The Alistair MacLean Thread



  • BarbelBarbel ScotlandPosts: 36,890Chief of Staff

    As ever, enjoyable review @chrisno1.

    There are two additional books by author Sam Llewellyn which continue the adventures of Mallory, Miller, and Andrea - "Thunderbolt From Navarone" and "Storm Force From Navarone". I liked them, though the stories become increasingly unlikely.

  • Number24Number24 NorwayPosts: 21,964MI6 Agent
    edited January 4

    A question to all of you: if one MacLean novel would be made into a movie today, what novel would be the best? It doesn't matter if the book has been filmed already or not. I would probably choose "Night without end".

  • chrisno1chrisno1 LondonPosts: 3,393MI6 Agent

    That's a good shout @Number24 - to be different, I would choose The Dark Crusader. While I wasn't very kind to it in my review, I think it's basic story is ripe for adaptation and could be easily updated to the modern day with a few tweaks and rewrites.

  • chrisno1chrisno1 LondonPosts: 3,393MI6 Agent

    @Barbel those continuation Navarone's are on my 'interest' list, so I may get around to reading them. I remember when they came out and the fact you could find them on the shelves of most WH Smith's tells me they sold reasonably well. I suspect Navarone in the title helped.

  • chrisno1chrisno1 LondonPosts: 3,393MI6 Agent

    and continuing on with the next mid-period MacLean omnibus:



    Puppet on a Chain is another breakneck first-person narrative from Alistair Maclean, this time focussing on Interpol Narcotics Bureau agent Paul Sherman. I don’t know if Interpol has a Narcotics Bureau, but if it does the late sixties version may well have been policed by people as grim as Paul Sherman. A distinctly uncompromising and unsympathetic hero, Sherman is a typical MacLean hard man: widower, rough-house roller, droll humourist with a terribly condescending approach to women, contemptuous of authority, uncooperative, violent, lacking most normal social skills. He’s too self-absorbed to be realistic, rarely looking beyond his own immediate concerns. It is amazing to think Sherman graduated to the rank of Major when he’s so reluctant to accept assistance, delegate responsibility, share information and follow the rule of law. If this book was written today, it would need a lot of revision to make it conform in all kinds of manners. I don’t say this as a criticism of MacLean’s prose – he is writing very much of his time and the attitudes probably cosied to his audience – I am simply pointing out how uncompromisingly dreadful a personality Paul Sherman is. It is very difficult to like him. The hero’s case is not helped by performing feats of amazing physical endurance, yet missing several opportunities or clues which would have sped up the case and saved people’s lives.

    To briefly outline the plot, Sherman has been dispatched to Amsterdam on the hunt for an international heroin smuggling organisation. He arrives with two beautiful female operatives, Belinda and Maggie, but they may as well not be there at all. These are window dressing characters. Before Sherman even steps out of the airport, he is in trouble. His contact is assassinated, the police chief doesn’t like him and the staff at his hotel are all in cahoots with an unseen enemy. Twist follows twist and unlikely action follows unlikely action. There is a lot of crawling around on rooftops or up and down drainpipes and fire exits. Every stray character seems to be a lookout, suspect or drug dealer. Amsterdam is not painted in a very pleasant light, although curiously the city’s ‘seedier’ aspects are barely touched on. Maclean does try to inject a lure of sex into the story; for instance, one of the scenes is set in a strip club, others feature the two female colleagues constantly flirting with him, sometimes in their nighties. The author is so uncomfortable writing these ‘sex’ scenes it is almost embarrassing. To distract us and possibly himself, MacLean introduces eccentricities such as a woman-child beauty, a drug addicted layabout and his exotic dancer sister, a troop of lipsticked and beautiful nuns led by a white fleeced preacher, all of whom might or might not be peddling drugs. Elements of caricature keep occurring throughout, especially regarding the females, and this dulls the writing. There is a romantic revelation on the final pages which leaves a sour taste in this reader’s mouth.

    To balance the review, I should add that frequently MacLean’s dry comedy shines through, relieving tension and offering a slanted view of the world Paul Sherman inhabits. MacLean’s basic story is a strong one, even if the full tentacles of the villain’s plot seem to curl and pinch too much. Several scenes are startlingly good, notably a torture by church bells and the pitchfork killing of Sherman’s colleague Maggie. This latter was so tension wracked, I got a slight lump in my chest as the climax arrived; a very horrific moment which the reader knows is coming, so I was impressed Maclean’s descriptive talents kept me reading every word. Indeed there is plenty of violence and murder throughout, so Puppet on a Chain doesn’t disappoint as a modern thriller. However, while it isn’t a long book, I got the impression of an author bumping the story to increase his wordcount. For instance, there are three protracted climaxes, each one as unsuccessful as the next and a whole section devoted to some seabound antics with barges and helicopters and heroin.

