Ice Station Zebra by Alistair MacLean (1963)

In the year Len Deighton published his second spy novel, Horse Under Water, and Ian Fleming his 11th, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, MacLean published his 10th thriller, Ice Station Zebra. Reading MacLean against Deighton brings out their relative merits and shortcomings.

Where Deighton is brief and clipped to the point of obscurity, MacLean is explicit and obvious to the point of repetitiveness and diffuseness. Where Deighton gives situations in a phrase, MacLean takes pages, chapters.

Heavily factual

The first fifty pages of Ice Station Zebra consist of the first person narrator, Dr Carpenter, being given a tour of the US nuclear submarine Dolphin, and meeting the impeccably dressed, disciplined and intelligent crew. He is immensely respectful of them and their unflappable captain, Swanson. Maybe he actually was shown round a US nuclear sub and is returning the favour. It is almost a Sunday supplement article more than a fiction, with page after page of boys’ own technical detail, like a Top Gear special.

Hansen said thoughtfully: ‘Fifteen feet of ice is a helluva lot of ice. And that ice will have a tamping effect and will direct 90 per cent of the explosive force down the way. You think we can blow a hole through fifteen feet of ice, captain?’
‘I’ve no idea,’ Swanson admitted.
‘Nobody ever tried to do this before?’ I asked.
‘No. Not in the U.S. Navy, anyway.’
‘Aren’t the underwater shock waves liable to damage the Dolphin?’ I asked.
‘If they do, the Electric Boat Company can expect a pretty strong letter of complaint. We shall explode the warhead electronically about 1,000 yards after it leaves the ship – it has to travel eight hundred yards anyway before a safety device unlocks and permits the warhead to be armed. We shall be bows-on to the detonation and with a hull designed to withstand the pressures this one is, the shock effects should be minimal.’ (Ch 4)

Not even dialogue as exposition, more dialogue as prolonged technical manual into which a slender sliver of ‘plot’ is occasionally inserted. Reading this book you learn a lot about all aspects of underwater navigation as well as a large amount of information about Arctic conditions, the behaviour of ice packs and so on. Thoroughly researched. All research on display.

Verbose

Where Deighton conveys a situation in the briefest possible number of words or sentences, Maclean piles on the agony to a level of obviousness and beyond.

For the most part, standing as we were on the bridge twenty feet above the level of the ice – the rest of the Dolphin might never have existed as far as the eye could tell – we were above this billowing ground-swell of ice particles; but occasionally the wind gusted strongly, the spicules lifted, drumed domonaically against the already ice-sheathed staroard side of the sail, drove against the few exposed inches of our skin with all the painfully stinging impact of a sand-blaster held at arm’s length; but unlike a sand-blaster, the pain-filled shock of those spear-tipped spicules was only momentary, each wasp-like sting carried with it its own ice-cold anaesthetic and al surface sensation was quickly lost. Then the wind would drop, the furious rattling on the sail would fade and in the momentary contrast of near-silence we could hear the stealthy rustling as of a million rats advancing as the ice-spicules brushed their blind way across the iron-hard surface of the polar cap. The bridge thermometer stood at -21° F. -53° of frost. If I were a promoter interested in developing a summer holiday resort, I thought, I wouldn’t pay very much attention to this place. (Ch 4)

Where Deighton has highly-worked smart similes, MacLean has a peculiar kind of laboured jokiness, as in that last sentence. Cringeworthy, but peripheral to the core purposes of the text: a) technical expertise b) physical extremity c) intense suspense.

Plots

On the plus side, where Deighton’s plots are often difficult to follow, MacLean’s are very obvious. Although there are twists and turns in the plots, and the narrator generally turns out to be different to what he seems in the first half of the text, and there are further revelations down the line, these revelations, when they come, are fully explained and worked through for the reader. Not so in Deighton where it is often difficult to figure out what the plot is even about!

So, in Ice Station Zebra, a British government weather station high up in the Arctic has suffered a catastrophic fire and is sending out pitiful mayday signals. The narrator, Dr Carpenter, arrives at the US naval base with authority from the highest level to be carried to the base to rescue the survivors. For the first hundred pages or so there is textbook level of detail about the working of a nuclear submarine, about sonar and ice-depth detectors and radio in high latitudes and so on which powerfully convey the difficulties of the mission. Eventually they surface through one of the rare available thin areas of ice, and three naval volunteers accompany Carpenter through a devastating ice storm to the burnt-out wreckage of the base, and the handful of burnt, frozen survivors huddled in the unheated cabin.

But of course, this is where the plot thickens, where we learn there is more to Ice Station Zebra than we have so far been told and that, in fact, the fire was no accident! Someone is up to no good. Who? Why? Bang. Crash.

‘Three men have been murdered on Zebra. Two shot, one knifed. Their bodies were burned to conceal traces of the crime. Four others died in the fire. The killer is aboard this ship.’
Rawlings said nothing. His eyes were wide, his face pale and shocked. (Ch 8)

And now like a classic tennis match, like a Grand Prix, we enjoy the sport, we relish watching a professional at work, as MacLean makes our hero pit his wits against the murderer or murderers, as there are (just as we expect) many more unexpected twists and turns in the plot. And MacLean, in his pomp, is knowing about it what he’s doing. In the midst of the horrors there is grim humour. Thus, after Carpenter has given the captain a long detailed explanation of what’s ‘really’ going on at Zebra, the captain says:

‘I and the crew of the Dolphin are at your complete disposal. You name it, Doctor, that’s all.’
‘This time you believe my story?’
‘This time I believe your story.’
I was pleased about that, I almost believed it myself. (Ch 7)

Extreme physical endurance

Whereas Deighton’s texts, with their puzzles and rebuses are allusive and aloof, frequently leaving the reader detached and uninvolved, MacLean’s always arrive quickly at a level of physical punishment for the protagonist and superhuman endurance in prolonged situations of extreme danger, which almost physically grip the reader. He makes you feel the tremendous cold, the pain of frostbite, the taste of blood in your mouth after you’ve been shot etc, which makes his texts thrilling and compelling.

Death must have been swift, swift for all of them. Theirs had not been the death of men trapped by a fire, it had been the death of men who had themselves been on fire. Caught, drenched, saturated by a gale-borne sea of burning oil, they must have spent the last few seconds of life as incandescently blazing human torches before dying in insane screaming agony. They must have died as terribly as men ever die. (Ch 5)

And once again he is back in the pitiless location of the deep North, setting of HMS Ulysses and Night Without End, an extreme and unforgiving environment which he paints so well, and so terrifyingly.

The wind, shrieking and wailing across the bridge and through raised antennae, showed at consistently over 60 mph on the bridge anemometer. The ice-storm was no longer the gusting, swirling fog of that morning but a driving wall of stiletto-tipped spears, near lethal in its ferocity, high speed ice-spicule lances that would have skewered their way through the thickest cardboard or shattered in a second a glass held in your hand. Over and above the ululating threnody of the wind we could hear an almost constant grinding, crashing and deep-throated booming as millions of tons of racked and tortured ice, under the influence of the gale and some mighty pressure centre, heaven knew how many hundreds of miles away, reared and twisted and tore and cracked, one moment forming another rafted ridge as a layer of ice, perhaps ten feet thick, screeched and roared and clambered onto the shoulders of another and then another, the next rending apart in indescribably violent cacophony to open up a new lead, black wind-torn water that started to skim over with ice almost as soon as it was formed. (Ch 4)

High tension

Will Carpenter and his companions make it through the blistering Arctic storm to the base? Once there they discover the radio no longer works, how the hell are they going to get the sub to rescue them? Someone sabotages a torpedo tube so it read shut but is in fact full of water, and so opening it causes a catastrophe in which sailors die and the entire ship plunges deeper into the ocean than ever vessel has ever done before; will they survive? And then the same saboteur and spy sets a small fire which then gets out of hand and threatens to kill the crew by smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning.

The reader skips over the hammy comparisons and the repetitive and hyperbolic style because these situations really are intense and nerve-racking. MacLean himself was the first to acknowledge he wasn’t a great writer, but he was a wizard at conceiving high-tension, white knuckle scenes and scenarios which keep you thoroughly gripped to the last page. And then you want another one.

Movie

Most of MacLean’s novels were made into movies, mostly rather low-budget and unsuccessful. Ice Station Zebra, made in 1968, was properly funded and secured some A-list stars – Rock Hudson as the submarine captain, Patrick McGoohan (in his The Prisoner heyday) as the doctor-cum-agent Carpenter, and Ernest Borgnine as the sneaky Russian.

MacLean himself worked on the script and it is significantly more dramatic and rounded than the novel (in the same way the implications of the The Satan Bug are more fully worked-out in the movie than in the book). The addition of the Russian spy onto the submarine at the start, and therefore a sequence of ‘unexplained’ sabotages to the sub, make for much more dramatic tension.

Related links

Fontana paperback edition of Ice Station Zebra, price 5 shilling

Fontana paperback edition of Ice Station Zebra

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 Golden Rendezvous by Alistair MacLean (1962)

Another slick, effective and completely compelling thriller. Starts a bit slowly and has an Agatha Christie tinge to it, as it concerns a collection of very rich passengers on an exclusive cruise around the Caribbean, and takes a while to name and characterise each of them. As soon as possible, though, bodies start turning up and we know something bad is afoot, especially since we’ve been none-too-subtly told that an international mastermind has stolen a brand-new nuclear fission bomb from an American research facility. Could the two incidents by any chance be connected?

MacLean is such a master: despite the clunky prose and hammy emotions, the core of these texts is the swift pacing of plots which deliver a steady stream of unexpected twists and turns, shocks and surprises. Doesn’t matter that you can see some a mile off (you mean the first person hero First Officer John Carter will end up falling in love with the young woman he initially thinks a spoilt rich brat?) or that we know the protagonist will survive (since he is obviously alive to tell the story we are reading). Doesn’t change the fact that for long stretches my heart was racing and at some moments I almost stopped breathing from the physical sense of panic and tension the text generates.

All the hallmarks are here:

  • blandly named hero: First Officer John Carter
  • woman he initially dislikes but ends up falling for – Susan Beresford
  • baddies, evil, wicked, heartless, inhuman baddies
  • international espionage – as so often to do with Cold War weapons: an intercontinental missile in The Dark Crusader, a top secret missile guidance mechanism in Night Without End, a new type of nuclear fission bomb here
  • a very concentrated sequence of events told against a detailed timeline, with harsh and sometimes grotesque murders
  • once the plot’s in train, 150 pages of high-tension first-person non-stop thinking, worrying, planning, calculating, scheming

The psychological element

His fans acknowledge MacLean as a master of unexpected twists and reversals, as baddies turn out to be goodies or vice versa, people with incredible disguises turn out to be completely different from expected, or the entire plot turns out to be about something we hadn’t anticipated. But there is a higher level of the same thing, not unexpected events, but unexpected thoughts.

Part of the excitement is following the hero’s breathless, under-pressure thoughts as he tries to devise strategies and tactics against the baddies, and it is a key part of the pleasure to follow his plans only to see them abruptly overthrown or someone else pointing out the flaws in them, or events overcoming them and new plans having to be devised. As my son pointed out to me the other day, predators are the most intelligent of all animals because they are continually calculating the odds vis-avis their prey. Man the predator is no different, continually assessing and planning how to reach his objectives.

