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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.)
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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.
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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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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.
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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. 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 , 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 , 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 book from being over-written, over-long, and probably over-praised.
In sharp contrast, Night Without End (1960) is the first of MacLean's novels to use first person narration. And, excepting Ulysses, it is also the first of his books to be set in the Arctic, to which he has returned time and again in more recent works. For the first time, MacLean uses a physician as the central figure in the book, a technique he will employ most successfully in Bear Island. But Night ranks as one of MacLean's best books for other reasons: the combination of an exciting, imaginative plot, interesting characters, the antagonism of the Arctic climate, and the skillful masquerading of the real purposes of people left to their own devices. (pp. 21-2)
MacLean manages [descriptions of the harsh Arctic climate] in exceptional fashion. The hostile natural terrain is presented with a mixture of factual data and rhetorical dynamics that is credible, impressive, and inspiring. (p. 22)
The essence of MacLean's best work is found in the mixture of natural and human terrors. He throws together an extremely hostile climate with an equally malevolent group of people, and the result is fear, terror, a sense of impending death, and high suspense, all of which is communicated to the reader through his jumble of characters. This book is a particularly fine example of how MacLean meshes the two disparate elements to produce a unified whole. The characters are never allowed to sit still, except for dramatic effect, and by inference, neither is the reader. (pp. 22-3)
The Golden Rendezvous (1962) brings to a conclusion a period of writing which includes some of MacLean's most successful and effective books…. The specific mystery is kept well-hidden until midway through the book, although the suspense doesn't really approach that of Fear or Night. As he has done before, MacLean titles each chapter with sequential time frames, to stress the linear nature of the plot, and increase tension. (pp. 28-9)
The Golden Rendezvous is competent but redundant. Taken on its own terms, it works as a taut, suspenseful adventure story, good for a couple of hours reading, but no more. The feeling of self-jeopardy on the part of the hero is present, but not strongly stressed. The book merely continues the techniques and inventions that MacLean has developed in earlier fictions. (p. 29)
Strangely, the specific facts seem to matter very little in [Ice Station Zebra (1963)]. As the submarine makes its journey under the ice, and the details begin unfolding, the hazards of the mission are emphasized through a series of mishaps. The romantic lure of the Arctic, and the unique situation of a nuclear submarine crawling beneath the undersea mounds of ice hold the reader's attention longer than the plot might warrant in other circumstances. MacLean employs the natural forces of the cold climate to good advantage. The submarine surfaces close to the camp, and the race is on, through a blinding snow storm, to rescue the men of Ice Station Zebra. On the return voyage, a fire breaks out on the sub while it is still below the ice cap, and unable to surface; the threat of death is ever-present. While this is not MacLean's best fusion of natural hazards and man-made antagonism, certain scenes come close to his peak; the fire, for example, was set by a traitor as vulnerable to death as his potential victims. And once set, the flames are very difficult to control. The character of Dr. Carpenter shows the same judicious use of the first-person narrator that MacLean has developed in the past: Carpenter reveals just enough of the plot to entice the reader on, and at the same time maintains a sympathetic personality through whom we can view the perils as they're thrown at us. The fact that the villain of the book turns out to be another doctor is a minor fillip that MacLean no doubt finds delightful. The American sailors are discreetly drawn, and as far from the standard novel cliches as MacLean can manage. The surprises are kept at arm's length until just before the end of the book, maintaining the suspense throughout. Even when the book becomes tired and overlong, the basic situations are so competently handled that they carry the day. Alistair MacLean has obviously developed a certain measure of confidence as a writer; the only question remaining, both to him and to us, is continuity of performance. Can he keep coming up with new and exciting ideas? (pp. 32-3)
MacLean is always in jeopardy of writing the same story over and over again. The basic suspense plot involves some kind of secret quest, the submission of the hero and his allies to various kinds of peril, and the resolution of the mystery simultaneously with the safe dominance of the hero. In addition, MacLean uses as his own special trademarks the threat of impersonal climatic forces, and confusion in the identities of heroes, villains and purposes during the course of plot development. But there are only a finite number of variations on these basic themes, and therefore the author must keep striving to present them and rearrange them in such a way that they seem new to the reader, and at least give the semblance of novelty. At times, MacLean is quite successful, making the new developments both interesting and necessary to the plot; in [When Eight Bells Toll (1966)], however, the shark fishermen seem rather out-of-place, more forced than logical, more invented for their novelty than really necessary to the development of the story. (pp. 34-5)
