2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke (1987)

Clarke’s famous characters

I was struck by the cosy, clubby, collegiate atmosphere created by this novel. Although it’s meant to be about far-out events at the limits of human understanding, a thriller-cum-disaster story set at the remote end of the solar system – it often feels more like an after-dinner conversation at a gentleman’s club.

Every character is the ‘best in the world’ at their trade. Thus, at the captain’s table aboard the spaceship Universe, sit a typical cross-section of the planet’s great and good: ‘the planet’s best known science communicator’, a leading classical conductor, the first man to land on Mercury, the famous movie star Yva Merlin, and the planet’s best-known popular writer. We learn that the man who paid for Universe to be built is, of course, the richest man in the world, ‘the legendary Sir Lawrence Tsung’ (p.31).

These characters all know each other, share the same kind of rational approach to the world, give each other the same kind of nicknames, cultivate a knowing cliqueyness. Thus the notable passengers on the Universe who I’ve listed above are immediately nicknamed ‘the Famous Five’ by the other civilian passenger, the world famous scientist Dr Heywood Floyd (who appears in 2001: A Space Odyssey and is the key figure in 2010: Odyssey Two).

Even when new characters are introduced, such as the Afrikaaner Rolf van der Berg, who appears in what is at first a standalone strand of the plot, he is quickly bound into the club of the internationally famous by virtue of the fact that his uncle, Dr Paul Kreuger, was eminent enough to nearly be awarded a Nobel prize for particle physics (he was only disqualified because of political concerns about apartheid).

Something very similar happened a few years ago when I read through the adventure novels of Alistair MacLean in chronological order. The early ones are about nobodies who perform amazing feats battling Soviet agents or criminal gangs. But as they go on, they get worse, and MacLeans’s novels really began to go really downhill when they started to feature famous people (not real famous people – fictional famous people, the greatest racing driver, the most famous circus performer, the eminent film star, and so on).

You could call it laziness, or a fatal temptation for authors who have to churn out popular fiction by the yard – but you can see how, in a novel about nobodies, you have to earn the reader’s interest and attention; whereas, by contrast, if you start your story with a cast list which already includes the world’s most famous novelist, the world’s most famous conductor, the world’s most famous nuclear physicist, the world’s most famous space explorer and so on… then you can kind of demand the reader’s attention, as if they were reading the gossip column in Tatler or The Spectator.

It’s a kind of fictional short cut to trying to involve us. It’s like he’s expecting us to give him our respect and attention merely for the high falutin’ company he keeps, before he’s even started the story.

In these pally, clubby circles everyone is eminent enough to have been discussed in the papers and magazines and had their private lives pawed over. Which explains why famous characters aren’t introduced in their own right, but as the famous so-and-so who some critics / papers / colleagues criticise for his x, y, z public behaviour. This allows the author to then enact another cheap fictional strategy, which is – having invented various scandals or misunderstandings which dog the reputation of famous person x, y or z, to then present us as the man on the inside, the one in the know who is going to share the real reasons behind scandal x, y or z. It is the strategy of the gossip columnist, not the novelist.

And also, in these pally, clubby circles, everyone has nicknames for each other. Thus Floyd nicknames his fellow guests ‘the Famous Five’, but four of them quickly nickname the best-selling novelist Margaret M’Bala Maggie M (p.71). Later on, when Heywood comes up with a plan to use water from Halley’s Comet to fuel the Universe, despite some risks, he is quickly nicknamed ‘Suicide’ Floyd by the sceptics (p.176).

And when they’re not nicknaming each other, the characters are quick to come up with jokey nicknames for the space features they’re discovering, chirpy, jokey names which domesticates the bleak and weird features of space and brings even them into the cosy circle, the confident cabal of Clarke’s top men in their field. The habit of nicknaming which I’ve described among the little clique of VIPs aboard the Universe is shared by the crews of every other space ship and by astronomers back on Earth. That’s my point. These are all the same kind of people with the same sense of humour.

  • it looked exactly like a terrestrial geyser and had been promptly christened ‘Old Faithful’ (p.22)
  • the fifteen-hundred-kilometre-long feature that’s been christened the Grand Canal (p.38)
  • a perfectly straight two-kilometre-long feature which looked so artificial that it was christened the Great Wall. (p.136)

There is lots of ‘wry’ humour, ‘rueful’ remarks, ‘wry’ jokes and ‘rueful’ expressions. I’ve never really understood what wry and rueful mean. I can look them up in a dictionary, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen someone give a ‘wry smile’. It’s the kind of phrase you only read in popular fiction.

  • Maggie M viewed the situation with rueful amusement. (p.200)
  • ‘By the time I abandoned Shaka,’ she wryly admitted, ‘I knew exactly what a modern Germans feels about Hitler.’ (p.209)

Not much of this is actually funny, and it has an undermining effect on the book’s tone. If you’re writing a thriller you need to be very confident of yourself to include lots of supposed humour. The risk is it won’t be funny but will work to undermine the necessary tension and suspense. This is what happened to Alistair MacLean – he got more and more jokey and less and less gripping or believable.

And, as I pointed out in my review of 2010: Odyssey Two, even if you make one of your characters comment on the fact that they appear to be in a cheap pulp melodrama – that doesn’t deflect the allegation, it’s an admission.

It was uncomfortably like one of those cheap ‘mad scientist’ melodramas… (p.146)

Clarke turned 70 as the book neared completion. Later, he would be knighted. So maybe that’s another reason for this rather self-satisfied and clubby atmosphere: maybe it reflects the mind of a man rich in honours and achievements, a genuine pioneer in science thinking as well as fiction, an incredibly effective populariser of all kinds of ideas from satellites to mobile phones to scuba diving, a man who had an amazingly distinguished life and career, who knew everyone, who was garlanded with honours. Maybe this book accurately reflects what that feels like.

Why Clarke’s predictions failed

As the title suggests, the book is set in 2061, sixty years after the alien monolith was discovered on the moon which kick-started this whole series.

Any sci-fi author writing about the future has to throw in some major events to pad out, to add ballast to their supposed future history, the obvious one being a nuclear war.

Clarke is no exception to this rule and predicts that by 2061 there will have been a short nuclear war carried out by two minor powers and only involving two bombs (I wonder if he was thinking about India and Pakistan). In light of this poisonous little conflict, Russia, America and China promptly band together to ban nuclear weapons and so the world is at peace (p.28).

Later on we learn that there has been a Third Cultural Revolution in China (there had already been a second one by the time of the 2010 book). Oh yes, and there has been the Great Californian Earthquake which reduced most of the state to flaming rubble (p.26).

In other words, Clarke’s treatment of history is the same kind of lightweight caricature as his treatment of his ‘famous’ characters – a lamentably simplistic, cartoon view of human affairs, of history, economics, geopolitics and so on, which can all be summarised in a few throwaway brushstrokes.

Like so many of the sci-fi writers of his generation (who all came to eminence in the 1950s), Clarke thinks there’ll be a nuclear war or two which will teach ‘humanity’ the errors of its ways, which will end war and conflict, and so, with the money saved, ‘mankind’ will invent a hyperdrive and set off to colonise the stars.

This simple-minded delusion is so basic to so many of these narratives that you could call it Science Fiction’s foundational myth.

This iteration of it – 2061: Odyssey Three – follows the myth exactly:  the small nuclear war leads to peace, which leads to a ‘peace dividend’, which funds the inevitable development of a new ‘space drive’, and so on to ever-widening space exploration.

Scientifically careful, as always, Clarke attributes the ability to travel at speed through space to a new ‘drive’ based on the development of muonium-hydrogen compounds in the 2040s. As a result – and as so often -the solar system is soon littered with human colonies on all the habitable planets and the moons of the gas giants, as well as various space stations in orbit, and a busy traffic of shuttles and freighters popping between them.

Seeking clues as to why – contrary to the confident predictions of Asimov, Blish, Bradbury, Clarke and so many other sci-fi writers – none of this has happened, I think there are two main reasons:

1. Erroneous comparison with other technologies

Clarke makes a profoundly mistaken comparison between air travel and space.

The Wright brothers made ‘the first controlled, sustained flight of a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft on December 17, 1903, four miles south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina’. Only 50 years later passengers were sitting in first class while globe-spanning jet airliners flew them to Australia.

I.e it took just fifty years for the technology of manned flight to be transformed out of all recognition and to become commonly available to anyone with the cash.

In my opinion Clarke then makes the very false assumption that space travel will also proceed in the same kind of unstoppable leaps and bounds, from early primitive experiments to widespread commercial availability in a similar timespan – from Sputnik (1957) through the first men on the moon (1969), the first space shuttle in 1982 to the crewing of the International Space Station in 2000 and he then projects that forward onto bases on the moon, then Mars, then manned flights to Venus, then the new space drive and boom!

All so easy when you’re writing novels, essays and brochures for NASA.

2. Failure to understand economics

The analogy doesn’t hold because of simple economics. The space shuttle project cost some $210 billion, and each launch of a space shuttle cost over a billion dollars (until the last launch in 2011).

No commercial company can afford to spend this much. No commercial company will ever be able to make a profit out of space travel, either for tourists or for natural resources.

Only governments can fund this sort of cost, and even then only the governments of major powers, and even then only if there are demonstrable scientific, technological or geopolitical benefits. The Americans only put a man on the moon because they felt they were in a life-or-death struggle against Soviet Russia. The edge of that rivalry was wearing out in the 1980s and collapsed with the end of the Soviet Union in 1990.

There never was a commercial imperative for space travel and now there is next to no geopolitical motive. I predict there will never be a base on the moon. There will certainly never be ‘bases’ on Mars, let alone any of the other planets or moons. It just costs vastly too much, and for little or no payback.

3. Confusing space enthusiasts with ‘all mankind’

A related passage indicates another error in Clarke’s thinking. He was in the middle of explaining how ‘mankind’s thirst for knowledge pushed them on to explore blah blah blah’, when I realised, there’s the problem.

