MacLean, Alistair (Vol. 13)
MacLean, Alistair 1922–
MacLean is an enormously popular Scots novelist, screenplay writer, and short story writer best known for The Guns of Navarone and Ice Station Zebra. Although he has been criticized for flat characterization and an occasional tendency to overwrite, MacLean is a master of the taut suspense novel, pitting man against an adverse environment and his own internal terrors. He has also written under the pseudonym Ian Stuart. (See also CLC, Vol. 3, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 57-60.)
I found [Caravan to Vaccares] childish schoolboy stuff. I can only think [Mr. MacLean] was having a slack moment, for Bear Island has all the tight construction, high adventure and excitement we really expect from [him]. But funnily enough, despite the setting—a charter ship with film crew on the Arctic seas and what must be the most inhospitable island of all time, and despite the tremendous violence of the action, Mr. MacLean and Miss [Agatha] Christie are siblings under the skin.
Quite simply it is who is doing what and why. The familiar formula is, like The Mousetrap, a collection of odd people in isolation. Murders happen (I lost count after a while) and gradually we understand that much mightier things are at stake than simple personal animosity. As always, Mr. MacLean's idea of women is fairly rudimentary, but the men are all fully developed and more than commonly tough. Technical knowledge—of ships and geography—is powerfully demonstrated, and overall Bear Island packs a great punch. (p. 46)
Roger Baker, in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Roger Baker, 1971; reprinted with permission), November, 1971.
[The Way to Dusty Death] is a sad affair. Slackly written, uncompelling and uninventive, it lacks even the virtue of mere professionalism. The story concerns a formula-one driver who pretends to be a lush...
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Alistair MacLean is one of the best suspense writers around, and [Breakheart Pass]—in which, one by one, the passengers on an Army supply train in the Old West are found murdered—picks up speed rapidly and maintains it to the last page. In fact, it is such a good suspense novel that it's a pity it is not a better novel. The characters never do anything out of character, but they seem to be without thoughts, passions, even the little tics that can make a flat character come to life. Furthermore, the setting—the American West c. 1870—seems to have been chosen simply for the convenience of the plot: Mr. MacLean pretty well gives up the attempt at local color after the first chapter, and the characters speak with very English accents. A good book to read on a plane—or, more appropriately, a train—but not to read more than once. (p. 121)
Linda Bridges, in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1975; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), January 31, 1975.
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One of the manifestations of encephalitis lethargica, or sleepy sickness, is a condition known as akinesia. The sufferer presents a deceptive surface of passivity or inertia; but his difficulty in moving is in fact the product of an unceasing inner struggle…. It is a condition which can be simulated to a remarkable degree by reading Alistair MacLean. A coarsely thrustful plot impels you forward; a coarsely imprecise style retards you; and the result, even though you formally progress through the pages, is a frustrating state of tension, the slow downward psychological spiral of the encephalitic, and a craving for a gram of LDOPA….
Mr. MacLean's style [in The Golden Gate], it must be said, does not normally pursue … forthrightness. It is based on the British Tommy principle, namely that the best form of toughness is modest toughness, and also on the hyperbole of understatement and ironic negative. In this version of language, concepts like 'stupid' or 'unflappable' translate into 'could not be classed among the intellectually gifted', and 'not one much given to brow-mopping'. My favourite moment of all comes when the non-brow-mopping Revson is accused by smashing April Wednesday (a film part here for Tuesday Weld?) of being a cold fish. 'My eyes,' he retorts indignantly, 'are not those of a cod.' (p. 235)
Julian Barnes, in New Statesman (© 1976 The Statesman &...
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Robert A. Lee
MacLean's first novel, H.M.S. Ulysses , though substantially different from his other books, does contain many elements typical of his later work. Certain aspects of structure reappear in all the books, and basic character types (such as the "rugged individualist") recur time and again in each of the novels. Ulysses' uniqueness lies in its semidocumentary nature…. Even in his first novel, MacLean has an acute sense of plot and structure, and it is clear that he understands quite well the consequences of action as defined by the necessities of story-telling.
This particular book is significant in other ways, too. The use of the sea as a character in itself is typical of MacLean's best work. The Atlantic storm is as terrifying and destructive as the German submarines and bombers. Man must not only combat other men, but also the impersonal forces of nature. MacLean is obviously following the old dictum, "write about what you know."… The secret of MacLean's success as a suspense writer seems to lie in this juxtaposition of lone individual, enemy, and hostile natural forces. The resourceful man of action can triumph in the end, if his will and courage are strong enough; the rest will fall by the wayside. MacLean's heroes are strong men, who know themselves, and see the weaknesses in others; they survive because they want to.
This early apprentice piece differs from his later work in another respect....
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Alistair MacLean has … [little] emotional involvement in his tales. Many years and many books ago, he found a selling vein; and he has been opening it, bloodily, ever since. But Mr MacLean's violence has no real suggestion of pain; it is the 'Bang bang you're dead' violence of children's games. The impression is heightened by the constant reversals and counter-reversals of fortune, captures, escapes and recaptures, that keep the plot steaming along: either Mr MacLean's supermen are stunningly incompetent, or we are in the convention of Cowboys and Indians.
There is probably little point in running through the plot of Seawitch: those who read Alistair MacLean will read it, and those who do not need no encouragement. This time, it's about oil: the central protagonist, Lord Worth, is everyone's fantasy of a ruthless and arrogant billionaire (brought down a peg or two in the end, of course); and there is the usual cast of inhumanly skilful and talented villains and heroes, each with his identifying trait to minimise confusion. The only outstanding question is whether there may not be a sense in which fantasy violence is more vicious than violence which is at least conscious of suffering. (p. 23)
Nick Totton, in The Spectator (© 1977 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), January 22, 1977.
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A veteran of more than 20 novels, not all of them as bad as ["Goodbye California"], Mr. MacLean lectures us a bit about "Mankind's morbidly avid love of vicarious doom and disaster." I wish he wouldn't, because it is the source of his reknown. He has here dictated a script designed for those who do not treat the original "King Kong" as 30's camp. After California is saved, Ryder's wife, Susan, utters these words about the world-destroying villain: "Okay, he was a fiend. But he was a kindly fiend."
Most of us will prefer "'Twas beauty killed the beast." If this seems harsh judgment of a piece of mere merchandise, I can only defend myself by quoting what the author says about Professor Aachen, one of the victims in his book: "A broken spirit can take a long time to heal." (pp. 10, 39)
Herbert Gold, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 12, 1978.
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