The Dogs of War by Frederick Forsyth (1974)

Methodically he began to go over the possibilities he could envisage. (p.322)
Like all people who try to exhaust a subject, he exhausted his listeners. (Oscar Wilde)

The Dogs of War was Frederick Forsyth’s third novel and another doorstopper at 438 pages long, easily twice the length of the average novel by Hammond Innes, Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley et al.

Plot

The ‘plot’ is relatively simple: Machiavellian industrialist and head of a multinational mining firm, Sir James Manson, learns that a hill in the (fictional) African state of Zangaro contains a fortune in platinum, the third rarest element on earth. Only problem is the despotic ruler of Zangaro is a) a paranoid maniac b) likely to give any mineral concession to the Soviet Union. Therefore Sir James hires mercenaries to overthrow him and instal a friendly alternative. Meanwhile, he plans to buy up an old, worthless company in the UK, with valueless shares. He’ll get the new ruler of Zangaro to assign the mining rights to this company, publicise the fact along with the scale of the platinum discovery, sit back and watch the value of the shares go through the roof. That’s where he and his creepy subordinates will make their fortunes.

There are some complications –

  • the scientist who did the survey leaks the story to a friend, who is a communist, who leaks it to the Soviet Union, who despatch a rival prospecting mission
  • the leader of the mercenaries, Cat Shannon, has a bitter enemy in the underworld who takes out a contract on him
  • Cat himself starts an improbable and scanty affair with Julie, the daughter of the industrialist

But the striking feature of this book is not the plot.

The information

It is the overwhelming deluge of information about every subject even peripherally related to the story which drowns the plot. Large chunks of the book are pure information. Not dialogue, or character exploration or description –  but encyclopedia entries or high-level journalistic articles on the following subjects:

  • how to collect, label and analyse mineral samples
  • the world market for platinum, with the leading producer countries and main firms
  • the history of mercenaries in Africa with a rundown of the leading men in the field and their full CVs
  • the colonial and post-colonial history, geography, economy and ethnic make-up of Zangaro
  • how to get a forged passport
  • a history of the post-WWII arms trade with a full rundown of the leading companies and governments in the sector
  • a detailed explanation of how to search for and then take over a shell company
  • explanations of the private banking sectors of Belgium, Switzerland, Lichtenstein and Luxemburg
  • the intricacies of finding an end-user licence for arms dealing
  • what exact type of boat you need to ship arms through the Mediterranean to Africa
  • a detailed breakdown of the entire kit – clothes, equipment, all armaments and ammunition, radios, flares etc – required to mount a small coup
  • a detailed costing of the above
  • a detailed project plan for the above
  • how to smuggle arms across the Franco-Belgium border
  • how to arrange transit certificates in Spain
  • the ethnic and linguistic make-up of Yugoslavia
  • the role of Freetown in supplying stevedores

and many, many more. The central 200 pages of the book, although they feature ‘characters’ and dialogue, are really a lightly fictionalised project plan for the various tasks and actions the central figures have to undertake, complete with a thorough detailing of all risks and dependencies. To say that the dialogue, or the prose generally, is ruthlessly cut back to the exposition of fact is an understatement.

‘I shall be in Madrid on the 19th and 20th,’ he said. ‘I have another business deal to attend to. I shall be at the Mindanao Hotel. If you want to contact me, you can find me there. If loading is for the 20th, the chances are the convoy and escort from the Spanish Army will run the shipment down to the coast during the night of the 19th to arrive at crack of dawn. If you are going to board the ship at all, I think you should do so before the militay convoy arrives at the docks.’

‘I should be in Madrid on the 19th,’ said Shannon. ‘Then I could check with you that the convoy had indeed left on time. By driving fast to Valencia, I could be there ahead of it, and board the Toscana as the rejoining seaman before the convoy arrives.’ (p.359)

The majority of the content falls into two types: 1. fantastically detailed, dry and dull descriptions of the immensely convoluted comings and goings of Shannon and his team as they fly all over Europe arranging the funding and buying of the equipment for the coup – interspersed with fantastically detailed, dry and dull descriptions of Manson and associates setting up the shell company.