Where Eagles Dare (1967) shows that MacLean has learned a great deal about the art of writing in his preceding novels; this book is no simple war story. It combines the war setting with the secret agent milieu, and uses the deceit and duplicity technique that has become one of his familiar trademarks. There are not only double agents, but triple agents and quadruple agents. No one is what he seems…. All of this duplicity is revealed piecemeal in the MacLean fashion; the solution doesn't arrive until the end of the book. The apparent roles of the actors are sketched out at the beginning of the book, and their reality revealed at the end, providing a neat circular plot. The middle section of the novel deals with the infiltration of the castle, and a later attack on its walls, a scene reminiscent of The Guns of Navarone, and the assault on its impregnable fortress. In this book, the attack is accomplished more through disguise than outright assault, but the same basic theme is stressed in both. (pp. 35-6)
MacLean has carried his game of hide-and-seek about as far as it can be carried, and still remain explicable. The ploy works in this book: the repeated deceits and the large number of counter-agents build the tension to a high level, with constant twists and turns in the story line. The book is fast-paced, with plenty of action, and little opportunity for the casual reader to think too much about what he's reading. (p. 36)
Bear Island (1971) is quite possibly his finest achievement to date. The novel incorporates all the best elements of MacLean's standard themes and motifs. He returns to a first-person narrator, whose ostensible profession is that of a doctor. In reality, of course, he's a secret agent. MacLean seems to enjoy the physician character, having used it previously in several of his more successful novels, including Night Without End and Ice Station Zebra. And, once again, he returns to the Arctic settings that have done so well for him in the past. The first half of the novel deals with a journey on a boat, another situation MacLean always handles well. All of the elements are present, and they all combine beautifully into an organic whole.
Bear succeeds for other reasons as well, and the book reveals quite clearly how MacLean … manages to create dynamic scenes of suspense, tension, and mystery. The conversations and narrations balance each other out: each is just full enough to provide motivation for the characters, and the information necessary to keep the reader strung out, and not so long or rambling as to bore the reader, or make him lose the story line. The mystery is buried beneath a complex, twisting plot. As usual, the opening scene immediately grabs the reader's attention. We are suddenly on board a ship which is "coming apart at the seams" in an Arctic storm. The opening chapter introduces the characters in standard expository fashion. After the initial tensions of the storm have subsided, the Captain tells the passengers that the storm wasn't really that severe, although a number of the people have gotten seasick as a result. All of this is put into focus at the end of the first chapter, when the first death is discovered. MacLean also manages to drop hints that the first body won't be the last. (pp. 42-3)
MacLean's books work best when he allies evil and the natural forces of violence, when he makes the structure of his novels an undulation of tension, release, and tension, when he manages to twist his plots in such a way as to reveal parts of the mystery bit by bit, until a final stunning denouement at the end. When all these elements mesh together in one harmonious whole, the result is adventure writing at its best. No one understands these things better than MacLean himself, and his popularity is due completely to his total grasp of these techniques. Even his bad books read better than 99% of his competitors' works; at his best, no one else can touch him. His one serious problem has been and will continue to be lack of the right kind of novelty: as time goes on, he has obviously been making a serious effort to diversify his plots, and introduce new and exciting elements that will not give the reader a sense of deja vu. Ironically, the further he strays from what he knows, the sea, the Arctic wastes, the narrator-as-observor, the less successful his work has been; all of his best fiction have had one or more of these essential elements…. [His] latest books all represent attempts to break out of the mold, and all are more or less flawed. (pp. 46-7)
After Bear Island, MacLean made an obvious attempt to vary his standard formulas by introducing new locales, backgrounds, settings, and even characters. The four novels of this, his most recent period, are substantially different from anything else he has ever written, and are also, for the most part, less successful. There is a certain stiltedness to his recent work that makes it limp, rather than flow, along. In The Golden Gate, for example, he is obviously trying very hard to make his characters sound like real Americans; ultimately, however, the book doesn't work: you can research a locale, like the San Francisco setting of the book, but you can't really make it live unless you understand the people. The dialogue is off. The people in the novel stand out quite clearly as the creations of a middle-aged Briton; they neither sound nor act like Americans. This kind of problem turns up in each of the four books published since 1973. (p. 48)
