Alistair MacLean Essay - MacLean, Alistair (Vol. 3)

MacLean, Alistair (Vol. 3)

MacLean, Alistair 1922–

MacLean is an enormously popular Scots novelist, best known for The Guns of Navarrone and Ice Station Zebra.

HMS Ulysses [MacLean's first novel] sets the pattern for the [subsequent] MacLean adventures: a hero, a band of men, hostile climate, a ruthless enemy and as often as not in the later books a Judas figure who almost upsets the mission. The pace of the narrative consists in keeping the hero or heroes struggling on in the face of adversity. There's little time for reflection upon anything which does not contribute to the race: no characterization, merely the odd caricature; no subtlety of plot, anything other than a fatuous one would get in the way. So the refinements are discarded and the narrative is a sprint from start to finish. Bearing in mind the demands of his narrative pace, MacLean now concocts his heroes, the central figures and the ideal men who fit the part and pattern of the story….

MacLean's undoubted popularity presupposes the existence of … a relationship [between the minds of readers and author]. (As he himself would be the first to say it is hardly to do with specifically literary taste.) The joint aspirations of MacLean and his readership are general ones. Obviously they share a nostalgia for war even if it is supposed to be a hatred of it. They clearly share a penchant for fantasies about outdoor adventure…. [They] welcome the clear definition between good and evil; a definition made in fantasy worlds where there are no shades of grey. To beat evil is the aim and that's that. A liking for violence is in evidence. But … there are plenty of other books which are far more violent than MacLean's….

There is one further characteristic of the rapport between Alistair MacLean and his readers which is perhaps one of the best clues to its nature. It is extremely difficult to define it with precision. But it seems to be the sense of a shared familiarity with English middle-class respectability and bonhomie. It appears quite frequently in references to what are really domestic matters: insurance, tea with the vicar, middle-class vernacular and the 'managerial type'….

Knowingness, courage, professionalism, nostalgia for wartime heroics, the fight against exhaustion and a feel for things middle-class are matters which form the basis of the contract between Alistair MacLean and his readers. These are conveyed at high speed with good manners throughout the world in English and in translations of that 'clear, direct prose that locks the reader straight into a series of nerve-shattering alarms'—a view which takes no account of the repetitions and the misused assembly kits of adjectives and adverbs and any old word glue that comes to hand.

Like a conjuror Alistair MacLean says of himself 'I'm an entertainer and I think a good one.' The act is triumphantly middle-class: no time to talk of sex, very little to engage in it and violence is all right if you hurry along safe in the knowledge it's being employed by the good chaps. Of course, booze is all right too. (It's referred to, often more than once, in all thirteen chapters of Bear Island.)

And it is the conjuror we are left alone with at last.

He wears no mask. He is alone on stage with his tricks, his speaking dummies, his pack of cards and a few fat rabbits. We know his act pains him; he calls himself an arrogant bastard, a very stupid man. He wonders whether the audience will remember his face or even his tricks. (Can you remember the face of the last conjuror you saw? Can you recall his tricks?)

But there isn't time to wonder and it really doesn't matter—the audience is expectant and in the wings the accountant whom we had almost forgotten whispers 'Go on! Go on! Go on!'

Reg Gadney, "Middle-Class Heroics: The Novels of Alistair MacLean," in London Magazine, December-January, 1972–73, pp. 94-105.