Wilt On High by Tom Sharpe (1984)

‘And don’t get the idea I’m on a right-wing, flog ’em and hang ’em reactionary high because I’m not… I’m just mister stick-in-the-middle who doesn’t know which way to jump.’ (p.138)

Third outing for Henry Wilt, bilious lecturer and Head of Liberal Studies at the Fenland College of Arts and Technology (‘the Tech’). The brilliant first novel (Wilt, 1976) rotated around the consequences of Wilt’s mishaps with a blow-up sex doll, which managed to spawn enough comic consequences to fill a book. This one, like later Sharpe generally, has its moments but struggles to be as funny.

The plot

Dead junkie A student dies of a heroin overdose at the college (straightaway, not that funny), prompting panic among the various time-serving lecturers and officials. Wilt is inadvertently involved because it was his secretary who reported seeing the young girl shooting up in the ladies loo, prompting Wilt to go running to the nearest toilets, where there is no junky but an outraged female Physical Exercise lecturer, who accuses Wilt of being a peeping Tom. She assaults him very violently and makes an official complaint. (Later, too late, Wilt’s secretary tells him she meant the upstairs toilets. Oops.)

A little later the poor girl is found dead in the boiler room and the police called. Turns out she is the daughter of Lord Lynchknowle, a cold-hearted aristocrat who doesn’t care much but has to make a show of grief to placate his ghastly wife, and so asks his good chum, the Home Secretary, to bring pressure to bear on the Chief Constable to sort out the drug problem in the county.

‘Fireworks’ Harry Wilt, meanwhile, has been picking up extra money by giving tuition to prisoners at Ipford prison. When a particularly unpleasant crook (‘Fireworks’ Harry McCullum, p.60) gets angry with Wilt, threatening to break out to come and ‘do’ him, a shaken Wilt – a few hours later from the safety of his local pub – phones the governor to ask if there’s been a breakout. It’s a bad line and the governor thinks Wilt has inside knowledge that there’s about to be a breakout and he moves to the prison to battle stations. All the prisoners on the higher floors are transferred down into the already cramped lower cells, prompting actual outbreaks of violence, fights and mattress burning. The over-officious Chief Warden decides to issue double strength tranquilisers to the inmates in their cocoa, which has the unfortunate result of killing ‘Fireworks’ Harry when he drinks his own and his cellmates’ portions.

Bugging Wilt The prison authorities find a load of heroin in Harry’s mattress and decide to hush up the tranquiliser angle and emphasise the illegal drugs. Which brings things to the attention of the local constabulary. Here, Wilt’s old nemesis, Inspector Flint, always on the lookout for ways to nail Wilt, stumbles on the idea of giving all this incriminating evidence (Wilt somehow involved with the dead student, Wilt giving tuition to the dead convict) to the stupid, over-ambitious head of the drug squad, Inspector Hodge. Hodge, along with his idiot sidekick Sergeant Runk, promptly bugs Wilt’s house and car, from that point onwards misinterpreting everything which happens in the (admittedly bizarre) Wilt household, as further evidence incriminating Wilt, who ends up seeming like a drug-smuggling criminal mastermind.

Painful penis In a separate plotline Wilt’s wife had been persuaded by her friend the militant feminist, Mavis Mottram, to pay a visit to a disreputable herbalist, Dr Kores, seeking a remedy for Wilt’s low sex drive. She slips the resulting potion into Wilt’s home brew, which he drinks rather too much of after a crappy day at work with the result that, for the rest of the novel, Wilt’s penis gives him a lot of trouble – at first burning, then feeling like it is full of broken glass, then marching ants.

There’s an archetypal ‘Sharpe’ scene where the pain drives Wilt to go down to the kitchen in the middle of the night desperate for any kind of relief, in his desperation even using Eva’s icing cake syringe to try and inject cream up his penis. It is at this unfortunate moment that Eva walks in and catches him – which is bad enough – but he’s in the middle of explaining his behaviour to his wife when his four daughters burst in and see their daddy in this compromising position! Even after a few days, the painful penis is still liable to go to full erection at the drop of a hat – or the bending over of a pretty woman.

