Writing Heroes: Alistair MacLean

(This is going to be a long one. Partly, it’s because I can’t be bothered to split the topic down into two blogs. Mostly, it’s because I’ve a long weekend ahead running around Tube stations, so may not have chance to blog next week.)

Though largely forgotten now, Alistair MacLean was a best-selling author throughout the fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties. He built his career on World War 2 stories and Cold War tales, later branching out into what you might call more traditional thrillers. More than half were adapted into films, but now it’s a rare thing to see his works in bookshops. While a couple of those movies have earned their place in history – Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare – the books themselves just don’t seem to have lasted.

Make no mistake: this is a crying shame. At their best, MacLean’s tales are ushered along by engaging characters and take place in settings that leap off the page. I challenge anyone to finish The Last Frontier without yearning for more, or to read his arctic stories (Night Without End, Ice Station Zebra, San Andreas) without feeling a chill creep into their bones.

Some of the action set pieces are pure James Bond (the cable-car fight in Where Eagles Dare, diving amongst the wreckage of the Moray Rose in Where Eight Bells Toll, the car chase in Fear is the Key…). But more than that, MacLean wrote accessible, witty prose. There’s a charm to his writing, even when describing death by a particularly virulent strain of Clostridium Botulinum, or the nerve-killing onset of frostbite.


Vanished from the Shelves

So what happened? Well, much as I love MacLean’s work, it’s impossible to deny that his tales were of their time. His leading men are solid and unflappable, with the willpower to forge on through horrendous wounds. His villains are devious, irredeemable masterminds with brutish seconds and legions of expendable thugs. And his leading ladies? While most display sparks of strength, all of ’em sob, whimper and exist almost solely to be rescued. Endings are sometimes formulaic. Resolutions are occasionally possible only because the protagonist conceals information from the reader.

While these were very much the vogue at the time MacLean was writing, styles, tastes and society have moved on. And if I’m honest, there are some… not so good works in MacLean’s later run. But these are true of a great many of MacLean’s contemporaries, from Ian Fleming to Agatha Christie. So why hasn’t MacLean lasted?

Well, I think it’s about brand. MacLean didn’t really believe in reusing the same characters. (The same names, goodness yes. It’s a rare leading lady who isn’t some variant of Mary.) There’s only one direct sequel in all of his novels, Force 10 from Navarone, and that, confusingly, is a sequel to the movie of Guns of Navarone, not the book.

Navarone aside, there are only two returning characters across more than twenty-five novels: a police chief, and a seismologist, and three out of four of those appearances are insubstantial as hell. There’s no iconic hero to serve as the focus of the paying public, no hook on which to hang your hat. That, taken with the fact that MacLean’s settings range from post-Civil War America through to the 1980s, setting and tone can vary wildly.

So why do I love Alistair Maclean’s work? First and foremost, I adore the writing style. Even at its clunkiest (I’m looking at you, Athabasca) it’s engaging, fast-paced and sweeps you along. Even in the darkest and most miserable situations, there’s wry humour in the character interactions; quotable, quippy asides of a kind missing from most thrillers. In other hands, they’d break immersion, but MacLean weaves them in without compromising what is often a bleak situation. It’s the one lesson I wish more writers would take to heart: when things get bad, people make jokes to leaven their mood – even if it’s only in the privacy of their own heads.

A Wider World

The best MacLeans also made the teenage me think, in a way that more modern, more popular thrillers (Clancy, Grisham etc) never really achieved – despite more grounded settings and a gajillion more pages in which to make their points. 

MacLean introduced me to the plight of the World War 2 Arctic Convoys, the troubled history of the Balkans, and the complicity of silence by the western world that exacerbated the horrors of Communism and Fascism. Yes, he always did so through the lens of his story, and sometimes with a slanted, or downright inaccurate, view (MacLean clearly has no idea how nuclear weapons actually work). Nonetheless, he made me want to find out more.

Compare this to, say, Tom Clancy, with his super in-depth ‘look at me, I’ve done my research’ style. I enjoy Clancy, but I can’t say his books inspired me to go and learn about the subject matter. Generally, Clancy’s doorstops left me exhausted.

The Best and the Worst

I’m aware I’ve not talked much about detail and theme, so I’d like to round out this blog with a bit of discussion about my Top Five favourite MacLeans (and his one, unarguable, clanger). I’ll keep this as spoiler free as I can, because I hope one or both of you reading this might be inspired to check out some of MacLean’s works.