He rang BEA and booked an economy class return on the morning flight to Brussels, returning at 1600 hours, which would get him back to his flat by six. Following that he telephoned four telegrams abroad, one to Paarl, Cape Province, South Africa, one to Ostende, one to Marseilles and one to Munich… Finally he summoned a taxi and had it take him back to Lowndes Hotel. He checked out, paid his bill and left as he had come, anonymously. (p.173)

Or

Simon Endean’s letter sent on Tuesday night arrived at ten on Thursday morning at the Handelsbank in Zürich. According to the instructions in it, they telexed £10,000 to the account of Mr Keith Brown at the Kredietbank in Brugge. By noon Mr Goossens had seen the telex, and wired £5,000 to Mr Brown’s account in the West End of London. Shortly before four that afternoon, Shannon made a check call to his bank and learned the credit was there waiting for him. He asked the manager personally to give him drawing facilities in cash up to £3,500 the following morning. He was told it would be available for collection by eleven-thirty. (p.204)

Or

Shannon spent the evening writing out a full statement of accounts for Endean. He pointed out that the total had eaten up the bulk of the £5,000 transferred from Brugge, and that he would leave the few hundreds left over from the sum as a reserve. Lastly, he pointed out that he had not taken any part of his own £10,000 fee for the job, and proposed either that Endean transfer it straight from Endean’s Swiss bank account into Shannon’s Swiss account, or remit the money to the Belgian bank for credit to Keith Brown. (p.215)

Or

There was still £7,000 in the Keith Brown account, but a debit of £2,000 for the four mercenaries’ salaries was due in nine days. He drew a banker’s cheque in favour of Johann Schlinker and placed it in an envelope containing a letter from him to Schlinker that he had written in is hotel room the previous night. It informed Schlinker that the enclosed cheque for 4,800 dollars was in full payment for the assorted marine and life-saving articles he had ordered a week earlier, and gave the German the name and address of the Toulon shipping agent to whom the entire consignment should be sent in bond for export, for the collection of M Jean-Baptiste Langarotti. Lastly, he informed Schlinker he would be telephoning him the coming week to enquire if the end user certificate for the ordered 9 mm ammunition was in order. (p.281)

There are literally hundreds of pages like that – prose written by a computer describing the activities of robots or automatons.

The second type of subject matter is the article – a 2-, 3- or 4-page-long factual explanation of one of the many aspects of the practical job of funding, organising and mounting a coup.

Belgium has, from the point of view of those wishing to operate a discreet but legal bank account, many advantages that outweigh those offered by the much better publicised Swiss banking system. Not nearly as rich or powerful as Germany, nor neutral like Switzerland, Belgium nonetheless offers the facility of permitting unlimited quantities of money to pass in and out without government control or interference. (p.179)

Or

Under British company law, any person acquiring ten per cent or more of the shares of a public quoted company must identify himself to the directors within fourteen days. The aim of the law is to permit the public to know who owns what, and how much, of any public company. (p.185)

Or

To establish an indigenous arms industry is not difficult, provided it is kept basic. It is relatively simple to manufacture rifles and submachine guns, ammunition for both, along with hand grenades and hand guns. The level of technology, industrial development and the variety of the raw materials is not large, but the smaller countries usually buy their weaponry ready-made from the larger ones, because their internal requirements are too small to justify the necessary industrialisation, and they know their technical level would not put them into the export market with a chance. (p.229)

Or

Metal can be welded to metal, and to get the hardest join, it usually is. But a barrel that has once contained oil or ignitable fuel always retains a residue film on the inner surface of the metal. When heated, as it must be by welding, the film turns to fumes, and can easily explode very dangerously. ‘Sweating’ a piece of tinplate onto another piece does not give the same strength of join, but can be done with steam heat at a lower temperature. (p.311)

Or

There is no great technical difficulty in running an illegal consignment across the Belgian-French border in either direction, and that includes a quantity of black market arms. Between the sea at La Palme and the junction with Luxembourg near Longwy, this border sprawls for miles, and most of it in the south-east corner is through heavily wooded hunting country. Here the border is crossed by scores of side roads and tracks through the forest, and by no means all of them are manned. (p.337)

This is not really what is usually thought of as ‘fiction’. It is an article or encyclopedia entry. As is:

Cargo sent [to the other end of Africa] will be shipped in a bigger vessel. The advantage of a small coaster is that she can often load a cargo at very short notice and deliver it two days later a couple of hundred miles away. Big ships spend longer in port while turning round. But on a long run like that from the Mediterranean to South Africa, a bigger ship makes up in extra speed what she spent in port. For the exporter [the small coaster] has little attraction over 500 miles. (p.307)

There is little or no colour, life, whimsy, imagination, insight, awareness, fancy, wit or humour in the book. It is a relentless list of bank accounts and transactions and flights and travel arrangements and purchases of guns and boats and combat gear and meetings and deals in colourless hotels. By about page 250 I had had enough and reading this book had turned into a real grind.

