Fear is the Key

Alistair MacLean was in the midst of a string of terrific thrillers when he published Fear is the Key in 1961. While it features many typical notes from MacLean's repertoire, this book also strikes some unusual chords. An eerie prologue whets the appetite of the reader, who is then thrown for a loop by action that continues for nearly the first third of the book. Is the apparent protagonist really a murderous criminal who will achieve his goals by any possible means? Or is the stream of events actually thick with red herrings? Many MacLean works do contain major plot twists, but in no others does he carry the subterfuge to this extent.


Plot keypoints

Thanks to a report from Interpol, John Talbot's trial in a sleepy southern town turns into a desperate — and violent — attempt to flee custody. Bringing along a pretty young "insurance policy" (at gunpoint), he outfoxes the local constabulary ... but other, more powerful forces are after him as well. How does this tie in to an attack on a cargo plane carrying a special shipment out of South America, years ago? And what deadly secrets are housed in a spectacular drilling platform just off the Florida coast?



  • This is vintage MacLean: good seemingly outmanned in its fight against savage and brilliant criminal forces. His prose feels effortless yet sharp; the reader can nearly see the gun protruding from the shadows, feel the tangible sense of doom, and smell the freshly dug grave.
  • Once the initial bizarre events are reconciled, the rest of the plot has a refreshingly simple linear progression.
  • Romantic matters are included but not overdone, and they reach a surprising yet satisfying conclusion.
  • If you like picturing evildoers begging for mercy, this is the book for you.



  • The baffling opening sequence continues (unexplained) for so long that a reader may want to exchange this book for a more straightforward one (but don't!).
  • It's a matter of taste, but the drilling platform is one of those things that I think MacLean described in too much detail, which wasn't always easy to slog through. Furthermore, extended underwater scenes may make some people feel claustrophobic. 



For a MacLean that partly breaks the familiar MacLean mold, read Fear is the Key.



 (8 out of 10)