Friday, October 28, 2016

FFB: Four by Alistair MacLean

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 Chainand South by Java Head.




19 comments:

August West said...

My frenzy into reading adventure novels started with Alistair MacLean and Jack Higgins.

George said...

I'm with August West: Alistair MacLean and Jack Higgins first fired up my love for High Adventure fiction. When those two writers were on their game, High Adventure soared!

James Reasoner said...

I read WHERE EAGLES DARE when I was in high school and immediately set out to read everything else of Maclean's that had been published up until that time. I kept reading each new book as it came out for a number of years afterward, even when they weren't very good. There were still occasional flashes of what they once were. I thought SAN ANDREAS was the best of the later books. Eventually I did give up, and there are a few I never attempted. I'll bet I'd enjoy rereading those early ones, though. FEAR IS THE KEY is probably my favorite.

Jeffrey Meyerson said...

Great review! I read a bunch of MacLeans early on (and saw several movies) and remember getting some of his later books when I joined the Mystery Guild in the mid-1970s. After one of your previous reviews I picked up copies of NIGHT WITHOUT END and FEAR IS THE KEY, but they are still sitting on the shelf waiting to be read.

Jeffrey Meyerson said...

I see that Amazon has a lot of MacLeans on Kindle for $1.99 each.

Richard Robinson said...

I saw the film of ICE STATION ZEBRA at the (then new) Cinerama Theater in Hollywood just after it came out. The visuals were whiz-bang, of course, but I don't remember much (that happens a lot these days) about the plot.

Anonymous said...

I don't read many thrillers anymore, but I do read war novels written by veterans. I re-read "HMS Ulysses" a few years ago, and it's one of the best war novels I've ever picked up. I don't think I'll ever forget the final scene. "Ulysses" appeared to be drawn from MacLean's own World War II experiences in the British Navy, and, as a war novel, ranks right up there with Monsarrat's "The Cruel Sea."

That led me to re-read "South by Java Head," which, like "Ulysses," I had enjoyed as a teenager. Unfortunately, it had not aged as well, being more of a traditional thriller than a realistic depiction of war.

Bill Crider said...

Some think HMS ULYSSES is MacLean's best novel.

Mike Stamm said...

For my money, MacLean's two best are H.M.S. ULYSSES and THE SECRET WAYS, but I remember enjoying many of his others, particularly NIGHT WITHOUT END, FEAR IS THE KEY, THE BLACK SHRIKE and THE SATAN BUG (another one originally published as by "Ian Stuart"). They started to get routine and formulaic in the '70s, probably with FORCE 10 FROM NAVARONE, but MacLean wrote a lot of terrific books.

Bill Crider said...

I love THE SECRET WAYS. It was the first one I read, and I bought it immediately after seeing the movie, which I also like a lot.

Don Coffin said...

I read a lot of McLean back in the 1960s/early 1970s, at the same time I was reading a bunch of books by Andrew Garve (http://www.stopyourekillingme.com/G_Authors/Garve_Andrew.html). At some point they sort of fused in my mind, and I had trouble remembering which of them wrote which books. Been years--probably 40--since I've read anything by either of them.

Barry Ergang said...

Of the six MacLean novels I've read to date--and those decades ago--Where Eagles Dare is my favorite, as is the film based upon this of his novels. I once saw the film version of Ice Station Zebra and thought it sluggish and lame.

Dust-gathering is Bear Island, a hard-copy of which maybe someday I'll get to.

As I mentioned in a recent review of The Tightrope Men (https://kevintipplescorner.blogspot.com/2016/08/ffb-review-tightrope-men-1973-by.html, I've long given the edge to Desmond Bagley over MacLean for a faster-moving descriptive style. Neither author, however, should be overlooked by fans of high-action thillers.

Bill Crider said...

I like Bagley a lot, too. And Jack Higgins and a number of others.

Jeffrey Meyerson said...

Of course, Howard Hughes loved Ice Station Zebra.

RHovey, CA said...

Never been an adventure reader, but enjoyed most of the films made from the books, especially Where Eagles Dare. Great review, as Jeff said!

Big Dave said...

You reviewed several of my favorite MacLean novels, but The Secret Ways is my #1. (It spends some time on Cold War politics rather than just slam-bang action; I think that adds flavor.) See my reviews of all his novels - and of many of the films based on them - at my fan site, AlistairMacLean.com.

Bill Crider said...

Enjoyed your reviews!

Ron Smyth said...

I think I've read all the Macleans, The Golden Rendezvous getting my nod as the best of them. He was my favourite writer of thrillers followed closely by Desmond Bagley and Geoffrey Jenkins.

Bill Crider said...

I'm very fond of The Golden Rendezvous. And I like Bagley and Jenkins a lot.