Where Authors Dare

At the height of his success, Alistair MacLean (1922-1987) was the world’s best selling author. You might have heard of HMS Ulysses, The Guns of Navarone, Ice Station Zebra, and (the original screenplay) Where Eagles Dare. I remember reading his books as a teenager, after my friend Edward picked up a copy of Fear is the Key from a local, Cornish jumble sale. MacLean is interesting because – like Stephen King – he was seldom reviewed, and his work was dismissed as drivel. Doubly interestingly, the first person to dismiss MacLean’s work as drivel was MacLean himself.

A couple of weeks ago, I was passing a car boot sale (‘jumble sale’ is so last century), and noticed a biography of MacLean. I snatched it up, partly because it meant I wouldn’t have to read any more of Monica Ali’s Brick Lane (which is startlingly uninteresting, despite the plaudits; not in the God-awful Life of Pi league, but applying for promotion).

Alistair MacLean: A Life by Jack Webster is a superb read. Webster, despite his best efforts, does not sink into the background; he remains a rather pompous tour guide who rolls out colonial-area thoughts on non-Anglo Saxons and women (you should read what he thinks about those who fall into both categories, like MacLean’s second wife, Marcelle).

I don’t want to spend too much time on a chronology of MacLean, so here is the bluffer’s guide: MacLean grew up a son of the manse (I still have no idea what this means), and his mother was a gold medal winner of the Mod (also no idea, but I’ll bet it trumps my bronze Water Safety). He had a traditional upbringing in which Gaelic was the household language. As a young man, he put to sea on the notorious Russian convoy route, where he manned the torpedo room of a destroyer charged with the defence of low-laden Russian cargo ships. This formed the basis of his first novel, HMS Ulysses. Following his discharge, he could not be described as demob happy. He was a taciturn, gaunt fellow who often mumbled. He never spoke of his wartime experiences. Before long, he became an English school teacher – regarded as fair and quiet by his pupils. His heart was never in the job (and, judging by this book, he never found a place to put it). He tried his hand a short story competition run by a local newspaper and, to his surprise, won it. His style was so electrifying that he was courted by the publisher Collins (now HarperCollins) and then embarked upon a career that led to considerable fame and fortune, and a nomadic existence that centred on Geneva but extended to California and Yugoslavia. He died in 1987, aged 65, of a stroke, leaving a somewhat fragmented family and a considerable fortune. The man: largely unhappy, thought of himself as a hack, and listed his job on his passport as ‘Hotelier’.

Which brings me to MacLean’s fiction. Time and again, Webster returns, in his biography, to the notion that a page-turning book does not have the same status (in terms of its apparent quality) as a book that attempts to do more (on those other fictional planes). MacLean bought into this, and Webster seems to as well. I’m not sure I do. In my own fiction, I tend to aim for these other levels of meaning, but they must be subservient to the fundamental ‘straight line speed’ of the book’s story. This ability to pace, to pull the reader along with questions that they must know the answer to, is not one so easily dismissed. Frankly, very few authors can do it.

True enough, MacLean’s prose style is quite different from that employed today. Like Walter Scott, he might not be read overmuch in the coming years. But I remember looking somewhat sceptically at the cover to ‘Fear is the Key’, the book handed to me by my friend Edward at that jumble sale, and then I read the first page. It had me hooked. This was a story. MacLean may have hated his own stuff, but how many writers have readers who say, ‘This is a story’? Not so many.

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Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

13 thoughts on “Where Authors Dare”

  1. Well, before looking in dictionary.com, I’d have said a son of the manse was a Presbyterian minister’s son, the manse being the equivalent of a rectory or vicarage.

    But, having now searched in dictionary.com, I’ve also discovered that it refers to a mansion house, or, in the archaic usage, to the dwellings of a householder.

    Which suggests that a son of the manse is either a) from a poor clergy family, b) from a middle-income householder’s home, or c) the son of the manor. Or in other words, anyone.

    The biography of AM sounds v. interesting. I think you did the right thing to give up Brick Lane and turn to something a bit dated instead.

  2. Thanks for your comment, James. To be fair, it was explained in the book somewhere, but I forgot. Since MacLean was a minister’s son, that could well be it.

    Better get back to Brick Lane, then…

  3. Your comment at the end about the value of story reminds me of an anecdote told about Tolkien. A plumber doing some work in Tolkien’s old college – very dusty, very august, very Oxford academe – noticed the bust of Tolkien sitting on its pedestal among all the other distinguished professors, went up to it, put his arm round its shoulders and said “Thank you, Professor! You’ve written a rattling good yarn.” I think Tolkien would have been pleased with that, and MacLean should have been too.

