Caravan to Vaccarès by Alistair MacLean (1969)

 The plot

This is a short (188 pages), intense action thriller, told in 10 chapters, but whose action can be divided into four or so parts.

Prologue A terrified young gypsy, Alexandre, is pursued through a sequence of eerie limestone caves, until he is cornered, murdered and buried under rubble. His killers are other gypsies who he has, in some way, crossed.

Part one Sets the scene in exclusive, luxury hotel, Les Baumanière, in the south of France, situated close to the dramatic cliffs of Les Baux upon which lie the remains of a formidable medieval city. Here are encamped hundreds of gypsies in their brightly painted caravans, en route to the big annual gypsy festival south of Arles. We are introduced to a small cast of colourful characters who will appear throughout the narrative:

  • Czerda – chief baddie gypsy
  • Ferenc – his son, just as bad
  • Koscis and Hoval – sidekicks
  • Neil Bowman – hero, unarmed tough guy, obviously some kind of agent
  • Cecile Dubois – one of the pair of girls staying at the hotel
  • Lila Delafont – her friend
  • the Duc de Croytor – an immensely fat, continually eating aristocrat who is posing as a folklorist and expert on gypsy life

The first chapter opens with Bowman flirting with the girls and expressing admiration of the gypsies. They wander round the booths of the fair the gypsies are setting up, and Bowman humorously has his palm read by a succession of old soothsayers – they tell him he will be married soon and this forms the basis for a running flirtation with Cecile.

Later that night he goes snooping round the caravans long enough to see Alexandre’s mother, sister and fiancée weeping his disappearance in their caravan, and then, in another caravan, to see Czerda pointing something on a map out to his accomplices. But almost immediately Bowman is spotted by baddies who give chase with nasty-looking knives. He takes brief refuge in Cecile’s room, before fleeing across the patio, down the stairs and off up into the ruined city on the cliffs. Bowman has no weapon so the chase becomes a genuinely tense cat and mouse affair, but he manages to bump off two of the baddies, by tricking them and throwing them off the cliff to the vast distance to the plains below. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaagh. Very cinematic.

Bowman returns to Cecile’s room and tells her she has to pack and leave since the baddies now think she’s with him. He persuades her to give him the keys to her car, finds it in the darkened car park, starts it up and roars off to meet her at the back of the hotel, en route running Ferenc over. Shame. Bowman and Cecile flee with the gypsies in hot pursuit in their jeep – except Bowman has let its tyres down so it slews across the main road and rolls down the embankment, badly injuring the villains.

Cecile demands an explanation which Bowman doesn’t give. Instead he pulls over only a mile down the road, turns and drives quietly back to the hotel, parks and tiptoes up to Czerda’s caravan. Here he finds father and son nursing their injuries and promptly knocks them both unconscious with Ferenc’s gun, which he picked up in the chase. Cecile looks on as he tears the caravan apart, looking for something: he finds a roll of 80,000 francs which he confiscates, and a letter in code, takes it and leaves. Who are you? Cecile asks. Bowman doesn’t say.

Part two They drive to Arles to arrive on annual festival day where Bowman checks into a hotel, ditches the car, puts on skin colouring and a fake moustache and hires fancy dress for himself and Cecile. As in a caper movie all the characters from Les Baumanière turn up in Arles, notably the Duc de Croytor in his lime green Rolls Royce, driven by a pretty chauffeuse dressed in lime green uniform, and accompanied by Cecile’s friend Lila. Here also are all the gypsies, as well as the mysterious silent Chinese couple, and some new characters, namely a defrocked priest, Simon Searl. In a horrible sequence we see him consulting with the vile Czerda, and then see Alexandre’s innocent sister go into confession with him, encouraged by her mother to use him to contact the authorities. Instead, the next time we see her she is lying in the women’s caravan and her back has been whipped, flayed, till it is raw, as punishment for speaking out. But about what?

Bowman drives with Cecile out of town, suspecting he’ll be followed, and he is. He stops round a corner blocking the road so the tail is forced to stop in a hurry whereupon Bowman approaches the driver, Pierre Lacabro, with a wheel brace for weapon. There follows an intense fight in which Cecile plays the stereotypical dollybird role of standing to one side wringing her hands while the tough guys slug it out. Like many of the scenes, it seems written to go straight into a movie. Bowman gets the better of Lacabro who ends up thrown over the ravine into the waters of the river Rhône. Or has he miraculously survived…?

Back in town, Bowman and Cecile make another costume change and drive off: observed by the Duc de Croytor (who is he? what is his interest?) and the Chinese couple (who are they? why do they keep cropping up?).

Part three They drive south to a makeshift bullring set up by the side of the road at a place called Mas de Lavignolle and surrounded by hundreds of gypsy caravans. This is not a Spanish corrida where the (big) bull gets killed but the Provençal cours libre where nobody gets killed by the (smaller) bull though the bull-fighter or razateur still runs a mighty risk (p.131).

Bowman parks up and sneaks (again) into one of the baddies’ caravans, where he finds three men manacled to the wall. He is just identifying them as Count le Hobenaut, M. Tangevec, and an unknown third, when Czerda appears in the doorway with a gun. Oops. He and his henchman have also caught Cecile. Double oops.

It is at this moment that the Duc de Croytor makes his appearance, booming his way into the caravan and over-awing the baddies, young Lila in tow. He immediately starts berating them for their failure to get rid of Bowman. When one of them addresses him as Gaiuse Strome, the Duc cheerfully cuffs him round the face, before explaining to poor, confused Lila that the real Duc is presently on a trip up the Amazon and so he has ‘borrowed’ his identity. So Le Duc was the Mr Big all along. Aha.