    Aside from the dislikeable hero, MacLean’s other problem is another of his famous ‘reveal all’ chapters where Sherman explains to the Dutch police chief De Graff everything he, as a first person narrator, hasn’t bothered to tell the audience [us] and has never found the clues to suggest he could draw the lines between them. MacLean had a tendency to do this and it really isn’t fair on the reader, who feels tricked by the author. Puppet on a Chain beggars belief in this regard. When Sherman is being interrogated by the white haired Dr Goodbody and his wicked henchman Marcel, any decent thriller writer would seize this opportunity to inform the hero and the audience of the scurrilous operation, but MacLean just doesn’t bother, so important pieces of information – like the use for the hollowed out Bibles – is simply neglected altogether or shovelled into that all-encompassing explanatory chapter. It is very poor writing and by doing this Maclean betrays his inability to control and construct effective narrative plot lines.

    Having said all this, I did enjoy Puppet on a Chain. It has some sparkling descriptions and much visceral, incisive action, following on well, if haphazardly, from the previous three titles of MacLean’s mid-career phase. There isn’t anything to be ashamed of here, the authorial lapses are half-forgivable and half-understandable. The book was written with a prospective film in mind and that duly arrived the very next year but was an underwhelming offering. 

  • chrisno1chrisno1 LondonPosts: 3,393MI6 Agent

    and again, arriving with the speed of an Alistair MacLean written screenplay:

    PUPPET ON A CHAIN (1970)

    Boosted by the success of Ice Station Zebra and Where Eagles Dare, Alistair MacLean formed a production company with Geoffrey Reeve in 1969 where he would provide screenplays for Reeve to direct or produce. Their first effort was the European crime thriller Puppet on a Chain which was based on the previous year’s fast paced if confusing book set in Amsterdam and featuring a British Interpol agent with a chip on his shoulder and a cool, cruel way with women.

    The movie has an equally hard and uncompromising hero in the shape of Sven Bertil Taube, a Swedish actor asked to portray a naturalised American. I can only assume Paul Sherman’s change of nationality was to give the movie a wider audience scope. That doesn’t work. What might have done was offering skilled action director Don Sharp the full reins of the project. He was called in to reshoot several dialogue sequences as well as film the exciting speedboat chase. Geoffrey Reeve, who usually helmed commercials, simply doesn’t cut it as a feature director. The film for the most part lacks suspense and vigour. The action comes at us piece meal and gives the sensation of being a series of scenes threaded together without much thought. In that regard, Puppet on a Chain is a bit like its source novel.

    Good points include the excising of one half of Maclean’s original twosome of female assistants and the afore mentioned boat chase, which clearly inspired the bayou stuff in Live And Let Die. The titular death scene is well presented and then well re-enacted. Vladek Sheybal makes a good villain [well, when doesn’t he?]. Alexander Knox is competent as a Dutch police chief who offers sage advice on a tourist canal barge. Penny Casdagli’s Trudi is too knowing for the woman-child role, but her presence offers a creeping foretaste of an addict’s ultimate fate. The supporting cast is generally fairly competent without ever stretching our imagination or their performing chops. Many of the book’s highlights remain. For instance, Maggie’s death scene, although different from the written one, is still extremely nauseous. Story wise the convoluted plotting has been slimmed down.

    Low points? Despite the tighter plot, nothing is explained very clearly. MacLean [or more likely script doctor Paul Wheeler] has added a short scene where Sherman recites his findings into a Dictaphone, clearing up everything we have witnessed and already figured out; much of this detail was absent from the original novel so it is good to clear it up but the longwinded sea-air-boat-warehouse-doll-bible-clock hand over of drugs feels over complicated. What’s missing is the bad guy’s motivations, that comes in a sudden rush: a million dollars or something - I forget because it came at us so fast.

    Barbara Parkins’ doomed love interest fails to raise any sparks with Sven Bertil Taube. He is a wooden hero at best and that fatally undermines the relationship. In fact, it’s a dud to the whole telling. There isn’t much fire in the violence stakes either. The action comes and goes without any suspense and ultimately that kills the film as a thriller. Director Geoffrey Reeve simply isn’t generating enough tension even though the narrative is intriguing. A case in point would be the seabound section of the adventure which is neither dramatic or particularly necessary.

    I didn’t dislike Puppet on a Chain. It is an effective retelling of a decent novel and with its tighter story and the worthwhile boat chase along Amsterdam’s canals, it probably impresses more than its source. It is a worthwhile addition to the cinematic MacLean canon, yet it lacks some verve and energy even though you can tell the team is trying hard. It really needed a stronger leading man. A middling success.

  • BarbelBarbel ScotlandPosts: 36,890Chief of Staff

    Pretty thorough reviews there. Yes, the book was passable (at the time I'd have praised it more highly but I've read a lot more since then) and the film wasn't, the boat chase being perhaps the best part.

  • CoolHandBondCoolHandBond Mactan IslandPosts: 6,597MI6 Agent
    edited January 11

    For me, this was the start of the downward spiral of the books, I’ve only read it once and have no desire to do so again . Apart from the boat chase the film was very dull with a wooden lead star. Great reviews @chrisno1

    Yeah, well, sometimes nothin' can be a real cool hand.
  • BarbelBarbel ScotlandPosts: 36,890Chief of Staff

    For me the decline starts with "Caravan To Vaccares" but we're not there yet.

