When Eight Bells Toll by Alistair MacLean (1966)

Alistair MacLean (1922-87) wrote some 26 novels, all action or adventure stories. The first, HMS Ulysses (1955) is the best, because most closely based on his own service in the Second World War on Royal Navy convoys to Russia. The next two, The Guns of Navarone and South By Java Head, are also WWII adventures with a strong naval element. Only with The Last Frontier (1959) did he branch out into the thriller genre which was to be a central strand of all his later work. 11 years after the first, in 1966, he published his 11th novel, When Eight Bells Toll. A brisk 200-page thriller, it grips right from the famous opening page where the ‘hero’ describes the devastating power of the Peacemaker Colt, before revealing that one is pointing at him as he is thinking.

The first-person narrator is Philip Calvert, allegedly the best man in the British Secret Service, and he is on the track of a ruthless gang who are hijacking ships laden with gold or jewels off the British coast. Their trail has led him to the wild seas off the western isles of Scotland and it is here that the nailbiting sequence of events unfolds. Since each chapter is headed with precise times we know the action starts at dusk on Monday and ends at dawn on Friday.

It has what Rider Haggard referred to as grip. The opening paragraph seizes you and – whoosh! – you’re off on a rollercoaster.

Sense of humour Slightly surprising – the hero keeps up a steady patter of jokes, one-liners and self-deprecating asides which give a semblance of plausibility to his character. He likes verbal jokes created by repeating phrases with changes of sense, or for comic affect. Reminds me of Raymond Chandler. Very unlike modern thriller writers who tend to be unrelentingly grim, taut, underwritten.

After a while I shipped the oars and started up the outboard. Or tried to start it up. Outboards always work perfectly for me, except when I’m cold, wet, and exhausted. Whenever I really need them, they never work. So I took to the stubby oars again and rowed and rowed and rowed, but not for what seemed longer than a month. I arrived back at the Firecrest at ten to three in the morning.

Physical punishment Like Marlowe, like Bond, like all protagonists in this genre, the male hero is repeatedly beaten, drowned, shot, strangled etc to within an inch of his life. But after a stiff whiskey, gets up to resume the fight against the bad guys.

Convoluted plot Endings are hard. Like many a Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie story it’s better to travel hopefully, your mind confused by the multiple clues and red herrings – than to arrive in the often rather banal light of day. In the last ten pages of 8 Bells there are more twists, turns and reversals than a fairground ride and eventually it leaves all believability far behind. Shame, but unnecessary convolution is as much a part of the genre as lovingly detailed descriptions of guns and anything with a motor (cars, boats etc).

When I was a boy aged 10, 11, 12 I read all the James Bond books and all the Alistair MacLean novels then published. For some reason MacLean’s decline set in as I myself lost interest, with the dodgy Way To Dusty Death (1973) and then the terrible Breakheart Pass (1974). A few years later I was reading Joyce and Solzhenitsyn. Rereading this novel is not only a guilty pleasure, but sets off little bursts of memory, reviving my own self at 12, and the excitement and energy of innocent boyhood.

The movie

Five years after its publication, in 1971, the book was made into a movie starring a young Anthony Hopkins with a truly dire score by the composer Angela Morley and some very bad acting all round. (This was the same year as the Bond movie Diamonds Are Forever and on TV the Roger Moore & Tony Curtis vehicle, The Persuaders). Many of MacLean’s novels were made into movies, though only a few are worth actively seeking out: Ice Station Zebra, Guns of Navarone, The Satan Bug, Where Eagles Dare.

The first 16 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

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 missile.
1962 The Golden Rendezvous – first officer John Carter defeats a gang who hijack his ship with a nuclear weapon.
1962 The Satan Bug – agent Pierre Cavell defeats an attempt to blackmail the government using a new supervirus.
1963 Ice Station Zebra – MI6 agent Dr John Carpenter defeats spies who have secured Russian satellite photos of US missile bases, destroyed the Arctic research base of the title and nearly sink the nuclear sub sent to rescue them.

1966 When Eight Bells Toll – British Treasury secret agent Philip Calvert defeats a gang who have been hijacking ships carrying bullion off the Scottish coast.
1967 Where Eagles Dare
1968 Force 10 From Navarone
1969 Puppet on a Chain – interpol agent Paul Sherman battles a sadistic heroin-smuggling gang in Amsterdam.
1970 Caravan to Vaccarès
1971 Bear Island – Doctor Marlowe deals with murders aboard a ship full of movie stars and crew.

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