    For what it’s worth, I’ve always understood ‘son of the manse’ to mean a Scottish Presbyterian minister’s family. I have no clue what a Mod is, gold or otherwise.

    I haven’t read either ‘Brick Lane’ or ‘Life of Pi’, philistine that I am, but I did like ‘HMS Ulysses’, and the first pages of ‘Ice Station Zebra’ were used by our school English teacher as an example of how to write a gripping beginning.

  4. Thanks for your comment, Carla. I think we’re slowly coming to a consensus on the ‘son of the manse’ issue! Ice Station Zebra certainly has a great opening…

  5. I adored Alistair Maclean at age 15 and read the lot. I remember I was doing my GCEs as they were called then, and I just had to stay reading until 2 am, I was totally hooked!
    I think he did go off later on, after about “Force 10 from Navarone” but before that he wrote a dozen fantastic books, I thought they were far better than James Bond, Modesty Blaise and all those others of the genre being published at that time. There is one you don’t mention which I enjoyed a lot, about some people on a journey somewhere very cold and icy — not ice station zebra, but one where someone was a secret baddie, someone was ill, the food all ran out, etc. Forget the title but it was brill (to a 15 year old anyway).

    Of course I had completely forgotten my addiction until I read your post.

    Interesting to read your comments on Pi and BLane, two more books on my bookshelves I need not feel guilty about not having got around to reading yet! My Dad really enjoyed Brick Lane, though, he is 80 and read it a couple of years ago.

  6. Thanks for your comment, Maxine. I’m not sure which is the other icy one – you’re right, though, MacLean’s novels certainly trail off in the late 1960s.

    I’ll try to qualify my comment on Brick Lane with a later review post. That is, if I get round to reading it!

  7. I think MacLean should have taken a page from Mickey Spillane, who was happy to admit that he wrote for the money and never wanted to be called an author (preferred “writer”).

    I just picked up my old copy of Stephen King’s On Writing, and at the start of section 2, he talks about how people never ask pop writers about the CRAFT, or the language. It’s funny how many people don’t realize the talent in the writing when the author is so popular.

    Doesn’t seem to bother King much though… There was a benefit reading by King, John Irving and J. K. Rowling last night in NY, and King said, “they pay me to make this up… and it’s the BEST JOB in the WORLD.”

    Like Maxine, I was a MacLean addict as a teenager, and had forgotten about this addiction until reading your post. Thanks for reminding me!

  8. Hi nrkii – glad to remind you of MacLean again. Enjoy his books. Great post on the King/Rowling/Irving night, by the way.

  9. I am writing from midwest America. Last night we saw a Hollywood movie named Heartbreak Pass from 1976 starring Charles Bronson. Book and screenplay both by Maclean.
    Took place late 1800’s in American West, most of the action on a troop train going to Humboldt, Nevada. Lots of action. Very suspenseful. You just never knew what was really going on or what was going to happen. Very good ending shot. (He did not get the girl.) I remember hearing about Maclean years ago. Will have to look him up. Am a novelist myself, maybe I should read the beginning of Ice Station Zebra. Louise PS: I hated Life of Pi. Lots of self-indulgence and a screwy story.

  10. Thanks for your comment, Louise. I heard that the later films weren’t quite up to the standard of the earlier ones, but Heartbreak Pass sounds interesting. Ice Station Zebra is a great story, if you can get over the prose style. Let me know what you think.

    Best,
    Ian

  11. Mr. Hocking,
    I’m a yank who has just coincidently traveled often through Humboldt, Nevada. It is open and pretty and stark and a wonderful setting for a novel. It is in my travels for the EPA in the American west that brought me back to MacLean, whom I had read voraciously as an adolescent. (And incidentally the book in question regarding the journey, killer, and food shortage, etc. is indeed Night Without End.)

    Although I read/listen to a range of literature on audio books, I am very fond of MacLean, for above all being fun. Nor is he mean-spirited, as others, like Fleming (who is nonetheless good, but in a much different way.) are. MacLean’s prose it thoughtful, his dialogue may be dated but remains vastly entertaining, and his characters worth rooting for. As you say, he writes a good story. His self-effacement brings to mind the continual debate as to why Beowulf is considered art, but Tolkien is not. I remain, despite my post-graduate education, a fan.

  12. Thanks for your comment, Anon. I expect MacLean is great on audiobook – doubtless a good author will make a lot of his (often) first-person narrative.

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