The Golden Rendezvous by Alistair MacLean (1962)

Another slick, effective and completely compelling thriller. Starts a bit slowly and has an Agatha Christie tinge to it, as it concerns a collection of very rich passengers on an exclusive cruise around the Caribbean, and takes a while to name and characterise each of them. As soon as possible, though, bodies start turning up and we know something bad is afoot, especially since we’ve been none-too-subtly told that an international mastermind has stolen a brand-new nuclear fission bomb from an American research facility. Could the two incidents by any chance be connected?

MacLean is such a master: despite the clunky prose and hammy emotions, the core of these texts is the swift pacing of plots which deliver a steady stream of unexpected twists and turns, shocks and surprises. Doesn’t matter that you can see some a mile off (you mean the first person hero First Officer John Carter will end up falling in love with the young woman he initially thinks a spoilt rich brat?) or that we know the protagonist will survive (since he is obviously alive to tell the story we are reading). Doesn’t change the fact that for long stretches my heart was racing and at some moments I almost stopped breathing from the physical sense of panic and tension the text generates.

All the hallmarks are here:

  • blandly named hero: First Officer John Carter
  • woman he initially dislikes but ends up falling for – Susan Beresford
  • baddies, evil, wicked, heartless, inhuman baddies
  • international espionage – as so often to do with Cold War weapons: an intercontinental missile in The Dark Crusader, a top secret missile guidance mechanism in Night Without End, a new type of nuclear fission bomb here
  • a very concentrated sequence of events told against a detailed timeline, with harsh and sometimes grotesque murders
  • once the plot’s in train, 150 pages of high-tension first-person non-stop thinking, worrying, planning, calculating, scheming

The psychological element

His fans acknowledge MacLean as a master of unexpected twists and reversals, as baddies turn out to be goodies or vice versa, people with incredible disguises turn out to be completely different from expected, or the entire plot turns out to be about something we hadn’t anticipated. But there is a higher level of the same thing, not unexpected events, but unexpected thoughts.

Part of the excitement is following the hero’s breathless, under-pressure thoughts as he tries to devise strategies and tactics against the baddies, and it is a key part of the pleasure to follow his plans only to see them abruptly overthrown or someone else pointing out the flaws in them, or events overcoming them and new plans having to be devised. As my son pointed out to me the other day, predators are the most intelligent of all animals because they are continually calculating the odds vis-avis their prey. Man the predator is no different, continually assessing and planning how to reach his objectives.

This mental aspect of the books, the continual drawing up and revising of plans, is as much a part of the enjoyment as the actual plot, the actual events which occur. In a scene towards the end the hero is searching for a map of the gold during the ten minutes he thinks it will take the baddies to supervise the professor arming the bomb, code name the Twister. Ten minutes and counting to find the vital diagram!

Where, where, would he keep it? Think, Carter, for heaven’s sake think. Maybe the professor was getting on with the arming of the Twister faster than anyone had thought possible. How did anyone know, as the radio broadcast had said, that it took all of ten minutes to arm it? If the Twister was such a secret – and until it had been stolen it had been such a top priority hush-hush secret that no member of the public had known of its existence – how did anyone know it took ten minutes to arm it? How could anyone know? Maybe all it required was a twist here, a turn there. Maybe – maybe he was finished already. Maybe —

I put these thoughts to one side, drove them out of my mind, crushed them ruthlessly. That way lay panic and defeat. I stood stock-still and forced myself to think, calmly, dispassionately. I had been looking in all the obvious places. But should I have been looking in the obvious places? After all, I’d gone through this cabin once before, looking for a radio, I’d gone through it pretty thoroughly, and I hadn’t seen any signs. He would have it hidden, of course he would have it hidden. He wouldn’t have taken a chance on anyone finding it, such as the steward whose daily duty it was to clean out his cabin, before his men had taken over the ship. No stewards on duty now, of course, but then he probably hadn’t bothered to shift it since the take-over. Where would he have hidden it where a steward wouldn’t stumble across it? (Ch 10)

A good deal of the text is like this, a first person narrator forcing himself to think calmly in a desperate, panic-stricken situation, and you are right inside his mind and you can smell the fear and the stress and the adrenaline. What’s often described as the paciness of the novels, their unputdownableness, is directly connected to the high-octane, stream-of-consciousness immediacy of the text. You can’t put the book down because you daren’t.