Clarke makes the common error of thinking that the subjects, activities and achievements which he has devoted his life to – are of interest to all mankind. Unfortunately, astronomy, astrophysics, space engineering, astronautics and all the rest of it are, at the end of the day, a very small minority interest. However:

1. Within the fictions, naturally enough, all the characters have dedicated their lives to these matters, and so his books – like those of Asimov or Blish – give the impression that the whole world cares as passionately about the aphelion of Io or the temperature on Callista, as they do.

2. There is a megalomania about science fiction as a genre. Pretty much from the start, from the minute H.G. Wells’s Martians emerged from their spaceships back in 1897, science fiction has dealt with global threats and an absolute central assumption of thousands of its stories is that the world will be saved by a handful of heroes. That the entire world will look up as the alien spaceships are destroyed by Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum in Independence Day.

To make it clearer – on page 83 of this book Clarke writes that really major scientific discoveries, the ones that shatter the entire worldview of a culture, don’t come along very often:

Galileos and Einsteins seldom appear more than once per century, which is just as well for the equanimity of mankind.

Just what does he mean here by ‘mankind’? Galileo published his discoveries in the 1630s, while Europe was being wracked by the Thirty Years War. Was the average European’s view of life turned upside down? No. Most Europeans were illiterate. What about the inhabitants of north or south America, Australia, Africa, or Asia? I don’t think they were too bothered either. So by ‘mankind’, Clarke is clearly referring to a tiny sub-set of Western European intellectuals.

Also, obviously enough, he has chosen two guys – Galileo and Einstein – who made big changes to the way we see the universe, to astronomy and astrophysics.

But Darwin’s theory had arguably the most seismic impact on the West, making Christian faith significantly harder to believe, while Fleming’s discovery of penicillin has had more impact on human life than any other scientific discovery ever, by saving probably billions of lives.

In Clarke’s prophecy when the major powers step in to prevent a nuclear war, it signals the end of all wars which results, of course, in a ‘peace dividend’ and, Clarke cheerfully informs us, ‘humanity’ then decides to devote this enormous amount of money to just the kind of things Clarke thinks are important, like exploring the solar system.

The flaw is when Clarke identifies the ambition and interests of a tiny minority of the earth’s population with ‘humanity’. It is, basically, identifying his own interests with all of ‘humanity’.

But the overwhelming majority of ‘earth’s population’ doesn’t want to spend hundreds of billions of dollars in constructing spaceships which half a dozen like-minded chaps can have adventures in. Sorry.

4. Confusing America with ‘all mankind’

A common error made by high-profile, high-paid American authors is to think the entire world circles round America and American cultural products.

In pulp magazines, in short stories, in novels, and in Hollywood movies, American science fiction writers have complacently assumed that Americans will bear the brunt of any alien invasion, Americans will defeat the bad guys, Americans will develop all the new technology, including the mythical space drive, Americans will lead the way in colonising space.

The cold reality

Taken together, all these wrong assumptions, false analogies and economic illiteracy, combined with the enormous PR campaign surrounding NASA and the Apollo space programme throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s, misled clever men like Clarke and Asimov into thinking that the whole world shared their passion, and that the outward urge was unstoppable.

Now, in 2019, from Syria to Xinjiang, from Burma to Brazil, people are in the same old trouble they always have been i.e. huge numbers of people are crushingly poor, unfree, victimised, exploited by massive corporations or locked up by the military police. People have other, more pressing priorities. Space is too expensive to travel to or to commercially exploit. These sci-fi stories are fantasy in the literal sense of something which never could and never will happen.

They are yesterday’s futures.

(It was only after thinking this all through that I came upon the following article about the end of the Space Age in, of all places, the New Statesman.)

The plot

When I saw the date (2061) I thought well, at least we won’t have to put up with Dr Heywood Floyd, who was a key figure in 2001: A Space Odyssey and the rather irritating central character of 2010: Odyssey Two.

So I burst out laughing when I discovered that Floyd is in 2061, appearing at the ripe old age of one hundred and three.

How come? Well, it turns out Floyd falls off a hotel balcony during a party to celebrate his return from the 2010-15 Jupiter mission, and breaks so many bones that he’s taken up to the space hospital in orbit round the Earth where he heals slowly but, by the time he does, it’s clear he’ll never be able to walk on Earth again.

So he stays up there for the next 45 years, sipping cocktails and chatting to the other occupants of the hotel, all – it goes without saying – eminent in their fields. A kind of All Souls College in space. Very cosy.

As the story opens a Chinese billionaire has funded the construction of several spaceships, leading up to the state-of-the-art spaceship Universe. Universe is scheduled to fly across the solar system to rendezvous with Halley’s Comet.

Although Clarke’s astrophysics is as precise as ever, the fictional part feels laughable. The Universe has gravity and joining Floyd at the captain’s table for fine wine and Michelin star meals are a selection of the planet’s great and good – ‘the planet’s best known science communicator’, a leading conductor, the first man to land on Mercury, and the planet’s best known popular writer, the ‘Famous Five’ I mentioned earlier.

This long sequence about the comet is only included so that Clarke can publish his (fascinating) speculations about what Halley’s Comet really looks like and what it would be like to land on it. This is genuinely interesting and obviously based on research and an intimate knowledge of space physics. I particularly enjoyed the bit where several scientists go a-wandering in their space suits, down into the spooky subterranean caverns of the comet, complete with their eerie stalactites.

But this entire sequence – the building, launch, docking at a space station, Floyd joining it, the journey to Halley’s Comet, docking with Halley’s Comet, exploring Halley’s Comet – all turns out just to be the hors d’oeuvre to what develops into quite a conventional thriller, albeit set in space.

For while the rich passengers on the Universe are frolicking on Halley’s Comet, hundreds of thousands of kilometres away, the spaceship Galaxy (also owned by richest man in the world, the ‘legendary’ Sir Lawrence Tsung) sent to investigate the moons of what was once the planet Jupiter, is hijacked by a woman with a gun – Rosie Miller – clearly an agent of some Earth power (but who or why remains a mystery), who forces the pilot at gunpoint to set the ship down on the surface of Jupiter’s moon, Europa.

Now it just so happens that out of the several billion human inhabitants of the solar system, the second mate on the spaceship Galaxy is none other than the famous Heywood Floyd’s grandson, Chris.

  1. This continues the book’s strong sense that it is a very small world in which only about twenty people count
  2. It means Floyd is thrown into understandable concern for his grandson and so
  3. He supports the ‘audacious’ plan to refuel Galaxy with water from the geysers of Halley’s Comet and then fly the Universe at top speed to Europa to rescue the Galaxy‘s 30-odd crew.

But it also turns out that 4. young Chris Floyd is himself not what he seems – he is working undercover for Astropol (the futuristic version of Interpol) who had suspected something dodgy was going to happen on the Galaxy. Aha! Mystery. Suspense.

The story turns into two parallel narratives. On Europa the crew of the Galaxy have to keep their ship afloat on the bubbling ‘ocean’ while being blown by its ‘winds’ towards a ‘shore’, all the time worrying about food and life support systems etc.

While, in alternating chapters, we eavesdrop on the harried crew and pampered passengers of the Universe as it travels at over four million kilometres per hour out towards Jupiter/Lucifer.

Young Chris Floyd and the geologist Rolf van der Berg persuade the captain of the Galaxy to let them take the ship’s little shuttle and go on an explore. There’s the usual Clarkean accuracy about the physical difficulty of extracting a shuttle out of a spaceship lying on its side beached on an alien moon, but soon enough they’re puttering across the surface.

They stop right at the foot of what astronomers have for some time been calling Mount Zeus, a vast, straight-sided geometrically clean mountain.

This appears to be what the intrigue was about, what the Rosie hijacked and forced the Galaxy to land for, because Mount Zeus is a diamond, the biggest diamond in the solar system, a diamond weighing a million million tonnes.

Van der Berg collects stray chips and fragments while explaining to Chris Floyd that the collapse of Jupiter into a star flung some of its diamond core outwards, at high speed. Most disappeared into space but this enormous mountain-sized chunk embedded in Europa, causing tectonic upheavals which they can still feel in the form of earth tremors.

Van der Berg sends an enigmatic message up to the radio receiver on another of Jupiter’s moons, Ganymede, which will relay it to Earth. The message is in code designed to tip off his friends on Earth to do something on the stock exchange – although whether knowledge that there exists a diamond the size of Mount Everest will collapse the diamond market forever, or prices will rise for rare Europa diamonds isn’t really made clear. This is a simple flaw at the heart of the ‘thriller’ narrative which is – we never understand why the hijacker forced Galaxy to land and we never really understand the consequences of Van der Berg discovering Mount Zeus is the biggest diamond in the solar system. That thread of the story is left completely unresolved.

Lastly, the two young guys fly over the surface to investigate the Europan avatar of the Monolith. Remember the monolith they found on the moon back in 2001, and then Dave Bowman discovered sticking up out of Japetus and which then multiplied in 2010: Odyssey Two to destroy Jupiter and turn it into a new sun?

Well, yet another version of it is lying sideways on the surface of Europe creating a great two-kilometre-long wall. Abutting against it they see round objects a bit like igloos. Can these be the homes of intelligent life? Nothing is moving around as they guide the shuttle down to land in a snow-covered space between igloos. But it is as they descend that Chris Floyd has a perfectly clear and lucid conversation with his grandfather – who is, of course, millions of kilometres away on Universal – which rather worries van der Berg, who thinks his pilot’s gone mad. Only later is there speculation that it was the monolith using a hologram projection of Heywood Floyd in order to communicate with his grandson. And what does the monolith say? That all the intelligent life forms who live in the igloos have fled because the little space shuttle is poisoning their atmosphere.

End

And then the novel is suddenly all over. Universe rescues everyone from Galaxy and takes them to Ganymede. The adventure ends with more heavy comedy as the human colonists are subjected to ha-ha-hilarious lectures from ‘the Famous Five’.