If you do, a word of warning: don’t buy the Harper Collins editions shown here. I foolishly replaced my collection with these a few years back. Sadly, they’ve all been OCRed – scanned in using image recognition software, which isn’t a bad thing – and haven’t been proofread afterwards (which is shameful, ****ing lazy behaviour on the part of the publisher, as it means glaring errors from the OCR process haven’t been corrected).

Instead, trawl your local charity shops, and grab the earlier printings – most of which have composite film-still covers. The print’s a bit smaller, but the experience will be better for it.

The Clanger: The Dark Crusader

Eight job advertisements. Eight jobs. Eight specialists in modern technology required. Eight scientists to fill them. Applicants to be married, with no children, and prepared to travel. Highly persuasive salaries. One criminal mastermind. Eight positions filled. Eight scientists – and their wives – disappear. Completely. One secret agent to stop him. Advertisement no.9. Sydney, Australia. Fuel specialist required. Looks like a job for John Bentall…

Dark Crusader

Published in the US as The Black Shrike, this is undeniably MacLean’s worst. Others may be more formulaic, have weaker prose, but The Dark Crusader is just plain mean.

The protagonist’s incompetent, the leading lady wetter than a fish’s wet bits, and the overall feel of the story is oddly dreary. Even South by Java Head, which follows a group of refugees fleeing the Japanese invasion of Singapore – with all the dying of thirst, explosions, torture, and drowning you’d expect – is more cheerful. Crusader’s almost rescued by the twist, but that comes too late to save it.

The Dark Crusader is undeniably miserable and sexist, but the twist suggests that it was deliberately so – as if MacLean was passing comment on thrillers of the time. If he was, it doesn’t work. The Dark Crusader is for completists only.

Number Five: Floodgate


BLACKMAIL – The mass of water in its place is the work of the FFF – an Irish terrorist group who want to force Britain’s end.

SUBTERFUGE – The Dutch call in Detective Lieutenant van Effen – feared interrogator and undercover intimate of the criminal Krakers gang – to sabotage the FFF’s plan.

DISASTER – If van Effen fails and the FFF get control of the vital dyke, either Holland will sink beneath the sea or Britain will be awash with blood.


One of MacLean’s final works, Floodgate is the strongest of his later offerings. It’s generally agreed that the earlier MacLeans are better than those that followed, and with good reason. There’s less effort given to the structure and writing of the later books, as well as a slightly odd attempt to embrace the then-modern era – though there are plenty of MacLeans set and written in the sixties and seventies, those have an almost timeless quality. Not so those from the eighties.

Floodgate, however, succeeds because it’s almost a distillation of the MacLean formula. Van Effen is the unflappable protagonist to end all unflappable protagonists. His supporting cast are refinements of characters seen in several earlier stories – one bulky, erudite and self-deprecatingly humorous, the other quiet, watchful and cynical. The plot is just the right side of believable (although stakes are perhaps a bit tame for this day and age), and the character interactions layered with MacLean’s understated wit. Sadly, this distillation extends to the love interest who, despite being a trained undercover policewoman, is kidnap fodder. Conversely, Van Effen’s sister, Julie, is much tougher and even impacts the plot (the horror!). She’s no feminist icon, but she’s an unusually resourceful woman for a MacLean story.

So, Floodgate. Don’t start with this one, but it’s worth coming back to when you’ve a few other MacLeans under your belt.

Number Four: Ice Station Zebra

The atomic submarine Dolphin has impossible orders: to sail beneath the ice-floes of the Arctic Ocean to locate and rescue the men of weather-station Zebra, gutted by fire and drifting with the ice-pack somewhere north of the Arctic Circle.

But the orders do not say what the Dolphin will find if she succeeds – that the fire at Ice Station Zebra was sabotage, and that one of the survivors is a killer…

Ice Station Zebra

So, a great many Alistair MacLeans were made into movies. Some, like When Eight Bells Toll and Fear is the Key are pretty faithful to the source material. Others are not. Ice Station Zebra falls into the latter category and, as is usually the case – the book is superior in every way.