Characters or cogs?

As in the previous novels there is quite a large cast of characters whose intricate interlockings Forsyth manages with amazing skill and precision. But reading this one made it more obvious than before that the characters play stock roles: the Machiavellian industrialist, his sex-mad daughter, his sleek fixer, the conscience-stricken scientist, the tough prospector, the grizzled mercenary, the brutal African dictator.

Worse, novelists generally tell you the background of their characters but it is characteristic of Forsyth that, every time he introduces a new person, he presents their entire CV in one go. There is absolutely no subtlety.

Alan Baker was an expatriate, a Canadian who had settled in Germany after the war and married a German girl. A former Royal Engineer during the war, he had got himself involved during the early post-war years in a series of border-crossing operations into and out of the Soviet Zone, running nylons, watches and refugees. From there he had drifted into arms running for the scores of tiny nationalist or anti-communist bands of maquis who, left over from the war, still ran their resistance movements in Central and Eastern Europe. (p.241)

A brisk résumé of their life & career replaces the more traditional literary strategy of creating character through accumulated psychological insights. There are no psychological insights. –This is X’s history. Right, now you know all you need to know about X. Right, Shannon met X in this hotel at this time and they made the following decisions about the shipment of guns and arranged the transfer of x amount of money to the y bank in z.

Mr Harold Roberts was a useful man. Born sixty-two years earlier of a British father and a Swiss mother, he had been brought up in Switzerland after the premature death of his father, and retained dual nationality. Entering banking at an early age, he had spent twenty years in the Zürich head office of one of Switzerland’s largest banks, before being sent to their London branch as an assistant manager. That had been just after the war, and over the second twenty-year period of his career he had risen to become the manager of the London branch, retiring at the age of sixty. By then he had decided to take his retirement and his pension in Swiss francs in Britain. (p.289)

The interest isn’t in the characters per se – once created they remain the same with little or none of the development we might expect in a novel. It’s in the way the large cast of characters fit together so intricately – and not even necessarily into a ‘plot’ (none of Forsyth’s plots after the Jackal have anything like the same excitement). It’s the way they fit together into a worldview, a worldview in which worldy wise men transfer funds between secret bank accounts, set up shady holding companies, meet mercenaries in safe hotel rooms, buy illegal weapons, pass each other in the departure lounge of an international airport without realising it.

They’re not characters, they’re the parts in a beautifully-crafted Swiss watch, unchanging, predictable cogs which interlink to make the whole go tick tick tick.

A worldwide web

The trope of two characters in the plot having their paths cross without either knowing it occurs several times in each book – not to further the plot, but to foreground this feeling of the web or network. The classic instance in Day of the Jackal is one evening towards the climax of the novel when the two protagonists, detective Lebel and the Jackal, are both in Paris, and both lean out of their windows one night, and it turns out their windows are only 300 yards apart – but of course, neither knows what the other looks like.

Here, on page 118:

The evening that Cat Shannon was changing planes at Le Bourget to catch the Air Afrique DC-8 to West Africa, Dr Chalmers was having dinner with an old college friend, now also a scientist and working in industrial research.

Or

Martin Thorpe stepped into Sir James Manson’s office about the time Cat Shannon was taking off from Hamburg. (p.245)

These ships-that-pass-in-the-night moments aren’t important for the plot. They are symptoms or epitomes of Forsyth’s worldview, which is all about complex interlinking. When I was a teenager, reading this kind of book, I think these moments added to the thrilling sense that this was the grown-up world, and that everyone behaved like this. The ships moments create a world.


But God, for really long stretches, this book is soooo boring.

Shannon was invited into Mr Stein’s private office, where Mr Lang and a junior partner were already seated. Along one wall were three secretaries, as it turned out the secretaries of the three accountants present. With the required seven stockholders on hand, Mr Stein set up the company within five minutes. Shannon handed over the balance of £500 and the thousand shares were issued. Each person present received one and signed for it, then passed them to Mr Stein who agreed to keep them in the company safe. Shannon received 994 shares in a block constituted by one sheet of paper and signed for them. His own shares he pocketed. The articles and memorandum of association were signed by the chairman and company secretary, and copies of each would later be filed with the Registrar of Companies for the Archduchy of Luxembourg. The three secretaries were then sent back to their duties, the board of three directors met and approved the aims of the company, the minutes were noted on one sheet of paper, read out by the secretary and signed by the chairman. That was it. Tyrone Holdings SA existed in law. (p.276)

Climax

After such an unconscionably long foreplay this reader was hoping for a spectacular climax.

