The Golden Gate by Alistair MacLean (1976)

Carter asked, ‘What’s he like, this Revson of yours?’
‘Ruthless, arrogant, independent, dislikes authority, a loner who consults superior officers only under duress and even then goes his own way.’ (p.90)

A sophisticated gang of criminals hijacks a convoy of coaches carrying the President of the USA, along with sheikhs and princes visiting from the Middle East, as it’s crossing the Golden Gate bridge. They have spent months planning and rehearsing the ‘caper’, have hijacked helicopters, seized local air traffic control and neutralised all the bodyguards, police and soldiers accompanying the convoy… but they hadn’t counted on the presence of special agent Revson, hiding under a fake name in the Press coach, which the kidnappers keep around in order to broadcast their ransom demands.

Yes folks – Only one man can save the president! One resourceful special agent, along with the young doctor in the President’s entourage who he recruits to the cause, and the beautiful young lady journalist they get to help them.

Sad decline

MacLean’s novels from the late 1950s through the late 1960s are among the most viscerally exciting and compelling thrillers ever written – Night Without End (1959) is one of the most nailbitingly intense books I’ve ever read. However, around 1970 his style, already tending towards flippancy and facetiousness, began to be dominated by this often silly tone, expressed in sentences which frequently spiralled out of control – and the plots themselves began to feel less like novels conceived as novels, and more like drafts of screenplays, novelisations of bad 70s disaster films or made-for-TV movies.

It feels like MacLean had stopped caring, and a glance at his biography shows that a) he was by this time the most successful writer in the world, with little more to prove b) was in the grip of an alcohol addiction which became steadily more serious: ‘He also struggled constantly with alcoholism, which eventually brought about his death in Munich in 1987.’ (Wikipedia article)

Made-for-TV characters

The President is elderly and courteous but quick to anger if life is threatened. The baddie, Branson, is cool and calculating, like Alan Rickman in Die Hard. His Swedish number two, Van Effen, is ready with a machine gun to shoot anyone who steps out of line (also rather like the blonde number two baddie in Die Hard). The authorities gathered round the radio in San Francisco municipal headquarters are led by the grizzled veteran, Hendrix, who holds tense radio conversations with Branson (‘You’ll never get away with this, you know.’) The dim Vice President pooh-poohs the chances of Revson saving the day – until he starts saving the day, whereupon he concedes with good grace that ‘Maybe your boy knew what he was doing all along’. The doctor who becomes Revson’s accomplice (O’Hare) is unexpectedly good at hiding secret gadgets and lying to the baddies. The beautiful girl journalist, April Wednesday, at first accuses Revson of being a heartless bastard, but then comes to realise he is their only hope, until she is eventually kissing him and telling him not to get hurt.

In other words, the book is a riot of hilarious stereotypes and characters about as deep as a puddle on a hot day.

How many movies have been made which involve hijacking Air Force One or breaking into the White House or otherwise endangering the Prez, or set on, or reaching a tense conclusion on, the Golden Gate bridge? (The Golden Gate bridge in movies) The entire book feels like a pitch to a movie or TV company. There is novelty in some of the details and twists but overall both the plot and the characters feel as predictable as a Roadrunner cartoon. Coyote falls of the cliff. Roadrunner triumphs. Beep beep!

Car crash sentences

Most of the characters say the things they have to say right out (unlike the unbearably evasive conversations of characters in a Hammond Innes novel), and the plot moves briskly forward in its made-for-TV manner, with neat reversals and ingenious gadgets (the aerosol which sprays sleeping gas, the pens which fire poison darts, the radio in the bottom of a camera).

But on almost every page the reader is brought up short by sentences in various states of disarray: some are slight stumbles, others puzzling half-repetitions, or – his most frequent and characteristic fault – trying to express a simple fact by way of a complex, and would-be comic, circumlocution – choosing to go round the houses in an effort to be wry or sardonic and, more often than not, just ending up being puzzling.

Their problem, Revson reflected, was hardly one susceptible to the ready formation of a consensus of opinion. (p.88) [They were finding it hard to agree]

Branson could hardly be expected to be the person who would fail to recognise a cyanide air pistol when he saw it. (p.151) [Branson was unlikely not to notice a cyanide air pistol when he saw one]

By this time quite a number of curious journalists from the coach – activated, almost certainly, by the inbuilt curiosity that motivates all good journalists, were crowded around the unconscious Kowalski. (p.160)

Everyone there was instinctively aware that he was the leader of their kidnappers, the man behind their present troubles, and their reception of him did not even begin to border on the cordial. (p.43)

The five men appeared to be concentrating on two things only: not speaking to one another and not looking at one another. The bottoms of their glasses appeared to hold a singular fascination for them: comparatively, the average funeral parlour could have qualified as an amusement arcade. (p.152)

If this is an attempt at humour it is so heavy handed it has the opposite effect, stalling the onward flow of your reading.

There were, in fact, only seven people in sight. Six of those stood on the steps of the hotel which was that night housing more dollars on the hoof than it ever had remotely had in its long and illustrious career. (p.15) [I get the meaning but why make us work so hard for it?]

That the rain was now drumming was beyond dispute. It had been increasing steadily ever since the passengers had entered the coach and could now fairly be described as torrential. (p.159)

‘beyond dispute’? ‘could be fairly described’? Who is MacLean talking to in his mind when he writes these sentences? Who is disputing anything?

Repetition

In the Wikipedia article about types of repetition – as defined in Greek rhetoric – I can’t find a term to describe the way MacLean repeats entire sentences. And I can’t decide whether the technique is dramatically effective or a bit lame. It’s certainly a mannerism. It’s often done to link disparate sections, or even chapters – ending one with a sentence, opening the next one with a slightly tweaked repetition.