US Air Force It is in this state – liable to instant hard-ons at the most embarrassing moments and in a car stuffed full of bugging devices – that Wilt motors off to the nearby US Air Force Base, Baconheath, to deliver his regular Friday evening lecture about British culture. Except the base security officers locate the sonic devices planted by Inspector Hodge in Wilt’s car and, while he is lecturing, call a full scale security alert, sending in a SWAT team with immobilising gas (the new and experimental ‘Agent Incapacitating’) which sends lecturer and audience into a drug-induced delirium.

Interrogation Wilt comes round to find himself being interrogated by the dim but madly ambitious Major Glaushof who is convinced he is a Soviet spy and threatens him with such violence that Wilt eagerly co-operates, supplying him with the names of fake Russian contacts. Meanwhile, the much more sensible Head of Intelligence, Colonel Urwin, works out the truth that Wilt is under surveillance by the local cops.

But not before, in a characteristically wild scene, Glaushof takes Wilt back to his house to ever so cunningly get him seduced by Glaushof’s randy wife, dolled up for the occasion in bra, stockings and suspenders. Mrs Glaushof enters into the spirit of the thing much too enthusiastically, locking the bedroom door and taking Wilt’s swollen penis in hand, at which point the Major tries to abort proceedings, banging loudly on the door. As his wife manoeuvres herself to sit on Wilt’s face, the latter in disgusted desperation bites her thigh, drawing blood, at which she goes for the service pistol kept in the bedroom, shooting wildly through the door and injuring her own husband in the shoulder, before Wilt clobbers her with the bedside table.

When the unhappy trio are dragged before the base commandant (nickname: ‘old B52’), he is not impressed and swings behind Colonel Urwin’s more boring interpretation of Wilt’s innocence.

Mothers Against The Bomb Meanwhile Eva, sick with worry about her missing Henry, makes enquiries and is upset to discover Henry’s been deceiving her about teaching at the USAAF base: he told her he was teaching at the prison on Friday nights. Eva’s friend, Mavis Mottram puts the blackest possible interpretation on this deceit, accusing Wilt of visiting a mistress there (whereas Wilt simply didn’t want to prompt an anti-nuclear, anti-American diatribe from his trendy lefty wife). After driving out to the base and being turned away at the gate, Eva returns more determined, along with the quadruplets, and co-ordinating her arrival with Mavis calling up coachloads of ‘Mothers Against The Bomb’, the anti-nuclear pressure group, and arranging for local TV, radio  and journalists to report on the ‘protest’.

While the Mothers set up loudspeakers and start dancing the can-can, the quads attack guards who have come unwisely near them with a variety of home-made weapons, seizing their guns and then managing to threaten the driver of an oil tanker into pouring a massive slick of oil over the entrance gates. Think the mayhem of a St Trinians movie. The oil causes Major Glaushof’s car to skid and crash into the fencing, while the Attack Alert siren is set off, and the redoubtable Eva lays into the troops trying to restrain her. The whole riotous scene climaxes in the Mothers setting off an enormous inflatable penis – a symbol of the oppressive patriarchy – to float serenely over the chaotic scenes below and which, at the click of a switch, sheds its its skin to reveal underneath an enormous (balloon) nuclear missile. It’s at  this moment that dim Inspector Hodge arrives in a police car which skids over the oil and crashes into the TV vans.

Wilt was being questioned by the relatively benign camp commander when all this breaks out and it is he who – as in his previous novels – suddenly shows a burst of common-sense heroism. Into the mayhem he wades, retrieving his wife and daughters from the gatehouse and is joined by the practical Colonel Urwin who hustles them over to a waiting helicopter which, in moments, flies them high up over the scene and away to peaceful Ipford. As they alight in a field well clear of the base:

In the distance there was a sudden flash and a small ball of flame. Major Glaushof had fired a tracer round into Mavis Mottram’s inflated penis. (p.246)

Aftermath A short epilogue ties up all the loose ends: Wilt is back at the Tech. After fraught negotiations between US lawyers and MI5, Wilt and Eva agree to sign the Official Secrets Act in return for secret damages from the Americans, which Wilt uses to pay for a quarter of a million pounds worth of books for the Tech, from a supposedly ‘anonymous’ donor, but credited to Wilt’s influence. The Principal is gutted. He’ll never get rid of Wilt now.