The ‘thriller’ plot, the entire rationale for the hijacking of Galaxy, the storyline in which Chris Floyd is an agent for Astropol, van der Berg’s cryptic messages about diamonds back to Earth – all these are just dropped. I’ve no idea why Rosie Miller hijacked the ship and I doubt whether the mere existence of a diamond mountain millions of miles from Earth would have any effect on the diamond market.

There’s another massive loose end, which is that, at the end of 2010: Odyssey Two Bowman had conveyed to Earth the warning that humans must never approach Europa. It had been set aside by the guardians for new life forms to flourish on. A couple of probes which flew too close were quickly evaporated, presumably by the guardian monolith.

So how how how how how come a) the Galaxy is able to land and b) Floyd and van der Berg are able to go shuttling all over its surface, poisoning the atmosphere, destabilising the diamond mountain and generally interfering, with no consequences whatsoever.

In all these instances – the prohibition on visiting Europa, the ‘thriller’ / Astropol conspiracy / something secret to do with van der Berg and diamonds – the plotline is just dropped. Galaxy is rescued. Then Hal and Dave and Heywood are having a nice chat. Then a thousand years later, Lucifer goes out. It feels oddly amateurish and half-hearted.

Postscript

There is a kind of postscript. We overhear conversation between the spirit of Dave Bowman, of HAL and of Dr Floyd. Somehow the other two have co-opted Floyd’s spirit, though he is still alive (?).

They recap the idea that the monoliths destroyed Jupiter in order to create a sun which would stimulate the evolution of intelligent life on Europa. But, the thing I don’t understand is that – Jupiter was itself teeming with life, strange vast gasbags blown in the impossible storms of Jupiter which had been described at length by Bowman’s spirit as it penetrated and explored Jupiter’s atmosphere in 2010: Odyssey Two.

That the creation of Lucifer resulted in the end of night on earth, I found upsetting enough. But the fact that in destroying Jupiter, the creators of the monolith destroyed all its life forms seemed to me as callous, brutal, clumsy and unthinking as most human activities. It nullified the sense which 2001 gave so powerfully of the intelligences behind the monolith being ineffably superior. Turns out they make just as questionable judgments as clumsy man.

In fact, right at the end of the story we learn that Mount Zeus was always unstable – having been flung at high speed into Europa by the destruction of Jupiter – and that right at the end, this diamond as big as Mount Everest collapses into Europa’s young seas, wiping out many species including some of the ones the monolith destroyed Jupiter in order to encourage.

It seems like futility piled on futility.

In their final exchanges, Hal and Bowman tell the spirit of Floyd that they want him to remain with them as guardian spirits protecting what life forms have survived on Europa.

Really? Even this is incredible. It took billions of years for mammals to evolve on earth, 30 million or so years for proto-apes to evolve into man. Are Bowman and HAL really going to wait that long?

Clarke has a staggering grasp of the laws of physics and astrophysics which govern the solar system in all its complexity. But his fictions seem to ignore the mind-boggling lengths of time involved in the evolution of species.

Post-postscript

But sure enough, it’s ‘only’ 1,000 years later that the population of Earth one day sees Lucifer collapse and the solar system’s second sun go out. To be precise:

Suddenly, almost as swiftly as it had been born, Lucifer began to fade. The night that men had not known for thirty generations flooded back into the sky. The banished stars returned.

And for the second time in four million years, the Monolith awoke. (final words)

That’s where the novel ends, presumably setting the reader up for the fourth and final novel in the 2001 series, which – I would bet – involves a trip to Europa and a meeting with the other intelligent life in the solar system.


Related links

Arthur C. Clarke reviews

  • Childhood’s End (1953) a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
  • A Fall of Moondust (1961) a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
  • Rendezvous with Rama (1973) a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
  • 2010: Odyssey Two (1982) Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the enormous monolith on Japetus
  • 2061: Odyssey Three (1987) Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, a moon of the former Jupiter, but the thriller aspects are only pretexts for Clarke’s wonderful descriptions of landing on Halley’s Comet and the evolution of wild and unexpected new forms of life on Europa

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s

Goodbye California by Alistair MacLean (1977)

His speech had the fluency and precision of an educated man for whom English is not his native language. (p.86)

Bad

This is a bad, bad book. Why? Well, let’s start with the ludicrous plot, cardboard characters and almost unreadable style.

Plot

A muslim fanatic named Morro has concocted an evil conspiracy: he has kidnapped the top nuclear physicists in America along with half a dozen technicians, and been stealing or buying uranium on the black market. He and his gang are holed up in a Xanadu-style millionaire’s castle built high in the Sierra Nevadas. The final step in the setup is to break into the San Ruffino nuclear reactor, steal nuclear waste and kidnap half a dozen staff who are carried off to the remote castle.

One of the hostages is Susan, wife of renowned tough LA cop, Sergeant Ryder. Guess what, he’s a maverick who does thing his own way, rubs the authorities up the wrong way but always gets the job done. And his son, Jeff, is also a cop. When they hear their wife/mother has been kidnapped they tender their resignations to the corrupt chief of police they call Fatso, and go independent to track down the gang. Not that independent, as they acquire the grudging help of the FBI, although they go way outside the law, severely beating the aforementioned (it’s catching) corrupt police chief and then the local crooked judge (who they handcuff in bed naked with his ‘secretary’ and photograph).

It’s a two-track plot: on the one hand Ryder and his son are pursuing leads via his crooked boss, the corrupt judge, investigating the head of security at San Ruffino who turns out to have shady links, all the time trying to figure out where Susan is being held. Parallel to this we are shown the situation in the mountain hideout where the hostages are treated with the courtesy, fine wine and indulgent smiles of the psychopath baddie we’re familiar with from a thousand Bond movies and pale copies. ‘Ah, Professor Aachen, I am so glad you could join us’ etc. And shown the laboratory and workshop where the scientists and technicians have been tortured into building working hydrogen bombs.

Hydrogen bombs!

Morro’s plan is to detonate one off the California coast, causing most of it to fall into the sea and the rest to be submerged in a monster tsunami.

Can Ryder and his son track down and neutralise Morro and his gang before they can carry out this plan?

I didn’t care. I was surprised by how little I cared. Partly because I felt I was reading the novelisation of a really low-budget 1970s disaster movie, cross-bred with the terrible American TV series of the period like CHiPs (1977-83).

Styleless

But most of all because MacLean’s prose style has become insufferably opinionated, long-winded, unfunnily ironic and facetious.

About ten minutes before ten Jeff switched on the TV. The screen showed a bluish-tinged stretch of extremely unprepossessing desert, so unattractive a spectacle that the commentator was trying – and making extremely heavy weather of it – to compensate by an intense and breathless account of what was taking place, a gallant and foredoomed effort as nothing whatsoever was taking place. (p.301)

LeWinter was at home and had the look of a man who didn’t intend to leave it. If he was informed by the spirit of joie de vivre and goodwill towards his fellow man he was concealing it well. (p.326)

The police had made a record number of arrests of hoodlums whose greed in taking advantage of this unprecedented opportunity had quite overcome their sense of self-preservation and were still looting away with gay abandon when policemen with drawn guns had taken a rather less than paternal interest in their activities. (p.405)

Burnett began to swear, with a fervour and singular lack of repetition that showed clearly that a considerable part of his education must have been spent in fields other than the purely academic, remembered that he was in the presence of ladies, reached for the Glenfiddich and fell silent. (p.417)

It is impossible to really enter the spirit of a book, to enjoy it, let alone be gripped by it, when you are reminded on every page that the author is a twerp.

First or third person

The Wikipedia entry on Alistair MacLean divides his 30 or so novels into four groups: the fourth and by far the worst phase starts in 1973 with the terrible The Road To Dusty Death, and continues through the next 11 novels, including this one, to his death in 1987.

An obvious feature of all of them is they are all told in the third person – by an omniscient narrator. When MacLean’s lumpen jokiness and heavy irony was in the voice of the hero being ironic at his own expense, it was generally shorter and more bearable: it genuinely lightened moments of stress – but when that heavy irony and facetiousness is deployed by the creator against his own creations, when he finds his own story and characters laughable and predictable (‘it was, inevitably, x’, ‘he was, predictably, y’, ‘it took no great intelligence to realise z’), the believability of the whole text evaporates.

And a third-person narrator has the fatal opportunity to crap on at greater length, much greater length, than a first-person narrator. The first person narrators of his classic thrillers of the 1960s are generally in a tearing hurry. They are doing stuff. The switch to third part narrator accompanies a switch to a more leisurely approach, as the narrator now regards everything from a lofty, and loftily satirical, point of view.

MacLean’s would-be humour works OK in the first person, and in small doses, but becomes clumsy and crass when translated into the third person.

America, like England, has much more than its fair share of those people in the world who choose not to conform to the status quo. They are the individualists who pursue their own paths, their own beliefs, their own foibles and what are commonly regarded as their own irrational peculiarities with a splendid disregard, leavened only with a modicum of kindly pity and sorrow and benign resignation, for those unfortunates who are not as they are, the hordes of faceless conformists amongst whom they are forced to move and have their being. Some few of those individualists, confined principally to those who pursue the more esoteric forms of religions of their own inventions, try sporadically to lead the more gullible of the unenlightened along the road that leads to the ultimate revelation: but basically, however, they regard the unfortunate conformists as being sadly beyond redemption and are resigned to leaving them to wallow in the troughs of their ignorance while they follow the meandering highways and byways of their own chosen life-style, oblivious of the paralleling motorways that carry the vast majority of blinkered mankind. They are commonly known as eccentrics. (p.80)

If a character spouted this gibberish as his personal opinion, it might be a tad more acceptable, it could be taken as throwing light on the character, necessarily partial, and it would probably have been kept a lot shorter. But this lumpish, badly-written rubbish opens an early chapter, supposedly setting the scene and tone of the work. And because it is the narrator talking, he can write at whatever length he wants. There are numerous long, wearily facetious passages like this. It is the tone of the novel. It just makes you think the author is a berk.