‘A dollar gets a cent that Branson’s asking some questions.’ —
Branson was indeed asking some questions. (p.166)

‘Two fire engines are there and the fire is under control.’ —
The fire was indeed under control. (p.166)

[End of chapter 10] ‘I wouldn’t worry.’ Hagenbach leaned back comfortably in his chair. ‘Revson will think of something.’ —
[Start of chapter 11] The only thing Revson was thinking about was how very pleasant it would be to have a few hours’ blissful sleep. (pp.179-80)

‘We’ve been having blackouts all over the city tonight. Hold on.’ —
In the Presidential coach, Branson held on. (p.188)

Chrysler said: ‘Those weren’t smoke bombs.’ —
In a few seconds it was clear that they were indeed not smoke bombs. (p.219)

Technical expertise

Where MacLean’s style slips perfectly into gear is where he’s describing gadgets, machines, technology and the swift expert movements of men who know just what they’re doing with them. Of course this is one of the key tropes in the thriller genre, but at these moments MacLean’s writing becomes taut and effective, a reminder of his peak in the 1960s. Here our hero is neutralising the remote bomb detonation mechanism in one of the hijacked helicopters.

With the screwdriver blade of his knife Revson had already removed the four screws that secured the top-plate and the top-plate itself. It was a simple enough device. On the outside of the device was a vertical lever padlocked in position in its top position. When this was depressed it brought a copper arm down between two spring-loaded interior copper arms, so completing the circuit. Twin pieces of flex led from those last two to two crocodile spring-loaded clamps, each secured to the terminals of two nickel-cadmium Nife cells connected up in series. That would produce a total of only three volts, enough… to activate the radio trigger. (p.170)

This technician’s-eye view of machinery and devices is one of MacLean’s great legacies to the thriller writers who came after him.

Hands up!

Another key trope is the knowing dialogue between people in a hold-up situation. There must be thousands of examples in books and movies of what is basically the same scene: baddie interrupts goodie in middle of surreptitiously doing something crucial to the plot (planting bomb, eavesdropping the baddies discussing their evil plans, radioing his contacts etc). Get to your feet. Turn round slowly. No false moves etc etc. When everyone in the cinema knows that Bruce or Harrison will get the better of the guy with the gun.

There’s a good example here, and I think MacLean does it well, it’s an example of where the Conspicuous Repetition I highlighted earlier positively works.

‘Strange hour to go fishing, Revson,’ Van Effen said behind him. For a second, no more, Revson remained immobilised… ‘Turn round, Revson, slow and easy. I’m a nervous character and you know what that can do to trigger fingers.’
Revson turned round, slow and easy, in the manner of a man who knows all about nervous trigger fingers. He already had the [sleeping gas] aerosol inside the bag. He said resignedly: ‘Well, I suppose it was too good to last.’
‘So Branson was right all along.’ Van Effen, moon-shaped face as expressionless as ever, was between five and six feet away. He had his machine-pistol in both hands, held loosely, but with his forefinger indubitably on the trigger. Revson would have been a dead man before he’d covered half the distance between them. But Van Effen was clearly expecting no resistance. ‘Let’s see what you have there. Slow and easy, now. Slow and easy.’
Slowly, easily, Revson withdrew the aerosol. It was so small that it was almost hidden in his hand. He knew that the can was pressurised to three times the normal and that its effective range was ten feet. Or so O’Hare had told him and Revson had a great deal of faith in O’Hare.
Van Effen shifted the gun under his right arm and pointed the barrel straight at Revson. ‘Let me see that.’
‘Slow and easy?’
‘Slow and easy.’
Revson stretched out his arm unhurriedly. Van Effen’s face was no more than three feet away when he pressed the button. He dropped the aerosol and snatched Van Effen’s machine-pistol: he wished to obviate any metallic sounds. He looked down at the crumpled figure at his feet. (p.177)

‘obviate’? Well, it’s good thriller writing and most of his classic novels are like this all the way through: knowing, lightly humorous, but focused and effective. When he’s envisioning tense scenes or men working quickly and deftly with machinery, MacLean’s writing gains precision and power. But far too many times in these 1970s books, it’s when he tries to do character, to portray people in untense, unfocused scenes, with ghastly humour, that his writing comes a cropper.

‘Good. Very good.’ This, from Hagenbach, was the equivalent to the Roman tribute offered a highly successful general after he’d conquered his second or third country in succession. (p.179)

It is an unnecessarily far-fetched comparison to begin with, but might just have come off if it had been conveyed with a light touch – but it’s at precisely these moments, when he’s trying to do humorous insights into his characters, that MacLean’s touch deserts him and he clumps like an elephant.

Branson had very definitely stopped both lounging and relaxing. He was sitting far forward in his chair and for once his feelings were showing: the expression on his face could be described as nothing else other than stunned disbelief. (p.208)

Ugh.

Related links

Fontana paperback edition of the Golden Gate

Fontana paperback edition of The Golden Gate

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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2 Comments

  1. Satadru Sengupta

     /  May 22, 2016

    I stumbled across your blog while trying to understand how at the very end of this novel, did someone in the FBI sitting 2000 miles away could come across a minor sweepstake. I bought a Kindle version of this book. I have been down and up the entire length of it, and I still cannot find how this fits in the plot of the book.

    Reply
  1. Ich – Welt: Diva, Sissy und andere Charakteren auf der Bühne und Leichen im Keller | | Braintank

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