Hodge is busted back to sergeant and Inspector Flint emerges as not such a shouty stereotype after all: quietly in the background he had been tracking down the real circle of heroin smugglers, work he shows to the Chief Constable who is duly impressed, even if he doesn’t realise that Flint is now going to get his convictions by framing the guilty men, planting heroin and equipment at their homes…

Mavis’s ‘Mothers Against The Bomb’ shoot to nationwide fame after TV pictures show them being gassed and dragged about by brutal US guards, and women flock from all over Britain to set up a ‘peace camp’ outside Baconheath. ‘Old B52’ never recovers from the sight of a giant penis morphing into a floating nuke and is retired early to a rest home for the demented in Arizona. And so peace returns to Ipford and the Wilt household. Until his next adventure…


Penises and Police

are both stock features of Sharpe’s savage satires. His first (and arguably best) novel, Riotous Assembly, is a madcap satire on the South African police and features their burly leader, Kommandant van Heerden, being tied up, dressed in plastic fetish outfit by a perverted old lady and threatened with having a syringe of novocaine plunged in his penis. In the sequel, Indecent Exposure, the ambitious but dim Luitenant Verkramp has the mad idea of attaching the entire police force’s penises to electrodes and giving them electric shocks at the sight of naked black women, in a crazed attempt to cut down on miscegenation.

The plot of Blott leads to the involvement of the police and then the Army in the bizarre goings-on at Handyman Hall, and a good deal of the first Wilt novel consists of the prolonged (and comically frustrated) interrogation of Wilt by Inspector Flint. The Throwback involves the police being called in to besiege Flawse Hall in Northumberland before the tremendous scene where various sections of the Army open fire on each other in the explosive climax at the Close. The Wilt Alternative shows the shambolic police handling the kidnap of Wilt and his wife by international terrorists, though the early section dwells long on Wilt’s penis after he has a drunken pee in a rose bush and badly gashes it, resulting in comic visits to his doctor and hospital.

This quick review suggests that it’s a close run thing, but although penises supply a useful comic topic of embarrassment, pain, shame and humiliation, in the long run it’s the police and the army which seem the most consistent feature of Sharpe’s satires. Again and again the protagonists – the unwitting victims of wildly improbable sequences of events – are hauled in for prolonged and humiliating interrogation at the hands of the authorities.

Is this because Sharpe has a Hitchcock-like fear of the police, or because there is something fundamentally comic about the Interrogation of an Innocent Man by Incompetent Cops?


Hysteria instead of comedy

Early on in the novel an observer from the Ministry of Education visits to monitor teaching at the college prompting the ever-obstinate Wilt to quickly become obstructive and abusive. Pages later Wilt’s nemesis on the local police force, Inspector Flint, meets his doctor to discuss his problems with his waterworks. Neither situation is particularly funny and nothing particularly funny happens. What does happen is the characters swiftly become seething with anger and aggression, start swearing and insulting everyone they can think of.

… a sense of grievance against Henry fucking Wilt… Wilt had buggered his career… The little sod was sitting pretty… and a right smart-arse he was too… the number of brainy bastards… ‘I don’t want any more of the piss pills… The bleeding things are dehydrating me. I’m on the bloody trot all the time… I’m not some bleeding dog you know… Fucking awful is all I know… have a prick parade and  ask the victims to go along studying cocks… I couldn’t get the fucking thing up even if I wanted to…’ (pp.29-32)

And so on and so on, almost all the characters effing and blinding, routinely referring to each other as sods and buggers and bastards, throughout the book. I’ve got nothing against swearwords, I enjoy them when deployed with style, but these characters are swearing at each other for no real reason. In the first half of the book, at least, there is a gap between the unnecessary maliciousness of the language and the relatively banal, not to say boring, underlying situations.

For me that gap lasts throughout the book, which is written in a frenzied style, describing characters constantly going off the deep end, effing and blinding at each other – when the storyline and the scenes don’t really justify it. Only in the last quarter of the book, the scenes set in the USAAF base, does the mayhem of the plot catch up with the profanity of the swearing when, ironically, the swearing actually drops off, as if it’s not needed; as if the madcap plot is now enough.

