Alistair MacLean: The Key is Fear

A review of the book by Robert A. Lee

Literary analysis is always a popular topic for scholars. Delving into the finer points of Shakespeare or Cervantes or Faulkner, and adding your own spin on their meaning, is a common way to produce that master's thesis or doctoral dissertation.

It came as a surprise, though, when I discovered that a certain Robert A. Lee had published, in 1976, an analysis of Alistair MacLean's literary stylings. His book, Alistair MacLean: The Key is Fear, is Volume Two in "The Milford Series — Popular Writers of Today," a set of 30 64-page monographs from The Borgo Press in San Bernardino, California. I haven't yet found a full list of the titles, but the series had a strong science-fiction bent, as the authors profiled included Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula Le Guin, and Ray Bradbury. (Publisher Robert Reginald was apparently a sci-fi devotee.)

Lee's book covers MacLean's writing career from its very beginnings through the 1976 release of The Golden Gate. From that limited vantage point (which preceded MacLean's later mediocre-to-bad period), he has mostly praise for the author's skill.

Central to the book is an evolving discussion of themes that commonly appear in MacLean's works. To sum up (and perhaps drastically oversimplify) Lee's ideas: MacLean is at his best when he combines danger from both people and nature; deception as to the allegiances of important characters; and descriptions (based on personal experience) of "the sea, the Arctic wastes, and the journeys men make through and over them." His writing quality suffers when he sets his stories in areas or environments he doesn't fully understand; when he makes his characters so extravagantly talented that they seem like comic-strip heroes; and when his protagonists work outside the law, rather than with it, to overcome evil.

While I concur with Lee on many larger points about MacLean's talents, we differ markedly on the quality of specific books. Of the five novels that top my ratings, only one — Night Without End — earned similar praise from Lee. He lambasted my favorite book, The Secret Ways, as "one of MacLean's weaker efforts ... over-written, over-long, and probably over-praised." (That last term, of course, means that many reviewers agreed with me!) On the other hand, he dubbed Bear Island "quite possibly his finest achievement to date," despite a rambling web of previously unknown relationships, revealed at the denouement, that was so extensive and cliched that it read like a parody.

Lee concludes his analysis by writing, "MacLean seems to have grown weary of the whole game; his last few books lack the imaginative spark that kept his early fiction moving, even when the plots were less than his best." He's lucky he wrote this book when he did, before subjecting himself to such misbegotten late-MacLean works as [shudder] Seawitch.

In terms of deathless prose, few would confuse Alistair MacLean with history's literary giants. But his idiosyncratic and highly successful style certainly merits the type of examination it got from Lee. If you're a confirmed MacLean buff, find yourself a copy of this book and enjoy reading (and maybe sometimes disagreeing with) his well-studied conclusions.