Alistair MacLean MacLean, Alistair (Vol. 13) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Roger Baker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 in order to trap those who are arranging fatal accidents on the track and causing him to be blamed. The narrative's passé jargon ("Will he sing?" "Like a linnet. If he talks, the police will forget that they ever saw his gun and knife …" etc.) and other lapses ("libel" rather than "slander" for spoken defamation) do nothing to assist a banal plot and pasteboard characters. The cars may be custom-built, but the book looks like just another assembly-line job. (p. 1045)

The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), September 14, 1973.

Linda Bridges

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Julian Barnes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), February 20, 1976.

Robert A. Lee

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

MacLean's first novel, H.M.S. Ulysses [1955], 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. Ulysses has no central character or hero; the primary forces in the book are the ship, its crew, the enemy, and the sea/storm, all of which are impersonal to some degree. The point-of-view shifts back and forth among several figures, none of them more significant than the others. (pp. 5-6)

[A] brief rendition of the more prominent characters in the book delineates MacLean's difficulty in creating believable persons in his fiction. Too many of his characters are stereotypes: ship captains are strong and wise, able to unite their disgruntled sailors at a moment's notice; doctors are gentle, sage, and kind; brutal working-class sailors suddenly become noble patriots in the hour of need. And, since MacLean himself has popularized this particular kind of novel, it is easy to feel, as one reads through many of his books, that we've seen these people before, have experienced these scenes before, in a removed sort of deja vu. MacLean seems to have realized the samenesses in his books himself, for he has consciously tried to expand and diversify his fiction as his writing career has developed; unfortunately, his attempts to get away from the three basic settings of his novels, the sea, the war, and the Arctic, have generally proved to be failures, and in the end he always returns to the things he knows best.

Ulysses is also flawed in another sense. While the linear structure of the book is necessary to the plot, it also lends itself to cliched action; one by inevitable one, we meet nearly all the possible hazards, natural and man-made, of the typical sea story….

What saves the novel from complete disaster is MacLean's ability to create memorable scenes, filled with extraordinary violence and bitterness. (p. 7)

The Guns of Navarone (1957) is MacLean's most famous and popular novel, and it was the first of his books to be made into a movie. In many ways, it stands as the prototype for all of his most successful work. Like Ulysses, the book is set during the second World War; however, MacLean has abandoned the documentary trappings of the earlier book …, and has increased the emphasis on individual character, so obviously lacking in his first novel. (p. 9)

Because of its quick-moving, linear plot structure, and partially because it failed to focus on any one character, Ulysses contained little development of human emotion or motivation. The characters merely reacted to the stimuli around them. In Navarone … MacLean begins building complex pictures of human feelings, even though these are necessarily relegated to the demands of plot and action. Early in the book he develops a theme which will dominate much of his fiction. The scaling of the cliff of Navarone is the high point of the novel, and, in fact, one of the great scenes out of the entire corpus of his work. As usual, MacLean paints an extraordinary visual picture of the perils and danger accompanying the climb up Navarone's sheer rock walls. He does this not by focusing on Mallory or Andrea, both of whom are expert climbers, but by concentrating on Andy Stevens, who, though "a first-class" mountaineer, is young and inexperienced. The motive he stresses is fear…. The analysis of Stevens' fear is somewhat oversimplified. The cause, says MacLean, is Stevens' loss of self-respect, due to two acts of hesitation while fighting the enemy in actions prior to this climb. The inner battle of the man lies in the struggle between this loss of pride and the necessity to complete a mission on which 1200 lives depend. Thus Stevens climbs blindly upward. (pp. 10-11)

In this novel, the traitor is fairly obvious to the careful reader, but in later books MacLean will become adept at disguising the villain more carefully. In fact, as the novels grow more complex, the traitor-in-the-midst becomes the central mystery of many of the books: the adventure gives way to the puzzle story. In Navarone, however, Panayis is so sadistic and filled with hate, and so described in terms of evilness and viciousness that it comes as no surprise when he is found to be the double agent in Mallory's group. He meets, of course, a suitable fate.

[The crucial scene in the book, the ruining of the fortress] … does not seem to have quite the impact that the cliffscaling had, perhaps because the focus in the earlier sections was on specific individuals, and their reactions to a tense and dangerous situation, while in the later parts, the action is on a grander scale, and seems to move ahead almost on its own accord. This is a key to MacLean's work. As he develops his writing skills, he becomes most effective in those scenes where the individual hero is either struggling with himself, struggling with others, or struggling with nature. The key battle is man against himself.

