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.