Alistair MacLean: A Life

A biography by Jack Webster

How could I have missed it? In the years since I'd acquired the address and started reviewing his novels and related films there, I hadn't heard of a MacLean biography. A fortunate search led me to stumble upon Alistair MacLean: A Life, by Jack Webster, a features writer for the Glasgow Herald.

Released in 1991 (four years after his death), the book reflects considerable research and many interviews, all in the service of illuminating MacLean's remarkable life. From it, I learned:

  • how young Alistair's loss of both his father and his oldest brother affected his later years
  • the startling success of HMS Ulysses, and his disciplined writing habits that produced it
  • his sometimes tempestuous relationship with first wife Gisela, and the three sons they raised
  • countless potential film deals, and why some stories never reached the screen
  • second wife Marcelle's destructive effects on Alistair's finances and mental health
  • his on-again, off-again, too-frequent love affair with alcohol
  • his role in the UNACO series, where other writers based books on his ideas
  • his peripatetic life, dwelling in many cities and countries, and how he ended up in Geneva and Yugoslavia
  • why he was buried in the same Swiss cemetery as Richard Burton (star of Where Eagles Dare)

... and much more.

Fair warning: this book was written for a British, and maybe particularly Scottish, audience. Webster assumed his readers would understand references such as "carried off the gold medal at the Mod in Dundee," "a son of the manse" [cited ad nauseum], and the names of various neighborhoods and persons apparently prominent in the British Isles.

While Webster amassed an impressive amount of information, he was not a great literary stylist. He tries to imbue many of the events with greater importance and deeper meaning (and more flowery prose) than they merit. He also dwells repeatedly on certain MacLean idiosycrasies, which often don't seem all that idiosyncratic (such as Alistair's habit of sometimes declaring his own greatness in one moment, then expressing deep insecurities in the next).

People in this book often treat each other shabbily, but the author saves special venom for Marcelle, who took MacLean's heart [while he was still married], much of his savings, and his peace of mind. So severe is Webster's vituperation, it makes the reader wonder whether one of his interviewees urged him to repay the character assassination that Marcelle managed to visit upon Alistair even after they had both died (the ugly details of which appear in this book). Perhaps that was his first wife, Gisela, who apparently had every right to view Marcelle as an amoral homewrecker. The information Gisela provided to Webster is a main attraction of this book; it's bittersweet to read it while realizing that she died only recently (2011), twenty years after its publication.

One nice bonus is a previously unpublished MacLean short story, The Cruise of the Golden Girl, which is based on a harrowing sailing trip he took with several friends. I'm not nautically inclined, but his prose was in peak form here — sharp, pulsating with life, and occasionally hilarious.

Whatever imperfections Alistair MacLean: A Life may contain, it is an absolute must-read for the thriller fan who'd like to know what made him tick. It's given me a far fuller perspective on MacLean's life and work.