The actual firefight starts on page 413 and is all over by page 423. It is described as coldly, clinically and thoroughly as all the preparations – but because of the subject, and the stakes, it is actually heart-poundingly thrilling. And bloody.

Not often does one see a bazooka the size of the warhead on a Yugoslav RPG-7 hit a man in the small of the back. (p.420)

But the payoff turns out to be not in the brutal ‘battle’ (in reality the wholesale slaughter of scores of more or less defenceless African guards under the steady pounding of the mercenaries’ mortar rockets, bazookas and machine guns), it’s in the final few pages, when there is a massive plot twist and Shannon – wildly improbably – is revealed to have been behaving for the finest humanitarian principles after all.

Why? How? What? You’ll have to buy or borrow The Dogs of War and go on the same gruelling pilgrimage yourself to find out.

Textbook

According to Wikipedia, the book is quoted and praised as ‘a textbook for mercenaries’. I’m not surprised. But textbook is the key word. It is exactly like reading a long, exhaustively thorough textbook. Fine if you’re taking an exam in the subject or toying with mounting your own African coup. Not so great as a work of fiction…

The movie

Took a while for this one to be turned into the movie, which wasn’t released until 1980. It was directed by John Irvin and stars Christopher Walken and Tom Berenger, along with a long tail of British character actors (Colin Blakeley, Jim Broadbent in a minor role, George Harris later famous for BBC TV’s Casualty).

At least part of the interest of the novel is the extensive network of characters and deals done exclusively in Europe, repeating and extending the extraordinary knowledgeability which Forsyth demonstrated in Jackal. But the movie makes the hero and background of most of the characters American. Crucially, it transforms Shannon from a decent, extremely intelligent and methodical European into a New York street punk, swaggering, chewing gum, torturing people, tossing empty beer cans around, shouting a lot. It’s a surprise he can even read, you wouldn’t trust him to throw a party in a bar, it is not credible that such an uptight, angry adolescent could organise something of the byzantine complexity of Forsyth’s coup, and this switch decisively throws away the professional (surprisingly moral) integrity of the novel.


