and politics

Something else MacLean tries out here and never tries again, is long philosophical and political speeches. The venerable, white-haired underground leader, Jansci, builds up respect as we learn more about his appalling sufferings before, during and after the war, which have conspired to turn him into a quietly-spoken saintly figure. Towards the end of the book he is given a speech which lasts 4 or 5 pages pleading for better mutual understanding between eastern and western blocs. Only by ceasing to hate and fear each other, only by meeting and talking and understanding each other, can we overcome the fear that threatens the existence of the world, in an era of superpowers with huge arsenals of thermonuclear weapons.

‘There is no certainty that it will come in our time. It’s a gamble, it must be a gamble, but better surely a gamble from hope, however tenuous that hope, than a gamble from despair and pressing the button that sends the first intercontinental missile on its way. But for the gamble to succeed, understanding comes first; mountains, rivers, seas are no longer the barriers that separate mankind, just the minds of mankind itself. The intolerance of ignorance, not wanting to know – that is the last real frontier left on earth.’ (Ch 11)

The novel has unusual complexity for a MacLean thriller because there are counter-threads, different characters represent different views, and the plot regularly stops so they can fill in historical background or have political debates:

  • The rocket scientist the whole plot was meant to be about goes on a journey from his early position of even-handedly debating the relative rights and wrongs of East or West (i.e. he naively believes the Soviets want peace, which is why he has defected) to witnessing the brutality of the secret police against his friends and against himself, before arriving at a much chastened view.
  • The Count, the Zorro-like dashing trickster who impersonates a high-ranking AVO officer and saves the day more than once, has also experienced the brutality of the inter-war years and his more jaundiced view is set against Jansci’s idealism.
  • And Reynolds, the hero, is confused enough by the complexity of the society he is infiltrating and especially by the subtlety and forbearance of Jansci’s philosophy, to swear that this will be his last mission for the Secret Service.

Cold War, old war

The arguments of the various characters about the political situation of East and West and how to handle communism were probably current and relevant in the late 1950s. Now, even for someone interested in history like me, they seem antiquated in a way the plot isn’t. The thriller, with its primitive ethos of testing manhood, will never go out of date. Whereas the arguments about whether to try to outgun the Soviets or engage at cultural and economic level are over 50 years-old and belong to a vanished world. I have to explain to my children what communism was and how the world was split into two power blocs – and they don’t believe me. Why didn’t they just agree to live by their different systems, my son asks me.

This is a good and interesting read, but not a classic MacLean.


Related links

Early 1970s Fontana cover of The Last Frontier

Early 1970s Fontana cover of The Last Frontier

The first 22 Alistair MacLean novels

Third-person narrators

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 narrators – 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.

Still pretty good

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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