This mental aspect of the books, the continual drawing up and revising of plans, is as much a part of the enjoyment as the actual plot, the actual events which occur. In a scene towards the end the hero is searching for a map of the gold during the ten minutes he thinks it will take the baddies to supervise the professor arming the bomb, code name the Twister. Ten minutes and counting to find the vital diagram!

Where, where, would he keep it? Think, Carter, for heaven’s sake think. Maybe the professor was getting on with the arming of the Twister faster than anyone had thought possible. How did anyone know, as the radio broadcast had said, that it took all of ten minutes to arm it? If the Twister was such a secret – and until it had been stolen it had been such a top priority hush-hush secret that no member of the public had known of its existence – how did anyone know it took ten minutes to arm it? How could anyone know? Maybe all it required was a twist here, a turn there. Maybe – maybe he was finished already. Maybe —

I put these thoughts to one side, drove them out of my mind, crushed them ruthlessly. That way lay panic and defeat. I stood stock-still and forced myself to think, calmly, dispassionately. I had been looking in all the obvious places. But should I have been looking in the obvious places? After all, I’d gone through this cabin once before, looking for a radio, I’d gone through it pretty thoroughly, and I hadn’t seen any signs. He would have it hidden, of course he would have it hidden. He wouldn’t have taken a chance on anyone finding it, such as the steward whose daily duty it was to clean out his cabin, before his men had taken over the ship. No stewards on duty now, of course, but then he probably hadn’t bothered to shift it since the take-over. Where would he have hidden it where a steward wouldn’t stumble across it? (Ch 10)

A good deal of the text is like this, a first person narrator forcing himself to think calmly in a desperate, panic-stricken situation, and you are right inside his mind and you can smell the fear and the stress and the adrenaline. What’s often described as the paciness of the novels, their unputdownableness, is directly connected to the high-octane, stream-of-consciousness immediacy of the text. You can’t put the book down because you daren’t.

Alas it’s this, the psychological or SoC part of the texts, that tends to be jettisoned in all the film versions of MacLean’s novels, where the scriptwriters are forced – by time pressure and by the limitations of film as a medium – to go for the explosions and shoot-outs. It is jettisoning the mental aspects of the plots, precisely the part which makes them so gripping, which results in so many of the film adaptations of MacLean’s thrillers ending up as lame collections of clichéd situations. It isn’t the situations, the shoot-outs and sneaking-up-on-the-sentry-in-the-dark, which grip – it is the narrator’s panic-stricken, under-pressure response to the situations. It is the thoughts, it is the words.

Decency

Something I haven’t emphasised enough is these books’ essential decency. The goody is always all good. Maybe the fallibility bits, the bits where he retrospectively realises his blunders, are there to add a little shade, to stop him being Perfect. But morally speaking, the heroes of these books are perfect, they are polite and considerate under normal circumstances, and go out of their way not to hurt people when the bullets start flying, they swear but the swearwords are never transcribed, they fall in love with the heroine but there is no hanky-panky at all and even when the women are referred to as having stunning figures, there’s no crudity or vulgarity.

And they win. Always.

Referring to himself in the third person

‘But certainly, Señor Carreras.’ Carter, that rough-hewn Anglo-Saxon diamond, not to be outdone in Latin courtesy. (Ch 1)

And the captain sent for me, I thought. Send for old trusty Carter when there’s dirty work on hand. (Ch 2)

I waited till the cabin stopped swaying around and the red-hot wires in my neck had cooled off to a tolerable temperature, then climbed stiffly out of my bunk. Let them call me stiff-neck Carter if they wanted. (Ch 4)

The narrator jocularly refers to himself in the third person in this book as often as in its predecessor, The Dark Crusader. I think it humanises him; it makes him seem more fallible; it is also an aspect of the sometimes questionable humour in the books; and it is a mannerism, a part of MacLean’s style.

The mirror

The hero’s unexpected reflection in the mirror causes (yet another) moment of panic. Also another way to compound the hero’s sense of fatality, woundedness, fatedness.

I had one bad moment when I entered Carreras’s own sleeping cabin and saw this desperate hooded, crouched figure, dripping water, hands clenched round weapons, with wide staring eyes and blood dripping down beside the left eye. Myself in a looking-glass. (Ch 10)

The shapeless dead

A thriller needs bodies, needs descriptions of bodies. Having read Chandler it is difficult to escape the rhythm and word painting of the master. This description reminiscent of descriptions of corpses in Raymond Chandler.

We’d found Dexter all right, and we’d found him too late. He had that bundle of old clothes look, that completely relaxed huddled shapelessness that only the dead can achieve. (Ch 5)

Prolepsis / regret

Three or four times in each novel the hero, writing in a hypothetical present, looks back with bitter regret that he didn’t anticipate some key aspect of the plot, and that this mistake cost lives. They are a rather clunky way of making the hero seem more human, and they add to the reader’s experience of tension, of anxiety, foreboding.

And my guess was completely wrong. But the thought that this fake Marconi-man might have employed himself in another way during his stay in the wireless office did not occur to me until many hours later: it was so blindingly obvious that I missed it altogether, although two minutes’ constructive thought would have been bound to put me onto it. But those hours were to elapse before I got around to the constructive thought: and by that time it was too late. Too late for the Campari, too late for its passengers, and far far too late for all too many of the crew. (Ch 5)

Heavy humour

The first MacLean I reread in 30 years was When Eight Bells Toll and I was susprised by the facetious wit which runs through it. Now I realise it is a definint characteristic of his style, for reasons given above. Sometimes it works and I’ve laughed out loud – sometimes it’s close – sometimes it falls to the ground with a thud.

I made a mental note, in the not unlikely event of Lord Dexter turfing us both out of the Blue Mail, to turn down any suggestions by Captain Bullen the we should go into a detective agency together: there might be better ways of starving, perhaps, but none more completely certain. (Ch 5)

With that she banged the door and was gone. The door didn’t splinter in any way but that was because it was made of steel. (Ch 5)

I’d never before realised that auburn hair and green eyes were a combination that couldn’t be matched, but possibly that was because I’d never before seen an auburn-haired girl with green eyes. (Ch 10)

‘It’s not all over, Susan.’ I’d never make a salesman, I thought drearily, if I met a man dying of thirst in the Sahara I couldn’t have convinced him that water was good for him. (Ch 10)

Related links

Cover of the 1971 Fontana paperback edition of The Golden Rendezvous

Cover of the 1971 Fontana paperback edition of The Golden Rendezvous

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 Dark Crusader by Alistair MacLean (1961)

This is a cracking thriller, but with a significantly different tone from the earlier books. It seems like Fear Is The Key is the first of MacLean’s thrillers to adopt self-deprecating humour in the first-person narrator which would become a trademark. In The Dark Crusader, the next in the series, the same lighter tone is present in spades, along with a snappier writing style, using facetiousness, self-deprecation and repetition for comic affect.

‘OK, friend,’ I said. I meant it to sound cool and casual but it came out more like a raven – the hoarse one – croaking on the battlements of Macbeth’s castle. ‘I can see it’s a gun. Cleaned and oiled and everything. But take it away, please. Guns are dangerous things.’ ‘A wise guy, eh?’ he said coldly. (Ch 1)

I prised open the hatch cover. Nobody shot me. Nobody shot me because there was nobody there to shoot me, and there was nobody there to shoot me because no one but a very special type of moron would have ventured out on that deck without an absolutely compelling reason.  Even then he would have required a suit of armour… Enormous cold drops of water, so close together as to be almost a solid wall, lashed the schooner with a ferocity and intensity I would not have believed possible. (Ch 2)

Less than three hundred yards further on I found the end of the tunnel. I rubbed my forehead, which had been the part of me that had done the finding, then switched on the tiny pencil-beam of light. (Ch 6)

‘Some Hong Kong beer before we go?’ ‘Sounds fine, Professor.’ So we went and drank his beer and it was as good as he promised. We had it in the living room where he’d first taken us and I looked at the various exhibits in the glass-fronted cases. To me they were only a mould collection of bones and fossils and shells, of stone pestles and mortars, of charred timber and clay utensils and curiously shaped stones. It was no difficulty at all not to show any interest and I didn’t show any interest because the professor had shown signs of being wary of any person interested in archaeology. (Ch 4)

My jaw seemed alright. It hurt, but it was still a jaw. (Ch 6)

I turned the operating screw of the shark-repellent canister and a darkish evil-smelling liquid – it would probably have been yellow in daylight – with extraordinary dissolving and spreading qualities spread over the surface of the sea. I don’t know what the shark-repellent did to the sharks, but it certainly repelled me. (Ch 7)

The humour, the facetious tone, make it more bubble-gum, more fun. The Last Frontier felt very earnest, the experience of the book heavily affected by the ‘serious’ political and philosophical discussions, but more so by the simple facts of what the people of Hungary went through between the wars, during the Nazi occupation, during the Soviet era, which are recounted by various characters. No laughing matter.

But this novel – about a dastardly plot to capture the Navy’s new secret weapon rocket – is good-natured hokum, the cutting-edge-of-British-science theme, along with the jokey, facetious tone of the Secret Agent hero, and his pairing with a stunningly good-looking agentess, all reminiscent of Ian Fleming’s Thunderball, published in the same year, 1961.

Some of the Bond novels were serialised as comic strips in the newspapers. These could be the same. In six short years MacLean has moved a long way from the earnest tragedy of HMS Ulysses and Navarone to a light, bright style which anticipates the 1960s bubblegum antics of TV series like the cool but ridiculous Man From UNCLE. The Fontana cover features a long-legged dollybird in a colourful 60s miniskirt being protected by a knife-wielding dude with a more than passing resemblance to Steve McQueen, even down to McQueen’s Bullit-era hush puppies.

‘Mind if I rip this sleeve off?’
‘Go ahead,’ I said. ‘But mind you don’t rip the arm off at the same time. I don’t think there’s a great deal holding it in place.’ (Ch 8)

The third person

A noticeable part of the routine is for the protagonist to think or talk about himself in the third person, generally in exasperation or self-criticism.

‘Good old Bentall,’ I said savagely. ‘Never misses a thing… Ten to one he had a concealed mike down in that hold which let him know whenever Bentall, the Einstein of espionage, made such shattering discoveries.’ (Ch 6)

It was then that I heard the singing. This was it, Bentall’s tottering reason had gone at last, the shock of what I’d just seen and done had overstrained more than the facial muscles. Bentall unhinged, Bentall round the bend, Bentall hearing noises in  his head. What would Colonel Raine have said if he knew his trusty servant had gone off his trolley? (Ch 6)

Good old Bentall, I thought bitterly, nothing of the common touch about him, whenever he wishes for something it has to be really unattainable. (Ch 7)

The evidence was all before me now, Bentall with the blinkers off – at last – and I knew the truth, also at last. Counter-espionage, I thought bitterly, they should never have left me out of the kindergarten, the wicked world and its wicked ways were far too much for Bentall, if he could put one foot in front of the other without breaking an ankle in the process that was all you could reasonably expect of him. On flat ground of course. (Ch 10)

God, I should have known this was coming, I thought of her face twisted in pain, the hazel eyes dark in agony, it was the most obvious thing in the world. Only Bentall could have missed it. (Ch 10)

This tendency becomes epidemic by towards the end where our hero, seriously beaten, bitten, shot and whipped, blames himself for everything which has gone wrong. Not sure I’ve read another book in which the protagonist spends so much time beating himself up.

