The Satan Bug by Alistair MacLean (1962)

In the pale wash of light from the lamp I still held in one hand, we all stared at each other, one half of our senses and minds outgoing and screwed up to the highest pitch of intensity and perception to detect the first signs of death in another, the other half turned inwards to detect the first signs in themselves.

‘Ian Stuart’

Although MacLean was phenomenally successful in terms of book sales he was irked by the critics who lined up to denigrate his prose style, the clunkier bits of plot, the melodrama etc. One criticism was that readers were just buying books with his bestselling name on them so, as an experiment, MacLean wrote two novels under the pen name Ian Stuart (his brother was called Ian), namely The Dark Crusader and this one. They didn’t sell as well as his named ones. Not sure if it was a conclusive experiment either way… In fact, this one is a bit different from the others: it takes a lot longer for the by-your-throat, panic-stricken tension to kick in, but without documentary evidence (letter, biography) it’s impossible to say whether that was a deliberate part of the test or just the way this story was always going to go…

Maimed hero

Pierre Cavell is the maimed hero, left leg crushed by a tank at Caen, exploding gas canister scarring his face, permanently damaging his left eye. As such attracted the beautiful Mary who looks after waifs and strays and she marries him. After the War has various jobs in security, getting kicked out of all of them for insubordination. This all establishes his credentials as a tough, non-nonsense he-man. The novel opens with him in the pokey office of his unsuccessful private detective agency, been open three weeks and had precisely no clients. Hard not to hear Raymond Chandler and the eternally down-on-his-luck Philip Marlowe in this scene. But his visitors that morning quickly establish the plot: the top secret germ warfare research institute at Mordon in Wiltshire has been broken into, scientists murdered, something stolen. Just so happens Cavell was head of security there till a few weeks before so is Number One Suspect until he clears himself, whereupon he becomes Number One Help to his visitors from Special Branch.

Married

Unlike the other novels, the hero doesn’t fall in love with the only nubile women in the cast in the course of the book; he’s already married. His references to his wife and the scenes where she helps him question various employees of the laboratory, in their homes with their doting family members around them, are calm and domestic and wildly at odds with the actual plot, which is that a madman has stolen a doomsday virus, an infectious virus so powerful it could wipe out all life on earth.

Cosy

This contrast, the discrepancy between the extremity of the science fiction plot and the cups of tea with Dr Hartnell’s nice old mother, reminds me of John Wyndham’s sci-fi novels in which decent English middle class people have to cope with the end of the world. Brian Aldiss famously described them as Wyndham’s ‘cosy catastrophes’ and that term could be applied to the first half of this novel. Reinforced when we learn his wife, the fragrant Mary, is also the only daughter of his Boss, Head of Intelligence, The General.

The volta

About a third of the way into the book, there is the twist or revelation scene common to most MacLean novels, where Cavell goes to meet the head of MI6 and it is revealed that he wasn’t booted out of Mordon for insubordination but all that was part of an elaborate plan or ruse, along with planting other agents at the Institute, because the security forces had been tipped off that something fishy was going on there for a while. From this point onwards there are a succession of exposes revealing that it is not the Communist conspiracy all the characters had thought it; not the threats of an end-of-the-world madman, and so on.

A robbery, not a plight

Unusually for MacLean, you are not plunged into a panic-stricken situation early on. The first half of the novel is essentially about a burglary – someone got into Mordon, killed two staff and stole the virus – and the sedateness with which Cavell investigates this along with Special Branch and then reports it to his Boss in London is more like an Agatha Christie novel than an echt MacLean: not at all like Eight Bells opening with a gun pointing at the hero, or Night which opens in the howling Arctic storm, or Fear which almost immediately becomes a high-speed car chase. In fact, the Christie-style comparison holds for a surprisingly long time because the first three-quarters of the book consist of Cavell trying to figure out which of the eight or so possible suspects is his man. There’s a brief interlude where he’s kidnapped and imprisoned in the cellar of an abandoned house but, as soon as he’s released and makes it back to the police, the text goes back to being an elimination game, with Christie-style red herrings eg was the scientist with massive debts being blackmailed into stealing the viruses? or is the one with the suspiciously luxurious house and lifestyle being paid by the Communists to steal secrets? etc. I think this is the flaw in the book which makes it significantly less successful than all the others I’ve read: the theme, the impact of germ warfare, and the existence of a virus which could kill all life on earth, is not matched by the treatment, ie several bumbling policeman interviewing people in their nice Wiltshire village, and a standard MacLean solo hero getting beaten unconscious, broken ribs, mangled hands, smashed-up face – who works it all out and saves the day in an, admittedly gripping, twenty-page finale in a blacked-out, evacuated central London. It just isn’t believable that, with the entire resources of NATO at their disposal, the British and other governments let everything depend on one beaten-up maverick. And at the end there is a final twist and revelation which, instead of upping the ante, lowers the tone, and makes the entire plot seem rather banal. For once, the movie version is better – it can’t convey the swift, pressurised calculations and gambles of the hero, the core of all these MacLean texts – but it does capture the real terror, the nerve-tingling horror of the notion of germ warfare and it does – significantly- drop the novel’s final, ill-advised plot twist.