When the first person narrator of his classic thrillers was piecing the jigsaw together we shared his burning urgency, lives were at stake, think, man, think! I’ve never read novels which grip you so tight by the throat and don’t let go. But the transition to the third person narrator destroys the tension, because the narrator airily transports you to the baddies hideout, taking you round the setup, explaining how it’s all been done and what the plan is – and making poor Ryder’s investigations seem pathetic and pointless. Destroying the tension, erasing interest.

Characters

In a related problem, the last phase novels all have large casts. When events are seen from one person’s point of view they tend to have a narrow focus of friends (one or two key allies) and foes. This novel has over forty named characters and I was frequently confused about who was who. The maverick cop. His wife held hostage by the evil baddies (think Die Hard without the style). His daughter pops up for a scene. His son. His corrupt boss. The rotten judge. The local sheriff who gets assassinated. The overworked FBI man. The pal on the local newspaper. The unflappable, civilised, psychopath baddie. His 6-foot-6 man-mountain number two. Some good cops. Some bad cops. Harassed head of nuclear reactor. Five kidnapped nuclear scientists. Six kidnapped technicians. Morro’s hired psycho who enjoys torturing them. And so on…

America

Like Breakheart Pass, The Golden Gate and Seawitch this is another book set in America and the trans-Atlantic move is somehow, along with the other factors listed above, connected with the collapse of MacLean’s writing. America was where the audience, the money, the movies were, so… that’s where MacLean set his novels. America in the 1970s had a taste for cheap disaster movies (1974 alone saw The Towering Inferno, Earthquake, Hurricane, Trapped Beneath the Sea etc), so… MacLean bent to prevailing fashion and wrote a nuclear blast-catastrophic earthquake-tsunami disaster novel…

And it’s a stinker.

Related links

1980 Fontana paperback edition of Goodbye California

1980 Fontana paperback edition of Goodbye California

The first 22 Alistair MacLean novels

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.
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.
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.
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.

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.

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.

Circus by Alistair MacLean (1975)

‘What is it, Bruno? What drives you? You are a driven man, don’t you know that? You don’t work for the CIA and this damnable anti-matter can’t mean all the world to you. Yet I know, I know you’re willing to die to get inside that damnable prison. Why, Bruno, why?’ (p.90)

The setting is, well, a circus, one of the most famous in America, whose top attraction is the renowned trapeze artist Bruno Wildermann, an emigré from an unnamed East European country. The novel opens with two agents from the CIA going to the circus to enjoy the show but mainly to see Bruno and his two brothers, the ‘Blind Eagles’. Afterwards, they approach Bruno and the circus-owner, Wrinfield, to ask if they will cooperate with the CIA and take the circus on a tour of Eastern Europe. One of the stops would just happen to be near a particular prison-cum-research laboratory in the city of Cranau, where our spies tell us that the dastardly communists are working on some kind of anti-matter weapon. Bruno’s mission would be to break into it. Bruno and Wrinfield agree. What could possibly go wrong?

Almost immediately the ‘MacLean mayhem’ begins, namely both the agents we met in the opening pages are murdered: one gets an ice pick through the neck in his apartment; the other is lured back to the circus where he is thrown into the cage full of tigers which tear him to pieces.

Wrinfield and Bruno are visited by the man who appears to be in charge of the operation, discreetly referred to as ‘the Admiral’ and, despite these unfortunate deaths, they assure him they want to go ahead. So the Admiral hustles things along: getting them to cancel their American tour so as to crack on to Europe; inserting a doctor, Harper, into the circus to act as contact; and giving Wrinfield a new ‘PA’, the pretty young Maria. Bruno is told to pretend to fall in love with her. Astonishingly, the pair find themselves falling in love for real.

The circus plays a few more American dates then loads onto a cargo ship and crosses the Atlantic. Wrinfield’s nephew, Henry, has come along for the ride and because he’s taken a fancy to pretty young Maria. Maria and Bruno put up with his harmless flirting, until his snooping discovers that some of the crew are bugging her cabin – and they realise that he’s discovered them – at which point he is coshed and thrown overboard.

In other words, this side-plot shows that someone is seeking to undermine the mission before it’s properly started, though it is never really revealed who. (In fact, by the book’s end I’d completely forgotten that I was meant to be interested in finding out who murdered the two agents, Pilgrim, Fawcett, and loverboy Henry. These earlier sections just don’t hang very well with the later sections: the text as a whole lacks the joined-up narrative suspense of the earlier, successful novels. It feels more ‘bitty’.)

A part of the book’s comic strip superficiality is the way everyone takes this and the earlier murders in their stride ie they have zero emotional impact. Instead, the circus unloads in Italy onto a long, specially-built circus train, and commence their European tour which brings them across the Iron Curtain into the unnamed East European country.

Here there’s a lot more palaver, with the two ‘Blind Eagles’ of Bruno’s act going missing, presumed kidnapped from the circus train. We meet the Head of the Secret Police, Sergius (who has only a sinister hole where his mouth should be, the result of some horrible wartime injury) who visits the circus, greets all the performers warmly, then listens to Bruno’s bugged conversations with Maria (everyone’s phone is bugged in this novel) and is generally shown to be one step ahead of the conspirators. We witness a scene in which Sergius and his deputy eavesdrop on everything Bruno is telling Maria about the upcoming heist, then turn away chuckling, thinking they have these poor American agents completely under control.

Except that, in the big twist of the book, Bruno and his team of experts from the circus (Kan Dahn the strongman, Roebuck the lasso expert, Manuelo the knife thrower) break into the prison/laboratory one day earlier than everyone expected. Ha!

The plan depends on Bruno’s ability to walk – balancing with a trapeze artist’s pole – the 300 yards along a power cable (turned off) from the power station over the barbed wire fence & walls into the prison/lab. Which he does in quite a tense scene. Once there he disables the guards with a poison gas squirter (very Man from UNCLE), helps the rest of the gang shimmy up ropes and then they:

  • move systematically around the watch-towers, disabling & tying up the guards
  • break quietly into the lab
  • find the bedroom of the evil scientist, van Diemen, and extract from him the formula for the dastardly secret weapon
  • move on to the prison where they find not only the two missing acrobats – presumed kidnapped earlier in the story, in fact held by the State Police – but also Bruno’s parents, locked up in his youth. It was their arrest which prompted his escape to the West all those years earlier. Aha. For him, the whole mission has been about releasing them.

BUT – it’s at exactly this moment of triumph that the voice of the Head of Secret Police, Sergius, says ‘Drop your guns.’ Oops. He is standing there with a gun, next to none other than Dr Harper. Hang on! Isn’t this the Dr Harper who ‘the Admiral’ asked the circus to take along as the CIA contact? Does this mean that – Dr Harper is a fiendish double agent? Was it Dr Harper who arranged the murder of Fawcett and Pilgrim back in the States, and of poor Henry on the ocean liner? The cad!

For a moment things look bad for Bruno and our boys. But only for a moment. In a split second of distraction, Manuelo throws a knife at Sergius, Dr Harper shoots van Dieman (who Bruno was using as a shield) at the same moment as Bruno fires one of his poison darts which hits Harper in the neck. Wham! The three baddies – Sergius, Harper, van Diemen – are dead. Quick!

Our boys leg it. As more or less all the guards are gassed and tied up, they simply shin down the rope to street level, and jump into various cars. Bruno and Maria head for the woods where they rendezvous with a helicopter which flies them to a US ship waiting in the Baltic, and so back to the States. The three performers motor back to the circus in time to carry out their performances and thus have the perfect alibi. While the deputy head of the Secret Police is distraught to come across the prison and lab full of tied-up guards and – horror of horrors! – the corpses of his boss (Sergius), the American double agent (Harper), and their leading scientist (van Diemen).

These later MacLean novels all end very abruptly with only a few sentences of wind-up. Same happens here, as Bruno and Maria walk into the office of ‘the Admiral’ back at CIA headquarters, where they announce they got married on the ship back from Europe. Bruno also reveals that he tore up the plans for the dastardly weapon without even looking at them (good chap) and the Admiral is so cross he threatens to fire him. Fire him?

Because of course, dear Reader, Bruno Wildermann is not only the world’s greatest trapeze artist – he is also one of the CIA’s best agents 🙂

This makes a bit of a nonsense of the opening scenes where the CIA agents go along to check Bruno out and ask if he’ll undertake the mission. But this isn’t a book which encourages too much thought, you’re just meant to sit back and enjoy the ride.


In MacLean’s classic novels (Night Without End to Puppet On a Chain) the tension is ratcheted up so high you can hardly breathe while you read them. This one, like the previous couple of novels, mostly lacks that element of nailbiting tension because you know all too well what is going to happen: some brutal murders set the tone, and there may a number of tense and exciting scene – but we know our hero will turn out to know, or to be, more than he lets on and – after handling a few, sometimes quite brutal, setbacks – will manage to defeat the baddies and emerge from the climactic confrontation to the cheers of the crowd and kisses from his new girlfriend. Or wife. This is more or less what happens in Caravan to Vaccarès, The Way to Dusty Death, Breakheart Pass and this one.

Related links

Fontana paperback edition of Circus

Fontana paperback edition of Circus

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.

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.

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.

Caravan to Vaccarès by Alistair MacLean (1969)

The plot

This is a short (188 pages), intense action thriller, told in 10 chapters, but whose action can be divided into four or so parts.

Prologue A terrified young gypsy, Alexandre, is pursued through a sequence of eerie limestone caves, until he is cornered, murdered and buried under rubble. His killers are other gypsies who he has, in some way, crossed.

