The Dark Crusader by Alistair MacLean (1961)

This is a cracking thriller, but with a significantly different tone from the earlier books. It seems like Fear Is The Key is the first of MacLean’s thrillers to adopt self-deprecating humour in the first-person narrator which would become a trademark. In The Dark Crusader, the next in the series, the same lighter tone is present in spades, along with a snappier writing style, using facetiousness, self-deprecation and repetition for comic affect.

‘OK, friend,’ I said. I meant it to sound cool and casual but it came out more like a raven – the hoarse one – croaking on the battlements of Macbeth’s castle. ‘I can see it’s a gun. Cleaned and oiled and everything. But take it away, please. Guns are dangerous things.’ ‘A wise guy, eh?’ he said coldly. (Ch 1)

I prised open the hatch cover. Nobody shot me. Nobody shot me because there was nobody there to shoot me, and there was nobody there to shoot me because no one but a very special type of moron would have ventured out on that deck without an absolutely compelling reason.  Even then he would have required a suit of armour… Enormous cold drops of water, so close together as to be almost a solid wall, lashed the schooner with a ferocity and intensity I would not have believed possible. (Ch 2)

Less than three hundred yards further on I found the end of the tunnel. I rubbed my forehead, which had been the part of me that had done the finding, then switched on the tiny pencil-beam of light. (Ch 6)

‘Some Hong Kong beer before we go?’ ‘Sounds fine, Professor.’ So we went and drank his beer and it was as good as he promised. We had it in the living room where he’d first taken us and I looked at the various exhibits in the glass-fronted cases. To me they were only a mould collection of bones and fossils and shells, of stone pestles and mortars, of charred timber and clay utensils and curiously shaped stones. It was no difficulty at all not to show any interest and I didn’t show any interest because the professor had shown signs of being wary of any person interested in archaeology. (Ch 4)

My jaw seemed alright. It hurt, but it was still a jaw. (Ch 6)

I turned the operating screw of the shark-repellent canister and a darkish evil-smelling liquid – it would probably have been yellow in daylight – with extraordinary dissolving and spreading qualities spread over the surface of the sea. I don’t know what the shark-repellent did to the sharks, but it certainly repelled me. (Ch 7)

The humour, the facetious tone, make it more bubble-gum, more fun. The Last Frontier felt very earnest, the experience of the book heavily affected by the ‘serious’ political and philosophical discussions, but more so by the simple facts of what the people of Hungary went through between the wars, during the Nazi occupation, during the Soviet era, which are recounted by various characters. No laughing matter.

But this novel – about a dastardly plot to capture the Navy’s new secret weapon rocket – is good-natured hokum, the cutting-edge-of-British-science theme, along with the jokey, facetious tone of the Secret Agent hero, and his pairing with a stunningly good-looking agentess, all reminiscent of Ian Fleming’s Thunderball, published in the same year, 1961.

Some of the Bond novels were serialised as comic strips in the newspapers. These could be the same. In six short years MacLean has moved a long way from the earnest tragedy of HMS Ulysses and Navarone to a light, bright style which anticipates the 1960s bubblegum antics of TV series like the cool but ridiculous Man From UNCLE. The Fontana cover features a long-legged dollybird in a colourful 60s miniskirt being protected by a knife-wielding dude with a more than passing resemblance to Steve McQueen, even down to McQueen’s Bullit-era hush puppies.

‘Mind if I rip this sleeve off?’
‘Go ahead,’ I said. ‘But mind you don’t rip the arm off at the same time. I don’t think there’s a great deal holding it in place.’ (Ch 8)

The third person

A noticeable part of the routine is for the protagonist to think or talk about himself in the third person, generally in exasperation or self-criticism.

‘Good old Bentall,’ I said savagely. ‘Never misses a thing… Ten to one he had a concealed mike down in that hold which let him know whenever Bentall, the Einstein of espionage, made such shattering discoveries.’ (Ch 6)

It was then that I heard the singing. This was it, Bentall’s tottering reason had gone at last, the shock of what I’d just seen and done had overstrained more than the facial muscles. Bentall unhinged, Bentall round the bend, Bentall hearing noises in  his head. What would Colonel Raine have said if he knew his trusty servant had gone off his trolley? (Ch 6)

Good old Bentall, I thought bitterly, nothing of the common touch about him, whenever he wishes for something it has to be really unattainable. (Ch 7)

The evidence was all before me now, Bentall with the blinkers off – at last – and I knew the truth, also at last. Counter-espionage, I thought bitterly, they should never have left me out of the kindergarten, the wicked world and its wicked ways were far too much for Bentall, if he could put one foot in front of the other without breaking an ankle in the process that was all you could reasonably expect of him. On flat ground of course. (Ch 10)

God, I should have known this was coming, I thought of her face twisted in pain, the hazel eyes dark in agony, it was the most obvious thing in the world. Only Bentall could have missed it. (Ch 10)

This tendency becomes epidemic by towards the end where our hero, seriously beaten, bitten, shot and whipped, blames himself for everything which has gone wrong. Not sure I’ve read another book in which the protagonist spends so much time beating himself up.