Alas it’s this, the psychological or SoC part of the texts, that tends to be jettisoned in all the film versions of MacLean’s novels, where the scriptwriters are forced – by time pressure and by the limitations of film as a medium – to go for the explosions and shoot-outs. It is jettisoning the mental aspects of the plots, precisely the part which makes them so gripping, which results in so many of the film adaptations of MacLean’s thrillers ending up as lame collections of clichéd situations. It isn’t the situations, the shoot-outs and sneaking-up-on-the-sentry-in-the-dark, which grip – it is the narrator’s panic-stricken, under-pressure response to the situations. It is the thoughts, it is the words.

Decency

Something I haven’t emphasised enough is these books’ essential decency. The goody is always all good. Maybe the fallibility bits, the bits where he retrospectively realises his blunders, are there to add a little shade, to stop him being Perfect. But morally speaking, the heroes of these books are perfect, they are polite and considerate under normal circumstances, and go out of their way not to hurt people when the bullets start flying, they swear but the swearwords are never transcribed, they fall in love with the heroine but there is no hanky-panky at all and even when the women are referred to as having stunning figures, there’s no crudity or vulgarity.

And they win. Always.

Referring to himself in the third person

‘But certainly, Señor Carreras.’ Carter, that rough-hewn Anglo-Saxon diamond, not to be outdone in Latin courtesy. (Ch 1)

And the captain sent for me, I thought. Send for old trusty Carter when there’s dirty work on hand. (Ch 2)

I waited till the cabin stopped swaying around and the red-hot wires in my neck had cooled off to a tolerable temperature, then climbed stiffly out of my bunk. Let them call me stiff-neck Carter if they wanted. (Ch 4)

The narrator jocularly refers to himself in the third person in this book as often as in its predecessor, The Dark Crusader. I think it humanises him; it makes him seem more fallible; it is also an aspect of the sometimes questionable humour in the books; and it is a mannerism, a part of MacLean’s style.

The mirror

The hero’s unexpected reflection in the mirror causes (yet another) moment of panic. Also another way to compound the hero’s sense of fatality, woundedness, fatedness.

I had one bad moment when I entered Carreras’s own sleeping cabin and saw this desperate hooded, crouched figure, dripping water, hands clenched round weapons, with wide staring eyes and blood dripping down beside the left eye. Myself in a looking-glass. (Ch 10)

The shapeless dead

A thriller needs bodies, needs descriptions of bodies. Having read Chandler it is difficult to escape the rhythm and word painting of the master. This description reminiscent of descriptions of corpses in Raymond Chandler.

We’d found Dexter all right, and we’d found him too late. He had that bundle of old clothes look, that completely relaxed huddled shapelessness that only the dead can achieve. (Ch 5)

Prolepsis / regret

Three or four times in each novel the hero, writing in a hypothetical present, looks back with bitter regret that he didn’t anticipate some key aspect of the plot, and that this mistake cost lives. They are a rather clunky way of making the hero seem more human, and they add to the reader’s experience of tension, of anxiety, foreboding.

And my guess was completely wrong. But the thought that this fake Marconi-man might have employed himself in another way during his stay in the wireless office did not occur to me until many hours later: it was so blindingly obvious that I missed it altogether, although two minutes’ constructive thought would have been bound to put me onto it. But those hours were to elapse before I got around to the constructive thought: and by that time it was too late. Too late for the Campari, too late for its passengers, and far far too late for all too many of the crew. (Ch 5)

Heavy humour

The first MacLean I reread in 30 years was When Eight Bells Toll and I was susprised by the facetious wit which runs through it. Now I realise it is a definint characteristic of his style, for reasons given above. Sometimes it works and I’ve laughed out loud – sometimes it’s close – sometimes it falls to the ground with a thud.

I made a mental note, in the not unlikely event of Lord Dexter turfing us both out of the Blue Mail, to turn down any suggestions by Captain Bullen the we should go into a detective agency together: there might be better ways of starving, perhaps, but none more completely certain. (Ch 5)

With that she banged the door and was gone. The door didn’t splinter in any way but that was because it was made of steel. (Ch 5)

I’d never before realised that auburn hair and green eyes were a combination that couldn’t be matched, but possibly that was because I’d never before seen an auburn-haired girl with green eyes. (Ch 10)

‘It’s not all over, Susan.’ I’d never make a salesman, I thought drearily, if I met a man dying of thirst in the Sahara I couldn’t have convinced him that water was good for him. (Ch 10)

Related links

Cover of the 1971 Fontana paperback edition of The Golden Rendezvous

Cover of the 1971 Fontana paperback edition of The Golden Rendezvous

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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1 Comment

  1. Graham Ward

     /  July 15, 2015

    The books written after Circus are so far removed from his earlier stories that I wonder whether they were wholly written by Alistair MacLean.

    Reply

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