  • Silhouette ManSilhouette Man The last refuge of a scoundrelPosts: 8,747MI6 Agent

    I recall Michael Lonsdale being in the film version of that one.

    "The tough man of the world. The Secret Agent. The man who was only a silhouette." - Ian Fleming, Moonraker (1955).
  • chrisno1chrisno1 LondonPosts: 3,393MI6 Agent
    edited January 13

    Well, we will be in a day or two. These reviews were written some time back, but I haven't wanted to post them yet as life at Household No1 has been somewhat fraught of late. I am taking my time playing catch up. I have a dozen movies to watch on the saved list and getting through them is achingly slow especially with mum's funeral, study, writing, editing, and the day-to-day. For relief, I am currently rereading one of MacLean's earliest novels South By Java Head which is much better than I remembered it.

  • BarbelBarbel ScotlandPosts: 36,890Chief of Staff

    Yes, that's a good one. No film, unfortunately.

    Take your time, Chris, no rush.

  • chrisno1chrisno1 LondonPosts: 3,393MI6 Agent



    I love this book.

    I can’t remember the last time I read a novel in one day [Casino Royale, I think] but it was many years ago. Re-reading Caravan to Vaccarès was like rekindling a love affair. I was so excited to rediscover the magic I remembered that I devoured the skilful prose and revelled in the consummate action within only a few short hours.

    My God, this is a fantastic thriller.

    Right from the opening scenes of melancholic mystery and deadly danger as the young Romany gypsy Alexandre meets his death in the limestone caves above Les Baux, southern Provence, Alistair MacLean throws us into an adventure of spinetingling swiftness and roaring incident after roaring incident. Essentially, the story is a chase through the Camargue, from Les Baux to Arles and onto watery Vaccarès with a band of cut throat gypsies pursuing a British agent and his new girlfriend at hurtling speed along the roads and river shallows of Cezanne’s endless landscapes. Maclean draws us into the location with deft descriptions which refuse to dawdle. So too his characters, who share purpose and motivations unlike almost any other cast he concocted. The dialogue is snappy and erudite. Most rewarding is the author’s attention to his female lead, a woman both capable and charming, and although the romance remains chaste, at least it has humour and genuine affection – there is nothing forced about Neil Bowman and the beautiful Cecile Dubois.

    MacLean provides a breathless narrative and a constant stream of murderous intent, from bad guys and good. His pen is positively running over with brio. It is such an easy and compulsive, tension filled adventure I simply couldn’t put it down. The afternoon became the evening and I was still reading, treading every step of Bowman’s perilous battles with brutal gypsies and witty barbed encounters with the garrulous Le Grand Duc, Charles Croytor, a bon viveur full of more than one surprise and an appetite of enormous proportions. Quite what Le Grand Duc’s loyal chauffeuse and clinging companion Lila see in him is hard to fathom, but he cuts an effective counter to Bowman’s bustle and righteous anger.

    We meet the quartet seated at separate dining tables in the lush Hotel Baumaniere. Bowman is attempting to seduce Cecile and failing, when a troupe of gypsies set up camp on the hotel’s esplanade. The maître d’ is not impressed. Bowman immediately declares an interest, as does Le Grand Duc, who claims to be an expert on Romany culture. Bowman is more intrigued by the strange goings-on in and around the caravans and the secretive behaviour of the troupe’s leader Czerda, a bullish moustachioed patriarch who surrounds himself with merciless murderers. That night, Bowman’s investigations lead him into a taut chase around the town’s abandoned battlements, where he confronts two knifemen and kills them during a deadly fight. Fleeing the scene with Cecile in tow, Bowman follows the caravans to Arles where suspense, guile and disguise become paramount as the two fugitives are chased and conned and deceived left-right-centre. The whole escapade reaches a crescendo in a bullring and a finale along the Vaccarès canals. Maclean does not forget to provide a final twist in the tale at the novel’s dénouement.

    Caravan to Vaccarès is about as close to a thrill a page as you can get in the action-espionage genre. It is phenomenally well written. The characters and events are believable, although the smuggled scientists plot seems an afterthought, and while there is a mite of repetition, there is nothing to unduly spoil the ride. In terms of the author’s prose, it is uniquely satisfying because the narrative deeds share a humorous edge, constantly deflecting tension, as well as featuring prominently a well-drawn female lead. While Neil Bowman is a familiar tough guy, you also sense his emotional loyalties overtaking him and interfering with his decisions. So too Cecile, who unlike most MacLean heroines refuses to sit still and simper, preferring to accompany Bowman on most of his sorties; hence, she occasionally plays a vital role in the unfolding actions. The dialogue is never dull. Only once or twice do the characters pontificate too much. This too is highly unusual for Maclean; explanations are cut to the bare essentials and instead of feeling like extravagant window dressings the speeches move the story forward either by point of fact or by character development. Normally the author uses dialogue as a receptacle for long explanatory paragraphs of plot, person or pointless detail. The brevity here allows the characters to become more rounded and believable. It also ensures urgency drips over every sentence. While the villainous gypsies are little more than cardboard cutouts, they at least have menace and vitriol. I would perhaps have wanted to learn more of their culture and moral persuasions, but that’s a small black cross against a host of green ticks.

