Breakheart Pass by Alistair MacLean (1974)

In a new departure for MacLean, this is a historical novel, set in the Rocky Mountains in 1873. The story is entirely about an ill-fated train journey up into the snow-covered hills. Preliminary scenes in the frontier town of Reese City establish the main characters:

  • Colonel Claremont – in charge of 5o US cavalry
  • Colonel Fairchild – Commandant of Fort Humboldt
  • Governor Fairchild – governor of Nevada
  • Marica Fairchild – the governor’s niece and daughter of Colonel Fairchild
  • Major O’Brien – the governor’s aide
  • Nathan Pearce – US marshall
  • Revd Theodore Peabody – chaplain for Virginia City
  • Dr Molyneux – US Army doctor
  • John Deakin – supposed arsonist and murderer, captured in a bar-room fight and being taken in chains to the fort

The cavalry have been ordered to travel by train along the perilous railway up into the blizzard-obscured mountains to bring aid to the isolated Fort Hauberman, where an outbreak of cholera is ravaging the garrison. However, as the journey progresses there is a litany of mysterious disasters:

  • two key officers never even make it on to the train, missing, presumed dead
  • the doctor who is to provide the medical care, is found dead, expertly murdered with one of his own scalpels
  • in a dramatic scene, the rear three coaches of the train – housing all the cavalry – are decoupled by persons unknown on a steep part of the line, so that they run backwards out of control and plummet to their destruction into a deep ravine. Where was the brakeman at the back of the train? Face down on the floor with a dagger through his heart!!
  • then the preacher, Dr Peabody, goes missing

In other words, the story turns into a ‘closed room’ detective story: one of the survivors in the list above must be the baddie. But what’s the motivation? Why all this mayhem? Well, cutaways to the supposedly ravaged fort reveal that, far from being a hospital for ill soldiers, it has been seized by notorious baddie, Sepp Calhoun, in uneasy cooperation with leader of the savage Paiute tribe, White Hand. And they are talking darkly of the immense profits to be made…

Meanwhile, as the story progresses, Deakin, who they all take to be a savage murderer in response to a Wanted poster listing his crimes of burning down a hotel and blowing up a railway station, killing a lot of people – well, he in fact does what almost every other MacLean protagonist does – operates in secret to identify the real baddies. We see him sneaking round the train finding the bodies of the two missing army officers, discovering that the coffins bound for the Fort are in fact full of guns and ammo, hiding the telegraph equipment (since he suspects the official telegraphists have been corrupted by the gang) and generally uncovering the Truth.

Like previous MacLean protagonists John Talbot, John Bentall, John Carter, Pierre Cavell, John Carpenter, Philip Calvert, Paul Sherman, Neil Bowman and Johnny Harlow, John Deakin feigns ignorance, even pretends to be a criminal himself, but in fact turns out to be a government law enforcement officer, a secret agent, given carte blanche to bring to justice the wicked arms and gold smuggling gang any way he sees fit. In the final scenes it’s just him, pretty Marica, and decent old Colonel Claremont against all the others who are in on the criminal conspiracy.

Style

MacLean’s style went badly off in the early 1970s (though this is a better-written book than its predecessor, The Way To Dusty Death). a) He knows no subtlety. His characters are always in extremis. And b) their extreme emotions or physical states are described in a peculiarly arch and self-consciously baroque style. It is the opposite of slick and cool; it is stilted and clumsy.

    ‘Are you sure?’ It wasn’t so much disbelief in Claremont’s tone as a groping lack of understanding, the wearied bafflement of a man to whom too many incomprehensible things have happened too quickly.
Henry assumed an air of injured patience which sat well on his lugubrious countenance. ‘I do not wish to seem impertinent to the Colonel but I suggest the Colonel goes see for himself.’
Claremont manfully quelled what was clearly an incipient attack of apoplexy. ‘All of you! Search the train!’ (p.94)

Exaggeration There is a tendency for things to be totally w, completely x, very y indeed, or there’s no z whatsoever. Without exception the sentences would be more powerful without these adverbs or adverbial qualifiers. 

Deakin himself registered no emotion whatsoever. (p.26) Colonel Claremont’s temper normally lay very close to the surface indeed. (p.28) She closed the door softly behind her, then sat on her bed for a long time indeed… in a very short time indeed the darkness would be as close to total as it could be (p.56) They moved very quickly indeed (p.76) Carlos… appeared to be gloomily contemplating what must have been his very chilly feet indeed. (p.113) Deakin heard a sound.. and turned around very very slowly indeed. (p.118) Marica looked at him in totally uncomprehending silence, her face registering almost a state of shock. (p.140) He stared at her in total astonishment. (p.153) Pearce was moving very quickly indeed into the shelter of the leading coach. (p.157) The train, rapidly dwindling into the distance, was now going very quickly indeed. (p.178) O’Brien released the brake and opened the throttle very gently indeed. (p.181)

It’s almost like MacLean is having to convince himself.

In this book I noticed another trait – his tendency to use unnecessary adverbs and then to qualify them – thus adding two syntactical layers of redundancy to his sentences.

He had an almost incredibly wrinkled nut-brown face. (p.20)

You don’t need ‘incredibly’ in that sentence – that makes it sound like a comic. And you certainly don’t need ‘almost’ because that just highlights how pointless the ‘incredibly’ is.

  • The lean, dark, bitter face was set in lines of an almost frighteningly implacable cruelty… Deakin turned, the same almost viciously hard expression on his face. (p.99)
  • The impact of his back striking against the coach roof was almost literally stunning. (p.126)
  • None of the bullets, almost unbelievably, ricocheted about the interior of the cab. (p.159)

It is as if he has lost confidence in himself as a writer. Everything is cranked up in case you miss it. Like a drunk telling a good story, the story survives but is almost drowned in unnecessary embellishments and exaggerations.

The expression of shocked and staring incredulity as he realised that the rest of the train was no longer there was so extreme as to be almost a parody of the real thing. (p.135)

But it is the real thing. Henry is amazed. In whose mind is it almost a parody? In the mind of the imaginer, the author, the creator, who no longer really believes in his creation, who devises a stream of breath-taking scenarios but finds himself laughing out loud at their preposterousness.

In the early and mid-1960s MacLean wrote his best novels with first-person narrators who did an attractive line in self-deprecation even as they surmounted innumerable violent obstacles. But by the 1970s the ironic distance has gone and he is half-ridiculing his own plots and scenes – he himself is quick to point out how tired and clichéd they are – and it undermines their credibility.

Marica performed the classic gesture of putting her hand to her mouth, the dark smoky eyes huge in an ashen face. (p.149)

Why write scenes in which your characters act like parodies, sterotypes and clichés – and then point it out – if you haven’t half-begun to despise your success and your fame. MacLean’s later life is a sad affair of alcoholism, and I’m glad that, when I was a kid first reading these books, I didn’t know anything about it.

Still…

All that said – it’s a short 190 pages and it is a clever tale and it is packed with genuinely exciting scenes. If you peer through the horrible style, and if you ignore the author’s lack of confidence in himself, then Breakheart Pass is like a good graphic novel, action-packed, clever, fast-moving and thrilling. It’s a quick, effective poolside read. But if I was going to give someone an Alistair MacLean novel as an introduction, God, it wouldn’t be this one.

The movie

The novel was converted into a movie within a year, directed by Tom Griest and starring Charles Bronson, Ben Johnson, Richard Crenna, and Jill Ireland.

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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