Sharpe’s earlier novels concocted fantastic, farcical, grotesque scenarios which fully justified their characters’ hysteria and mania. In the later novels the scenarios tend to lag behind the characters’ frenzied language. Put another way: although the storylines reliably build up to grotesque climaxes, it is jarring that the characters start at an unnecessarily high pitch; it would be more effective if the characters’ swearing crept in, if previously restrained people started losing it in proportion to their world going to pieces.


Social history

Only intermittently funny – at least until the climactic fiasco – the novel is often more as interesting as a record of social attitudes seen through the eyes of a rather right-wing, 56-year-old, public school-educated man. What’s most striking for me is the way so many of these issues are still with us:

  • Crisis in higher education It’s a time of austerity and the college faces swingeing cuts.
  • Bureaucracy Wilt is driven to distraction by endless meetings which generate long pointless documents full of impenetrable management speak about ‘aims’ and ‘values’.
  • Feminism Eva Wilt’s friend Mavis Mottram is a militant feminist constantly lecturing Eva about the awfulness of men, about evil multinational corporations, about the wickedness of the wars men start and the weapons of mass destruction they have created, never losing an opportunity to point out the everyday sexism of the book’s male characters.
  • Kids education Wilt is impoverishing himself and working overtime to pay fees to send his four daughters – the fiendish quadruplets – to a School for the Mentally Gifted, lacking faith in the state education system.
  • Computers Wilt jokes that the kids are better at computers than the adults, in fact worries that his girls are addicted to their computers.
  • Porn Eva and Wilt discuss (well, shout at each other about) the tide of video nasties and pornographic filth washing over the country.
  • Drugs Although, as with other Sharpe novels, the initial plot is soon lost sight of, the whole book does start off being about a tragic death from a heroin overdose and Flint’s detective work tracking down the drug smuggling ring continues right up to the last pages.

It’s as if, in the late 1960s and early 1970s there was a kind of hinge or turn in history, and a lot of ‘issues’, along with related stock social ‘types’, first appeared – trendy lefties, strident feminists, tiresome vegetarians, environmental activists, anti-nuclear marchers, alongside social features like the widespread availability of drugs (producing the stock figure of the ‘junkie’) and the proliferation of hard-core pornography.

These don’t appear in the fiction of the 1940s, 50s and early 60s – but have been permanent features of newspapers, magazines and middle class conversation ever since the 1970s, ‘issues’ and social types which have been with us for at least forty years, but – and this is the really puzzling thing – are continually treated as if unprecedented, front page news.


Author’s message

Right at the end of the book, as the helicopter lifts Wilt, Eva and the terrible quads high above the fray, Wilt has a moment of insight, an epiphany, which we can’t help but reading as also reflecting Sharpe’s view. It’s worth quoting at length for at least two reasons:

a) it’s a reminder that, although he pokes fun at trendy lefty lecturer, at feminists etc, Sharpe can’t be easily pigeon-holed as a right-wing writer; his satire, his contrarianism, is more wide-ranging than that;

b) it shows the mental pressure, the weight of anxiety, that the threat of nuclear war pressed down on everyone who lived through those years, and especially the sense of heightened fear that characterised the era of President Reagan and Mrs Thatcher, when many, maybe most, people genuinely thought there might be a world-annihilating nuclear war. (For some reason I think of Raymond Briggs’ deliberately shocking animation, When the Wind Blows, 1982. Or compare with the other novel from 1984 I’ve just read, Frederick Forysth’s The Fourth Protocol, which boils down to a plot to detonate a nuclear weapon at a US Air Force base in Suffolk and also features a march by largely female peace protestors. It is interesting to compare Forsyth’s attitude to these women – unmitigated contempt – with Sharpe, who sympathises with them.)

Ten minutes later Wilt looked down from a thousand feet at the pattern of runways and roads, buildings and bunkers and at the tiny group of women being carried from the gate to waiting ambulances. For the first time he felt some sympathy for Mavis Mottram. For all her faults she had been right to pit herself against the banal enormity of the airbase. The place had all the characteristics of a potential extermination camp. True, nobody was being herded into gas chambers and there was no smoke rising from crematoria. But the blind obedience to orders was there, instilled in Glaushof and even in Colonel Urwin. Everyone in fact, except Mavis Mottram and the human chain of women at the gate. The others would all obey orders if the time came and the real holocaust would begin. And this time there would be no liberators, no successive generations to erect memorials to the dead or learn lessons from past horrors. There would be only silence. The wind and the sea the only voices left. (p.245)

Reading both books made me realise how completely this terrible anxiety has disappeared from the culture of our time, 2015, and how impossible it is to convey what it felt like to anyone who didn’t live through it.