    Whether we are crawling around in caves, galloping on horseback, evading toro bulls, sinking in quicksand, chasing cars, racing speedboats, knife fighting or climbing castle ramparts, Caravan to Vaccarès simply doesn’t disappoint, springing from one heart-pounding conclusion to another, building and building until the apex is reached and a sudden steep decline precipitates the demise of the bad guys. It is an astonishingly good read, extremely visual and potently visceral and I recommend it to anyone who wants to understand why Alistair MacLean was once considered the Godfather of the Thriller Genre [my term].

    Go on. Read it.

    Oh, my goodness, I really love this book.

    [Have I said that already?]   

  • LoeffelholzLoeffelholz The United States, With LovePosts: 8,997Quartermasters

    It has been more than 40 years since I've cracked this one. You've inspired me to do it again. Fantastic review!

    Check out my Amazon author page! Mark Loeffelholz
    "I am not an entrant in the Shakespeare Stakes." - Ian Fleming
    "Screw 'em." - Daniel Craig, The Best James Bond EverTM
  • CoolHandBondCoolHandBond Mactan IslandPosts: 6,597MI6 Agent

    Let me know whatever it was you were on when you read this @chrisno1 because whatever it was will make any book tremendous 😉

    Yeah, well, sometimes nothin' can be a real cool hand.
  • BarbelBarbel ScotlandPosts: 36,890Chief of Staff

    I feel almost ashamed to disagree and say that this is my least favourite Maclean to this point.

  • chrisno1chrisno1 LondonPosts: 3,393MI6 Agent


    Adaptations of Alistair MacLean’s novels came thick and fast in the late sixties / early seventies. Most were passable efforts, categorised by bursts of action, neat cutting and half-decent stars. A couple are genuine goodies; Where Eagles Dare springs to mind. By the time producer / director Geoffrey Reeve decided to put the author’s classic 1970 chase thriller onto the screen, the gusto was waning and the result is at best a disappointment, at worst a disaster zone of writing, acting and directing.

    It’s difficult to know where to start when assessing a product which fails on almost every level. Perhaps we should begin with the nominal star David Birney. He plays ex-US special forces Neil Bowman [although nobody calls him Neil, he does mention it once] a man on the run from his past who takes up the job of escorting a Hungarian defector from the Camargue to New York. While Birney is okay on the action stakes, as a leading man – as a cinema actor per se – he lacks charisma. That’s being kind. He is truly dreadful, unable to provide any nuance, elicit any sympathy or empathy. We simply don’t care about him. Mind, he isn’t given much support by a script that wanders all over the place. Michael Lonsdale has similar problems. He has the pivotal role of Le Duc de Croyter and skulks around the action constantly smoking cigarillos and wearing impressive suits. He simply doesn’t convince as an espionage controller.

    Having just watched Ian Ogilvy mooch around Provence in several episodes of Return of the Saint, I rather fancy he might have made a decent stab at playing the hero here. Laurence Naismith [from frequently Provence-set The Persuaders] might have given Le Duc more expression. The hotel featured is the Baumaniere, the exact one named in MacLean’s novel – unusual for almost any movie adaptation – and I also recognised it as the location for the French restaurant in the final episode of Return of the Saint, The Diplomat’s Daughter. Michael Lonsdale speaks perfectly good English, we know that from Moonraker, but despite IMDB reporting he was not dubbed, I am fairly certain he is. Lonsdale has a soft voice, with a slight lisp, his Duc de Croyter rasps and has an Italo-American inflection. It sounds exactly like Robert Rietty who dubbed Adolfo Celi and Tetsuru Tamba in the Bond films. However, I couldn’t find a credit for it when I checked Rietty’s filmography, so maybe I am wrong. I’d ask you to watch it and contribute to the debate, but the movie’s really not worth watching unless you’re a MacLean fan.

    Top billed Charlotte Rampling wears blouses with all the buttons undone in true seventies style. Not for the first or last time she bares all during a love scene and looks entirely beautiful throughout, usually shot in soft focus. However, she can’t do a thing with her underwritten role as freelance photographer Lila, who is picked up by Bowman as she hitch-hikes to Vaccarès. “Are you another French sex maniac?” she asks; “No, I’m an American sex maniac,” he replies. “That makes all the difference,” she says and promptly accepts a ride [ahem!]. Her role is disappointing chiefly because writers Joseph Forrest and Paul Wheeler take away all the good things about the heroine from MacLean’s novel and turn Lila into a dolly bird of extreme prettiness and no importance. [For the purposes of the movie and for no sensible or necessary reason, the two female characters have their names swapped over.] To top it all, Le Duc’s daughter, Cecile, who is tortured by the villains, has a more crucial part to play in the narrative than Lila.