Raymond Chandler influence

I was wondering where this breezy light-hearted tone had come from when I read the following sentence:

I became vaguely aware that Anderson and the red-faced man, whom he addressed as Farley, were talking together and then the vagueness vanished. I heard a couple of words that caught and transfixed my attention the way a tarantula in my soup would have done. (Ch 8)

Possibly the most famous of Raymond Chandler’s many colourful similes is this:

Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food. (Farewell, My Lovely, chapter 1)

I’d already noticed some Americanisms in among MacLean’s usually very British prose, and some of the wisecracking had an American tone. This small clue clinched it. Consciously or unconsciously, it seems to me MacLean is paying homage to the master of snappy, thriller prose. Now the surprising thing about Raymond Chandler, for anyone new to him, is how funny he is, what a wise-cracking joker his protagonist, Philip Marlowe, is, mostly at his own expense, mostly at the expense of the mistakes and errors he makes in all his cases, often blaming himself for the (generally fatal) consequences. Chandler demonstrates that you can write quite noir material about kidnaps and drugs and murder – and be stylish and witty about it too.

Seems to me MacLean has swallowed Chandler whole and is attempting his own version of it, in the light-hearted, self-deprecating tone which is to become the characteristic of the first person narrators of his all thrillers from now on.

I grunted something appropriate and as short as it could decently be and went for that dirnk like a thirst-stricken camel for the nearest oasis. (Ch 3)

I didn’t expect to find anything there that I wouldn’t have found in any other kitchen, and I didn’t. But I found what I was after, the cutlery drawer. (Ch 5)

Three yards ahead of me a bush moved. Shock froze me into involuntary and life-saving immobility, no relic dug out by the professor was ever half so petrified as I was at that moment… I lowered myself back to the ground like a gambler laying down the last card that would lose him his fortune. I made a mental note that all this stuff about oxygen being necessary for life was a tale invented by doctors. I had completely stopped breathing. (Ch 5)

It would be ridiculous to deny that I was frightened, and so I won’t. I was scared and badly scared. (Ch 7)

‘Take a good look,’ LeClerc said. ‘That’s all you’re here to do – to take a good look.’
I took a good look. (Ch 10)

My left arm and the left side of my face were engaged in a competition to see which could make me jumpmostr and the competition was fierce, but after a while they gave it up and the whole left side of my body seemed to merge into one vast and agonising pain. (Ch 10)

Heavy-handed

However, unfortunately, MacLean is not the master of English prose that Chandler is, and along with the new note of humour goes a new kind of overcomplex sentence, a new heavy-handedness in the prose, which wasn’t so noticeable in Ulysses or Navarone where he had focused on describing the action as curtly as possible. Generally, he can’t resist adding a second clause where one would be enough, or adjectives where they would best be cut.

He broke off as a side door opened and a girl walked into the room. I say ‘walked’ because it is the usual word to describe human locomotion, but this girl didn’t locomote, she seemed to glide with all the grace and more than the suggestion of something else of a Balinese dancing girl. (Prologue)

No pickpocket ever lifted a wallet with half the delicate care and soundless stealth that I used to lift one of these baulks out of position and lean it against its neighbour. (Ch 6)

The lights still burned in the professor’s window, I would have taken odds that he has no intention of going to sleep that night, I was beginning to know enough of his nature to suspect that the exhaustion of a sleepless night would be a small price to pay for the endless delights of savouring to the full the delightful anticipations of the pleasures of the day that was to come. (Ch 7)

And humour is difficult. Unless you have done it with impeccable timing, nothing dates as fast as strained jocularity.

I looked awful. One horrified glance at me would have had any life assurance salesman in the land jumping on his fountain pen with both feet. (Ch 6)

I’d get no Oscars for counter-espionage, but as an arsonist I was neck and neck with the best. (Ch 7)

‘Good Lord! A female!’ Although biologically accurate enough it struck me as a singularly inept term to describe Marie Hopeman. (Ch 8)

If it wasn’t for the fact that my nervous system seemed to have completely stopped working, I’d probably have jumped a foot. If I’d the strength for any gymnastics like that, which I hadn’t. (Ch 8)

Great read

Aspects of style sometimes interest me more than the subject or plot, but it’s worth emphasising that The Dark Crusader is a gripping and exciting thriller, which moves fast and puts its hero into a satisfyingly varied range of perilous situations – it’s about a very contemporary (to its date) issue (inter continental missiles and nuclear armageddon) – and which had one big surprise left at the end which I hadn’t anticipated at all. As usual the reader is conscious of the absurdities and illogicality of the plot but these are over-ridden by the sheer page-turning excitement of the steady succession of twists and turns and jeopardies which MacLean is such a master at constructing.

Cover of the early 1970s Fontana paperback edition of The Dark Crusader

Cover of the early 1970s Fontana paperback edition of The Dark Crusader

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.

Night Without End by Alistair MacLean (1959)

Night Without End is the fifth action / adventure / thriller novel Alistair Maclean published. It inaugurates the series of books told in the first person by the kind of competent, mature, experienced, everyman hero who features in most of the rest of the novels.

It is by far the most gripping and exciting of his novels I’ve reread so far, impossible to put down, completely compelling from the first page, from the first sentence, when the half-Danish, half-Eskimo member of a scientific team on the remote Greenland ice cap hears the sound of an airplane overhead.

The plot is simple: our hero, with the bland everyman name of Dr Morris, is running a small research base high up on the Greenland ice plateau in one of the most inhospitable environments on the planet. It is below zero even in the pathetic shelter buried in the ice which they call their base and brutally cold outside. The plane they hear on page one proceeds to circle back and forth above them before it crash lands in the midst of the howling, freezing sleet of an Arctic storm and, before they can really prepare, the passengers need to be rescued.

You will not be surprised to learn that there is more to the situation than meets the eye and that Dr Morris, his young assistant Joss and the native Jackstraw are soon facing dangers of a kind they had not anticipated in a desperate, multi-levelled race against time through the appalling, inhuman Arctic weather and across 300 miles of the harshest lanscape in the world, to their supply base on the coast… A real cracker, sizzling with excitement and suspense, and really fast-paced, with the disasters and twists & turns in the plot coming thick & fast.

Related links

Cover of the 1970s Fontana edition of Night Without End

Cover of the 1970s Fontana edition of Night Without End

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 Last Frontier by Alistair Maclean (1959)

The Hungarian Uprising against the communist government and rule from Moscow took place in October 1956, so MacLean was writing this spy story set in Hungary just a few years after it was brutally crushed, while the memory was still fresh, while the harsh repressions, imprisonments, tortures and executions were recent events. It was his first foray into writing an espionage thriller as opposed to war stories, with mixed results.

As usual the hero has a bland, everyman sort of name – Michael Reynolds – and is an unspecified age, maybe mid-30s. He is a highly-trained British special agent, smuggled into Hungary to retrieve an idealistic British rocket scientist who has defected in the naive belief that the Soviets will use his knowledge to bring about world peace. Things go wrong from the start, and our hero is thrown into a series of tense and dangerous situations.

First or third person narrator

Unlike the later novels a) it is told in the third person b) the protagonist, Reynolds, is a rather unrealistic character – he is, at least to start with, just a bit too much of a cold, calculating espionage machine. Possibly the two are connected. Describing someone else allows you to romanticise or exaggerate their abilities, possibly a little too far. Inhabiting a character in the first person:

  • Tends to bring them more down to earth – as author you can express, as reader you can experience, their worries and calculations.
  • Allows you to be aware of their mistakes – it seems to be a characteristic of the thriller genre to insert regular ominous proleptic comments – ‘If I hadn’t forgotten that key fact, lives wouldn’t have been lost later that could have been saved. I’ll have to live with that knowledge.’ This conceding of mistakes makes more of a psychological impact if done in the first person. It adds greatly to the sense of realism (we all make mistakes) and to the tragic, gritty, it’s-a-man’s-world ideology which is what these books are for.

So the switch to first-person narratives after this novel may have come because MacLean realised the advantages it gave in terms of psychological impact and narrative flexibility.

Physical trials and tragedy

A key characteristic of the thriller is the extreme physical trials the hero must undergo. In HMS Ulysses and Night Without End and even the Guns of Navarone and in the hurricane scenes of Fear Is The Key the protagonists fight not just the enemy but really extreme weather conditions. The elements, the very universe, is against them in a King Lear kind of a way.

It was hopeless, he told himself, worse than hopeless. With a steadily increasing wind gusting up to forty, perhaps even fifty miles an hour and the train doing the same speed diagonally into it, the combined total strength of that now howling wind outside was that of a whole gale, maybe a little more – and a whole gale that was no gale at all, just a screaming white wall of almost horizontally driving snow and ice. (Ch 10)

And the enemy fights them. They are always getting beaten up and injured, pretty badly. Shot, beaten, broken nose, broken limbs, smashed teeth, pumped full of mind-bending drugs to drive you insane or having headphones clamped to your head which play the chimes of massive bells at earsplitting volume, designed to kill (Puppet on a Chain).

And almost always a close colleague dies:

  • making the danger seem real and close
  • giving the hero and the reader an opportunity to deal with his emotions in a tight-lipped, tough guy manner (‘I pulled his coat up over his face, but there was no time to lose…’)

The intensity of these physical and emotional trials connects them with the literary tradition of tragedy, where men are stripped back to their raw essence in face of a cruel world; and back beyond that, to rites of passage and trials of manhood or to earn kingship, which are routinely found in pagan, ancient or primitive societies. The hero is put through a physical wringer but also learns about the world and emerges dis-illusioned, with clearer insight into Life, Humanity, the World as, of course, we the reader, the vicarious partaker of these extreme experiences, also does.

But, completely unlike tragedy, there is a conventional love component i.e. the (always) male protagonist, almost always stumbles across an eligible, single, child-rearing-age woman in the course of his adventures and, whatever else the mission started off being about, now at least part of it ends up being about saving the girl. Thus the air stewardess in Night Without End, the heiress in Fear Is The Key, the girls in Puppet on a Chain and When Eight Bells Toll.

Against this background, then, it is no surprise that in The Last Frontier the hero is arrested several times, badly beaten (face smashed, lips burst, loses some teeth) and undergoes experimental chemical treatment designed to drive him out of his mind, along with torture based on extremes of heat and cold, plus the basic challenges of surviving the intense cold of the Hungarian winter. All of which he walks away from to still, single-handedly, save the day. One of his closest colleagues ‘tragically’ dies but, of course, our man saves the girl, and they both eventually make it back to Austria and ‘freedom’.

Overdoing the enemy

And then there is the wickedness of their human opponents, who often have superhuman attributes such as: computer-like rationality, imperviousness to pain, complete absence of empathy as they torture or kill innocents. Literature is (meant to be) interested in subtlety, and is capable of investigating great psychological subtlety and complexity: the descriptions of people in these thrillers lack subtlety, they make a merit of going to extremes, of using hyperbole.