Ice Station Zebra is built around a lot of familiar MacLean tropes. The protagonist isn’t who he claims to be, the story unfolds in an isolated and unstable environment (in this case, a submarine and the polar ice cap) and a cast of suspects to be whittled down. Often billed as a Cold War thriller, the truth is that Ice Station Zebra is really a murder mystery with grand stakes. It’s carried off flawlessly, with some genuinely nail-biting moments and a wonderful cast of characters.

I can’t say much more without giving things away, so just go and read it.

Number Three: Bear Island

A converted fishing trawler, Morning Rose carries a movie-making crew across the Barents Sea to isolated Bear Island, well above the Arctic Circle, for some on-location filming, but the script is a secret known only to the producer and screenwriter.

En route, members of the movie crew and ship’s company begin to die under mysterious circumstances. The crew’s doctor, Marlowe, finds himself enmeshed in a violent, multi-layered plot in which very few of the persons aboard are whom they claim to be.

This one can perhaps be summed up as ‘Ice Station Zebra on a Boat’. Yes, this time we’re dealing with a film crew, not submariners and meteorologists, but the general principle is the same – someone has a shady secret, and is prepared to kill for it. But Bear Island unfolds almost like an Agatha Christie. There are so many weird secrets and agendas rattling around in the background that you can’t help but think a bunch of the characters are guilty of something, if not the inciting murder.

If I’m honest, Bear Island isn’t as technically or thematically powerful as Ice Station Zebra, but it pips the other book to third place because the voice of the protagonist is so much stronger. Doctor Marlowe is the usual unflappable MacLean leading man, but his inner monologue has a wonderful dry quality missing from most.

As a final note, Bear Island was also made into a movie, starring Christopher Lee, Vanessa Redgrave, Lloyd Bridges and Donald Sutherland. What a cast, eh? Wondering why you’ve not heard of it? Wonder no more. It’s utterly, irredeemably dreadful. And the only thing it shares with the novel is the title.

Number Two: Where Eagles Dare

Forbidding peaks, resourceful commandos, beautiful spies, nonstop action, and neck-snapping plot twists make this the classic adventure thriller—the kind of page-turner that readers actually will find impossible to put down. A team of British Special Forces commandos parachutes into the high peaks of the Austrian Alps with the mission of stealing into an invulnerable alpine castle—accessible only by aerial gondola—the headquarters of Nazi intelligence. Supposedly sent in to rescue one of their own, their real mission turns out to be a lot more complicated—and the tension climbs as team members start to die off, one by one. 


Where Eagles Dare is awesome. For once, the blurb makes no exaggeration – this is a classic adventure thriller. Yes, my opinion’s coloured a tad. This was the first MacLean I read, right off the back of seeing the movie for the first time. It was the right way around. The book and film are pretty close in content (MacLean wrote the screenplay), but the book is deeper and, well… it’s funnier.

Where Eagles Dare is a great example of humour used to contrast the darker themes. The D-Day landings are at stake, traitors are at work and our heroes are cut off behind enemy lines, but still… there are jokes.

I’m normally dead against remakes, but this is one movie I’d love to see redone. The back and forth between Smith and Schaeffer (sadly absent in the film – Clint Eastwood is, once again, playing a scowling plank of wood) was massively ahead of its time. Can we have a ‘buddy war movie’? Is that a thing? It should totally be a thing. The running joke of Schaeffer being scared of horses? The self-aware tally of just how much stuff gets blown up over the course of the story? (You gone and ruined a perfectly good station, you know that?) It’s great.

On a more serious note, there’s a human side on display in Where Eagles Dare. With one necessary exception, the German soldiers aren’t portrayed as monsters, but men doing their jobs. At one point, Smith risks his life (and the mission) to save an enemy from burning to death. There’s a professionalism on display on both sides of the story that struck me as unusual when I was first exposed to it, with Smith’s adversaries acknowledging their respect for his ability and vice versa. You can argue whether or not it’s appropriate to tell a World War 2 story without touching on the wider horrors, but I appreciate the little details that work against the stereotypes still prevalent today.

Number One: The Last Frontier

Michael Reynolds was going insane … slowly but inevitably insane. And the most terrible part of it was that he knew it. Since the last forced injection, there had been nothing he could do about the relentless onset of this madness. The more he struggled to ignore the symptoms, the more acutely he became aware of them, the deeper into his mind dug those fiendish chemical claws that were tearing his mind apart…

It took me ages to find a copy of this one. I don’t know why. There’s some suggestion that the themes of The Last Frontier were not well-received, so perhaps it never saw as many printing runs. It was worth the wait.