    So too solar engineer Zuger, played by Michael Bryant. Bowman spends more time chasing and saving Zuger than he does Lila, which might be the point, but removes all romantic notions for the two leads. You can’t understand why she falls for him. Zuger’s expanded role from the original novel is one of the better changes made on transition from page to screen. So too the insistence the villains speak in French or some gypsy dialect, Calo or Magyar or something. And no subtitles either; that may just be my copy. The strive for authenticity is to be applauded here. There is some decent photography – if you can’t make Provence look appealing, a cameraman ought to get a new job – and occasionally the film startles you. The murder of Cecile is intercut brilliantly with a matador’s coup de grace in the Arles amphitheatre. There are two excellent scenes where Le Duc confronts Bowman with home truths about each other’s cavalier behaviour, one at the same bullring, another in a seedy nightclub. On 33min, there is a rousing gypsy guitar solo; it is disappointing the following horse-bound chase is unaccompanied as it needed something like the guitar tune to increase the tension.

    In fact, like Reeve’s other directorial effort Puppet on a Chain, the film’s lack of suspense is its biggest weakness. Whether it is the gentle Provencal atmosphere, the lackadaisical screenplay, the bewildered performances or the uninspired direction, Caravan to Vaccarès misses all the action and intrigue which made the book so successful. Even the moments of fey humour don’t succeed. “Is someone trying to kill you?” asks Le Duc after Bowman has ruined his hotel suite during a fight, “I thought you were just untidy.” Actually, that was quite funny, but it doesn’t gel because the preceding fight was so lacklustre. It is never clear until about thirty minutes from the end what the intentions of the villains are and this doesn’t aid our enjoyment. Bowman and Lila are simply being threatened, chased and beaten up for no reason. People are killed without explanation – like the two victims during the outstanding prologue set in quarried limestone caves – and when the chief baddie is revealed, we have to take it on trust. Czerda isn’t even a gypsy in the film, he is a businessman who all along is an acquaintance of Le Duc. Highly unlikely, one feels.

    Caravan to Vaccarès is an excellent novel – my Maclean favourite – but this film does it no favours what so ever with its improbable narrative turns, zero suspense and a failure to attend to detail. There are smatterings of good stuff, but the remainder and therefore the overall quality really shouldn’t have been so poor, but that’s what it is.

    The accompanying poster makes the film look much, much better than the results on screen.


  • BarbelBarbel ScotlandPosts: 36,890Chief of Staff

    Terrible film. I paid money to see this in the cinema, too!

  • CoolHandBondCoolHandBond Mactan IslandPosts: 6,597MI6 Agent

    Yes, a truly dreadful film. It happens a lot. Someone is successful in the written and/or cinematic world and everything is going on very nicely and suddenly the train comes off the tracks. Why is that? Once it comes off then it’s difficult to get back on. MacLean is a prime example of that.

    Yeah, well, sometimes nothin' can be a real cool hand.
  • chrisno1chrisno1 LondonPosts: 3,393MI6 Agent

    And to conclude the whirlwind tour through the mid-period of Alistair MacLean's career, I give you:



    I really wanted to like this book and I really tried to, but I just can’t.

    Chief problem is the stilted dialogue which doesn’t have any of the ‘umph’ you would expect from a modern thriller – even a 1970s modern thriller. People simply don’t talk like this to each other. The whole cast read as if they have escaped from a night playing Hamlet at the National Theatre. The dulling dialogue transfers into the characterisations which are equally bland and unbelievable. Top among them is an obese movie producer who is able to go Arctic exploring with a belly full of whisky. In fact the whole cast list seems to like a drop of the amber stuff as the alcohol consumption is truly monumental in this affair. Nobody so much as touches a glass of water or a pot of coffee. Quite why a film unit should be accompanied by so much booze and quite why they would be consuming it in such vast quantities on a boat and on the Arctic wastes will forever remain a mystery. Author’s licence, I suppose. Sadly, it just makes you not believe in anything that’s occurring because your assumption grows that everyone is half-cut the whole time, so who really knows and remembers what is happening.

    What is occurring is a kind of Agatha Christie mystery on board an Arctic fishing trawler converted for the use of a film crew who are spending twenty days on an inhospitable glacial island, ostensibly to record sound effects and background footage. You just know it’s a lie. The list of characters is long. Many of them are unnecessary to the plot. Two of them are both called Mary. MacLean condescendingly has them referred to as Mary Dear and Mary Darling, as if they are twin toys for the boys to play with. There is no toying in this novel which lacks romance, sex and even loses a sense of humour. Bear Island is as bleak and forbidding a read as the titular island.