Reynolds stared at him and had to force himself not to shiver. There was something evil, something abnormally wrong and inhuman about the quiet-talking commandant with the gently humorous professorial talk, all the more evil, all the more inhuman because it was deliberately neither, just the chillingly massive indifference of one whose utter and all-inclusive absorption in an insatiable desire for the furthering of his own particular life’s work left no possible room for any mere consideration of humanity. (Chapter 8)

In my opinion MacLean routinely overdoes this. The German commandant in Guns of Navarone was described in similar terms, the baddies in Puppet On A Chain ditto, when Doc Morris looks into the eyes of the reverend Smallwood in Night Without End MacLean goes into a dithyramb about evil.

Whereas everything we have learned about evil over the past hundred years is how squalid and banal and everyday it is. It is only presented in the form of highly intelligent, suave and polite psycho masterminds who enjoy having long civilised chats about just how clever you’ve been to get this far, in this kind of over-wrought thriller and James Bond movies.

In fact, the ‘Ah, Mr Bond, we meet at last….’ moment occurs in this novel not once but several times as Reynolds is (very believably) caught and (wildly improbably) escapes – several times. Thus the commandant of Szarháza, Hungary’s most feared prison, is no thug (‘Gentleman, please take a seat’) but a refined and educated man, ‘reckoned the greatest expert on psychological and physiological breakdown procedures outside the Soviet Union’.

‘This, gentlemen, is the moment, if ever there was a moment, for gloating: a self-confessed British spy – that recording, Mr Reynolds, will create an international sensation in the People’s Court – and the redoubtable leader of the best-organised escape group and anti-communist ring in Hungary, both in one fell swoop…It is, incidentally, a pleasure to deal with intelligent men who accept the inevitable and who are sufficiently realistic to dispense with the customary breast-beating lamentations, denials and outraged expostulations of innocence.’ (Ch 8)

In Night Without End there are a lot of paragraphs repeating just how evil, wicked, cold and heartless the two baddies are: ‘I was looking into the eyes of ultimate evil…’ etc. The cheesiness of this is quickly and easily ignored because the plight of the heroes, struggling against the terrifying Arctic storm conditions, has a truly epic feel, is all-encompassing, and you skip the commentary to find out what happens next.

However, in The Final Frontier, Reynolds is confronting the entire communist system in Eastern Europe, specifically the feared secret police, or AVO, in Hungary, backed by the looming menace of the USSR. This is a big enemy, a big subject to define and describe, and in my opinion the more MacLean stops the plot to describe the AVO in detail and fill us in on the background of the Hungarian Rising, and then the background before that – the sufferings of Eastern Europeans under the Nazis, how the Russians were initially and mistakenly greeted as saviours etc – the less successful he is.

Certainly, fear and dread have to be created in a thriller to raise the stakes, in order for the events in the novel to have a high-wire, edge-of-your-seat quality – ‘Oh my God, what will happen to them if they’re caught?’ To scare the reader into turning each page with white knuckles.

Which is why although slowing the flow of events to a standstill while, for example, the underground leader’s daughter describes in some detail the harrowing suffering of her father before, during and after the war certainly adds detail and background and lays on the atmosphere of fear and menace, it also undermines the pace.

In this respect The Last Frontier is an interesting experiment, an attempt to give historical and psychological background to a story, but I’m guessing MacLean realised it was a mistake and got in the way of the main purpose of his novels – Pace: the relentless unfolding of high tension events, which the immediately following novels, Night Without End and Fear Is the Key, have in spades.

Philosophy and politics

Something else MacLean tries out here and never tries again, is long philosophical and political speeches. The venerable, white-haired underground leader, Jansci, builds up respect as we learn more about his appalling sufferings before, during and after the war, which have conspired to turn him into a quietly-spoken saintly figure. Towards the end of the book he is given a speech which lasts 4 or 5 pages pleading for better mutual understanding between eastern and western blocs. Only by ceasing to hate and fear each other, only by meeting and talking and understanding each other, can we overcome the fear that threatens the existence of the world, in an era of superpowers with huge arsenals of thermonuclear weapons.

‘There is no certainty that it will come in our time. It’s a gamble, it must be a gamble, but better surely a gamble from hope, however tenuous that hope, than a gamble from despair and pressing the button that sends the first intercontinental missile on its way. But for the gamble to succeed, understanding comes first; mountains, rivers, seas are no longer the barriers that separate mankind, just the minds of mankind itself. The intolerance of ignorance, not wanting to know – that is the last real frontier left on earth.’ (Ch 11)

The novel has unusual complexity for a MacLean thriller because there are counter-threads, different characters represent different views, and the plot regularly stops so they can fill in historical background or have political debates:

  • The rocket scientist the whole plot was meant to be about goes on a journey from his early position of even-handedly debating the relative rights and wrongs of East or West (i.e. he naively believes the Soviets want peace, which is why he has defected) to witnessing the brutality of the secret police against his friends and against himself, before arriving at a much chastened view.
  • The Count, the Zorro-like dashing trickster who impersonates a high-ranking AVO officer and saves the day more than once, has also experienced the brutality of the inter-war years and his more jaundiced view is set against Jansci’s idealism.
  • And Reynolds, the hero, is confused enough by the complexity of the society he is infiltrating and especially by the subtlety and forbearance of Jansci’s philosophy, to swear that this will be his last mission for the Secret Service.

Cold War, old war

The arguments of the various characters about the political situation of East and West and how to handle communism were probably current and relevant in the late 1950s. Now, even for someone interested in history like me, they seem antiquated in a way the plot isn’t. The thriller, with its primitive ethos of testing manhood, will never go out of date. Whereas the arguments about whether to try to outgun the Soviets or engage at cultural and economic level are over 50 years-old and belong to a vanished world. I have to explain to my children what communism was and how the world was split into two power blocs – and they don’t believe me. Why didn’t they just agree to live by their different systems, my son asks me.

This is a good and interesting read, but not a classic MacLean.


Related links

Early 1970s Fontana cover of The Last Frontier

Early 1970s Fontana cover of The Last Frontier

The first 22 Alistair MacLean novels

Third-person narrators

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 narrators – 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.

South By Java Head by Alistair MacLean (1958)

World War Two

At the end of World War Two MacLean was a sailor aboard HMS Royal and saw action escorting carrier groups in operations against Japanese targets in Burma, Malaya, and Sumatra. This provided him with the broad setting for his third novel, the story of the attempts of a ragbag collection of civilians and soldiers to escape the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942. HMS Ulysses, Guns of Navarone, Java – three war novels one after the other.

The wartime setting allows free rein for MacLean’s distinguishing feature, Extremity: physical and psychological extremity. This is the state of the shell-shocked nurses, exhausted soldiers, the injured and wounded aboard the little freighter Kerry Dancer, or the experience-hardened captain and crew of the tanker Viroma who steer to their rescue, even before they are attacked by the Japanese – and the narrative propels them through ordeal after ordeal, far beyond the bounds of plausibility.

Something struck him with cruel, numbing force against his knee-caps. The boat, drifting upside down. He somersaulted in mid-air, struck his shoulder against the keel, landed flat on his back on the water on the other side with an explosive smack that drove all the breath out of his body, then was on his way again, propelled by a fear and a nameless anger such as he had never known before. The pain in his chest and his legs was another turn of the rack for every step he took, but he drove himself on remorselessly as if the fire in his legs and his body’s gasping demands for air simply did not exist. (Ch 12)

The heat inside struck at him with the physical impact of a violent blow, he could feel it engulf him, wash over him in a great wave of burning pain. The superheated air, starved now of its life-giving oxygen, seared down into his lungs like fire itself. He could smell his hair singeing almost immediately, and the tears flooded into his eyes and threatened to blind him. (Ch 14)

All three men were hurt, and badly: all of them had lost blood, Telak most of all, and no competent doctor would have hesitated to immobilise any of the three in hospital: but they ran all the way to Bantuk, across impossible, energy-sapping, heart-breaking terrain, never once breaking down into a walk. They ran with their hearts pounding madly under the inhuman strain, leaden legs fiery with the pain of muscles taxed far beyond endurance, chests rising and falling, rising and falling as starving lungs gasped for more and still more air, the sweat running off their faces in streams. (Ch 15)

Natural hazards

And inevitably, the natural world joins in the agony as a typhoon bears down on both ships – similar to the ferocious storms in Bear Island, Night Without End, HMS Ulysses, Fear Is the Key, making a difficult situation almost unendurable.

The Viroma was now thrusting north dead in the eye of the gale-force wind, and the heavy driving rain, strangely cold after the heat of the day, was sweeping almost horizontally fore and aft across the decks and the bridge, numbing his face with a thousand little lances, filling his eyes with pain and tears. Even with eyes screwed tight to the narrowest slits, the rain still stung and blinded: they were blind men groping in a blind world and the end of the world was where they stood. (Chapter 3)

First the escape through the ruined city; then the defeat of no boat being there, the reprieve of a rowboat arriving and escape to the Kerry; then murderous attack by Jap airplanes; then rescue by the Viroma in the midst of a fierce typhoon; then renewed attack by Jap planes which devastate the tanker killing most of its crew, the few survivors managing to escape into a lifeboat. And then – the opposite of the tropical typhoon – they are completely becalmed under a blistering tropical sun, for days on end as the food and then the water slowly run out, until crew members go literally mad, drinking sea water and then throwing themselves overboard to die.

Nicholson tried to thrust aside the nagging, dominating pains of thirst and swollen tongue and cracked lips and sunblistered back and to assess the complete change brought about by those terrible days that had elapsed since the storm had ended, endless, torturing hours under the pitiless lash of the sun, a sun at once dreadfully impersonal and malignant beyond belief, a sun that steadily grew more and more intolerable until it drove helpless, uncaring men over the edge of breakdown and collapse, physical, moral and mental. (Ch 10)

Permanent strain

At any moment the Japanese might attack. At any moment the full force of the storm might break on them. All nerves are tight as bowstrings, all men exhausted after prolonged strain. And thus the text continually explodes in hyperbolic exaggeration.

He broke off abruptly, fists clenching by his sides, as the klaxon above his head blared into sudden, urgent life, drowning his words as the raucous clangour, a harsh, discordant, shocking sound in a confined space, filled the dining-cabin. (Ch 5)

MacLean’s  texts take more or less time to warm up, but all of them aspire to this level of permanent boil, and then continue at fever pitch for the remaining 100, 150 pages.

Conclusion

This is an exhausting book, a sustained litany of physical suffering and endurance as MacLean submits his characters to an unrelenting series of ordeals which eventually become preposterous. No-one could have survived all these terrible events. But then these terrible events couldn’t have happened with the comic-book consistency described. I lost count of the number of times Everything was up – when the Jap sub corners them, when the Jap motor boat corners them, when the Japs arrest them in the native compound and so on – only to be rescued by a last-minute shoot-out, or an act of suicidal bravery by the heroic Brigadier Farnholme, or the defection of the German agent Van Effen who, at the last minute is so revolted by Jap brutality, that he saves the Brits. Right up to the final pages there are last-minute setbacks and last-minute reprieves.