Where to start? The Last Frontier is set in the fifties, and follows the efforts of James-Bondesque Michael Reynolds to retrieve a scientist from Communist Hungary. It’s an espionage thriller, but an oddly philosophical one that challenges a fair few perceptions of the East-West ideological divide. It’s also an emotionally moving story, capturing perfectly the claustrophobia of hiding in plain sight in a hostile landscape – not just for Reynolds, but for the fugitives he falls in with.

The characters are some of MacLean’s best. The weary, philanthropic Jansci, urging restraint in a world where violence and terror lurk in every shadow. The garrulous, self-effacing Count whose bravado and genius can’t be overstated, and about whom I could write a whole blog. And our protagonist, Michael Reynolds? He actually has an arc. He grows and learns over the course of the story, leaving it a different man to the one we encounter at the start. A rare thing in a 1950s thriller, and unheard of in a MacLean. As usual, the love interest’s the weak spot, but it’s maybe not inappropriate here, and she does at least have a little spark to her.

As with several other books on this list, The Last Frontier did receive a movie adaptation, under the name The Secret Ways. I’ve never seen it – seems the film’s harder to find than the book – but, like Where Eagles Dare, I’d love to see it make the leap for the second time. The themes of tolerance and comparative evils are just as relevant now as they were at the height of the Cold War, after all.

So, those are my five favourite Macleans (and one stinker). Have you read them? Do you have favourites of your own that you think should have made the list? Be sure to let me know in the comments below.

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  1. Nice article, but I think I would have added When Eight Bells Toll – I’ve just started reading it again for the umpteenth time after picking it off the shelf to illustrate a point to an aspiring author friend – and The Golden Rendezvous. The endings are probably a bit weak in both stories but nothing can beat MacLean’s mastery of the first person narrative and sheer tension in his plots. Indubitably, the books are far better than the films. MacLean’s prose, while awesome in the printed word, doesn’t translate well to the screenplay. The exception is probably Guns of Navarone, but that’s probably because he didn’t write the screenplay (Carl Foreman did) and it had the added advantage of quality actors such as Gregory Peck and David Niven in the lead roles (there’s some really good interplay between them, especially at the unmasking of the traitor). I’ve yet to track down a copy of Floodgates. I thought I’d got copies of all his novels. Seems like I haven’t.

    • I adore When Eight Bells Toll (and Golden Rendezvous) though it does suffer from a rushed ending. The opening scene, however, is one of the best. It also perhaps claims the most faithful movie adaption, save perhaps for Fear is the Key.

      I think the main issue with the transfer to film is that the era in which the movies were made didn’t allow their leads to be self-deprecating and dryly witty. Hence Where
      Eagles Dare is a great war film, but a poor MacLean film.

      Floodgate is an acquired taste – while I love the characters, it has a rushed end and lacks a lot of the tension present in his earlier works.

      And you’ve just reminded me that I still haven’t watched Guns of Navarone…

  2. Funny I saw this as I just started reading all of his earlier books again. I read them in the 70s and loved his writing. Not always correct or well researched but a master storytelling ability that is sadly lacking in many authors today.

    I could never really enjoy his later books from the 80s, not after reading the excellent work that you mention as your favorites. I haven’t read your #1 choice and now I’m going to champ at the bit to find it and read it.

    Bear island has always been my favorite and I actually hadv3 copies because I kept buying them at thrift stores in fear I’d lose one.

    I watched Guns of Navarone and liked it very much. Where Eagles Dare was good because though in personal life I really despised Richard Burton, the man was able to act. Unfortunately, Clint Eastwood can’t and the humor from the book wasn’t there. Still, the movie was close to the book and visually helped me rereading the book.

    My second choice is Night Without End. I seem to have a “thing” with stories set in artic locales.

    Being a born feminist, usually 50s through 70s books make me want to scream because women are not weak cupcakes waiting for the man to swoop in and save us but with MacLean, I can stomach it because he’s definitely a born storyteller, or was, and the action, locale, and his amazing descriptive language overwhelm my annoyance at sexism by a 50s writer.

    • Hi!