Breakheart Pass, published in 1974, represents a unique departure for MacLean, his only work to date to be set in an historical framework (if we exclude his novels on the War). The action of the story takes place in the American West during the years following the Civil War, and has all the traditional trappings of the conventional western. Furthermore, MacLean attaches a cast of characters (with tongue-in-cheek descriptions of each) to the front of the book, enhancing its historical nature. (p. 50)
The style is curiously coy and forced, as if MacLean were trying to imitate historical American dialogue, but somehow had no real sense of how his characters should speak. Sometimes they sound like standard figures from sentimental Victorian fiction; on other occasions, the dialogue is indistinguishable from that in the rest of his work. In fact, the novel could equally well have been set in contemporary England as a nineteenth century America; there is nothing inherent in the plot, subject, or trappings of the novel that require it to be rendered in historical terms, unlike, for example, Michael Crichton's The Great Train Robbery, which could only exist in relationship to its insights to Victorian culture and society. (pp. 50-1)
This novel demonstrates MacLean's increasing contempt for society and its trappings, including societal leaders, laws, and civilization in general. The villains in these later books are invariably members of the power structure of the social groups they supposedly represent. The only thing that thwarts their nefarious schemes is the dauntless individual hero working on his own outside of official channels. Corruption, MacLean is saying, is inherent in bureaucratic structures, and the only way it can be cleaned out is by going around it, not through it. MacLean's philosophy has always tended towards right-wing radicalism, which is natural considering the themes of his books. But in the earlier novels, his heroes seemed to work with the officials representing the forces of good; now, it appears, one must go outside the law to accomplish the destruction of evil. Society can only be saved by purging it of the weak, the corrupt, and the stupid. MacLean's obvious contempt for bureaucracy is curious when matched against an equally obvious faith in the man on the white charger, who will somehow right every wrong, and lead society back to its proper course. (pp. 51-2)
MacLean's protagonists are so completely in charge in his later books, so confident, so aware of the villains' plans, so resourceful, that they hardly seem human anymore; the loss of their humanity is the loss of the suspense MacLean is trying so hard to achieve…. Breakheart Pass, although written with the usual MacLean competence, is no more than a minor adventure in his canon. (pp. 52-3)
[Circus (1975)] verges on science fiction in several respects: the formula is supposedly the key to the creation of antimatter; also, MacLean seems to be obsessed with hidden listening devices of every kind, including counter-listening devices, and counter-counter listening devices.
The circus itself is an extraordinary world, peopled with unusual character types, somewhat more eccentric than those MacLean usually deals with. But even the eccentrics verge on stereotype…. MacLean has created a comicstrip hero; perhaps for the first time in his fiction, all of his characters lack credibility. (pp. 53-4)
For the first time, the word ludicrous can be applied to a MacLean novel. Earlier books have contained scenes that stretched the reader's credibility, but they were so marvelously constructed, and so imaginatively handled, that they could be enjoyed for their own sake, without apologies to anyone. In this book, however, the style is so wooden, the plot so contrived, the tone so uncertain (serious or light?), the threats so weak, that we can only come to the conclusion that MacLean had no coherent plan for the novel, and just allowed it to develop willy-nilly, as it would. Rather than the tour de force it might have been, Circus ranks as one of the worst books MacLean has written thus far, a labored and rather casual effort from a writer whose talents are much greater than this piece of froth would lead us to guess.
The sense of near-burlesque that permeates Circus continues in his most recent book, The Golden Gate …. The plot is one of his most bizarre. A master criminal attempts to hold hostage the President of the United States, and two visiting royalty from the oil-producing countries of the Middle East. The ambush takes place on the Golden Gate Bridge. (p. 55)
[The] action drags badly through the middle part of the novel. After the initial kidnapping scene, there is a long stretch where the kidnappers negotiate with the law enforcement officials surrounding the bridge, and this part of the book moves quite slowly. By setting the scene on the Golden Gate, MacLean has limited the possibilities for action and suspense; the fast movement of a journey, with its attendant opportunities for terror, is completely lacking. In addition, the plot is so far-fetched as to be virtually unbelievable, and believability lies at the heart of giving the reader a sense of fear. (p. 56)
The Golden Gate is just another in a string of novels that were better left unwritten. (p. 57)
Alistair has obviously reached a crossroads. On the one hand, he remains as popular as ever, selling millions of books annually to a solidly-established audience. Quite clearly, however, his latest efforts are second-rate when compared to Bear Island or Night Without End, and one wonders whether he will ever regain the magic formula that worked so well in in his earlier novels. MacLean seems to have grown weary of the whole game; his last few books lack the imaginative spark that kept his early fiction moving, even when the plots were less than his best. (p. 58)
Robert A. Lee, in his Alistair MacLean: The Key Is Fear (copyright © 1976 by Robert A. Lee), The Borgo Press, 1976.
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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.