Part one Sets the scene in exclusive, luxury hotel, Les Baumanière, in the south of France, situated close to the dramatic cliffs of Les Baux upon which lie the remains of a formidable medieval city. Here are encamped hundreds of gypsies in their brightly painted caravans, en route to the big annual gypsy festival south of Arles. We are introduced to a small cast of colourful characters who will appear throughout the narrative:

  • Czerda – chief baddie gypsy
  • Ferenc – his son, just as bad
  • Koscis and Hoval – sidekicks
  • Neil Bowman – hero, unarmed tough guy, obviously some kind of agent
  • Cecile Dubois – one of the pair of girls staying at the hotel
  • Lila Delafont – her friend
  • the Duc de Croytor – an immensely fat, continually eating aristocrat who is posing as a folklorist and expert on gypsy life

The first chapter opens with Bowman flirting with the girls and expressing admiration of the gypsies. They wander round the booths of the fair the gypsies are setting up, and Bowman humorously has his palm read by a succession of old soothsayers – they tell him he will be married soon and this forms the basis for a running flirtation with Cecile.

Later that night he goes snooping round the caravans long enough to see Alexandre’s mother, sister and fiancée weeping his disappearance in their caravan, and then, in another caravan, to see Czerda pointing something on a map out to his accomplices. But almost immediately Bowman is spotted by baddies who give chase with nasty-looking knives. He takes brief refuge in Cecile’s room, before fleeing across the patio, down the stairs and off up into the ruined city on the cliffs. Bowman has no weapon so the chase becomes a genuinely tense cat and mouse affair, but he manages to bump off two of the baddies, by tricking them and throwing them off the cliff to the vast distance to the plains below. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaagh. Very cinematic.

Bowman returns to Cecile’s room and tells her she has to pack and leave since the baddies now think she’s with him. He persuades her to give him the keys to her car, finds it in the darkened car park, starts it up and roars off to meet her at the back of the hotel, en route running Ferenc over. Shame. Bowman and Cecile flee with the gypsies in hot pursuit in their jeep – except Bowman has let its tyres down so it slews across the main road and rolls down the embankment, badly injuring the villains.

Cecile demands an explanation which Bowman doesn’t give. Instead he pulls over only a mile down the road, turns and drives quietly back to the hotel, parks and tiptoes up to Czerda’s caravan. Here he finds father and son nursing their injuries and promptly knocks them both unconscious with Ferenc’s gun, which he picked up in the chase. Cecile looks on as he tears the caravan apart, looking for something: he finds a roll of 80,000 francs which he confiscates, and a letter in code, takes it and leaves. Who are you? Cecile asks. Bowman doesn’t say.

Part two They drive to Arles to arrive on annual festival day where Bowman checks into a hotel, ditches the car, puts on skin colouring and a fake moustache and hires fancy dress for himself and Cecile. As in a caper movie all the characters from Les Baumanière turn up in Arles, notably the Duc de Croytor in his lime green Rolls Royce, driven by a pretty chauffeuse dressed in lime green uniform, and accompanied by Cecile’s friend Lila. Here also are all the gypsies, as well as the mysterious silent Chinese couple, and some new characters, namely a defrocked priest, Simon Searl. In a horrible sequence we see him consulting with the vile Czerda, and then see Alexandre’s innocent sister go into confession with him, encouraged by her mother to use him to contact the authorities. Instead, the next time we see her she is lying in the women’s caravan and her back has been whipped, flayed, till it is raw, as punishment for speaking out. But about what?

Bowman drives with Cecile out of town, suspecting he’ll be followed, and he is. He stops round a corner blocking the road so the tail is forced to stop in a hurry whereupon Bowman approaches the driver, Pierre Lacabro, with a wheel brace for weapon. There follows an intense fight in which Cecile plays the stereotypical dollybird role of standing to one side wringing her hands while the tough guys slug it out. Like many of the scenes, it seems written to go straight into a movie. Bowman gets the better of Lacabro who ends up thrown over the ravine into the waters of the river Rhône. Or has he miraculously survived…?

Back in town, Bowman and Cecile make another costume change and drive off: observed by the Duc de Croytor (who is he? what is his interest?) and the Chinese couple (who are they? why do they keep cropping up?).

Part three They drive south to a makeshift bullring set up by the side of the road at a place called Mas de Lavignolle and surrounded by hundreds of gypsy caravans. This is not a Spanish corrida where the (big) bull gets killed but the Provençal cours libre where nobody gets killed by the (smaller) bull though the bull-fighter or razateur still runs a mighty risk (p.131).

Bowman parks up and sneaks (again) into one of the baddies’ caravans, where he finds three men manacled to the wall. He is just identifying them as Count le Hobenaut, M. Tangevec, and an unknown third, when Czerda appears in the doorway with a gun. Oops. He and his henchman have also caught Cecile. Double oops.

It is at this moment that the Duc de Croytor makes his appearance, booming his way into the caravan and over-awing the baddies, young Lila in tow. He immediately starts berating them for their failure to get rid of Bowman. When one of them addresses him as Gaiuse Strome, the Duc cheerfully cuffs him round the face, before explaining to poor, confused Lila that the real Duc is presently on a trip up the Amazon and so he has ‘borrowed’ his identity. So Le Duc was the Mr Big all along. Aha.

The baddies return their attention to Bowman. He is going to come with them to the bull-ring. And if he refuses? A grisly henchman tears the back of Cecile’s dress down to the waist and presents the same whip which flayed Lily’s back. Ah. OK, says Bowman. He allows himself to be dressed in the costume of one of the clowns who entertain the crowd between fights and then to be dragged into the ring by Czerda et al (also dressed in clown costumes, to make the scene all the more grotesque).

Cut back to the caravan where a baddie is guarding the girls, along with the Duc. To everyone’s surprise the Duc asks where Bowman is and, when told he’s been taken to be killed in the ring, throws a paddy and clouts the baddie with the gun. Quick, he yells at Cecile: run and save your boyfriend. What! Can it be that the Duc is a goodie after all, masquerading as a baddie!! Damn MacLean and his unexpected plot twists!!!

In the ring Bowman is bloodied and bowed but just about still on his feet and dodging the bull, the crowd laughing their heads of and applauding the achievements of this formidable razateur. Suddenly Cecile appears in the stand yelling his name and Bowman realises she is free – he leaps over the wooden barrier and runs for it. Back in the caravan Le Duc, back in character as leader of the baddies, tells an amazed Czerda to find and bring Bowman to him at the Miramar Hotel in Saintes-Marie.

He then watches from the caravan as Bowman makes a break from his hiding place in a changing room and leaps onto a horse and gallops off. Czerda follows suit with a pack of baddies and there is a thrilling chase across the mudflats of the Camargue. Until Bowman’s horse throws the exhausted hero into a patch of quicksand. He is resigned to dying until Lacabro reluctantly gets a laryat from his saddle and throws it to Bowman.

Finally, everyone is gathered together in Czerda’s caravan (the Duc, Czerda and the baddies, the two women and Bowman) and the Duc uses the opportunity to go through the plan – and tell the reader what the devil the book is about. Turns out the three manacled men are nuclear scientists from behind the Iron Curtain. They were kidnapped in the Eastern bloc and have been smuggled out in gypsy caravans (which the authorities – superstitiously – never search) and are due to be put aboard a ship bound for China, in a deal worth millions.

Part four The Duc’s Rolls Royce and the baddie’s caravan arrive at the quayside and unload Bowman, the two girls, the three scientists and their wives into a speedboat which will take them out to the waiting Chinese ship. Bowman pulls a gun and negotiates his escape and that of the two girls. Then he jumps into the Rolls and there is a very filmic chase, as the Rolls drives along the canal road parallel to the speedboat, Bowman and the baddies exchanging shots. He accelerates ahead of them and hijacks a local fishing boat, and there is a waterborne chase scene worthy of a 1970s Bond film. It is here (page 175) that Bowman reveals to the frightened boat owner that he does, in fact, work for the British Secret Service. Ah.

There’s some more shooting, some more chasing until Bowman’s boat rams and sinks the speedboat (hooray) but the baddies jump aboard his boat (boo), they return to the quayside. In the quest for the money Bowman stole from him, Czerda takes them all back to the caves where the novel started, where Czerda and his men implicate themselves in Alexandre’s murder in front of witnesses.

It is here, finally, that the Duc de Craytor reveals himself, as I’d been suspecting for the past 80 pages or so, not only as a goodie, but actually as Bowman’s boss: they’ve been working together for some years tracking gypsies smuggling things across the Curtain and were tipped off by the Russians about the kidnapped scientists.

In a final, cartoon-like twist, the two girls themselves turn out to be agents working for the Navy (?), tasked with keeping an eye on Bowman and the Duc. Cue crooked smiles all round, Cecile running into Bowman’s arms, end credits, theme music.

Style

The plot is thrilling, fast-paced, visceral, written with the film adaptation in mind. But MacLean’s style is awful, ham-fisted and mealy-mouthed, laboriously arch and contrived.

He wanted to learn more and learn it quickly for the prospect of hanging around that brightly illuminated window indefinitely lacked appeal of any kind: there was something in the brooding atmosphere of tragedy inside that caravan and menace outside calculated to instil a degree of something less than confidence in the bystander. (p.37)

Every page has its clunking infelicity.

The expression on what little could be seen of Lacabro’s face registered a degree of unhappiness that was not entirely attributable to his sufferings: he had about him the wounded appearance of one whose injuries are not being accorded their due meed of loving care and concerned sympathy. (p.114)

Maybe some of it is meant to be funny, sharp or witty.

They appeared to have a craving for anonymity, a not unusual predilection on the part of would-be murderers. (p.145)

But mostly it comes over as an almost pathological inability to write plainly and clearly, without adding in redundant adjectives, clauses and laboured circumlocutions.

As Searl made to cross the road he had to step quickly and advisedly to one side to avoid being run down by Bowman’s horse. Bowman, Le Grand Duc could see, was swaying in the saddle to the extent that even although he had the reins in his hands he had to hold on to the pommel to remain in his seat. (p.156)

Sometimes it barely makes sense.

The watchers remained motionless on their horses: the impassiveness on their faces was frightening in its suggestion of a total implacability. (p.160)

The movie

The novel was turned into a movie, released in 1974 and directed by Geoffrey Reeve, starring David Birney, Charlotte Rampling and Michael Lonsdale. Surprisingly – given that the book reads like a novelisation of a movie rather than a novel in its own right – they changed the plot quite a bit.