Raymond Chandler influence

I was wondering where this breezy light-hearted tone had come from when I read the following sentence:

I became vaguely aware that Anderson and the red-faced man, whom he addressed as Farley, were talking together and then the vagueness vanished. I heard a couple of words that caught and transfixed my attention the way a tarantula in my soup would have done. (Ch 8)

Possibly the most famous of Raymond Chandler’s many colourful similes is this:

Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food. (Farewell, My Lovely, chapter 1)

I’d already noticed some Americanisms in among MacLean’s usually very British prose, and some of the wisecracking had an American tone. This small clue clinched it. Consciously or unconsciously, it seems to me MacLean is paying homage to the master of snappy, thriller prose. Now the surprising thing about Raymond Chandler, for anyone new to him, is how funny he is, what a wise-cracking joker his protagonist, Philip Marlowe, is, mostly at his own expense, mostly at the expense of the mistakes and errors he makes in all his cases, often blaming himself for the (generally fatal) consequences. Chandler demonstrates that you can write quite noir material about kidnaps and drugs and murder – and be stylish and witty about it too.

Seems to me MacLean has swallowed Chandler whole and is attempting his own version of it, in the light-hearted, self-deprecating tone which is to become the characteristic of the first person narrators of his all thrillers from now on.

I grunted something appropriate and as short as it could decently be and went for that dirnk like a thirst-stricken camel for the nearest oasis. (Ch 3)

I didn’t expect to find anything there that I wouldn’t have found in any other kitchen, and I didn’t. But I found what I was after, the cutlery drawer. (Ch 5)

Three yards ahead of me a bush moved. Shock froze me into involuntary and life-saving immobility, no relic dug out by the professor was ever half so petrified as I was at that moment… I lowered myself back to the ground like a gambler laying down the last card that would lose him his fortune. I made a mental note that all this stuff about oxygen being necessary for life was a tale invented by doctors. I had completely stopped breathing. (Ch 5)

It would be ridiculous to deny that I was frightened, and so I won’t. I was scared and badly scared. (Ch 7)

‘Take a good look,’ LeClerc said. ‘That’s all you’re here to do – to take a good look.’
I took a good look. (Ch 10)

My left arm and the left side of my face were engaged in a competition to see which could make me jumpmostr and the competition was fierce, but after a while they gave it up and the whole left side of my body seemed to merge into one vast and agonising pain. (Ch 10)


However, unfortunately, MacLean is not the master of English prose that Chandler is, and along with the new note of humour goes a new kind of overcomplex sentence, a new heavy-handedness in the prose, which wasn’t so noticeable in Ulysses or Navarone where he had focused on describing the action as curtly as possible. Generally, he can’t resist adding a second clause where one would be enough, or adjectives where they would best be cut.

He broke off as a side door opened and a girl walked into the room. I say ‘walked’ because it is the usual word to describe human locomotion, but this girl didn’t locomote, she seemed to glide with all the grace and more than the suggestion of something else of a Balinese dancing girl. (Prologue)

No pickpocket ever lifted a wallet with half the delicate care and soundless stealth that I used to lift one of these baulks out of position and lean it against its neighbour. (Ch 6)

The lights still burned in the professor’s window, I would have taken odds that he has no intention of going to sleep that night, I was beginning to know enough of his nature to suspect that the exhaustion of a sleepless night would be a small price to pay for the endless delights of savouring to the full the delightful anticipations of the pleasures of the day that was to come. (Ch 7)

And humour is difficult. Unless you have done it with impeccable timing, nothing dates as fast as strained jocularity.

I looked awful. One horrified glance at me would have had any life assurance salesman in the land jumping on his fountain pen with both feet. (Ch 6)

I’d get no Oscars for counter-espionage, but as an arsonist I was neck and neck with the best. (Ch 7)

‘Good Lord! A female!’ Although biologically accurate enough it struck me as a singularly inept term to describe Marie Hopeman. (Ch 8)

If it wasn’t for the fact that my nervous system seemed to have completely stopped working, I’d probably have jumped a foot. If I’d the strength for any gymnastics like that, which I hadn’t. (Ch 8)

Great read

Aspects of style sometimes interest me more than the subject or plot, but it’s worth emphasising that The Dark Crusader is a gripping and exciting thriller, which moves fast and puts its hero into a satisfyingly varied range of perilous situations – it’s about a very contemporary (to its date) issue (inter continental missiles and nuclear armageddon) – and which had one big surprise left at the end which I hadn’t anticipated at all. As usual the reader is conscious of the absurdities and illogicality of the plot but these are over-ridden by the sheer page-turning excitement of the steady succession of twists and turns and jeopardies which MacLean is such a master at constructing.

Cover of the early 1970s Fontana paperback edition of The Dark Crusader

Cover of the early 1970s Fontana paperback edition of The Dark Crusader

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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1 Comment

  1. Annie

     /  November 25, 2014

    Hi Simon,

    I have just started re-reading Maclean’s books and I have to say I thoroughly enjoy reading your reviews. Keep up the good work.


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