Breakheart Pass

Though I couldn't remember reading it, I'd long held a positive view of Breakheart Pass, Alistair MacLean's 1974 novel set in the American "Old West." That beneficent view probably stemmed from a long-ago memory of an ad for the movie version, which starred Charles Bronson. In those days before Death Wish 3 and its ilk, Bronson was a high-class action-movie hero, and his presence meant that a film was well worth seeing. Reading the book recently, though, I was disappointed; it fit into the drab period when MacLean's gift was dwindling (though far from extinguished), around the time of The Way to Dusty Death. I generally rank his works from that time as "You could do a lot worse, but you could also do better with a different MacLean."


Plot keypoints

In post-Civil-War California, a U.S. Army troop train is headed for Fort Humboldt, scene of a deadly cholera outbreak. A legendary marshal comes aboard to escort a prisoner wanted for trial on horrific charges. Meanwhile, the state's governor and his niece are accompanied on the train by a crack detachment of soldiers. Some of the passengers know, while others don't suspect, that a desperate fate awaits the innocents at journey's end ... if they survive that long.



  • MacLean lingers, with intricate and well-crafted prose, over the characters we first meet and the down-at-the-heels town from which they will depart.
  • It's hard at first to guess who are the good guys and who are the baddies.



  • It's possible to read one MacLean too many ... there's comfort in the familiar, but we see a bit too much of the same old stuff: protagonists John and Mary [well, Marica in this case]; unrealistically convoluted bad-guy schemes, involving senseless massacres; the knife-wielding villain who delights in killing; ceaseless drinking; the one fool who tries to draw when the gun-wielding good guy has just told everyone not to; etc.
  • The train trip takes virtually the entire book, and I grew tired of that particular setting. I'm not sure why, as he did the same thing with boats in other books (e.g., Bear Island), but in this case I was eager for the action to disembark and start happening elsewhere.
  • MacLean's typical unrealistic verbal jousting (going from disdainful to pseudoromantic) between good guy & pretty woman rings false. He has a habit of issuing bons mot from their mouths while they are in mortal danger and really need to focus on survival rather than flirtation.



It's an odd hybrid ... an Alistair MacLean Western. Worthwhile for the MacLean fan (more so than for a typical Western buff), but far from his best.



 (6 out of 10)