Related links

Forsyth’s books

1971 The Day of the Jackal – It is 1963. An international assassin is hired by right-wing paramilitary organisation, the OAS, to assassinate French President, Charles de Gaulle. The novel follows the meticulous preparations of the assassin, code-name Chacal, and the equally thorough attempts of the ‘best detective in France’, Commissaire Lebel, to track him down. Surely one of the most thoroughly researched and gripping thrillers ever written.
1972 The Odessa File – It is 1963. German journalist Peter Miller goes on a quest to track down an evil former SS commandant and gets caught up in a high-level Nazi plot to help Egypt manufacture long-range missiles to attack and destroy Israel.
1974 The Dogs of War – City magnate Sir James Manson hires seasoned mercenary Cat Shannon to overthrow the dictator of the (fictional) West African country of Zangaro, so that Manson’s mining company can get its hands on a mountain virtually made of platinum. This very long novel almost entirely amounts to a mind-bogglingly detailed manual on how to organise and fund a military coup.
1975 The Shepherd – A neat slick Christmas ghost story about a post-war RAF pilot whose instruments black out over the North Sea but who is guided to safety by an apparently phantom Mosquito, flown by a pilot who disappeared without trace during the war.
1979 The Devil’s Alternative – A Cold War, geopolitical thriller confidently describing machinations at the highest levels of the White House, Downing Street and a Soviet Politburo riven by murderous factions and which is plunged into emergency by a looming grain shortage in Russia. A plot to overthrow the reforming leader of the Soviet Union evolves into a nailbiting crisis when the unexpected hijacking of an oil supertanker by fanatical Ukrainian terrorists looks like it might lead to the victory of the hawks in the Politburo, who are seeking a Russian invasion of Western Europe.
1982 No Comebacks Ten short stories combining Forsyth’s strengths of gripping technical description and clear fluent prose, with his weaknesses of cardboard characters and improbable plots, but the big surprise is how many of them are clearly comic in intention.
1984 The Fourth Protocol – Handsome, former public schoolboy, Paratroop Regiment soldier and MI5 agent John Preston, first of all uncovers the ‘mole’ working in MI5, and then tracks down the fiendish Soviet swine who is assembling a tactical nuclear device in Suffolk with a view to vaporising a nearby US Air Force base. the baddies’ plan is to rally anti-nuclear opinion against the Conservatives in the forthcoming General Election, ensuring a Labour Party victory and then (part two of the plan) replace the moderate Labour leader with an (unspecified) hard-Left figure who would leave NATO and effectively hand the UK over to the Russians. A lunatic, right-wing fantasy turned into a ‘novel’.
1989 The Negotiator – Taciturn Clint Eastwood-lookalike Quinn (no first name, just ‘Quinn’) is the best negotiator in the business, so when the President’s son is kidnapped Quinn is pulled out of quiet retirement in a Spanish village and sent to negotiate his release. What he doesn’t realise is the kidnap is just the start of a bigger conspiracy to overthrow the President himself!
1991 The Deceiver – A set of four self-contained, long short stories relating exciting incidents in the career of Sam McCready, senior officer in the British Intelligence Service, as he approaches retirement. More gripping than the previous two novels, with the fourth and final story being genuinely funny, in the style of an Ealing comedy starring Alec Guinness.
1994 The Fist of God – A journalistic account of Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing US-led ‘Desert Storm’ operation to throw him out, complete with insider accounts of the Western military and intelligence services and lavish descriptions of scores of hi-tech weaponry. Against this backdrop is set the story of one man – dark-skinned, Arabic-speaking Mike Martin who goes undercover posing as an Arab, first in occupied Kuwait, then – even more perilously – in Baghdad itself, before undertaking a final mission to locate and assist the destruction of Saddam’s atom bomb (!) and the Supergun designed to fire it at the Allies. Simultaneously gripping in detail and preposterous in outline.
1996 Icon – Hot shot CIA agent Jason Monk is brought out of retirement to foil a fascist coup in post-communist Russia in a novel which starts out embedded in fascinating contemporary history of Russia but quickly escalates to heights of absurdity, capped by an ending in which the Russian people are persuaded to install a distant cousin of our very own Queen as the new Tsar of All The Russias! Sure.
2001 The Veteran – Five very readable short stories: The Veteran, The Art of the Matter, The Miracle, The Citizen, and Whispering Wind – well engineered, sleek and almost devoid of real human psychology. Nonetheless, the vigilante twist of The Veteran is imaginatively powerful, and the long final story about a cowboy who wakes from a century-long magic sleep to be reunited with a reincarnation of his lost love has the eerie, primal power of a yarn by Rider Haggard.
2003 Avenger – A multi-stranded narrative which weaves together the Battle of Britain, the murder of a young American aid worker in Bosnia, the death of a young woman in America, before setting the tracking down of a Serbian war criminal to South America against a desperate plot to assassinate Osama bin Laden. The least far-fetched and most gripping Forsyth thriller for years.
2006 The Afghan – Ex-SAS man Colonel Mike Martin, hero of The Fist of God, is called out of retirement to impersonate an Afghan inmate of Guantanamo Bay in order to infiltrate Al Qaeda and prevent their next terrorist attack. Quite a gripping thriller with an amazing amount of detailed background information about Afghanistan, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Islamic terrorism and so on.
2010 The Cobra – Two lead characters from Avenger, Paul Devereaux and Cal Dexter, are handed the task of wiping out the illegal cocaine trade on the authority of Barack Obama himself. Which leads to an awesome display of Forsyth’s trademark factual research, scores of pages building up a comprehensive picture of the drugs industry, and to the detailed description of the multi-stranded operation which almost succeeds, until lily-livered politicians step in to halt it.
2013 The Kill List – Another one about Islamic terrorism. The Preacher, who has been posting jihadi sermons online and inspiring a wave of terrorist assassinations, is tracked down and terminated by US marine Christopher Carson, aka The Tracker, with a fascinating side plot about Somali piracy thrown in. Like all Forsyth’s novels it’s packed with interesting background information but unlike many of his later novels it this one actually becomes genuinely gripping at the end.
2015 The Outsider – At age 76 Forsyth writes his autobiography in the form of a series of vignettes, anecdotes and tall tales displaying his characteristic briskness and dry humour. What an extraordinary life he’s led, and what simple, boyish fun this book is.

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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