It doesn’t seem to be available on DVD, and is only available as a second-hand VHS on Amazon, though the whole thing can currently be viewed on YouTube.


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.

Still pretty 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 – 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.

Force 10 From Navarone by Alistair MacLean (1968)

Now it had come, Mallory knew. He looked at Andrea and Miller and Reynolds and Groves and knew that they knew it too. In their faces he could see very clearly reflected what lay at the very surface of his own mind, the explosive tension, the hair-trigger alertness straining to be translated into equally explosive action. Always it came, this moment of truth that stripped men bare and showed them for what they were. (p.118)

The plot

Of Maclean’s 28 novels, this is the only sequel. Immediately following the events of The Guns of Navarone, the surviving heroes – New Zealand mountaineer Captain Keith Mallory, American explosives expert ‘Dusty’ Miller – have only just come aboard a Royal Navy ship before they are despatched right back to Navarone to interrupt the wedding of the indomitable Greek partisan, Andrea Stavros, and take him to an airstrip from which they are collected and flown to Italy. So far, so preposterous.

Here, in Allied HQ Italy, ‘the splendidly piratical figure of Captain Jensen, RN, Chief of Allied Intelligence, Mediterranean’, tells them they are to have no rest but are to be parachuted into Yugoslavia, along with three hand-picked commandos, to link up with the anti-German partisans.

The strategic background is that the Allies are pinned down in Italy at the Monte Cassino line. If the Allies can foment trouble in Yugoslavia, the Germans will have to send divisions there, weakening the Italian line. ‘The whole future of the War is at stake’ – as usual. In particular, two German divisions have surrounded a force of some 7,000 partisans in an area called the Zenica Cage, to the west of the narrow gorge of the river Neretva.

Our heroes parachute into the mountains near the Zenica Cage. They are met by Yugoslavs, but who turn out to be Chetniks and who hand them over to the occupying Germans, led by Major Neufeld. To the puzzlement of the three young commandos, Mallory has foreseen this. Mallory spins the Germans a yarn about them being criminals and deserters which – amazingly – convinces the Germans. Mallory then persuades them to let Mallory et al cross through the lines into the Trap to rendezvous with the partisans, on the pretext of gaining valuable intelligence information from them.

So off Mallory, Miller and Andrea plus the three commandos go, to  meet the partisans and exchange genuine information, finding out about their troop deployments, about where the German armoured divisions really are. Then MM&A return to the Germans but, this time, they hold the Germans up at gunpoint, and force them to take our heroes to the cabin in the woods where the Krauts are holding four English prisoners of war.

Our heroes take the POWs up the hillside and over across to a high plateau where the snow is being trodden flat by hundreds of partisans so that a Wellington bomber can land. But, minutes after they left them tied and bound, a German patrol comes along and releases the imprisoned Germans, who follow them up the hillside and witness, from a distance, nine figures (our five heroes, plus the four released men) climb into the Wellington, which then takes off again. The Germans congratulate themselves. All along they knew our heroes were not the criminals they claimed to be, but were ‘enemy agents’: they allowed themselves to be captured, they allowed themselves to be locked up, they allowed our heroes to release the POWs, and they allowed them all to fly back to Allied HQ, because they had deliberately given them false information about the location of the two German armoured divisions.

Except that: Mallory knows the Germans know who they really are, he knows the Germans have planned to let them go; which is why he hasn’t flown off with the plane; the POWs were on it with a message to Jensen back at HQ, but the other five figures were lucky partisans impersonating our heroes.

The whole thing was a ruse and a sideshow. When our heroes met the real partisans, they learned about the German divisions’ true disposition and the German plan to attack the 7,000 partisans by crossing the Neretva bridge. This is the information they have sent back to Allied HQ.

Now the famous five go back down the hill to the same German hut they liberated the English POWs from half an hour earlier and where Major Neufeld is congratulating the Chetnik leader, Droshny, on their cunning plan – and once again hold up them up at gunpoint, this time to liberate Maria and her blind singer brother, Petar.

Who are they? We first met them in the Chetniks’ camp pretending to be baddys. They have an elaborate backstory – Maria’s is that her family were killed by partisans so she defected to the Chetniks and wanders freely everywhere accompanied by her blind brother, the minstrel singer. (But it won’t come as a surprise to readers used to MacLean that she turns out to be a double agent, working for the Allies all along, and that the blind singer turns out to be the head of Allied counter-espionage in the Balkans! and that they aren’t brother and sister, but are married).

Echoes of Eagles These plot twists and turns, and the way the truth is known only to the officer in charge, who only explains it bit by bit to his sidekick (here, Mallory to Reynolds) is a copy of the structure of Where Eagles Dare, in which only Major Smith knows every wrinkle of the plan, and only feeds it out to Lieutenant Schaeffer as required. Maria, the double-agent who is vital for keeping our heroes informed of Nazi intentions, is reminiscent of the Mary who, in Where Eagles Dare, is our girl on the inside. And in both novels the radio operator is murdered in sinister circumstances.

This book is full of echoes of its predecessor.

To cut a long story short: the remaining five heroes lead an attack on the Neretva dam. The German Colonel Zimmerman, who is in charge of the two armoured divisions, believes his Hauptman Neufeld has successfully sent the British agents off with misleading intelligence about the location of his tanks. The Allies play up to this misconception by elaborately bombing an area filled with wood mock-ups of tanks. So he thinks he and his divisions are safe. Little does he know that he has Captain Mallory, Dusty Miller and Andrea Stavros to contend with! Thus, Colonel Zimmerman confidently gives the go-ahead for his tanks and lorries and troops to start crossing the bridge across the river Neretva.

Which is a bad idea because, after much hand-to-hand fighting, shooting, chucking grenades, dodging patrols and a break-neck climb across a sheer cliff face, the heroes Mallory and Miller blow up the immense Neretva dam and the resulting torrent of water destroys the bridge, Zimmerman and most of his two divisions. More dead than alive our heroes stand exhausted by the edge of the gorge, watching the destructive waters gush past them, thinking tough guy thoughts.

In a brief epilogue they are received back at Allied HQ in Italy where they learn the Germans have had to send divisions to Yugoslavia to make good the gap, and the Allied attack – timed to coincide with this weakening of the German line – has been successful. Well done, chaps.

The book ends on a comic note as the ‘splendidly piratical’ Captain Jensen starts to mention that there’s just one more teeny, tiny job he’s got lined up for the boys. Cut to the expression of horror on Dusty Miller’s face – cue end credits and heroic war movie theme music.

Background

The Guns of Navarone, published in 1957, was Alistair MacLean’s second novel. Already it is rich in war-thriller clichés – the immensely strong partisan (Andrea) loyal to the clever Anglo-Saxon (New Zealand mountaineer-turned-commando Keith Mallory), the comically reluctant American demolitions expert ‘Dusty’ Miller, the earnest young Lieutenant Stephens, keen to prove himself and who, once he’s obviously dying of gangrene, volunteers to stay behind to hold the pass and sell his life dearly; and the Greek partisan who turns out to be a traitor, tsk tsk.

The novel was turned into the very successful 1961 movie, starring Gregory Peck as Mallory, David Niven as a non-American Miller, and Anthony Quinn as Zorba the partisan.

In the mid-1960s, so the story goes, MacLean was living near to Richard Burton, both in tax exile in Switzerland. Burton asked MacLean to write him a cracking wartime adventure yarn, something he could take his son to see. Six weeks later MacLean delivered the screenplay for Where Eagles Dare, a classic war movie starring Burton and the young, charismatic Clint Eastwood. Impressively, MacLean wrote the novel in tandem with the screenplay. Both have the classic MacLean characteristic, which is terrific pace, gripping the reader from the opening scenes in the plane flying over wartime Bavaria.

Force Ten From Navarone was not only the sequel to the original bestselling novel and movie, it was also written on the back of the book and movie success of Where Eagles Dare. It is, therefore, no surprise that it, too, has a stripped-down, no-nonsense narrative drive from the opening pages, that the scenes are often only a few pages long, that the characterisation is paper thin and that the twists, turns and revelations fly fast and furious.

But there’s something else at work which I think comes from MacLean’s close involvement with movies, and that is humour: he had seen that tough guys in the movies often have the snappiest one-liners, that in films like The Great Escape (1963) or The Dirty Dozen (1967) the tough, all-male, ready-for-anything atmosphere is reinforced by jokes, wisecracks, all-male banter.

The MacLean formula

Coming from reading Eric Ambler, Len Deighton, Graham Greene and Hammond Innes four things strike me about this novel and Alistair MacLean in general:

  • Pace. Nothing gets in the way of the hurtlingly fast forward momentum of the story. There is no love interest and certainly none of the leisurely philosophical lucubrations which cloy a Greene novel.
  • Suspense. The linear narrative is studded with unexpected twists and turns, double crosses and revelations – all of which maintain an atmosphere of boyish excitement and suspense.
  • Paper-thin characters. It’s all men, almost all soldiers, and they are all a) tall, gaunt, war-weary b) supremely competent with guns, knives, explosives and all the other ‘Action Man’ paraphernalia.
  • Terrible style. Not only are the characters tough guy stereotypes and the plot built of clichés, but the style includes hackneyed phrases, lots of repetitition of stock situations and feelings (defeat, despair, exhaustion), and prolonged, heavy-handed attempts at humour. MacLean is on record as saying he found it difficult to write, and it shows.

The superfluous adjective

A tell-tale sign of MacLean’s lack of subtlety is the excess adjective and thumping over-emphasis. ‘Indeed’ is a favourite word, used repeatedly to ram home the damn seriousness of a thing or situation.