For the first time the fear and anxiety swept through his mind like a wave, a fear that would have panicked his mind and an anxiety that would have wrecked his plans but he thrust them ruthlessly aside. (Ch 15)

But long before this point Java has left the realm of plausible literature and become a version of the boys’ Commando magazine in which plucky Brits battle against all the odds to save the day, to rescue the pretty girl and the small boy and the old lady from the hands of the fiendish Japs. You can tell the Japs are baddies: our men are tall and dignified, like the self-sacrificing Brigadier, whereas

Colonel Kiseki occupied the ornate, high-backed chair of honour at the top of the table, a short, massive man of tremendous girth, with his neck bulging out over his tight uniform collar, tiny, porcine eyes almost hidden in folds of fleh, and very short hair, grey at the temples, sticking up from the top of his round head like the bristles of a wire brush. His face was flushed with alcohol and empty bottles littered the table in front of him… (Ch 15)

Java is the worst early MacLean book, the one where all the elements are on display but not arranged correctly. There is a thread of sorts – all along Farnholme has been smuggling secret Japanese war plans – but it is not enough to justify the relentless series of ordeals and escapades the characters are put through. In the later books there will be several adjustments & improvements:

  • the suffering which MacLean excels at describing will be better justified by the plot
  • the plot itself will
    • be more focused
    • have more rhythm ie there will be lulls for the hero to recuperate, consider his plans and adjust to new developments
    • contain one big unexpected twist
  • the narrative will focus on one person; in this book several of the Viroma’s officers perform heroically and Nicholson only slowly emerges as the leading character; MacLean will learn that it is psychologically more effective for the reader to have just the one hero to focus on

War in peace

Java confirms the insight that the later thrillers perform the simple manoeuvre of transferring the unbearable tension and extreme violence of wartime into peacetime settings. The agent or hero of a thriller effectively carries around in his vicinity his own mini-war.

In which case the author’s task becomes putting the agent through a succession of challenges, perilous situations and unexpected twists which continually justify the maintenance of this hi-tension, almost hysterical atmosphere, but without losing the focus of a consistent plot-line or end goal.

MacLean incorporates all these lessons into the next book, The Last Frontier, about a British agent on the run in communist Hungary. It is still not a classic though, because the formula hasn’t quite been perfected: a) MacLean includes quite a lot of political/philosophical reflection in Frontier, which readers didn’t like; b) it is still told in the third person (though strongly leaning towards providing insights into the hero’s (generally extreme) state of mind).

It is when MacLean realises we have to be inside the hero’s mind, in a first person narration, and that reflections extraneous to the plot must be ruthlessly ditched, that all the elements of the formula click into place, and MacLean goes on to write the dozen or so classic thrillers which are so very effective and compelling.

Related links

Cover of the 1972 Fontana paperback edition of South By Java Head

Cover of the 1972 Fontana paperback edition of South By Java Head

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.

Puppet on a Chain by Alistair MacLean (1969)

The protagonist is Major Paul Sherman. (How evocative the name is of the bland but manly heroes of 1970s TV series like The Persuaders, The Protectors or The Champions.) He tells his story in a breathless first-person narration.

He has come to Amsterdam to track down the bosses of an international heroin smuggling operation. Within minutes of touching down, the contact (and friend) who is meeting him with important information is shot down before his eyes, and from that moment onwards the tension and the pace rarely slacken as (I think it’s) three nightmarish days and nights unfold in the Dutch capital, packed with incident – beatings, drugs, revelations and numerous murders – as Sherman goes well outside the law to provoke the drugs gang into increasingly grotesque and cruel violence.

Maimed…

Of course our hero is maimed – sometimes it’s psychological (brother, wife and child murdered as in Fear Is the Key), here it is physical: he was burned in a plane crash and the plastic surgery repairs are far from perfect leaving him, quite literally, a marked man.

… and beaten

By the end Sherman has been shot, beaten, half drowned, nearly frozen to death, beaten again – it’s amazing, in fact it’s preposterous that he can still stand let alone think clearly let alone win against all the odds. Although the self-deprecation emphasises his fallibility, the narrative itself enacts a superhuman power of endurance and survival. Like all the MacLean protagonists he is in some sense a superman, an übermensch, albeit a very crumpled post-War one who, despite living in a state of almost continual failure and physical victimhood, just about finally triumphs. But triumphs with that special kind of bitter, ashes-in-the-mouth triumph which is hollow and defeated. Reminds me of Smiley at the end of John Le Carre’s Karla trilogy (Smiley’s People, 1979). Yes, he’s won. But the victory feels like defeat. Us men, eh. We’re just so damn tough.

Pretty sidekicks…

In a variation on the theme – and a concession to late 1960s culture – there are two sidekicks and they are both pretty women. Of course they are Interpol agents, but they also happen to be a blonde, and a black hair, both given to wearing mini-skirts and clutching Major Paul’s arm at moments of danger – or kissing him at moments of relief.

‘Well, well, well,’ she said. ‘What a healthy-looking ghost. May I kiss you?’
‘Certainly not,’ I said with dignity. ‘Relationships between employer and employed are -‘
‘Do be quiet, Paul.’ She kissed me without permission. (Chapter 10)

The element of cheesey wish-fulfilment is right on the surface here. He is casually patronising to both of them in a way, I think, no-one would dream of today. In this respect the novel is as much a period piece as Miss World TV specials.

I made to move past them towards the door, but Maggie barred the way, reached up and kissed me. Only seconds later Belinda did the same. (Ch 9)

OK so you get beaten up, deafened, half drowned, shot and smashed in the face with any blunt instrument to hand: but hey – you get kissed by pretty girls, too!

Belinda kept quiet. She just gave me that devastating smile again, kissed me without any great haste, gave me some more of the same smile and went inside. (Ch 4)

… but No sex, please

However, it is 1969 and it is the Daily Mail-reading class we are appealing to so there is no sex, no impropriety. They may wear mini-skirts and rather sheer nightdresses, but there is only hearty flirting. No mention of the word breast. An attractive figure remains just that, with no detail gone into. Unlike the sado-masochistic sex in Ian Fleming’s novels from the beginning (Casino Royale, 1953).  Is it because MacLean came from a more restrained era (born 1912)? Well, Fleming was born in 1908. Because of his Scottish heritage (he was the son of a Church of Scotland minister)?

Or is it technical? Flirting can come and go, can be dropped in the flash of an eye, or the wave of a .22 automatic. A scared girl clutching your arm is only natural in a scary situation, a swift kiss only takes a second. Whereas full-blown sex would wreck the speed of the story, would slow it right down and then would introduce all kinds of emotional and physical complications. When Sherman tries to save his assistants Maggie or Belinda it is ultimately because they are fellow Interpol agents; if he had an affair with either of them the clarity and simplicity of his actions would be lost.

Prolepsis

Prolepsis is, strictly speaking, the raising of an objection in an argued speech or lecture, often in a weak form, in order to dispose of it before your opponent has a chance to raise it, probably in a stronger form. But more generally, it means anticipation of something, and I use it here to mean the ominous reference to something bad which the narrator interrupts the flow of his narration to foreshadow.

‘I’m sorry Maggie… God knows I make more mistakes than you do.’ I did, and I was making one of my biggest then: I should have listened to what the girls were saying. (Ch 6)

I reflected that Marcel must have the most remarkable powers of recuperation. I was to remember this with bitter chagrin on an occasion that was to be a day or so later and very much more inauspicious for me. (Ch 8)

I was glad to be alive. The girls were glad. The jonge Genever was happily chasing the red blood corpuscles in a game of merry-go-round, all the coloured threads were weaving themselves into a beautiful pattern and by day’s end it would be over. I had never felt so good before.
I was never to feel so good again. (Ch 10)

‘George can stay where he is. He’s in no danger.’ I couldn’t remember later whether that statement was the sixth or seventh major mistake I’d made in Amsterdam. (Ch 8)

It has at least three functions:

1. to add to the suspense by hinting that something bad is going to happen – but what?
2. to add to the tone of self-deprecation: all MacLean’s protagonists are fallible and they know it and they make a habit of pointing it out. ‘If only I’d realised X, then more lives would have been saved…’

I had behaved like a moron, with a blundering idiocy for which I would have bawled out anyone else, and it looked very much as if I might pay the moron’s price. (Ch 7)

3. but also to emphasise the seriousness of the issues: ‘Peoples’ lives are at stake here!!’

Heavy-handed humour

I was surprised when I read When Eight Bells Toll by the narrator’s tone of heavy, sardonic humour. Now I realise it’s intrinsic to his style. If Ian Fleming deploys a tone of classy savoir faire, MacLean’s narrators use flippancy and black humour. Why?

  1. It makes the books easier and quicker to read than a straight litany of encounters, attacks and speculation.
  2. Along with the steady self-deprecation, it humanises the protagonist and makes him easier to identify with.
  3. It allows the protagonist to display a kind of jaded satirical weariness with the modern world. All of these books remind me of Daily Mail editorials against the madness of health and safety or trendy vicars or gay marriage or young people these days with their scruffy clothes and spiky haircuts and cacophonous ‘music’! Many of the reviews on the jacket are from the Mail or Express suggesting that was his core demographic – older lower-middle-class men who resent the modern world and fantasise about leading lives of adventure helped by mini-skirted dollybirds.
  4. On another level, it betrays MacLean’s own jokey attitude to his writing, to his own novels. He knew he was writing entertainment, potboilers. They’re very good at their key aim of keeping you turning the pages, but fine writing they ain’t and the protagonists’ jokiness flags that.

But the jokiness is mostly very heavy-handed. This novel has a running joke in the first half that outside his Amsterdam hotel is a blind tramp playing a barrel-organ which murders the music of classical composers. Each time Sherman encounters him he is torturing the music of a different composer. Takes Sherman some time to realise he is spying on his movements and the bored youths who hang around him are actually spies set to track his movements. The composers are, of course, top five Classic FM ones that even Daily Mail readers have heard of and recognise as Culture.

It was classical night that night at the Hotel Rembrandt with the barrel-organ giving forth a rendition of an excerpt from Beethoven’s Fifth that would have had the old composer down on his knees giving thanks for his almost total deafness. (Ch 3)

Quotes

As part of the general jokiness of tone and the superior levity the narrator brings to his role – even when he’s being beaten up or tortured – the text features numerous quotes: Shakespeare is quoted on pages 71, 170 and 198. Possibly this is to flatter the middle-brow audience who are gratified to recognise them (they are, after all, a Classic FM level of literary reference). But at some level it’s as if the text wants to subvert itself and its pretensions. It is a very self-aware text.

This is true of the most spectacular quote, when he uses a line from Raymond Chandler, from Farewell My Lovely: She was ‘a blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.’ (Chapter 4) I think the use of quotes indicates MacLean’s anxiety about being an author, his knowledge that – as he freely acknowledged in interviews – he wasn’t much of a writer, but a very talented creator of fast-paced adventure thrillers.

This anxiety, the sense he’s walking in the shadow of giants, comes out in another exchange.

‘Brown stain?’ De Graaf blinked at me, then smiled widely. ‘Oh no, Major Sherman! Disguise! In this day and age? Sherlock Holmes has been dead these many years.’
‘If I’d half the brains Sherlock Holmes had,’ I said heavily. ‘I wouldn’t be needing any disguise.’ (Ch 5)

Heavy-handed

Heavy is the word. Clunk clunk clunk go MacLean’s sentences. If Raymond Chandler’s books are a marvel, wrought by a true artist of the language, and on every page containing phrases which amaze and enrich, MacLean’s novels have on every page real clunkers of sentences which you want to help him rewrite into fluent English.

