The Way to Dusty Death by Alistair MacLean (1973)

‘Please don’t talk like that, Johnny. I’m scared. I’m scared all the time now, scared for you. There’s something terribly wrong, isn’t there, Johnny?’ (p.133)

Suddenly, in this 1973 novel, Maclean’s grasp of style and plot have collapsed. I was 12 or 13 when I started reading MacLean and devouring his back catalogue like sweets. Until I got to the newest ones, this and Breakheart Pass, which I remember struggling to read. And then I abandoned him altogether and moved onto adult writers. For forty years I’ve wondered whether I simply outgrew MacLean in the early 70s, or whether he had got measurably worse. Now I can say quite confidently – he got terrible.

Dusty Death feels like a cartoon or a comic strip compared with the depth, detail and conviction of most of the previous novels. The characters are paper-thin stereotypes: the greatest racing driver in the world; the best Formula One engineer in the world; the richest company owner in the world; two dastardly rivals; the most glamorous hotels, the finest food; the French assassin with his slicked-back black hair…

The plot

The world number one Formula One racing driver, Johnny Harlow (‘Oh, Johnny, Johnny, Johnny, what have they done to you?’), has suddenly lost his nerve, taken to drink, become a danger to himself and others. The novel opens in the aftermath of a bad crash where he pulled out in front of a rival overtaking him, at just the worst moment, causing the rival to spin off the track, crash and burn to death, while Johnny’s car went cartwheeling into his own pit, badly injuring the pretty daughter of the team owner – Mary MacAlpine – crushing her leg, laming her for life.

Despite this, everyone gets up the next day and carries on as usual. In a nutshell, Johnny is faking the alcoholism while he is busy breaking into rooms and skulking around the car transporter at midnight, digging up evidence to show that the rest of his team are drug smugglers, led by the fiendish main engineer, Jacobson, with the help of ‘the notorious Marzio brothers’ from Corsica (p.158); that they are keeping the team owner, MacAlpine quiet, by the simple expedient of holding his wife hostage; that they are responsible for his bad driving and for the crash which killed the other driver and lamed Mary, by sabotaging his car. Phew.

It read like a cartoon, made of one or two-page, simply-drawn scenes, and characters speaking simple-minded dialogue which would have looked better in speech bubbles.

Something about Mary The Wikipedia article about MacLean points out that his later books repeat plots and scenes and even whole sentences. And names, Mary or Maria becoming the recurring name of the heroine – there are two Marias in Force 10 From Navarone; in this one, MacAlpine’s wife is called Maria and his daughter Mary.

The style

Everything is cranked up to the max. All the actions or attributes are so-and-so indeed, or no such-and-such whatsoever, everything crudely over-emphasised.

The other man proceeded to search the unconscious Harlow in a very thorough manner indeed. (p.137) He looked very tired indeed. (p.145) The five occupants of the room stretched their hands very high indeed. (p.151) The swarthy man lifted his right hand very quickly indeed. (p.151) Tracchia listened very intently indeed. (p.160) For about three minutes he trailed them at a very discreet distance indeed. (p.174)

Emotions are overblown, 100%, total, complete. There is no subtlety or shading.

Neubauer’s voice was low-pitched, conspiratorial and totally convincing (p.88)… Dunnet remained totally unmoved (p.89)…For long seconds Dunnet stared at Harlow in total disbelief (p.110) ‘Dad? Blackmailed?’ Rory was totally incredulous. (p.146)

He’s much given to making a statement of fact in a facetious or question-begging way, and then picking up on his own wording, along the lines of – ‘He looked very unhappy – and unhappy was indeed the way he felt’ – where MacLean is reacting parodically or ironically or just lazily, not to the situation he’s describing, but to his own slack phraseology.It may have begun as humour but it has become a mannerism.

Dunnet lapsed into a semi-stunned silence and closed his eyes like a man in prayer. Very probably he was. (p.185)

He’s stopped believing what he’s writing. He’s stopped imagining it. Empty phrases proliferate. A parody MacLean sentence would read:

Harlow had the look of an unhappy man, as well he might do, having just received some very bad news indeed, that left him with no alternatives whatsoever, except to undertake the course of action he deemed necessary and had embarked on with an expression of dazed incredulity on his already strained and exhausted but still dashingly handsome face.

Actual sentences from the book include:

Normally the most icily calculating and safety-conscious of drivers, his impeccable standards had become eroded and his previous near obsession with safety dismayingly decreased while, contradictorily, he had consistently kept on breaking lap records on circuits throughout Europe. (p.10)

It is almost as if MacLean has forgotten how to write English.

The hands were still now, hands that bespoke a man at peace with himself, but it would seem likely that the hands belied and did not bespeak for it seemed equally that he was not at peace with himself and never would be again for to say that Johnny Harlow’s fortunes steadily declined from that day he had killed Jethou and crippled Mary one would be guilty of a sad misuse of the English language. (p.31)

Both Mary and Rory watched him go, the former with dull misery in her eyes, the latter with a mixture of triumph and contempt at which he was at no pains at all to conceal. (p.38)

The silence in the dining-room that evening was more in the nature of a cathedral hush, one that could not have been attributed to a beatific enjoyment of the food which was of a standard to earn for the Austrians the most astronomical odds against in the culinary stakes. (p.48)

Harlow remained thoughtful for some seconds, apparently lost in deep thought. (p.105)

Maybe MacLean’s incipient alcoholism was beginning to show; maybe he was ill – though he had another 13 years of life – and no fewer than 11 novels – left in him. But this novel signals a catastrophic, almost tragic, collapse in style and content. Where were his editors? Why wasn’t he getting help?cartoon

It was the best he could think of on the spur of the moment and, besides, the twins, though excellent mechanics, were of a rather simple cast of mind who would readily believe anything that a person of the stature of Johnny Harlow were to tell them. (p.115)

The movie

The novel was turned into a made-for-TV movie in 1995, directed by Geoffrey Reeve and starring Simon MacCorkindale as Harlow and Linda Hamilton as the romantic interest, Marie MacAlpine. There’s a short clip on YouTube. It looks dire.

1973 Fontana paperback edition of The Way To Dusty Death

1973 Fontana paperback edition of The Way To Dusty Death

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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