Related links

Pan paperback cover of Wilt on High, illustrated by Paul Sample

Pan paperback cover of Wilt on High, illustrated by Paul Sample

Paul Sample A word about the illustrator of the classic Pan paperback covers of the Sharpe novels, Paul Sample, a prolific illustrator whose grotesquely exaggerated cartoons perfectly capture the excess of Sharpe’s novels. The covers accurately depict numerous details from the texts, and there is a Where’s Wally-type pleasure to be had from trying to match every element of the grotesque tableaux with its source in the story.

The cover above shows: top left Ipford prison where Wilt starts a riot; middle left Mothers Against The Bomb doing the can-can; bottom left a canister of Agent Incapacitating releasing clouds of gas which have knocked out a couple of the nice ladies who attend Wilt’s lectures at USAF Baconheath; at right the frenzied faces of the US security officers during the climactic riot, one of them being lustily kneed in the balls by an outraged Eva Wilt; all dominated by the figure of Wilt, the skinny terrified man being mounted by Major Glaushof’s randy wife, at his feet the icing-cake syringe which he used to try and inject moisturising cream up his penis, and the revolver with which she shoots her own husband, and over it all the image of the giant penis-balloon shedding its skin to become a nuclear missile. It’s a mad world.

You can see lots more of his work at Paul Sample’s website.