Repetition

Several articles inform me that MacLean’s later novels became repetitive in character name, plot, even down to individual sentences. I rather like the idea that he gave up thinking up new names for the love interest and just called them all Mary. I think that would contribute positively to the sense of the formulaicness of the texts; after all everyone likes Homer repeating his epic epithets. Anyway, I spotted it happening here:

I fell heavily through the doorway on to the concrete passageway outside. If there was anyone waiting out there with the hopeful intention of clobbering me, he’d never have a better chance. No one clobbered me because there was no one waiting there to clobber me. (The Satan Bug Chapter 8)

I prised open the hatch cover. Nobody shot me. Nobody shot me because there was nobody there to shoot me. (The Dark Crusader Chapter 2)

These are the two novels he published under the Ian Stuart pseudonym and both in 1962. Good bet he was writing them simultaneously, and explains why phrases from one drifted into the other.

The beaten and battered hero

This is in the first half of the book. Cavell gets more of a beating later, as all MacLean heroes do, part of the formula and part of the masochistic pleasure men take in their fantasies.

It took ten minutes to saw through the PVC binding my wrists. I could have done it in far less time but as, with my hands tied behind my back, I couldn’t see what I was doing, I had to go easy: I could have sawn through an artery or a tendon just as easily as through a wire and I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference. My hands were as lifeless as that. They looked pretty lifeless too, when I’d severed the last PVC strand and brought them round to the front for examination, swollen to a size half as much again as normal with smooth, bluish-purple distended skin and the blood swelling slowly from the torn skin on the inside of both wrists and most of my fingers. I hoped that the dark flaking rust on the blade of the hacksaw wasn’t going to give me blood poisoning…

I pulled up my shirt to have a look at the right-hand side of my chest and just as quickly and roughly stuffed the shirt back under the waistband of my trousers. A prolonged inspection would only have made me feel twice as ill as I was already: in the few clear patches in the thick crust of blood that covered almost all of the side of my body the grotesquely swelling bruises were already turning all the kaleidoscopic colours of the rainbow…

It took me over an hour to cover the two miles to Netley… and finally I reached the main road where I sank down, half-kneeling, half-lying in a ditch behind the screen of some bushes. I felt like a water-logged doll coming apart at the seams. I was so exhausted that even my chest didn’t seem to be hurting any more. I was bone-chilled as a mortuary slab and shaking like a marionette in the hands of a frenzied puppeteer, I was growing old. (Ch 8)

The death penalty

Many things date these books, which are over 50 years old now. The entire Cold War/nuclear standoff background is now dead and gone, ancient history to my kids. Another aspect which is mentioned in many of them is judicial execution by hanging, reminding me that the death penalty for murder was suspended in 1965 and abolished in 1969. But in MacLean’s early novels it is still a very real risk that all the baddies take and a threat which can be used against them.

If this madman wipes out part of the country the nation will demand revenge. They’ll demand a scapegoat and public pressure will be so terrific that they’ll get their scapegoat. Surely you’re not so stupid as not to see that? Surely you’re not so stupid that you can’t visualise your wife Jane with the hangman’s knot under her chin as the executioner opens the trap-door. The fall, the jolt, the snapping of the vertebrae, the momentary reflex kicking of the feet – can you see your wife, Hartnell? Can you see what you are going to do to her? She is young to die. And death by hanging is a terrible death – and it’s still the prescribed penalty for a guilty accessory to murder for gain. (Ch 9)

Old cars

Because the psychological impact of the text – especially in the gripping final thirty-page chase and fight in an empty London railway station –  is so intense, it feels modern. But it isn’t. Something that’s really brought home when you look at the cars mentioned in the book:

And in the Wiltshire town of Alfringham, home of the fictional germ warfare research institute, there is just one set of traffic lights and it is hand operated by a white-caped traffic policeman. In fact this story belongs – technologically, culturally, psychologically – to another world.

Related links

Fontana paperback cover of The Satan Bug

Fontana paperback cover of The Satan Bug

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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