The baddies return their attention to Bowman. He is going to come with them to the bull-ring. And if he refuses? A grisly henchman tears the back of Cecile’s dress down to the waist and presents the same whip which flayed Lily’s back. Ah. OK, says Bowman. He allows himself to be dressed in the costume of one of the clowns who entertain the crowd between fights and then to be dragged into the ring by Czerda et al (also dressed in clown costumes, to make the scene all the more grotesque).

Cut back to the caravan where a baddie is guarding the girls, along with the Duc. To everyone’s surprise the Duc asks where Bowman is and, when told he’s been taken to be killed in the ring, throws a paddy and clouts the baddie with the gun. Quick, he yells at Cecile: run and save your boyfriend. What! Can it be that the Duc is a goodie after all, masquerading as a baddie!! Damn MacLean and his unexpected plot twists!!!

In the ring Bowman is bloodied and bowed but just about still on his feet and dodging the bull, the crowd laughing their heads of and applauding the achievements of this formidable razateur. Suddenly Cecile appears in the stand yelling his name and Bowman realises she is free – he leaps over the wooden barrier and runs for it. Back in the caravan Le Duc, back in character as leader of the baddies, tells an amazed Czerda to find and bring Bowman to him at the Miramar Hotel in Saintes-Marie.

He then watches from the caravan as Bowman makes a break from his hiding place in a changing room and leaps onto a horse and gallops off. Czerda follows suit with a pack of baddies and there is a thrilling chase across the mudflats of the Camargue. Until Bowman’s horse throws the exhausted hero into a patch of quicksand. He is resigned to dying until Lacabro reluctantly gets a laryat from his saddle and throws it to Bowman.

Finally, everyone is gathered together in Czerda’s caravan (the Duc, Czerda and the baddies, the two women and Bowman) and the Duc uses the opportunity to go through the plan – and tell the reader what the devil the book is about. Turns out the three manacled men are nuclear scientists from behind the Iron Curtain. They were kidnapped in the Eastern bloc and have been smuggled out in gypsy caravans (which the authorities – superstitiously – never search) and are due to be put aboard a ship bound for China, in a deal worth millions.

Part four The Duc’s Rolls Royce and the baddie’s caravan arrive at the quayside and unload Bowman, the two girls, the three scientists and their wives into a speedboat which will take them out to the waiting Chinese ship. Bowman pulls a gun and negotiates his escape and that of the two girls. Then he jumps into the Rolls and there is a very filmic chase, as the Rolls drives along the canal road parallel to the speedboat, Bowman and the baddies exchanging shots. He accelerates ahead of them and hijacks a local fishing boat, and there is a waterborne chase scene worthy of a 1970s Bond film. It is here (page 175) that Bowman reveals to the frightened boat owner that he does, in fact, work for the British Secret Service. Ah.

There’s some more shooting, some more chasing until Bowman’s boat rams and sinks the speedboat (hooray) but the baddies jump aboard his boat (boo), they return to the quayside. In the quest for the money Bowman stole from him, Czerda takes them all back to the caves where the novel started, where Czerda and his men implicate themselves in Alexandre’s murder in front of witnesses.

It is here, finally, that the Duc de Craytor reveals himself, as I’d been suspecting for the past 80 pages or so, not only as a goodie, but actually as Bowman’s boss: they’ve been working together for some years tracking gypsies smuggling things across the Curtain and were tipped off by the Russians about the kidnapped scientists.

In a final, cartoon-like twist, the two girls themselves turn out to be agents working for the Navy (?), tasked with keeping an eye on Bowman and the Duc. Cue crooked smiles all round, Cecile running into Bowman’s arms, end credits, theme music.

Style

The plot is thrilling, fast-paced, visceral, written with the film adaptation in mind. But MacLean’s style is awful, ham-fisted and mealy-mouthed, laboriously arch and contrived.

He wanted to learn more and learn it quickly for the prospect of hanging around that brightly illuminated window indefinitely lacked appeal of any kind: there was something in the brooding atmosphere of tragedy inside that caravan and menace outside calculated to instil a degree of something less than confidence in the bystander. (p.37)

Every page has its clunking infelicity.

The expression on what little could be seen of Lacabro’s face registered a degree of unhappiness that was not entirely attributable to his sufferings: he had about him the wounded appearance of one whose injuries are not being accorded their due meed of loving care and concerned sympathy. (p.114)

Maybe some of it is meant to be funny, sharp or witty.

They appeared to have a craving for anonymity, a not unusual predilection on the part of would-be murderers. (p.145)

But mostly it comes over as an almost pathological inability to write plainly and clearly, without adding in redundant adjectives, clauses and laboured circumlocutions.

As Searl made to cross the road he had to step quickly and advisedly to one side to avoid being run down by Bowman’s horse. Bowman, Le Grand Duc could see, was swaying in the saddle to the extent that even although he had the reins in his hands he had to hold on to the pommel to remain in his seat. (p.156)

Sometimes it barely makes sense.

The watchers remained motionless on their horses: the impassiveness on their faces was frightening in its suggestion of a total implacability. (p.160)

The movie

A film was made of the novel, released in 1974 and directed by Geoffrey Reeve, starring David Birney, Charlotte Rampling and Michael Lonsdale. Surprisingly – given that the book reads like a novelisation of a movie, rather than a novel – the plot was changed quite a lot.

It doesn’t seem to be available on DVD, and is only available as a second-hand VHS on Amazon, though the whole thing can currently be viewed on YouTube.

Related links

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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