That some of the adjacent buildings had been in even greater danger of collapse was evidenced by the fact that a large area of building on the canal side beyond the church had already been demolished: a giant crane, with the most enormous boom I had ever seen almost lost in the darkness above, stood in the middle of this cleared lot where rebuilding had already reached the stage of the completion of the reinforced foundations. (Ch 5)

I see the scene, and it’s important for the plot: but I feel I’ve had to work hard against the tide of the clunky phrasing.

The First Reformed Church, I had to admit, had certainly done their level and eminently successful best to comply with the exhortations of the avant-garde clergy of today that it was the Church’s duty to keep abreast with and participate in the technological age in which we live. Conceivably, they might have been expected to be taken a degree less literally, but then unspecified exhortation, when translated into practice, is always liable to a certain amount of executive misdirection, which appeared to be what had happened in this case: this room, which took up nearly half the basement area of the church was, in fact, a superbly equipped machine shop. (Ch 7)

The taste for laboured periphrasis and deliberate formality of language is perhaps intended to be humorous and often is. But what a heavy touch!

The priest was shaking his fist at me in a fashion that didn’t say much for his concept of brotherly love and appeared to be delivering himself of some vehement harangue but I couldn’t hear any of it. (Ch 7)

‘Delivering himself of”? Lots of starchy, official language like that.

The entire operation had been performed with the ease and surety which bespoke a considerable familiarity with the technique just employed. (Ch 10) — …’bespoke’?

The grotesque

This strikes me as being the cruelest and most grotesque of the MacLean novels I’ve reread to date. The baddies

  1. try to drive Sherman insane by clamping headphones to his ears and then playing the very amplified tone of lots of clock chimes going off at once
  2. orchestrate the sadistic gruesome murder of his assistant Maggie, who is stabbed to death by a group of Dutch farmer’s wives with pitchforks (!)
  3. kill the girl he’s trying to help, Astrid, piercing her broken neck with a thick hook and suspending her corpse from a chain outside a warehouse loading bay
  4. and, in the climax of the novel, Sherman causes the lead baddie to plunge to his death, skewered by the hook at the end of the cable hanging from the arm of a building crane

There are also number of grotesque characters including:

  • the unctuous Reverend Goodbody, who turns out to be a psychopath
  • the two obese warehouse owners Morgenstern and Muggenthaler
  • the creepy figure of Trudi, the 18 year-old heroin addict who pretends to have a mental age of 8 but turns out to be the demented mistress of the chief baddie

The imagery of the spooky puppets which recur throughout the book, the notion there’s something uncanny about lifesize puppets (let alone a warehouse full of them among which a killer is hiding) reminds me of the terrible Anthony Hopkins film, Magic, which features a demonic ventriloquist’s dummy. And the taste for macabre deaths reminds me of the movie, The Omen where everyone who opposes the little devil is disposed of in increasingly gruesome ways. All part of a very dated taste.

Conclusion

Why, if I am so critical, bother to read this book or any Maclean novel? Because, in the best first fifteen or so, the plot itself ie the pell-mell onrush of incidents, is so imaginative and suspenseful and gripping that your eye and mind skip over the clunky sentences and ‘wry’ humour to find out what happens next. The fundamental psychological pattern of the single man/hero in extremis, battling against overwhelming odds, and just about surviving and prevailing over every threat, plays to something so deep in the psyche that superficial criticism of some elements of style can do nothing to impede it. It’s a cracking good read.

Movie

Like most MacLean novels, this was made into a rather poor film, and very soon (1971) after the book’s publication (1969). If the movie of Fear Is the Key is notable for its twenty-minute (!) car chase, Puppet On A Chain features one of the earliest movie speedboat chases (through the canals of Amsterdam).

Related links

Cover of the 1971 Fontana paperback edition of Puppet on a Chain

Cover of the 1971 Fontana paperback edition of Puppet on a Chain

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.

Bear Island by Alistair MacLean (1971)

According to the Alistair MacLean Wikipedia entry, Bear Island ends his third period, the one from When Eight Bells Toll through to Bear Island – ‘six novels that still maintained a generally high quality, with some books harking back to each of the first two periods but usually taking a more cinematic approach (not surprising since he began writing screenplays during this time).’

This adventure novel is not as persuasive as the earlier ones, in fact the plot is too preposterous to be really enjoyable. Even as I read it I was thinking, this is twaddle. The flaw is in the basic premise, that a full film crew with all the directors, cameramen, assistants, make-up, technicians and a roster of actors would be persuaded to board a disintegrating converted fishing trawler in order to steam in a furious winter storm to one of the most inhospitable places on earth, to arrive at the time of year when there are only a few hours of daylight, in order to  make a script none of them has seen.

Movies

Wikipedia informs me that Maclean had been writing screenplays during this period (1967-71) and was involved in the production of several movies of his novels, the most famous one probably being Where Eagles Dare of which, I was surprised to learn, he wrote the screenplay and the novel simultaneously, and both at the personal request of Richard Burton who wanted to star in an old-fashioned boys adventure story.

Fair play that, like Chandler or Fitzgerald, or anyone else who gets involved in the practical aspects of move-making, Maclean decided to use the knowledge as the basis for a novel. The problem is the notion that all these expensive people would set off on an extremely dangerous journey on such a flimsy pretext: it’s just not believable; it’s too transparently a pretext to assemble a large cast of grotesques and eccentrics (justified as they’re in ‘showbiz’) and then enjoy knocking them off one by one, while Dr Christopher Marlowe (I kid ye not) races to try and establish the killer and save everyone.

Although all the page-turning elements of a thriller are present, the basic premise is much more like Agatha Christie and, in its exotic setting, reminiscent of Death on the Nile or Murder on the Orient Express.

The number of characters is also a surprise – there must be around 30 named characters – so caring for many of them or even being able to remember who is who is quite challenging and lessens the reader’s involvement.

The Volta or Anagnorisis

In a previous post I mentioned anagnorisis – the name Aristotle gave to the moment in a play when a character makes a critical discovery- and volta – the ‘turn’ in a poem or narrative. Here it is pretty much the same plot device as in Fear Is the Key ie for half the book we think the first person narrator, Dr Marlowe, is just the doctor hired to attend on the production who is thrown in the deep end as people start to die from food poisoning and then more macabre causes.

Until – ta dah! – it is revealed he is in fact a British government agent sent to track one of the directors of the film company. Although complicated by Cold War elements, the basic premise is simple: after the War Germans spirited away vast amounts of treasure and bullion. Some of this is buried on Bear Island. Someone knows where it is and has concocted the entire preposterous film project as a cover to travel there and then use the fake submarine which has been shipped there as a prop (!) to smuggle the bullion back to Britain.

HM Govt have a good idea who it is, but it is up to Marlowe as the man on the spot to find the bullion and identify the murderer. This he does as the book winds up after 200 tense pages with the sudden arrival of the cavalry ie British army and police, just in time to save our hero from being shot.

Technical expertise

Maclean’s technical knowledge of film-making seems, to me, flaky. The whole premise that an entire film production team would get aboard a leaky tub heading into an Arctic storm to a remote island just doesn’t stand up.

The sea, the sea

That said, MacLean is back on the familiar territory of his first novel, and many of the best subsequent ones – the freezing cold inhospitable storm-torn Arctic ocean. His descriptions of the ship yawing and reeling in heavy seas, of the rigging and layout, of the feel of ice and snow, carry complete conviction. Much more so than the plot. And there is one standout passage on page 122 of the Fontana edition where the ancient captain, Imrie, during the burial at sea of the latest murderees, describes his memories of Bear Island being the ‘gate’ for the Murmansk convoys which sailed through these waters to Russia during the War, convoys MacLean served on and which, famously, form the subject of his first and best novel, HMS Ulysses.

Pushed to extremes

As usual, once the touchpaper is lit, the plot doesn’t let up and, as usual, it starts in the first few pages while Marlowe is doing his routine rounds of the passengers only to discover two dying of food poisoning. From that moment for the next few days there is no let-up and the protagonist Marlowe gets little or no sleep as events ie murders and assaults, mount up with dizzying speed.

I was so tired that I could think of nothing other than my cabin and my bunk. (Ch 4)

I was feeling tired again, tired enough to drop off to sleep at any moment. (Ch 5)

I felt savage but I know I didn’t sound that way, I think I only sounded tired. (Ch 8)

The sidekick

Obviously he has an assistant – the first mate on the Morning Rose, Smithy (I remembered that Smith is the uninspiring name given to the Richard Burton character in Where Eagles Dare). As with Jablonsky in Fear, this sidekick is murdered, bringing death as close to the protagonist as possible, granting him permission for revenge (Marlowe engineers the death of the murderer in the books hurried last pages).

Mary the heroine

Wikipedia tells me that later MacLean books reused the same plots, down to particular phrases which had, in his hands, become dead cliches. I particularly like the idea that he couldn’t be bothered to think of names for the woman interest (love interest is wrong, since there is no romance or love in these novels – there isn’t the time). He just called them Mary. Fear Is The Key had one Mary but Bear Island trumps it by having two!, the lead actress and a continuity assistant who I found, in fact, difficult to tell apart.

Dying style

The most obvious contrast with Fear Is The Key (1961) is how deteriorated MacLean’s style has become. Fear has quite a lot of snappy phraseology, of a kind of sub-Chandler briskness. For some reason, ten years later and MacLean’s style has become extremely long-winded and repetitive. One adjective isn’t enough when two can be used, dependent clauses build up, there is lots of periphrasis or roundabout ways of saying things which could be said much quicker.

On the other hand, it could be effective in stilling any qualms of conscience – true, this was the world of the cinema but Heissman would be unlikely to overlook even the most remote possibility – that might have arisen had the project been denied even this superficial official blessing, and the very fact that they were being made privy to the secret inner workings of Olympus would tend to bind both cast and crew closer to the company, for it is an almost universal law of nature that mankind, which is still in the painful process of growing up, dearly loves its little closed and/or secret societies, whether those be the most remote Masonic Lodge in Saskatchewan or White’s of St James’s, and tends to form an intense personal attachment and loyalty to other members of that group while presenting a united front to the world of the unfortunates beyond their doors. (Chapter 5)

It’s as if he’s forgotten how to write. Compare the opening of Fear:

If you could call a ten by six wooden box mounted on a four-wheel trailer an office, then I was sitting in my office. I’d been sitting there for four hours, the headphones were beginning to hurt and the darkness was coming in from the swamps.

With the opening of Bear:

To even the least sensitive and perceptive beholder the Morning Rose, at this stage of her long and highly chequered career, must have seemed ill-named, for if ever a vessel could fairly be said to be approaching, if not actually arrived at, the sunset of her days it was this one.

No page is without a stinker of a long strangled sentence which you feel you ought to help across the road to its destination.

For the interest in the food was not all-absorbing: frequently, but very very briefly, a pair of eyes would break of their rapt communion with the stew and beans, glance swiftly round the cabin, then return in an oddly guilty defensiveness to the food as if the person had hoped in that one lightning ocular sortie to discover some unmistakable tell-tale signs that would infallibly identify the traitor in our midst. (Ch 10)

Some kind of defeatism or no longer taking it seriously maybe also explains the use of quotes. In Fear Is the Key the style is snappy and to the point. In Bear Island, if the characters words go near one, MacLean will let them quote: from Shakespeare, the Bible, hymns, songs, poems. Almost as if he wants someone else to do the writing. As if the creating of new sentences and phrases is impossibly wearisome. One of the last sentences in the book is a quote from King Lear, Shakespeare’s most despairing play.