Although it is not his best book, The Guns of Navarone, MacLean's first real novel, is important in setting the stage for the later (and better) books. All the elements are present in this novel: the inner struggle of the heroes, the deception at the center of the plot structure, the gradual development of characters capable of feeling complex human emotions and motivations. The later books will simply elaborate on them. At the same time, it is also evident that MacLean is still learning his craft. For all of the book's driving action and grand suspense, it contains a certain artificiality that is almost inhuman. The dialogue often sounds like speeches staged between automatons, and we seldom feel that we are really seeing characters thinking their innermost thoughts. Everything is exaggerated: the guns are the biggest guns around; Mallory is the greatest mountaineer available; Andrea is the bravest and most indomitable of men, minor characters and situations suffer from excesses…. (pp. 12-13)

The characters [of South by Java Head (1958)] are more interesting than those in his two earlier books. John Nicolson, for example, has a human dimension rarely seen in Navarone. Similarly, the ancillary characters are just offbeat enough to move them out of the sterotypes that many adventure novelists, MacLean included, are always in danger of creating. The action is fast-paced, the descriptions of action well-handled. The most interesting facet of the book is the thread of deceit that runs throughout the novel. MacLean had used character deception before …, but this is the first time that he has consciously employed the technique to further the suspense of the book. At least four of the major characters in Java are eventually shown to be something other than what they pretended to be at the beginning of the book. This, coupled with the many twists and turns MacLean throws at his readers as the group runs from the Japanese, is captured and freed, recaptured and refreed, becomes MacLean's standard technique in most of his later books. He continually attempts to deceive the reader in an elaborate masquerade which is, when successful, a masterful way of maintaining the suspense of the story, and when unsuccessful, becomes mere trickery for its own sake. His best books are those which keep the reader guessing until the very end of the story.

MacLean's philosophy in these three early novels is conservative, nationalistic, and oriented towards an acceptance of authority. To some extent, this probably is due to the subject matter of the books; each takes place during the second World War, and military necessity demands the following of orders without question. In all three books, it is clear that the allies are the "good guys," and the Germans the "bad." MacLean does make some effort, though, to delineate certain levels of performance in each group: not all Germans are evil per se, and not all Britons are heroes. (pp. 17-18)

MacLean's emphasis has shifted significantly through the course of these three novels, from collective action to individual will. And while the essentially conservative values of society are not really questioned here—the allies are always right—the maintenance of these values is left in the hands of the individual working on the fringes of a society that really doesn't approve such actions. In short, MacLean is working towards and within a common literary tradition, the definition of literary heroism as the conflict between an uneasy accommodation of private action and the public good. (p. 18)

[In his next five novels] MacLean focuses very directly on either an indomitable secret agent (the hero of the novel), a first person narrator, or sometimes a combination of both. Character has superseded action per se. In addition, the war has been temporarily abandoned; evidently, MacLean felt he was getting into a rut, because he doesn't come back to the war milieu for quite some time. In the sequence of five novels beginning with The Secret Ways [1959], the scene shifts from Eastern Europe, and the smuggling of a scientist out of Hungary, to the Arctic, to a Pacific island, and finally, in The Golden Rendezvous, to a luxury liner on the Caribbean. These novels represent MacLean at the height of his powers. (p. 19)

[The Secret Ways] is a mediocre novel, but notable for its introduction of the secret agent into MacLean's fiction…. Other than one piece of daring-do on the top of a speeding railroad train, a scene which anticipates a more successful version in Breakheart Pass [1974], and an uninspiring bit of torture when Reynolds is captured, the action is rather tame for MacLean, and the novel is comparatively insipid. (pp. 19-20)

MacLean is also more loquacious than usual; several speeches go on for pages at a time, completely discarding the pretence of a normal conversation. They seem to have been inserted into the book merely to inform the reader of MacLean's version of history. (p. 20)

By any standard, The Secret Ways is one of MacLean's weaker efforts, and although it contains certain values that are interesting in their relationship to his other writings, they do not save the...

(The entire section is 4738 words.)

Nick Totton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Herbert Gold

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.