Our MacLean Revival

MacLean“A small dusty man in a small dusty room. That’s how I’d always remember him, just a small dusty man in a small dusty room.”

Grabs your interest doesn’t it? That was the opening line of The Dark Crusader by Alistair MacLean. I first devoured this and other adventure novels by MacLean while in High School back in the 70’s. Recently, my wife and I have taken to reading his books out loud to each other and – even in this high-tech era of blockbuster 3D adventure movies – MacLean’s novels continue to be singularly engaging adventures. We can’t wait to take up where we left off reading and we spend much of our time between sessions discussing the implications of whatever bits and pieces MacLean has revealed thus far.

Beyond the marvelous storytelling, MacLean was technically and aesthetically the most gifted author I have ever read. One part of what he achieved with seemingly effortless nonchalance was to deliver the catchiest openings ever. From them his stories flowed, briskly gushing and careening, like rivers of words through the coldly entrancing arctic landscape that was his favored setting. So daunting are his prose, that just taking on the challenge of reading them out-loud has made us both infinitely more fluid and polished readers.

His writing characteristically flows on in methodical rambling, like a symphony put to words, each sentence sometimes strung together over the course of a page or more, leaving the reader as breathless and exhilarated as after a hard swim, only to snatch a quick breath before diving into the next incoming wave.

“My red rose has turned to white.”

His plot lines are so tight, so carefully constructed with milimetric attention to detail, that when his protagonist laments in the prologue of Fear is the Key that his red rose has turned to white, you presage that MacLean will inevitably return to that same powerful imagery in his epilogue.

While his general storytelling elements recur in every book, MacLean’s writing does not feel overly formulaic. Within his general adventure fiction structure, MacLean paints distinctive characters and settings for each book. Unlike other authors, he doesn’t have one main character, no James Bond or Jason Bourne, but he does invariably feature smart but fallible male protagonists who face opponents who are far smarter and much less fallible in their utter ruthlessness.

MacLean also knew how to create a strong supporting cast with whom you engage every bit as much as his protagonist. In fact, I think that one of the reasons I went into chemistry was the inspiring moment in Night Without End when that frail little chemist Theodore Mahler used his knowledge to save the desperate survivors of the plane crash from the grasp of icy death in the deadly and merciless arctic. In that same book, the climax was not when the main hero saved the day, but when boxer Johnny Zagaro, hands rendered useless by crippling frostbite, finally had his inevitable bloody, brutal battle on the ice with the cold-blooded Nick Corazzini.

In MacLean’s novels, nature is invariably the most implacable enemy of all – whether it be the frigid clutch of the arctic, the unforgiving cliffs of Navarone, or torrential storms of the Adriatic. His books are typically light on romance, and in fact MacLean isn’t averse to nipping a budding romance with tragedy. Another distinctive quirk of MacLean is that he does tend to use certain words over and over again. My wife and I play a game to see who will be the first to encounter “milimetric” or “threnody” or “St. Vitus’s Dance” when we take turns reading a book. And be assured that in most every book, teeth will be lost, frostbite will claim fingers, and cigarettes will be burned in liberal quantities.

I find MacLean’s writing particularly noteworthy in how unlike conventional writing it is. He routinely devotes little more than a few short sentences to masterfully describe people and settings, for he needs no more than that, so powerfully potent are his descriptions. But then he is just as likely to go on in excruciating detail about how to wire the detonator for an explosive bobby trap. You have the feeling that he really did have the whole thing wired up and even tested in his office next to his typewriter. In fact all of his writing conveys a particularly strong sense that the author has actually been there and done that. MacLean’s actual background as a seaman and torpedo operator in the Royal Navy is keenly evident in all his writing.

Beyond his astounding gift for writing, I also admire the tone, the characteristic humanity of his works. Throughout his yarns, he weaves in his passion for humanity, for peace amidst cold-war intrigue and violence. Indeed, it was his clearly heretical defense of people, particularly Communists, and his cosmopolitan skepticism toward politics and religion, that caused such negative backlash to his book “The Last Frontier.” It was bold and provocative writing back in 1959, too much for the times he lived in.

“Jansci spoke of himself not at all, and of his organization and its methods of operation only where necessary … He talked instead of people … of their hopes and fears and terrors of this world. He talked of peace, of his hope for the world, of his conviction that that peace would ultimately come for the world if only one good man in a thousand worked for it … He spoke of Communists and non-Communists, and of the distinctions between them that existed only in the tiny minds of men, of the intolerance and the infinite littleness of minds that knew beyond question that all men were inescapably different by virtue of their births and beliefs, their creeds and religions, and that the God that said that every man was the brother of the next man was really a poor judge of these things. He spoke of the tragedies of the creed that knew beyond doubt that theirs was the only way that was the right way, of the religious sects that usurped the gates of heaven against all comers … for there were no gates anyway.”

Though now somewhat anachronistic and dated by patronizing 50’s attitudes toward women (even though his women definitely show great strength) MacLean’s work is still nevertheless as fresh and timelessly potent as the day it was written. My wife and I rather dread the day that we finish up our Alistair MacLean revival. There is very little in the marketplace of literary ideas that match up for us. As just one example, we tried reading Jack Reacher and having been so spoiled by the mastery of MacLean we find the writing and the characters as flat and empty and devoid of life as a cardboard cutout. Are there other authors as gifted as MacLean? Certainly, but it is a very short list indeed.

“A small dusty man in a small dusty room. That’s how I’d always remember him, just a small dusty man in a small dusty room.”

 

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