Alcohol

According to Wikipedia, MacLean ‘struggled constantly with alcoholism’. Certainly his characters put away an astonishing amount of booze, almost all of it spirits. It is one of the leitmotivs of Bear that hardly any of the men can exchange words without pouring out one, two or three glasses of scotch. In fact the getting and drinking of hard liquor is a real obsession of the book, and one of the less forgettable characters is one Lonnie, a complete alcoholic who is never sober right up to his death by poisoning.

This obsessive hard drinking reminded me of Raymond Chandler’s alcohol novel, The Long Goodbye, which features not one but three alcoholics, including the heavy drinking first-person narrator Marlowe. Is that why the narrator of Bear is named Marlowe? It’s not in homage to Chandler’s style which MacLean completely lacks.

I wondered uncharitably, what hour struck when captain Imrie poured himself his first restorative of morning but then recalled that as he had been up since 4am he was no doublt now rightly regarding the day as being pretty far advanced, a supposition which he proceeded to prove correct by replenishing his glass without, however, interrupting the smooth flow of his monologue. (Ch 6)

The last sentences in the book describe Lonnie’s death from alcohol poisoning and exposure to the bitter Arctic climate, and reference a conversation he’d had with the narrator about whether there would be bars in heaven. Hard drinking is the central theme of the book, right up to its final words. This was MacLean’s last novel in the first person and, arguably, his last decent novel.

Paul Wright illustration

I read it in one of the classic Fontana paperback editions. The cover illustration is an evocative painting of Bear Island by Paul Wright. This reproduction doesn’t do it justice. Wherever Paul Wright ism, and whatever else he did, respect for this wonderful cover, evocative both of the Arctic seas, and of my youth in the 70s when these covers first appeared.

Cover of the 1973 Fontana paperback edition of Bear Island

Cover of the 1973 Fontana paperback edition of Bear Island

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 Guns of Navarone by Alistair MacLean (1957)

On the second or third chapter of The Guns of Navarone I had the simple insight that MacLean’s later thrillers (and by extension many other thrillers of the period) transfer the experience of war into civilian life: the sense of a virtuous hero, with a small group of skilled colleagues, battling an evil foe whose ranks include hardened psychopaths (and the occasional more human figure), a battle carried out against the odds, in the face of pitiless Nature and involving terrible injuries and suffering and sacrifice, but which will ultimately be triumphant, even if being forced to do this ‘dirty job’ often leaves a ‘bad taste in the mouth’ – this formula is more or less repeated in his subsequent 26 books, and in countless others of the same genre.

Style

This is MacLean’s second novel and coming to it after the ones written a decade or 15 years later, it feels tauter, better written, more exciting. The jokey tone and fashionable 60s dollybirds which rather mar Puppet on a Chain and Bear Island are not present. Whereas in those books the prose lumbers with heavy humour, random quotes, clumsy jokes and long arthritic sentences, here the prose is, for the most part, lean and focused.

Though not as dazzling as Chandler or as skilful as Le Carré, MacLean’s prose in these earliest works does the job: it is taut, factual, to the point.

All day long they lay hidden in the carob grove, a thick clump of stunted, gnarled trees that clung grimly to the treacherous, screestrewn slope abutting what Louki called the ‘Devil’s Playground’. (Chapter 11)

They came to the cave at dawn, just as the first grey stirrings of a bleak and cheerless day struggled palely through the lowering, snow-filled sky to the east. (Ch 6)

Plot

It’s the fourth year of the Second World War, in the eastern Mediterranean. The Brits had optimistically dropped men onto all the Greek islands partly as a message to neutral Turkey about who ruled the area, but now the Germans are counter-attacking and have killed or captured the forces on most of the islands. Over a thousand British troops are marooned on the last remaining island of Kheros unless they can be taken off by ship. The Navy refuses to do it because the sea to the North is mined and the only two approaches to the island, so close to the Turkish coast, are governed by the massive German gun emplacement at Navarone. The novel starts with an attempt to bomb them from the air which fails because they are protected by a massive rock overhang.

Therefore the hard-bitten British major falls back on plan B – sending a hand-picked selection of the best men available, a small elite team, to scale the 400-foot sheer cliffs on the south of the island, make their way over inaccessible mountains to the heavily defended fortress which contains the guns, and blow them up. And within three days, for that’s when the Hun is going to move in on Kheros.

Three days to save over a thousand men!

Characters

  • The novel is told in the third person, though the mission is seen through the eyes of the tough, lean survivor whose reluctant lot it is to lead it, the world-famous (of course) New Zealand mountain climber Keith Mallory.
  • Andy Stevens is the young climber who, unbeknown to his colleagues, has lived his whole life scared of failing to live up to his bullying father and successful brothers; he suffers appalling injuries but redeems himself with an act of mountain-top heroism.
  • Dusty Miller, the cynical Yank, brought along for his explosives expertise, is always ready with a quip or a cigarette.
  • Casey Brown is the dedicated Scots engineer whose job it is to navigate the broken-down old trawler they use to reach the island.
  • and Andrea is the Greek man-mountain with a deep grudge against the invading Germans, who has worked alongside Mallory in occupied Cyprus and is as solid as a rock.
  • There are two native Greeks they rendezvous with and, unlike the movie, no women, no love interest whatsoever.

Thrilling incident

A thriller amounts to a stream of thrilling encounters, with just enough plot to justify them and keep them coming, and to keep the reader biting their nails in high suspense at the outcome of each new situation of peril and jeopardy:

  • the Levantine spy at the door
  • intercepted by a German caique at sea which they blow up
  • take shelter in an island river mouth from a fierce storm to awaken and find it overlooked by a German guardpost, so they have to fool the Germans that they are drunk Greeks before killing them
  • discovered by German guard at top of the cliffs of Navarone, who they kill
  • captured by Germans in the mountains and taken to their local headquarters, from which they shoot their way out
  • encircled and hemmed in among the Devil’s playground of volcanic rock on the way into town, and then dive bombed by Stukas using incendiary bombs
  • playing cat and mouse with the Germans in the fortress town of Navarone

All of which builds up to the genuinely nailbiting climax as our heroes battle against the odds through the heavily guarded fortress and into the presence of the mighty guns themselves!

The technician

All the books enjoy (what was then unquestionably) the male preserve of technical expertise.

Quickly he taped the ends of two rubber-covered wires on the insulated strip, one at either side, taped these down also until nothing was visible but the bared steel cores at the tips, joined these to two fourinch strips of bared wire, taped these also, top and bottom, to the insulated shaft, vertically and less than half an inch apart. From the canvas bag he removed the TNT, the primer and the detonator – a bridge mercury detonator lugged and screwed to his own specification – fitted them together and connected one of the wires from the steel shaft to a lug on the detonator, screwing it firmly home. The other wire from the shaft he led to a positive terminal on the battery, and a third wire from the negative terminal to the detonator. It only required the ammunition hoist to sink down into the magazine – as it would d as soon as they began firing – and the spring-loaded wheel would short out the bare wires, completing the circuit and triggering off the detonator. (Ch 16)

Fell how confident and fluent the prose is. No equivocation or straining for the right word. Everything clearly understood and clearly explained. A history of thrillers is, among other things, a history of guns and gadgets. I wonder if one’s been written, showing how evolving technology has affected evolving plotlines and styles…

Stormy weather

MacLean likes storms at sea. HMS Ulysses is one long terrible storm; Fear Is the Key starts off in a Miami court-room but fear not, within a few chapters the hero is taking a boat out to sea in an incipient hurricane; most of Bear Island describes the fearful voyage of the converted trawler into an Arctic storm; When Eight Bells Toll is set in the stormy waters around the western isles of Scotland; and though Puppet on a Chain is set in various locations around Amsterdam, there is a humming scene where the hero hitches a ride on the drug smugglers’ boat before slipping overboard and then swimming for the mainland where he emerges into the pouring rain. In this The Guns of Navarone is no exception and completely unlike the movie which shows the Greek island setting in tourist-brochure sunshine. No, the novel revels in a terrible storm at sea which leads them to take shelter in a remote creek; more rain-lashed storm as their boat is smashed to pieces against the fearsome rocks; freezing snowstorms up in the mountains; and climaxes in a magnificent downpour over the famous cliffs and guns.

Forty minutes later, in the semi-darkness of the overcast evening and in torrential rain, lance-straight and strangely chill, the anchor of the caique rattled down between the green walls of the forest, a dank and dripping forest, hostile in its silent indifference. (Ch 3)

Just at the doorway he paused, began to search impatiently through his pockets as if he’d lost something: it was a windless night, and it was raining, he saw, raining heavily, the lances of rain bouncing inches  off the cobbled street – and the street itself deserted as far as he could see in either direction. (Ch 15)

Related links

There was, of course, a film of the novel, one of the better ones, starring David Niven, Gregory Peck and Anthony Quinn (1961). It’s still schoolboy hokum, one of the suite of war films which came out in the 1960s and are part of the cultural background of my generation of men – Where Eagles Dare, Lawrence of Arabia, 633 Squadron, the Battle of Britain, along with the Connery Bond films. I guess these are just books – and films – for boys of all ages, but they have a sort of dignity to them, and the men appearing in them actually seem to be grown men which most modern films, acted by overgrown teenagers, completely lack.

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.

Fear Is The Key by Alistair Maclean (1961)

Up till now we had no evidence whatsoever, all along the way your back trail was divided into a series of water-tight compartments with locked doors. Royale locked the doors by killing everybody and anybody who might talk. Incredibly, there wasn’t a single solitary thing we could pin on you, there wasn’t a person who could split on you for the sufficient reason that all those who could were dead. The locked doors. but you opened them all today. Fear was the key to all the doors. (Chapter 12)

Categorising MacLean’s novels

Fear Is The Key was the sixth novel Alistair MacLean published. I devoured them aged 12 and 13 in the early 1970s but by the time of Dusty Death and Breakheart Pass were published (1973 and 74) I felt they’d gone badly off; that or I’d outgrown them. Now, thanks to his Wikipedia entry, I learn that MacLean’s 28 novels are divided into four periods (by whom? fans? scholars?):

  1. HMS Ulysses through to The Last Frontier. Four novels with third-person narratives, a somewhat epic tone and are mostly set during World War II. The Last Frontier contained overt philosophical and moral themes that were not well received. MacLean then switched gears to…
  2. Night Without End through to Ice Station Zebra. Six novels all featuring first-person (and sometimes unreliable) narration laced with a dry, sardonic, self-deprecating humour, and were all set in contemporary times. These are MacLean’s most intensely plotted tales, masterfully blending thriller and detective elements.
  3. When Eight Bells Toll through to Bear Island – six novels that still maintained a generally high quality, with some books harking back to each of the first two periods but usually taking a more cinematic approach (not surprising since he began writing screenplays during this time).
  4. The Way to Dusty Death to the end (twelve novels). No more first-person stories, and his prose is thought to have often sagged badly, with excessive dialogue, lazily described scenes, and under-developed characters. Some show these faults more than others, and all the books sold reasonably well, but MacLean never regained his classic form.

