Seawitch by Alistair Maclean (1977)

To wincing observers his modus operandi seemed nothing short of Draconian, but Cronkite would blasphemously brook no interference. (p.13)

In the later 1960s and throughout the 1970s MacLean was one of the most successful writers in the world, forced into tax exile in Switzerland by the fortune his fast-paced thrillers and their movie adaptations earned him.

Which is sadly ironic because the richer and more famous he got, the worse his novels became.

Made for TV plots

In the previous novel, a gang of criminals hijack the US President on the Golden Gate bridge; in this one a meeting of oil executives decide to use force against the oil billionaire who is undercutting their prices, by attacking his flagship oil rig, the Seawitch.

These plots have the tacky predictability of made-for-TV movies, every one of the scenes conforming to your lowest expectations. When I told my son the billionaire has two beautiful daughters, he said, ‘Bet they get kidnapped.’ And they do.

Stereotypical characters

The characters are stock, straight from central casting: a room full of cynical oil businessmen hire Cronkite, ‘the best in the business’, the tough-talking Texan oil rig disaster recovery man who bears ‘a remarkable resemblance to John Wayne’ (p.15).

He also happens … to be one of the world’s top experts – if not the very top – on the use of high explosives. (p.86)

Cronkite has a bitter personal grudge against the buccaneering oil billionaire, Lord Worth (‘one of the world’s five richest men’) ‘lean, tall and erect’, with the looks of ‘a Biblical patriarch [or] a better-class Roman senator’, ‘He looked and was every inch an aristocrat’. He possesses the biggest mansion in Florida. His two daughters are beautiful, one a blonde, one a redhead. The trashy mindset anticipates Dallas (first episode May 1978 ie in development when this novel was published) or Dynasty (first ep. January 1981).

All the characters are the biggest, richest, best or most powerful etc in the land. And made of cardboard.

Belton… had the justly-deserved reputation of being the President’s indispensable right-hand man. (p.87)

It said much for Lord Worth’s aristocratic magnetism that even the most villainous eventually addressed him in respectful tones. (p.129)

The flimsy pretext to the story is that Lord W’s oil-producing rivals want to stop him drilling in international waters. Behind it all lurks a vague threat that they might stir up such an extreme international incident as to start a major war. Cronkite, the John Wayne lookalike, listens to these naughty men squabbling then makes them an outrageous offer: pay him $1 million, plus $10 million expenses, and he will undertake the mission – but no questions asked about what he is going to do or how. This is like a really cheap copy of the breath-taking scene where the Jackal states his demands to the French security forces in Day of The Jackal. That novel is a masterpiece; this is junk.

Too many characters are ‘inevitably tough’; ‘he was, of course, the meanest…’; ‘He was, hardly surprisingly, extremely tough and ruthless.’

The inevitablys, of courses and hardly surprisinglys sprinkle the text because MacLean’s imagination is now only dealing with cartoon characters: the richest, the toughest, the meanest. The inevitablys signal the collapse of MacLean’s imagination into permanent stereotype and exaggeration. All human subtlety has disappeared. I laughed out loud when the narrator says craggy old Cronkite looks like John Wayne.

He was newly returned from Indonesia where he had inevitably maintained his 100% record. (p.15)

The chairs, inevitably, were Louis XIV. (p.20)

Lord Worth’s butler Jenkins – English, of course… (p.22)

They were, understandably, not unguarded… (p.135)

Plot

Rather than meet with Lord Worth and negotiate, the cabal of oil producers agrees to hire Cronkite, who says he’ll use any means necessary to bring Worth down and, because one of the attendees is in fact a spy for Worth and tells him all about it, within four or five pages, both sides have effectively declared war.

  • Worth’s people immediately raid the Mississippi Naval Armoury (!) to steal mines, arms and ammunitions and fly them out to the rig
  • Cronkite’s people blow up one of Worth’s oil tankers in Galveston harbour
  • Worth learns the cabal is using its influence to get a Soviet destroyer and a Venezualan cruiser to leave port and head for the oil rig, Seawitch
  • Worth flies to Washington to call for senior help from the Department of State, the Army and Navy
  • Cronkite’s people raid Worth’s home and kidnap his two beautiful daughters, then nick one of Worth’s helicopter pilots to fly them out to the rig.

Did I mention the two handsome, tough young men who were kicked off the police force for being too honest in these troubled times and are the boyfriends of Lord Worth’s beautiful daughters? Well, they get involved at an early stage and are in the helicopter which flies out to Seawitch soon after the baddies’ one carrying the two girls.

They masquerade as oil engineers but have smuggled aboard Smith & Wesson revolvers with silencers. You might not be surprised to learn that, single-handedly, they ‘save the day’.

Shocking prose

MacLean handles the English language as if he’s only just made its acquaintance.

Scoffield was a large, rubicund, smiling man, the easy-going essence of good nature. To the fact that this was not precisely the case any member of his drilling crews would have eagerly and blasphemously testified. (p.28)

Roomer straightened from the key-hole of the main door of the armoury and reluctantly pocketed the very large set of keys for the carrying of which any ill-disposed law officer could have had him behind bars without any need for a warrant. (p.46)

‘In comparison with the kidnapping of your daughters, your own ventures outside the law fade into something that is comparatively a peccadillo.’ (p.118)

Durand’s mind was brutalised to the extent where it was incapable of picking up any psychic signals: had it been so attuned he could not have failed to hear the black wings of the bird of death flapping above his head. (p.131)

Vocal chords can become paralysed when the mind is possessed of the irrevocable certainty that one is but one step, one second removed from eternity. (p.148)

There are all the faults I’ve itemised in other reviews: the repetitions…

‘Your brow is very damp, Lord Worth. Why is it very damp?’
Lord Worth didn’t enlighten them as to the reason why his brow was damp. (p.117)

‘I hope you believe me.’
Palermo believed him. (p.125)

‘With your connections you could find out in minutes.’
Lord Worth did find out in minutes. (p.166)

… the heavy-handed humour

He was a police chief of incomparable incompetence, but was a consummate and wholly corrupt politician, which was why he was police chief. (p.103)

Larsen had a few choice observations to make in return, none of which would have received the approval of even the most tolerant board of censors. (p.124)

Ha ha ha. Out of the whole novel, I liked just one such jokey sentence, for its cartoon brio:

When Lord Worth poured on his icy contempt he used a king-sized can. (p.129)

With its setting in Florida and climax on an oil rig, elements of the plot are similar to MacLean’s 1961 classic Fear Is The Key, except that that is a good book. Read that. And never read this.


Related links

1979 Fontana paperback edition of Seawitch (Cover photo be Derek Berwin)

1979 Fontana paperback edition of Seawitch (Cover photo by Derek Berwin)

Derek Berwin

Arguably the best thing about this book is the cover, featuring an atmospheric underwater photo by Derek Berwin. Derek is still active and has a blog with a potted biography, some wonderful underwater shots and links to numerous other sites which feature his great photos.

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 – mostly good

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 – Dr 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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