      ‘Where Eagles Dare’ is a weird one, given that Maclean wrote the book in record time specifically so that the film could be shot. Definitely can’t recommend ‘Last Frontier’ enough – I understand that the historical facts are a bit wonky in places, but the message, action and emotion are hard to top. It’s a great mix of his early and late styles.

      Thanks for stopping by!

      • I guess it’s a bit of a testament to his skills as a storyteller that he could pull that good of a story out of a hat that quickly then. Something I’d wager most couldn’t do.

        I found the ‘Last Frontier’ at Abebooks so I ordered it. Thanks for the idea.

        Have you ever read Helen MacInnes? I always enjoyed some of her novels too. Yes, dated in many ways but still a few had good story lines.

    • I do like HMS Ulysses, but I prefer the lighter works. It’s a wonderful (if that’s the word) picture of the Arctic convoys, with some truly memorable character moments.

      Alas, the cut-off has to come somewhere : )

  3. I love the works of Alistair Maclean. Haven’t read them all yet. It was difficult to read HMS Ulysses because of my own experiences as a Naval veteran triggered some unpleasant stuff. Never had an author do that to me before, not even Clancy. I made it through. I do wish modern thrillers I read had more humor. I liked Tom Clancy but sometimes the story got bogged down with the details. I agree that Maclean had just enough technology to move the story. His introduction in the Guns of Navarone describes Macleans style best. He said he wanted to write a war story with the emphasis on story. For me good stories allow the reader, not only want to learn more, but allow the readers imagination to travel with the characters. Haven’t read Dark Crusader yet, but still plan to read it and make my own judgement. No days, when someone tells me how I should be to be, I go back and look at Macleans unflappable characters. Unflappable is good. Life’s too serious to be serious.

  4. HMS Ulysses was by far my favourite. I have a hardback copy on the shelf and read it occasionally. Many of his earlier works were very good but the latter ones were really bad. I think the Dusty Road to Death (or something like that) was roughly the turning point.

    • That’s very fair. Certainly those after ‘Dusty Death’ are a lot more mixed than those before (although I find Caravan to Vaccares and Puppets on a Chain hard going, I must admit).

  5. Great article. I could probably tap out a reply as long as your original! I discovered MacLean through the movies (‘Bear Island’ being one) and in an effort to educate me my Dad bought me a new paoerback copy of ‘Floodgate’ which I hated. A year or do later, I discovered a little second hand bookshop and, enthused by the cover, bought an original PB print of ‘Caravan to Vaccares’. OMG, this gripped me. I returned to this little shop and snapped up all the MacLean’s in store. Sadly I fell out of love with MacLean. I recently rediscovered him and, while the books are dated, some if the writing and the scenarios have not.
    My top 5: The Last Frontier, Caravan to Vaccares, Night Without End, When Eight Bells Toll & River of Death.
    I’d take issue with Floodgate. Too much action happened off the page, if I remember. It didn’t grip me at all and had some very very long speeches, during which a character would explain everything about everyone in minute details. That’s the sort of writing which got the author a bad reputation.
    Thanks for the blog.

    • We’ll have to agree to disagree on Floodgate (and on Caravan to Vaccares, which I find a bit of a slog). But I think it speaks to the breadth of his style that we’ve room to do so.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  6. Ah, thank you Internet for helping me find another way to lose some time. I’m supposed to be working on my book, y’know. But suddenly I just *had* to find the typical word count of Alistair Maclean’s output, and here we are. Great post, even if totally wrong in several ways. But nobody’s perfect.

    Like you, I read, nay, devoured Maclean as a teenager. I thought he was just wonderful. But I remember suddenly being shocked by how poor River of Death was. And after that, our love affair ended. Decades later I came back to re-read them, and find the first half of his output, up to the early 70s or so, far superior to the later work. So, we can’t agree about Bear Island or Floodgate.

    For me, The Golden Rendezvous is just unbeatable. I re-read it every couple of years.

    Top 5:
    Caravan to Vaccares
    Puppet on a Chain
    Night Without End
    When Eight Bells Toll
    Golden Rendezvous

  7. Have been reading Alistair maclean along with Jack Higgins for over 35 years. Working my way thur them both for the third or fourth time at the moment.
    Alistair was very good untill Golden Gate then rubbish after that….just going thur the motions really as the drink sadly took its toll

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