Bear Island

The largely nautical thriller Bear Island, published in 1971, finds MacLean in the latter part of his career but still maintaining his top-notch narrative skills. Many of his trademarks are on display here: intimate descriptions of seagoing craft, an agent amidst mortal danger, and even a pair of lovely lasses named Mary. Submerge yourself in this one and you won't find it easy to close the pages.


Plot keypoints

Dr. Christopher Marlowe has joined a movie production crew for a hazardous voyage to the remote Bear Island, situated north of the Arctic Circle. Their plan to film scenes there begins to unravel as some members of the traveling party turn up dead or missing. Who is behind the mysterious doings and dreadful murders aboard the Morning Rose? And whom can Dr. Marlowe trust to help him keep the dark forces at bay?



  • A growing string of murders, in a situation (boat) from which nobody can escape, and needless to say the weather makes everything worse ... good setting for suspense.
  • A protagonist with whom the reader can empathize: someone with superb training and immense knowledge, but still not omnipotent or omniscient (in other words, occasionally mistake-prone like the rest of us).
  • His usual painting-with-words descriptions of the physical environment adds texture.
  • Enough twists, and lack of obvious clues, to keep the reader uncertain of which characters are on the wrong side of the law.



  • By far my largest complaint about this book is the way he wraps up all the intrigue in one huge monologue. The good guy rambles on and on about all the interconnections among the suspects ... how Person A was blackmailing Person B, Person C was secretly related to Person D, Person E had a strong motive to kill Person F, etc. Most of these facts weren't known to the reader, and it's just too much backstory to toss into what was otherwise a pretty successful yarn.
  • For that matter, the sheer number of tangled connections and relationships among the passengers burdens the story. Most of MacLean's works are mainly based on action and perhaps one large secret, explaining why the bad guys do what they do. This felt more like a drawing-room mystery where everyone is made to appear suspicious; that type of ending can work well (as in Ice Station Zebra), but here it's handled far more clumsily.
  • It's typical for a MacLean protagonist to speak in subtle allusions, literary references, and other overtly clever statements; no great harm done there. In Bear Island, though, too many characters converse with him in that same manner; it's a bit too Noel Coward-ish (or is it Oscar Wilde-ish?) for me.
  • The two Marys' mannerisms were occasionally a bit precious for my tastes.



Prepare to be enthralled by the action and tension aboard the Morning Rose. Just don't be disappointed when too many details are revealed at the last moment.



 (7 out of 10)