    Dr Christopher Marlowe has been employed by Olympus Productions as a location medic for the trip to the wintery wastelands of Bear Island. The journey out on the Morning Rose is typified by rolling seas and a series of hideous murders or attempted murders which Marlowe uncovers hour by hour. Marlowe is the novel’s first person narrator and he omits swathes of detail about himself and all his fellow passengers which conveniently allows the culprits to remain unknown to us until the final few pages. Even then, I am not sure how Marlowe figured out the details. The long reveal scene is a monologue packed full of minutia that doesn’t amaze us so much as stupefy. We wonder why these details were never mentioned before. Marlowe, as a narrator, is tremendously forgetful. He isn’t much cop as a Treasury agent either. But then the bad guys are bad filmmakers and even poorer thieves. Towards the back end of the novel, when the passengers disembark to snowy Bear Island, all sorts of secrets get revealed or half-revealed. Somewhere along the line is a scheme to steal a cache of Nazi gold and, for good measure, some security bonds worth millions. This interesting angle feels very much like an afterthought, especially as MacLean has to force this story around his film production cast, who lie in fear of a serial killer. The two storylines do not combine with any success.

    Marlowe uses his intuition and a lot of guesswork to figure out the clues he’s witnessed. The reveal tries to outdo Hercule Poirot. It lacks all of Agatha Christie’s flair. At least Christie deposited clues, however small; MacLean doesn’t bother, he just bombards us with unmentioned information. The book is strong on nautical detail while the scenes on the island were reminiscent of Night Without End. For over half its length, I was half enjoying the mystery of the ship board poisonings, but as dubious episode followed dubious episode I began to lose faith. So little of interest happens on Bear Island that I had to take a day’s rest to contemplate finishing the book. When it should be picking up to a fabulous climax, Bear Island lacks energy and ingenuity. Marlowe, for all his sturdiness, doesn’t do very much on Bear Island except talk, lecture and drink brandy.

    Compared to the other novels in this classic third period of MacLean’s career, Bear Island is disappointing. The general public didn’t seem to mind and the book sold in excess of eight million copies. Unlike all the other novels of the period, this one doesn’t lend itself to easy cinematic adaptation. The version which finally appeared in 1979 is very different from the book and, frankly, improves on it. Despite a strong start, Bear Island is more than a tad underwhelming. 

  • Number24Number24 NorwayPosts: 21,964MI6 Agent

    I know a guy who's spent a lot of time on Bear Island.

  • Silhouette ManSilhouette Man The last refuge of a scoundrelPosts: 8,747MI6 Agent

    It sounds like you couldn't bear this novel. I'll get my coat...

    "The tough man of the world. The Secret Agent. The man who was only a silhouette." - Ian Fleming, Moonraker (1955).
  • Number24Number24 NorwayPosts: 21,964MI6 Agent

    No, bear with me.

  • BarbelBarbel ScotlandPosts: 36,890Chief of Staff

    Without going to the polar (get my coat while you're there) opposite, I didn't think this was terrible. It's better than it's immediate predecessor and laps ahead (now, where's that coat?) of what follows.

    Of course it's nowhere near his best work and yes, this ends his normally very good middle period. Oh, and the amount of alcohol consumed continues high from here on in. IIRC (it wasn't worth re-reading) his last "Santorini" is the worst in this respect.

  • CoolHandBondCoolHandBond Mactan IslandPosts: 6,597MI6 Agent

    I struggled on this one - Dusty Death was rotten - Breakheart Pass failed because by that time the British authors nicknamed The Piccadilly Cowboys were ripping up trees with their ultra-violent spaghetti western style books - I started Circus but couldn’t continue for more than a few chapters and never read a new MacLean ever again. Some of the old ones many times for repeated reads, though.

    Yeah, well, sometimes nothin' can be a real cool hand.
  • chrisno1chrisno1 LondonPosts: 3,393MI6 Agent
    edited June 19

    Disappointed to read the lacklustre impression you have of Caravan to Vaccares, @Barbel I guess once these impressions take root, they tend to harden. I wrote the Bear Island book review a few months back and my opinion of it has diminished further since then - I wasn't tough enough in the review. It really is a shoddy and over-extended piece of work.

    I'm not going to review Bear Island the movie as it features in my post here:

    While the film isn't entirely successful, it does have moments of suspense and intrigue, as well as some rather decent photography. Nobody is any great shakes in the acting stakes. I do find it mystifying the screen writers changed almost every character's name. I know they changed their professions, but names too? It is as if they are wanting to remove every snippet of Alistair MacLean from the film. Compared to the novel, the film at least doesn't dawdle and features the most cinematic aspects of MacLean's story to the fore: the bleak titular island, the hunt for Nazi gold, the U-boat pens, the snowy landscapes. Almost everything else is sensibly ditched. I rather enjoy it. The film is no better or worse than dozens of starry run-of-the-mill thrillers of the seventies or eighties.

  • chrisno1chrisno1 LondonPosts: 3,393MI6 Agent

    A bit late I know, but I've been busy. Maybe if you're just checking on AJB while on the way home from the pub or something...

    Talking Pictures is showing Bear Island on Saturday night / Sunday morning at 2.25am.

    BBC2 is showing When Eight Bells Toll on Sunday late evening. That's worth a look.