Tom Sharpe’s novels

1971 – Riotous Assembly – Absurdly violent and frenzied black comedy set in apartheid South Africa as three incompetent police officers try to get to the bottom of the murder of her black cook by a venerable old lady who turns out to be a sex-mad rubber fetishist, a simple operation which leads to the deaths of 21 policemen, numerous dogs, a vulture and the completely wrongful arrest and torture of the old lady’s brother, the bishop of Basutoland.
1973 – Indecent Exposure – Sequel to the above, in which the same Kommandant van Herden is seduced into joining a group of (fake) posh colonial English at their country retreat, leaving Piemburg in charge of his deputy, Luitenant Verkramp, who sets about a) ending all inter-racial sex among the force by applying drastic aversion therapy to his men b) tasks with flushing out communist subversives a group of secret agents who themselves end up destroying most of the town’s infrastructure.
1974 – Porterhouse Blue – Hilarious satire on the stuffiness and conservatism of Oxbridge colleges epitomised by Porterhouse, as a newcomer tries in vain to modernise this ramshackle hidebound institution, with a particularly cunning enemy in the ancient college porter, Skullion.
1975 – Blott on the Landscape – MP and schemer Sir Giles Lynchwood so loathes his battleship wife, Lady Maud, that he connives to have a new motorway routed slap bang through the middle of her ancestral home, Handyman Hall, intending to abscond with the compensation money. But he reckons without his wife’s fearsome retaliation or the incompetence of the man from the Ministry.
1976 – Wilt – Hen-pecked lecturer Henry Wilt is humiliated with a sex doll at a party thrown by the infuriatingly trendy American couple, the Pringsheims. Appalled by his grossness, his dim wife, Eva, disappears on a boating weekend with this ‘fascinating’ and ‘liberated’ couple, so that when Wilt is seen throwing the wretched blow-up doll into the foundations of the extension to his technical college, the police are called which leads to 100 pages of agonisingly funny misunderstandings.
1977 – The Great Pursuit – Literary agent Frederick Frensic receives the anonymous manuscript of an outrageously pornographic novel about the love affair between a 17-year-old boy and an 80-year-old woman, via a firm of solicitors who instruct him to do his best with it. Thus begins a very tangled web in which he palms it off as the work of a pitiful failure of an author, one Peter Piper, and on this basis sells it to both a highbrow but struggling British publisher and a rapaciously commercial American publisher, who only accept it on condition this Piper guy goes on a US tour to promote it. Which is where the elaborate deception starts to go horribly wrong…
1978 – The Throwback – Illegitimate Lockhart Flawse, born and bred in the wastes of Northumberland, marries virginal Jessica whose family own a cul-de-sac of houses in suburban Surrey, and, needing the money to track down his mystery father, Lockhart sets about an elaborate and prolonged campaign to terrorise the tenants out of the homes. Meanwhile, his decrepit grandfather has married Jessica’s mother, she hoping to get money from the nearly-dead old geezer, he determined to screw as much perverse sexual pleasure out of her pretty plump body before he drops dead…
1979 – The Wilt Alternative – After a slow, comic, meandering first 90 pages, this novel changes tone drastically when international terrorists take Wilt and his children hostage in his nice suburban house leading to a stand-off with the cops and Special Branch.
1980 – Ancestral Vices – priggish left-wing academic Walden Yapp is invited by cunning old Lord Petrefact to write an unexpurgated history of the latter’s family of capitalists and exploiters because the old bustard wants to humiliate and ridicule his extended family, but the plot is completely derailed when a dwarf living in the mill town of Buscott where Yapp goes to begin his researches, is killed in an accident and Yapp finds himself the chief suspect for his murder, is arrested, tried and sent to prison, in scenes strongly reminiscent of Henry Wilt’s wrongful arrest in the first Wilt novel.
1982 – Vintage Stuff – A stupid teacher at a minor public school persuades a gullible colleague that one of the parents, a French Comtesse, is being held captive in her chateau. Accompanied by the stupidest boy in school, and armed with guns from the OTC, master and pupil end up shooting some of the attendees at a conference on international peace taking part at said chateau, kidnapping the Comtesse – who turns out to be no Comtesse at all – and blowing up a van full of French cops, bringing down on themselves the full wrath of the French state.
1984 – Wilt On High – Third outing for lecturer in Liberal Studies, Henry Wilt who, through a series of typically ridiculous misunderstandings, finds himself, first of all suspected of being a drug smuggler and so bugged by the police; then captured and interrogated on a US air base where he is delivering an innocuous lecture, on suspicion of being a Russian spy; before, in a frenzied climax, the camp is besieged by a monstrous regiment of anti-nuke mothers and news crews.
1995 – Grantchester Grind – The sequel to Porterhouse Blue, following the adventures of the senior college fellows as they adopt various desperate strategies to sort out Porterhouse College’s ailing finances, climaxing with the appointment of a international drug mafiosi as the new Master.
1996 – The Midden – Miss Marjorie Midden discovers a naked ex-City banker trussed in bedsheets hidden in her rural farmhouse, The Midden, and then the ancestral hall she owns under attack from the demented forces of nearby Scarsgate police force led by their corrupt chief constable Sir Arnold Gonders, in a blistering satire on the corruption and greed of post-Thatcher Britain.
2004 – Wilt in Nowhere – Fourth novel about the misadventures of Henry Wilt in which his wife Eva and the 14-year-old quads ruin the life of Uncle Wally and Auntie Joanie over in the States, while Wilt goes on an innocent walking holiday only to be accidentally knocked out and find himself implicated in a complicated murder-arson-child pornography scandal.
2009 – The Gropes – Driven out of his mind by his wife, Vera’s, sentimental fantasies, timid bank manager Horace Wiley pretends he wants to murder their teenage son Esmond, who is therefore hustled off to safety by Vera’s brother, Essex used-car dealer, Albert Ponson. Albert gets the teenage boy so drunk that his wife, Belinda, leaves him in disgust – locking their bungalow’s internal and external doors so securely that Albert has to call the police to get released with disastrous results, while Belinda drives the unconscious Esmond with her back to her ancestral home, the gloomy Grope Hall in remote Northumberland where – to the reader’s great surprise – they fall in love and live happily ever after.
2010 – The Wilt Inheritance – Sharpe’s last novel, the fifth and final instalment of the adventures of Polytechnic lecturer Henry Wilt, his naggy wife, Eva, and their appalling teenage daughters, all of whom end up at the grotesque Sandystones Hall in North Norfolk, where Wilt is engaged to tutor the lady of the manor’s psychotic teenage son, and Eva gets caught up in complications around burying dead Uncle Henry, whose body the quads steal from the coffin and hide in the woods with dire consequences that even they don’t anticipate.

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.

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