The room was pleasantly redolent with the smell of burning pine, the source of which wasn’t difficult to locate: one could have roasted a very large ox indeed in the vast and crackling fireplace at the far end of the room. (p.25)

By this time… the darkened waters of the Neretva dam were clearly visible to the west and the railway track was now running very close indeed to the edge of what appeared to be a dangerously steep precipice. (p.153)

The brilliant illumination from the arc lights made it very clear indeed just what had happened. (p.213)

Repetition, comic There’s a type of repetition which emphasises the machine-like, clockwork efficiency of the heroes – Mallory, Miller, Andrea – and the fear and obedience they command. But it also emphasises that the text is operating in a particular kind of male territory of power and control. And the repetition is kind of humorous, like a gag, like a joke.

[Andrea shoves a Luger in Droshny’s face] ‘Please don’t tempt me.’ Droshny didn’t tempt him…

[If the hostages make a false move Mallory assures them Miller will shoot them.] ‘Please try to believe me.’ They believed him. (p.120)

‘Do exactly as you’re told,’ Neufeld ordered. The sergeant did exactly what he was told. (p.123)

Mallory said ‘Find out how to stop the damn thing.’ Miller looked at him coldly and set about trying to find out how to stop the damn thing. (p.153)

‘Drop those guns,’ he said. They dropped their guns. (p.217)

The text is jokily knowing about its own masculinity. It ironises its own dead-pan attitude.

Comedy It is one thing when the characters speak humorously, Dusty Miller in particular specialising in the wry, deadpan comment. But the text is in serious trouble when MacLean makes his (frequent) attempts at humour.

[Miller] ran forward and [gave the locomotive] several violent and well-directed kicks which clearly took into no account the future state of his toes… (p.150)

Miller made the descent to the ledge without incident, principally by employing his favourite mountain-climbing technique of keeping his eyes closed all the time. (p.157)

Comic writing has to be slick. It’s an art. And it is not MacLean’s forte. Some of the clunkier efforts are like watching your Dad do his party tricks. Morecambe and Wise  Dad’s Army or are not far away.

Repetitive repetition And then there’s just repetitiveness, of conception and of phrasing. Apparently it took MacLean about a month to write each novel and the speed and slapdash approach to prose shows on every page.

Miller took one brief glance at this terrifying prospect, stepped hurriedly back from the edge of the cliff and looked at Mallory in a silently dismayed incredulity. (p.156)

Reynolds looked at Mallory in an almost dazed incredulity. (p.166)

There are also half a dozen references to bad characters’ ‘wolfish grins’, several of the corpses are described as being in that distinctive huddled shape; there are the usual repeated assertions that all the heroes are tired, weary, exhausted etc. In other words, MacLean’s prose features habits of phrasing which recur (and are to increase in frequency in the later novels).

Bad And there are plenty of simply ham-fisted sentences, long and rambling and badly phrased.

The others rose and followed him, Groves and Reynolds exchanging glances which indicated more clearly than any words could possibly have done that they could have been even more wrong about Andrea than they had ever been about Mallory. (p.146)

Hundreds of long sentences like this which make their point clumsily.

Over emphasis As the climax approaches, the style becomes feverishly over-excited, with MacLean throwing buckets of dark adjectives at the wall to see what sticks.

The contrast was almost too much to be borne, the suddenly hushed silence strangely ominous, deathly, almost, in its sinister foreboding. (p.206)

The movie

Almost all MacLean’s novels were turned into movies and this one had the added appeal of being a sequel to the much-praised and commercially successful Guns of Navarone (1961). However, the movie of this book wasn’t made until 1978, and something went very wrong with film-making culture in the 1970s. Compare and contrast Roger Moore’s Bond films with Sean Connery’s. In 1969 Guy Hamilton directed the unquestionable classic The Battle of Britain, and he went on to direct Diamonds Are Forever, Live and Let Die, The Man with the Golden Gun – each worse than its predecessor as the Bond franchise went steadily downhill. At least part of the reason for this was the producers’ and Roger Moore’s wish to make the films humorous – with dire consequences.

It was Hamilton who directed the 1978 movie version of Force 10, and it represents a measurable falling-off in comparison with the 1961 Navarone film: the parts of Mallory and Miller are played by Robert Shaw and Edward Fox – a come-down from Gregory Peck and David Niven. There is no love interest in the novel but one is created for the movie and played by Barbara Bach, hotfoot from stripping off in the Bond movie, The Spy Who Loved Me. And, in the biggest travesty, the role defined by Anthony Quinn in the first movie is inhabited by Richard Kiel, Jaws from The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker.

Related links

Original hardback jacket illustration of Force 10 From Navarone, by Norman Weaver

Original hardback jacket illustration of Force 10 From Navarone, by Norman Weaver

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.

Where Eagles Dare by Alistair MacLean (1967)

From the cable-car station on the lower slopes they had an excellent if distant view of the fire. ‘Are you responsible for this?’ she asked.
‘It was a mistake,’ Smith explained.
‘Yeah. His hand slipped,’ Schaffer added.
‘You two should audition for a turn on vaudeville,’ Heidi said dryly. (p.100)

This is cracking schoolboy entertainment, MacLean at the top of his game, delivering a cleverly-thought-out, thrill-a-minute page-turner, complete with a wise-cracking double act of tough guy heroes.

The plot

It’s 1944. US General Carnaby was flying to a rendezvous with the Russians and other Allies in Crete when his Mosquito airplane was shot down in Bavaria. Bad news, because the General carries in his head the most detailed plans for Operation Overlord, aka D-Day, of any man alive. He’s almost certainly been taken to the nearby Gestapo Headquarters at the notorious Schloss Adler, the Castle of the Eagle, an impregnable fortress where he’ll be tortured into telling what he knows and wrecking the D-Day operation. That’s why British Army Intelligence have assembled, within 24 hours, a team of six men with in-depth experience of working behind enemy lines, to rescue him.

Leading the team is Major John Smith, ‘the best agent in Europe’ (p.49), supported by a laconic American OSS officer, Lieutenant Morris Schaffer, and the novel opens with a gripping scene as their lumbering Lancaster bomber flies through an impenetrable blizzard in order to parachute the six onto a remote plateau on the side of the Weissspitze mountain. From here they will trek down into the valley of the Eagle Castle, penetrate it, and rescue Carnaby.

From the start things go wrong, with Sergeant Harrod, the radio operator, found dead tangled in his parachute. Bad luck. Except Smith finds an excuse to go back to his body later, and confirms his hunch: Harrod’s neck was broken by a blunt instrument. And in the zero visibility of the blizzard, on the cliff-side, someone tries to pull away the rope Smith needs to get down the mountain. One of the men is a traitor!

And who is the young woman the flight instructor went to the back of the plane to fetch out of hiding once the six commandos had jumped, and who followed them out? After they’ve landed in the snow, discovered Harrod is dead, and got themselves half-way down the mountain, Smith makes an excuse to leave the others, during a rest period, and sneaks back to meet her.

She is Mary Ellison. Turns out she is also an intelligence agent and they have worked together in Italy. Now he gives her instructions: she has a new German identity. She is going to pretend to be the distant cousin of Heidi, from the bierkellar in the village, who frequently cleans and serves up in the castle. The buxom Heidi, trusty barmaid in the Zum Wilden Hirsch pub, turns out to be our longest-established spy in Bavaria. There are always staff shortages inside the castle, so she’ll get Mary a job there. Once inside, Mary will provide help for Smith and Schaffer to carry out their mission. Rendezvous at the Wilden Hirsch; Heidi will be expecting you.

In the pub

Once down in the village, the soldiers strip off their snow smocks to reveal German uniforms. They dump their stuff in the locked-up railway station then stroll confidently through the village among the hordes of other Alpenkorps, to a cluster of pubs, lovely and warm amid the Alpine snow. Smith selects the Wild Deer and they go into the raucous, smoke-filled boozy bierkellar, confidently order drinks and mingle with the throng. While she serves him, Smith is able to tell Heidi the barmaid that Mary has arrived and will join her soon: the plan is on.

But in the midst of the pub scene, when things are just starting to make sense, the Gestapo suddenly enter, enforcing silence on the drunken crowd of German soldiers, and demand to know who the foreign spies are. Surprisingly, Smith stands up and indicates himself and his colleagues. Thus the five Brits are bundled into two cars and driven off. Looks bad for our heroes. But Smith manages to hijack the car he and Schaffer are in, seizes their guns then turfs the Germans out into the snow, and then runs the car off a cliff into the nearby lake, before doubling back to the castle with Schaffer.

This incident, crucially, means they are separated from the other three guys who parachuted in with them, and who have been taken into German custody.

Up by cable car

Just what is the plan, anyway? First Smith and Schaffer will, at great peril, smuggle themselves into the Schloss by climbing onto the roof of one of the cable cars that go swinging up towards the castle as part of the Luftseilbahn or aerial cableway. Just as it pulls into the top station, they both leap onto the sloping roof overhanging the station entrance, providing a literal cliffhanger moment as Smith’s knife lodges in the wooden roof but Schaffer’s breaks and he begins to slip down towards the edge, towards the 300 foot fall to the rocks below. Cut to a close-up of Smith’s hand reaching out and grabbing Schaffer’s. He pulls him up and they manage to scrabble up onto the flat part of the roof! ‘I owe you one, buddy.’

Mary, having made it up to the castle and passed the various security checks, has been shown to her quarters which – handily – overlook this very roof. She pays out a rope attached to her bed, not unlike Rapunzel in the fairy tale letting down the rope for our heroes to swarm up it and – they are inside!

In the Gold Hall

They make their way to the grand ‘Gold Hall’ where they find Carnaby being questioned by senior Nazis – Colonel Kramer, Deputy Chief of the German Secret Service, and Reichsmarschall Julius Rosemeyer, Wehrmacht Chief of Staff – watched by the three commandos who parachuted in with them. Aha. Just as Smith suspected, all three of them are traitors.

Smith and Schaffer are just in time to witness the corny, stock WWII scene where the Germans regret that, since Carnaby will only give his name, rank and serial number, the enemy officers are forced to use ‘harsher measures’ ie a sexy female Nazi approaches with a tray of hypodermic syringes – the serious interrogation is about to begin.