  • chrisno1chrisno1 LondonPosts: 3,393MI6 Agent



    Coming quickly on the literary heels of The Guns of Navarone, Alistair MacLean once more uses his maritime wartime experiences to fashion a wildly unlikely but wholly enjoyable and gripping action adventure set in the South China Seas.

    It is February 1942 and Singapore has fallen. The city is in near ruins. For South by Java Head MacLean delivers a riveting opening chapter full of despair and death as soldiers, sailors, nurses and spies stagger about the chaos of a war torn city in an attempt to find the last freighter heading out of the harbour. That turns out to be the Kerry Dancer, under the captaincy of a modern day pirate Siran and the watchful eye of Dutch rogue Van Effen. Retired Brigadier Foster Farnholme and his assorted escapees manage to board the rattling old slave ship just in time.

    The delivery of such a tight, sensorial and engrossing premier chapter augers well for the novel. This is top class MacLean and he continues in this vein for much of the narrative, whether describing typhoons, becalmed seas, festering rainforests or desert atolls. There is an urgency and a tautness over his prose which he seldom bettered. The Kerry Dancer does not get far before being bombed by the Japanese, but luck comes in the shape of the oil tanker Virona, under the command of Captain Findhorn and his first officer Johnny Nicolson, who fortuitously come across the stricken vessel, rescue the survivors and are suddenly pitched into a sea chase to safety – the prize a bag full of Borneo diamonds and the priceless microfiche copies of the Japanese plans to invade Australia.

    You do sometimes have the impression the author is throwing all his eggs into the basket as not only do motives shift and goals alter, but as incident piles on incident you begin to wonder how much more MacLean’s heroes can take. Central to them in Nicolson, a survivor and a charmed romantic. Practical, courageous, compassionate, Nicolson is a man of authority who takes command of the sea flight when his superior is wounded. Unusually for Maclean, this hero is not a drinker nor is he a misogynist, but he is resourceful to the umpteenth degree while almost everyone else falters around him. There is a nurse, a beauty scarred by the devilish Japanese, to distract him enough to ensure the accompanying villains deliver confidence sapping blows to the fugitives’ plight. Heroics come from strange and unexpected places and people.

    While the novel never drags, it does get a little repetitive, and it is only MacLean’s ability to weave a decent story around the incidents which keeps us just about on board. Early on, a novice writer’s error keeps us on our toes, for MacLean rapidly shifts the point of view through several individuals to force home the appalling situation in Singapore. When I first read this novel I was initially confused by the many characters the omnipotent narrator follows, before siding eventually with Brigadier Farnholme. The story then settles down to Captain Findhorn’s p.o.v. before resting finally on Nicolson’s. While I still find this disorientating – and it isn’t a technique recommended to writers – what it does do is draw attention to the muddled and desperate situations Maclean’s cast of characters find themselves in. The relative calmness of the prose surrounding Captain Findhorn assures us we are now in a place of sanctuary, so when disaster strikes, this is a shock – one in which only the heroic Nicolson can be central. MacLean seamlessly leads his readers through the turmoil and into the metaphorical light as Nicolson and his refugees endure shipwreck, submarine assault, barracuda baiting, fighter strafing, betrayal, murder, siege, starvation, dehydration and escape and a final jungle trek to safety. The book is virtually humourless; and it should be, this is a terrifying and torturous chain of events in which humour would be wildly misplaced.

    The final chapters take place on Java and suffer from MacLean’s soon to be typical over-elaboration. You sense the vaunted but never developed film might have dispensed with the elongated ending. It is just about forgivable as the sustained suspense keeps us reading and the action travels at full pelt. There is a well-described climatic gunbattle to go alongside the barnstorming city under siege prologue, the sea bourn destructions, the beachhead hand-to-hand conflict and the lifesaving ocean rescues. Everything is related with vim and vigour and much virility. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    South by Java Head is a first rate example of Alistair MacLean at his best, where his people are believable near stereotypes who exhibit heroic action in dire circumstances, and the action flows from his pen in pages of realistic and visceral prose, drawing us directly, inexorably and numbingly into the events and their repercussions. An exceptional adventure thriller.      

  • chrisno1chrisno1 LondonPosts: 3,393MI6 Agent

    A later MacLean affair, my review of which may be controversial:



    Remember how most of us reckon Ian Fleming’s The Man With The Golden Gun is an unfinished, unpolished work which needed some revision, additional narrative and descriptive detail to put flesh on the bones of its story? Well, River of Death is a bit like that. I don’t know what MacLean’s state of mind or health was like in 1980/81 when this book was written and published, but there is a sense of an author doing no more than treading water. The prose is startlingly punchy and curtailed. The dialogue is possibly the author’s most barren and simplistic. The plot, while relatively easy to comprehend, isn’t particularly original for the period – a Nazi hunt, basically – and features not one or two characters with a secret to hide but a grand total of nine who are not who they say they are. The reveals, one nasty hoodlum aside, are all made during the novel’s climatic two chapters and are so swift as to be blink-able and miss-able. Despite these tidying-up issues, I rather enjoy River of Death, chiefly because it is short and punchy and relies on the barest of essential character traits and only the most necessary topographical and humanistic landscapes to propel the story.