Unity of time

Probably not deliberately, MacLean falls in with Aristotle’s unity of time: once the plot gets cracking it unfolds in nearly real time ie you follow the harassed protagonist minute by minute as he breaks out of the court-room, kidnaps the girl, gets involved in a long car chase, returns to the motel and gets knocked unconscious. All in the first few pages…

Eight minutes after Larry had died and exactly twenty minutes after I had left Kennedy and Royale in the cabin I was back there, giving the hurriedly pre-arranged knock. (Ch 11)

Trivial as it may sound, the unity of time means there is no let-up: from the minute the touchpaper is lit the plot consists of relentless hi-tension drama: every minute is crucial, even a slight distraction could spell disaster for the hero and his machinations. That’s why this book is so hard to put down.

The Volta or Anagnorisis

Anagnorisis is the term Aristotle used in his Poetics for the moment in a play when a character makes a critical discovery. It originally meant ‘recognition’ in its Greek context, not only of a person but also of what that person stood for. Anagnorisis is the hero’s sudden awareness of a real situation.

Similarly, the volta is the moment in a sonnet (or, by extension, other type of poem) when the train of thought takes a dramatic turn or swerve.

Both of these could be applied to the moment in this novel when the truth is revealed. For the first half of the novel we think John Talbot really is the hardened criminal who shoots his way out of a court-room in small-town Florida, killing a policeman on the way and kidnapping an innocent bystander woman, before engaging in a prolonged and thrilling car chase, before stealing another car and returning to the motel where he was arrested, before being knocked unconscious by a corrupt cop who heard the police alert and is determined to collect the reward in person from the father of the kidnapped girl, who turns out to be a multi-millionaire oil tycoon. The revived Talbot is taken along to the country mansion of the tycoon who seems to be surrounded by surprisingly tough thugs, who seem to dominate his life.

By this point I’d been wondering about Talbot, whose first-person narration was zippy but essentially innocent. I mean there was no psychology, no sense of emotions or conflicts or any psychological depths. The first person narrator is just a peg to hang a relentless sequence of nailbiting incidents on. No sense of criminal motivation or remorse for killing the policeman.

All is revealed when the volta or anagnorisis comes and Talbot reveals he is in fact a special agent working for the British government. The arrest and the entire court-room scene down to the shooting of the cop were staged and fake. The judge was in on the scam and had invited the millionaire’s daughter so that Talbot could stage the break and kidnap. the crooked cop who sapped him in the motel room was, in fact, his partner. The entire plot has been a scam to inveigle his way into the tycoon’s house, and into the good graces of the mob who are using him and his oil rig because — because all along it turns out a plane crashed off the Florida coast carrying hundreds of millions in gold and jewels, and the baddies have stolen an experimental bathyscaphe, concealed it aboard the tycoon’s oil rig, and now need a salvage expert to fix and drive it for them to the underwater crash site.

It is here, confined in the tiny machine, 500 feet under the storm-tossed Atlantic that there is a second and genuinely chilling volta: for here Talbot reveals that he was partner in the air charter firm whose airplane full of treasure was shot down by the baddies; and that aboard were his brother and wife and three-year old son. It is this rather harrowing revelation which convinces the baddies when Talbot says he’s disabled the flotation tanks and they are all going to die with him in this underwater tomb. As the oxygen runs out and they panic, Talbot gets the baddies to confess every detail of their elaborate plot.

Only then does he make the final revelation – he can refloat the scaphe and the microphone has not only been on all the time, but their confessions have been recorded by agents back on the oil rig, and will certainly send them to the electric chair.

Technical expertise

As always MacLean’s technical knowledge – of guns, airplanes, submarines and oil rigs – is fascinating (for this very untechnical reader, anyway). This is particularly true of his depiction of the sea. The second half of the novel is set aboard an oil rig off the coast of Florida and includes numerous details about the rig and the pressurised equipment necessary to raise and float the thing, and then drill down into the earth’s core, as well as very detailed descriptions of the bathyscaphe which is, after all, the setting of the novel’s final scenes.

Pushed to extremes

I felt old and tired and empty and dead. (Ch 6)

‘What does it matter now?’ Even to myself I sounded tired, defeated. (Ch 8)

I felt unutterably tired, I didn’t know whether it was because of the pain or the foul air or just because of the overwhelming sense of the emptiness of living. (Ch 11)

It is part of the genre that the male hero is stretched to the limit. They generally start severely tired and then get pushed way beyond the bounds of endurance. No surprise, when they have to cope with the hailstorm of nailbiting situations which their author throws at them in quick succession with no time to rest.

The scenes on the oil rig are set as a major storm approaches. At its height characters can only make their way across the platform by clinging onto wires stretched between key locations, while they’re nearly blown overboard by the gale force winds.

We had to lean at an angle of almost forty-five degrees against the wind to keep our balance and at the same time hang on to one of the life-lines. If you fell and started rolling along that deck you wouldn’t stop until the wind had pushed you clear over the side: it was as strong as that. It sucked the breath from your lungs and under its knife-edge hurricane lash the rain flailed and stung the exposed skin like an endless storm of tiny lead shot. (Ch 9)

All the shooting, beatings and suspense take place in a context where people are already stretched to the limits of survival.

Typically for the genre – think of the beating James Bond takes in every one of his novels – Talbot gets pretty badly damaged. A particularly unpleasant sidekick, a bug-eyed junkie, not only shoots him in the shoulder but smashes his teeth and lip with the barrel of a gun so that the hero is in agony for the last few hours of the plot.

Psychologically, this kind of story exercises and exorcises the male wish to be tried, to be physically tested to the limit, and to come through. Dr Johnson said every man thinks less of himself for not having been a soldier, and these novels cater to that male wish to have taken part in trial unto death (without actually having to move from the comfort of your sunlounger).

The dead sidekick

If the hero gets a beating it is nothing compared to his faithful sidekick – in this instance, the corrupt cop Jablonsky, who turns out to be his partner and one of the good guys – who is shot dead. The consistency with which this happens in MacLean or Bond or Chandler suggest it is a corollary of the above psychological need to be tested: the death of the closest associate demonstrates a) just how close death is, just how damn serious this job is, and b) allows the hero to show how toughly male he is by rejecting sappy feelings and determining to get his revenge. ‘It’s what X would have wanted,’ he says, tight-lipped.

It is the transparency of these psychological gratifications which makes thrillers – despite being so gripping – ultimately so childish, which disqualifies them from literature ie from the more concerted attempt to depict psychological depth or complexity.

Mary the heroine

The kidnapped heroine is called Mary (Ruthven). In line with the dictum that the hero must suffer, although she slowly realises he is a good guy and, by the end, is risking life and limb to help him – and he saves her life – in the end she stays true to her love for the family chauffeur (who had turned out to be a rock of dependability in a number of hairy moments). It’s a Hemingwayesque tough guy moment in a style that, as soon as Hemingway invented it just after the Great War, flooded literature, flooded books and movies and discourse, and survives to this day: this style, this attitude, this tough way of being a man which would have been a mystery to Dickens or Collins or Ruskin or Morris or Wilde, let alone George Eliot, Henry James or Virginia Woolf.

Mary saw me, hesitated a moment, then came across the sidewalk, to where I was standing. Her eyes seemed dark and curiously blurred but maybe I was imagining it. She murmured something, but I couldn’t make out what it was, then suddenly, careful not to hurt my left arm still in its sling, she put her two arms around my neck, pulled down my head and kissed me. Next moment she was gone, making her way back to the Rolls like a person who couldn’t see too well. Kennedy looked at her coming towards him, then lifted his eyes to mine, his face still and empty of all expression. I smiled at him and he smiled back. A nice guy.

It is cinematic, made of understated gestures which convey more than they say, and everything is about the manly suppression of emotion, focusing on actual bodily movements and practical details (the sling) and avoiding all possible psychology, any hint of feeling.

Related links

Like almost all MacLean’s novels, FITK was made into a film which is available on DVD. The clip below is just a part of the 20-minute long car chase which made it notorious in its day, complete with jazz-funk soundtrack and hi-intensity strings which make it sound like an episode of Starsky and Hutch.

The first 22 Alistair MacLean novels

Third person narrator

1955 HMS Ulysses – war story about a doomed Arctic convoy.
1957 The Guns of Navarone – war story about commandos who blow up superguns on a Greek island.
1957 South by Java Head – a motley crew of soldiers, sailors, nurses and civilians endure a series of terrible ordeals in their bid to escape the pursuing Japanese forces.
1959 The Last Frontier – secret agent Michael Reynolds rescues a British scientist from communists in Hungary.

First person narrator – the classic novels

1959 Night Without End – Arctic scientist Mason saves plane crash survivors from baddies who have stolen a secret missile guidance system.
1961 Fear is the Key – government agent John Talbot defeats a gang seeking treasure in a crashed plane off Florida.
1961 The Dark Crusader – counter-espionage agent John Bentall defeats a gang who plan to hold the world to ransom with a new intercontinental missile.
1962 The Golden Rendezvous – first officer John Carter defeats a gang who hijack his ship with a nuclear weapon.
1962 The Satan Bug – agent Pierre Cavell defeats an attempt to blackmail the government using a new supervirus.
1963 Ice Station Zebra – MI6 agent Dr John Carpenter defeats spies who have secured Russian satellite photos of US missile bases, destroyed the Arctic research base of the title and nearly sink the nuclear sub sent to rescue them.

Third phase

1966 When Eight Bells Toll – British Treasury secret agent Philip Calvert defeats a gang who have been hijacking ships carrying bullion off the Scottish coast.
1967 Where Eagles Dare
1968 Force 10 From Navarone The three heroes from Guns of Navarone parachute into Yugoslavia to blow up a dam and destroy two German armoured divisions.
1969 Puppet on a Chain – Interpol agent Paul Sherman battles a grotesquely sadistic heroin-smuggling gang in Amsterdam.
1970 Caravan to Vaccarès – British agent Neil Bowman foils a gang of gypsies who are smuggling Russian nuclear scientists via the south of France to China.
1971 Bear Island – Doctor Marlowe deals with a spate of murders aboard a ship full of movie stars and crew heading into the Arctic Circle.

Bad

1973 The Way to Dusty Death – World number one racing driver Johnny Harlow acts drunk and disgraced in order to foil a gang of heroin smugglers and kidnappers.
1974 Breakheart Pass – The Wild West, 1873. Government agent John Deakin poses as a wanted criminal in order to foil a gang smuggling guns to Injuns in the Rockies and planning to steal government gold in return.
1975 Circus – The CIA ask trapeze genius Bruno Wildermann to travel to an unnamed East European country, along with his circus, and use his skills to break into a secret weapons laboratory.
1976 The Golden Gate – FBI agent Paul Revson is with the President’s convoy when it is hijacked on the Golden Gate bridge by a sophisticated gang of crooks who demand an outrageous ransom. Only he – and the doughty doctor he recruits and the pretty woman journalist -can save the President!
1977 – Seawitch – Oil executives hire an unhinged oil engineer, Cronkite, to wreak havoc on the oil rig of their rival, Lord Worth, who is saved by his beautiful daughter’s boyfriend, an ex-cop and superhero.
1977 – Goodbye California – Deranged muslim fanatic, Morro, kidnaps nuclear physicists and technicians in order to build atomic bombs which he detonates a) in the desert b) off coastal California, in order to demand a huge ransom. Luckily, he has also irritated maverick California cop, Ryder – by kidnapping his wife – so Ryder tracks him down, disarms his gang and kills him.

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