It’s at this point that Smith steps forward – not to shoot, but to first incapacitate Schaffer (Thump! ‘Sorry, lootenant’), then calmly put his gun down and perform a massive double bluff. Since he is fluent in German (of course) and a terrific actor (naturally) he manages to persuade the assembled German officers that he, Smith, is one of their own most senior agents, and that the three double agents who are sitting quaffing brandy with them, they in fact are the real British agents. They obviously protest but Smith brings to bear an array of proof, including a midnight phone call to one of the Gauleiters of southern Germany, who cheerfully tells them that, ‘Yes, Smith is one of ours’ (since Smith has assiduously been posing as a German double agent for this man for two years).

The crux comes when Smith persuades the officers that the only way to know for sure whether the Doubtful Three are British or German agents, is to get them to write down the names and details of all the German agents and networks in Britain. Then they can compare their lists against the master one Smith brandishes in front of them. Aha. At last, the penny drops for the reader. This is the point of the entire operation – nothing to do with D-Day. It is all an elaborate double or treble bluff designed to get details of the Nazi spy networks in Blighty.

The guilty three are thus compelled to write down all these details under the watchful eye of Smith and the Deputy Chief of the German Secret Service and the Wehrmacht Chief of Staff. BUT, once they have finally finished, Smith seizes his gun again, throws another to Schaffer, and stands revealed as the real British agent. Ta da! Fooled you all. Now we have the names of all the Nazi spy networks in Britain!

BUT – Unfortunately, the senior Gestapo man in the castle, von Brauchitsch, has had his suspicions about the lovely Mary ever since accompanying her up in the cable car earlier that evening. Now he appears in the door and says in a cod Nazi accent: ‘Nobody move. Drop ze veppons,’ at which Smith instinctively turns and the Nazi shoots his gun out of his hand, breaking several fingers. From now on Smith is a wounded hero, bleeding from his hand and only barely able to pull off a whole string of heroics through superhuman courage and determination – like teenage boys everywhere would love to.

BUT – a moment later there is a soft woman’s voice: ‘Nobody move. Put down that gun, von Brauchitsch.’ It is Heidi, our longest-serving agent in southern Germany, who followed the Nazi along to the hall. Wow! How many thrills can MacLean pack into this cartoon narrative?

Smith and Schaffer tie and gag the Germans, lock the hall and gather the three traitors up, roped together (they’re going to be brought back to Blighty to stand trial). Thus begins the long sequence of their escape from the castle complete with lots of shooting and Schaffer setting off gelignite booby traps around the castle. Bang! There goes the radio room. Boom! There goes the courtyard. Crash! There goes the archive room, full of papers, and before you know it, the Nazis are running round like a ransacked ants’ nest, allowing our guys to make it back to that roof above the cable car station.

Cable car heroics

This is the famous sequence which defined both the movie and the novel and MacLean milks it for all it’s worth. Our heroes don’t just make their escape from a burning castle set on a vertiginous volcanic plug via a commandeered cable car – first of all there has to be a fight on a cable-car roof. For the three traitors they’ve been hustling through the chaotic castle and who they’ve carefully manhandled down into the (apparently empty) station, now slug Schaffer, grab his machine gun and jump into a down-bound car. Smith, realising what’s up, at the last minute leaps from the roof of the cable car housing – which slopes over the cable car entrance into the castle – down onto the slippery icy top of the car carrying the three traitors down to safety.

There follows a nail-biting sequence in which they shoot up through the roof with Smith dodging bullets. Then, as Smith slips and his legs dangle over the edge, down over the precipitous drop to the rocks below,  one of the traitors grabs hold of his legs, while the other one climbs up out a window and onto the slippery, frozen roof. And all this while Smith has only one good hand (remember the other one being injured in the Gold Hall?) What a legend!

Although you know it’s twaddle it is still terrifically exciting. You laugh but also shiver when the baddie who’s climbed up onto the car roof points his machine gun at the utterly defeated Smith, does a little baddie gloat (‘Not so clever now, eh, Smith?’) just as one of the pylons supporting the cable car looms up out of the darkness. ‘Behind you,’ says Smith, ‘Yeah, sure,’ says the baddie, then looks round and just has time to shriek before he is crushed against the massive steel pylon, his lifeless body then plummeting to into the depths below. What could be more satisfying to the teenage boy imagination?

The bus chase

More? Of course there’s more. They are nearly at the bottom station when they feel the car stop and begin to reverse. The Germans back up in the castle have obviously stormed the upper station (they had locked and barred its steel doors) and now they jump into the snowdrift. But not before Schaffer has thrown some gelignite on a short fuse into their car. Boom! That was the second cable car. No way down for the Jerries on the castle.

Our guys sneak through backstreets to the big shed they’d discovered way back in the early part of the novel, before they were arrested in the pub. Inside is the big yellow postal bus with an enormous snow plough attached at the front. What a stroke of genius. This allows MacLean to have Smith smash it through the padlocked doors of the barn, then drive it like a maniac through the village – swerving to smash a whole series of parked Jerry motorbikes, before roaring out to the road across the lake – where the troops in the nearby barracks open fire, and then a Tiger tank fires several armour-piercing shells harmlessly the length of the bus.

But what about the lorries, cars and motorbikes which have been scrambled to chase our heroes? Have our guys turn a corner and rattle over the rickety old wooden bridge over the swollen river; Schaffer jumps out and attaches some of his endless supply of gelignite to the pillars. So just as he scrambles back into the bus and it pulls away, and just as the first Jerry car hits the bridge – BOOM! Up it goes.

The payoff

They had radioed for help from the castle radio before everything went up in flames. Now a Mosquito, fastest plane in the world, cruises in to land at an auxiliary airfield where Smith has parked, flashing the bus’s lights. Across the strip they run and into the plane, which doesn’t even stop, but turns and takes off. Success!

And here comes the final one in the book’s long stream of twists and double-guesses. For the man who commissioned the entire escapade back in London, has flown in with the Mosquito, Colonel Wyatt-Turner. And it is only now, in the plane roaring back through the Alps, with his exhausted companions slumped around him, that Smith reveals the biggest secret of all; Wyatt-Turner, senior figure in British Intelligence, is himself a double agent. ‘You’ll never live to tell it,’ he sneers, suddenly lifting his Sten gun to point at Smith. ‘Pilot! Change your course to land at Lisle’ (in German-occupied France). ‘Not so fast,’ smiles Smith. ‘We suspected you all along. This whole operation was planned with a view to snaring you (and the other spies and networks).’ (‘Thanks for telling me, bud,’ quips Schaffer.)

Wyatt-Turner pulls the trigger of the Sten gun pointing at Smith. Nothing happens. Smith takes the firing pin out from his own pocket. ‘Yes, we made sure you’d have that gun. I thought it best to take precautions.’ ‘I’ll be tried for treason, won’t I?’ says Wyatt-Turner. ‘And hanged?’ He opens the plane door and steps out into mid-air. And that’s it. The last twist, the last revelation in this densely plotted adventure.

Smith shuts the plane door and snuggles up next to Mary. For them the war is over, their covers are blown and so no more active service. Everyone snuggles down for a safe flight back to Blighty.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

The odd thing is, it’s a comedy. MacLean’s prose style is terrible and his facetious tone often grates, but the novel comes alive whenever Smith and Schaffer are alone together to do their double act, Schaffer the morose Yank worried that Mrs Schaffer’s little boy is never going to get home, referring throughout to Smith as ‘boss’, while Smith is all understated Limey irony.

‘I thought it was horses you were scared of?’ Smith said mildly.
‘Horses, Dobermann pinchers, you name it, I’m scared of it. All it’s got to have is four feet.’ He looked gloomily at the burning station. ‘I’d have made a rotten vet.’ (p.93)

It was written in 1966-67, a time of comedy thriller double acts, of buddy movies, of two guys wisecracking their way through perilous adventures.

‘Ready when you are boss.’
‘That’s now. I have my bearings. First left, down the stairs, third left. The gold drawing-room. Where Colonel Kramer holds court. Complete with minstrels’ gallery.’
‘What’s a minstrels’ gallery?’ Schaffer enquired.
‘A gallery for minstrels.’ (p.111)

It is a cartoon, a boy’s own wartime adventure, but of its genre it’s a masterpiece.

The movie

Apparently MacLean was commissioned by his neighbour in Switzerland, Richard Burton, to write a war movie he could take his son to, and that’s what gave him the idea to write something full of thrills and spills. Fascinatingly, he worked on the screenplay and novel simultaneously, and it’s interesting to compare the two. The movie ditches some of the complexities of the book in favour of far more bangs from Schaffer’s gelignite, and far, far more German being shot. Whereas in the book Smith makes a point of going back to untie the German radio operator that they’d tied up, once the castle gets burning – in the movie scores and scores of Germans are cut down like nine-pins by Clint Eastwood’s inexhaustible Schmeisser machine gun.

The movie was made and released within a year of the book (1968) and was a box office hit, partly because of the presence of Burton at his craggy best, alongside the gorgeous young Clint Eastwood, but also helped by the spectacular Alpine scenery and the cracking score from Ron Goodwin, both on display in the opening sequence.

Credit

Where Eagles Dare published by William Collins Sons and Co Ltd in 1967. All quotes from the 1986 Fontana paperback edition.


Related links

The first 22 Alistair MacLean novels

1955 HMS Ulysses Gruelling war story about a doomed Arctic convoy.
1957 The Guns of Navarone Herioc 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 fleeing Singapore endure a series of terrible ordeals in their bid to escape pursuing Japanese forces.
1959 The Last Frontier Secret agent Michael Reynolds rescues a British scientist from communists in Hungary.
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 genetically engineered 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.
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 Six commandos are parachuted into snowy South Germany to rescue an American General who has the plans for D-Day and is being held captive in the inaccessible Schloss Adler, the Eagle’s Castle. Except this is merely a cover for a deeper mission – and the pretext for a ripping yarn chock-full of twists, turns and nailbiting excitement.
1968 Force 10 From Navarone Three of the 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.
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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