    The novel kicks off in fine military style in Greece towards the end of the Second World War. Two S.S. officers, Spaatz and Van Manteuffel, are raiding an Orthodox monastery for its treasures. For good measure they burn it to the ground and the monks perish within the unholy fireball. During the final days of the Third Reich, Spaatz makes good his escape from Berlin, but is too late to board a submarine laden with Van Manteuffel and the Greek treasure, both bound for South America.

    Three decades or so later, Amazon adventurer John Hamilton [yes another John, and there is also another Mary / Maria] is employed by multibillionaire Joshua Smith [yes, there is also a Smith] to lead an expedition deep into the rainforest on a hunt for a fabled Lost City and an expected cache of gold and gemstones. MacLean is on solid ground here and builds the respective threads of his story well. There is some messing about in Rodondo, a grim riverside village of nasty odours and even nastier people, where we gather there just might be more to John Hamilton than brawn and bullets. The curious duo of Hillier and Serrano [a journalist working for Smith and a Native Indian expert] are pursuing Hamilton for their own ends. Meanwhile, the twin survival experts Ramon and Navarro [cute pairing that if you know your silent movies] keep watch over their boss, even though they don’t exactly understand Hamilton’s plans.

    These early forays into the twisted, steaming jungle and then the dusty, sparkling streets of Brasilia are rich in the kind of detail that is missing from most of the remainder of River of Death. It is as if MacLean lost interest in the adventure; or perhaps he had a part-finished film script which he adapted quickly and succinctly into a novel to fulfil his publisher’s expectations. Whatever the reason, River of Death tumbles into a thin, spiky tale set along an Amazon tributary and featuring crashing helicopters, smashing hovercrafts, angry natives and a Nazi enclave carved out of an ancient plateau fortress. The action is swift and keeps us interested without ever being very believable. The eventual major reveal is fairly obvious. The last few pages feel like a step too far into the realm of Eldorado, but are redeemed by a superb climatic scene of bitter revenge.

    I note that River of Death was made into a cinema movie by Cannon Films and the infamous cheap-as-chips producer Harry Alan Towers in 1989. I thought it was a television effort, but apparently not; so I stand corrected. The film had initially attracted interest from Sylvester Stallone, but he passed on it. I haven’t yet seen the movie [watch this thread...]. Apparently it is fairly risible. That might do a disservice to the book or it might not, for apparently the plot was altered significantly. Reading River of Death and knowing more about MacLean’s writing processes, the book does feel like another of his ‘film in the making’ efforts.

    Although I am a great lover of eloquence and fine description, believing they add immeasurably to the reader’s experience, there is something compelling in the sparse prose on display here. The personalities are undercooked, and there are a lot of them, so we never quite pick sides in the manner we might with his best works like the Navarone books or Night Without End. However, the novel is a very easy read and draws you from incident to incident with vitality and tension. It is a page turner and I devoured it quickly and with much pleasure.


    I read an original 1981 hardback copy which I picked up in a charity shop. By chance, I also came across the US Fawcett edition paperback in the bookstalls under Waterloo Bridge and immediately noted there was something different in the climactic action. I didn’t remember Maria [the nominal heroine] being present in the scene. I bought the copy, went back home and checked. Hey presto! She wasn’t. In fact, even the ending line is extended from:

    “Let him be. You heard him. He's a dead man”


    “Let him be,” John Hamilton said. “You heard him. Let him be right, for once in his life. He’s a dead man.”

    I prefer the bitter, tense and short original.

    A further read brought forward a multitude of changes to the text. There are two word alterations on page 1 [dark and brooding in English, black and brooding in US; little enough in UK, little around in US]. A character’s age is specified as thirty-seven in the US edition, but in the UK we read: of about the same age. On page 5 US a new paragraph is inserted after a short speech, where in the UK edition the description continues seamlessly. Chapter 2 begins in a different place in the US version and is curtailed, a new Chapter 3 heading being inserted midway to split the action. I could go on. These differences occur time and again. Noticeably, on p.121 US, four whole new lines have been inserted into the prose.

    While these changes are all fairly minor, it does make me wonder if MacLean himself was unhappy with the original published version and wanted to tidy it up, but obviously couldn’t withdraw the text completely. Alternatively, they may be changes requested or made by the US publisher, which would be odd as they don’t add anything to the end result. In fact, as in the case of those climactic sentences, they sometimes detract from the impact. I’m interested in picking up a cheap UK paperback edition - specifically the Fontana one from 1982 - to see how the text corresponds.


  • BarbelBarbel ScotlandPosts: 36,890Chief of Staff

    Controversial? Hell no, that's your thoughts and I for one am just glad that you enjoyed it more than me. I saw the film many years ago (rented it from Blockbusters!), but it made no impression.

    That is very interesting information re the differences bin text between editions. I wonder how many other of his books were affected by this. This has happened to Bond books as well, and our very own @Silhouette Man knows more about that and may have some ideas here.

Sign In or Register to comment.