Published in 1975, Circus continued a streak of OK-but-not-outstanding Alistair MacLean works, as his career began a downhill slide. The circus atmosphere, as well as the somewhat cartoonish characters and actions, make this book similar to The Way to Dusty Death — a sort of "MacLean for juveniles." While its setting is unique among his works, the plot encompasses familiar themes: uniquely talented protagonists, nasty Eastern European secret police, a traitor amidst the good guys, a leading lady chosen for the wrong reasons, and a pasted-on romantic subplot. There are also some red herrings; I hope not to give away too much by saying that some characters are suspicious just because of their names, but MacLean lets them off the hook in this case.


Plot keypoints

Bruno Wildermann, gifted mentalist and leader of a brother-team aerial act, is "the outstanding star in the outstanding circus on earth." Thrilling capacity crowds throughout the U.S., he and his circus colleagues lead a tiring but simple life ... until CIA officers come to visit. They ask Bruno to take on a risky mission in the very city from which he had escaped earlier in life: Crau. The fate of the world — and of his own family — dangles as precariously as an acrobat on a high trapeze. As Bruno prepares to cross the ocean for his dangerous homecoming, evil forces are already encircling him in a net of mayhem and murder ....



  • Action moves along at a good pace. Whenever it seems too quiet, MacLean whips up another incursion by the bad guys.
  • Inside (though seldom detailed) looks at circus life add some color to the proceedings.
  • For an awkwardly forced romance, this one isn't all that distracting.



  • One of the "cartoonish" qualities I mentioned is the infallibility of Bruno and his circus buddies. The supreme aerialist, world's strongest man, perfect rope-trick artist, and can't-miss knife thrower belong in a kids' animated series.
  • MacLean repeatedly describes specific circus performances as reaching new heights, outdoing even their own usual level, etc., but without providing a good picture of what makes those performances so special.
  • Some factors, such as the deadly secret being held in Bruno's old hometown, are a bit too coincidental to be credible.
  • The book's very last sentence is a near carbon copy of some other MacLean book's ending. (When I think of which one, I'll mention it here.)



An entertaining read that nonetheless leaves one hungering for a more substantial MacLean work.



 (6 out of 10)