After producing a string of solid and sometimes exceptional thrillers from the mid-1950s to the late '60s, Alistair MacLean began a steadily decline in book quality during the '70s. Athabasca, published in the first year of the '80s, shows that sad trend continuing. Cobbling together many of his normal plot devices, MacLean wrote a tale of oil-field treachery that begins promisingly (with an instructive prologue) but fails to gain full traction. The would-be heroes, jetting back and forth while unraveling clues and drinking heavily, are never developed as three-dimensional people whose fate strongly draws the reader's interest and empathy.


Plot keypoints

The upper reaches of the North American continent boast vast oil reserves, particularly in Alaska's Prudhoe Bay area (in which oil is pumped from the ground and piped hundreds of miles) and Alberta's Athabasca region (where it must be distilled from massive amounts of "tar sands"). When the companies overseeing both of these operations receive anonymous threats, Jim Brady's crew of oil security experts fly in from Texas to try to prevent attacks and trace the would-be criminals. Threats and violence escalate; casualties mount in both areas, and Brady's team finds itself targeted by the evildoers. As evidence points toward an "inside job," investigators team up with law and military forces to face the dangers head-on.



  • The prologue gets this story off to a nice start, educating the reader about oil and its extraction.
  • Depictions of the fantastic digging and processing equipment that handles the tar sands are quite impressive and yet believable.
  • A few clues here and there give the reader some chance to start figuring out pieces of the puzzle.



  • As mentioned above, the main investigators are simple stereotypes rather than realistic, flesh-and-blood characters. They share wit and booze while spouting their theories and going about their business.
  • The attractive young females (more than one this time!) are simple-minded and unwary; their beauty alone seems to motivate various males to form attachments to them.
  • Some scenes are too familiar, as when the main protagonist hears bad news over the phone and thoughtlessly crushes the glass he's holding (seen before in The Secret Ways).
  • We haven't met some of the bad guys before the denouement, which is unsatisfyingly sudden and short. We're then treated to one of those drawing-room scenes where the good guys expose the identity of one last baddie. That sort of scene can be done well, but here it isn't.


Disjointed and largely unsatisfying, Athabasca is recommended only for the Alistair MacLean completist.



 (4 out of 10)