I got started rereading Alistair MacLean and had so much fun I couldn't stop. This was at least the third time I've read The Black Shrike and the second for Where Eagles Dare and Ice Station Zebra. Probably the third for Fear Is the Key. It's my opinion that when MacLean was on top of his game, as he was in these books, nobody was better at writing adventure novels with mystery elements and plot twists galore. There are enough twists in these two books to put a pretzel factory to shame.
The Black Shrike was orginally published in England as Dark Crusader by Ian Stuart. The Stuart name was kept on its original publication under the new title, but soon MacLean was so famous that his real name was put on the cover. When eight scientists disappear, along with their wives, after answering a classified ad, British agent John Bentall is sent in answer to the ninth ad, along with Mary Hopewell, an agent posing as his wife. Following swiftly are kidnapping, escape, and rescue. Or is all what it seems to be? Of course it isn't. It never is in a MacLean novel, but you'll never guess what's really going on unless somebody (like me) mentions it. Adventures and skullduggery follow, with plenty of clues if you're alert. But no matter how alert you are, you'll never guess the ending. Well, I didn't.
I didn't guess the ending of Where Eagles Dare, either, even though [HUGE SPOILER ALERT] it's the same ending as in The Black Shrike [END OF HUGE SPOILER ALERT]. In this one, British agent John Smith leads a hastily assembled [PARENTHETICAL SPOILERS FOLLOW] (or is it?) band of agents to rescue a British general (or is he?) from an impregnable (ha!) castle fortress [END OF PARENTHETICAL SPOILERS]. Double agents abound. There's even a triple agent. Extreme cold and many heroic adventures ensue. Just read it. It's even better than the movie.
Fear Is the Key is set in Florida and the Gulf of Mexico. The plot is so wildly preposterous that I'm not even going to try to cover it. It has wild chases, a hurricane sweeping over an oil rig in the Gulf, more chases, and more twists than even the usual MacLean book. Great stuff, one of my favorites of his work.
Ice Station Zebra is an English country house mystery set on a nuclear submarine. You probably think I'm joking, and I am. A little. It really is an adventure novel, but it's also a mystery with a (mostly) closed setting, and there's even a gathering of the suspects so that the villain can be exposed at the end. As with all of MacLean's books, the setting is quite important and is described minutely. I don't know how much MacLean faked things, but in all his books I'm absolutely convinced by the details. MacLean does cold weather better than just about anyone, and this book is a fine example, as is Where Eagles Dare. My cold-weather favorite, though, is Night without End, which I should also reread soon.
If you're looking for depth of character, look elsewhere. MacLean's heroes are stalwart men (often named John; in fact several of these books have at least two characters with that name), able to bear punishments and wounds that would put anyone else in intensive care. They're witty in moments of stress that would require a double dose of Valium for anyone else. They don't need sleep. They're competent in everything they do, unless MacLean needs for them to make a slip. They're always the smartest person in the room, unless MacLean needs for them to make mistakes that cost the lives of others, as happens in several books. And they never, ever let you in on a tenth of what they know, although they keep hinting at how much more there is to what's going on than they're telling. Anyway, if you're looking for sheer fun, which is what pleasure reading is all about, you can't go wrong with the early works of MacLean. Later on he wrote books sadly unworthy of his legacy, but for a while he was as good as it gets.
For other MacLean reviews, here are my comments on The Satan Bug, Puppet on a Chain, and South by Java Head.