Alistair MacLean's Writing Career
Below is a bare-bones overview of MacLean's career. For a vastly more detailed description, I recommend Jack
Webster's biography Alistair MacLean: A Life.
Alistair MacLean was born in Scotland in 1922. After serving five years in the Royal Navy during World War II
(often on dangerous assignments), he attended college and became a teacher. In early 1954, he won a short story
contest run by the Glasgow Herald with an entry titled "The Dileas", which is included in his maritime
collection The Lonely Sea. In the wake of this achievement, he was asked to write a novel; that first
book, H.M.S. Ulysses, was published in October 1955. It achieved such
wide acclaim that he soon became a full-time writer.
MacLean's second novel, The Guns of Navarone, brought him great
international fame. It also caught the eye of movie producers, and a movie version of this book became the top-grossing film of 1961. Thus
inspired (and enriched), MacLean continued to write excellent thrillers, about one each year. Many of them were
filmed, with Where Eagles Dare widely considered the best
— its plot matched the book closely because MacLean wrote the script himself!
From 1955 to about 1970, MacLean produced his best work. All of the books that I rank in his top ten were among the 15 he wrote during that period.
As MacLean aged, his books grew steadily less impressive. The five he wrote in the early to mid 1970s are just
below the middle of my rankings. His eight later ones (starting with 1977's Seawitch) show him basically going through the motions, rather than cranking out more
ambitious stories. Alcoholism probably harmed the quality of his writing, too; it contributed to his 1987
Themes in MacLean's Novels
While the settings often differ wildly, certain themes repeatedly appear in Alistair MacLean's novels.
Frequently, the "hero" is a highly skilled but cynical agent (inspector, soldier, spy, etc.) who bitterly blames
himself for mistakes even while he is brilliantly and ruthlessly unraveling the bad guys' plots. He, or one of his
closest allies, is often depicted as having an astounding tolerance for alcohol (a sad plot device, in light of
MacLean's own alcoholism). His name is often John, and even more often, the heroine and/or love interest is named
Mary or Marie or Maria. (MacLean's second wife's name was Marcelle; he referred to her as Mary.)
Given his Royal Navy experience, it's not surprising that many of his stories concern World War II or its
aftermath, or that others take place largely at sea.
A typical MacLean villain is an evil and cunning criminal with an immensely strong and sadistic sidekick.
Sometimes, the heroes of his books have unmatched skills in their area of interest and are then persuaded to become
operatives: mountaineer Keith Mallory in The Guns of Navarone and
Force 10 from Navarone, Grand Prix champion Johnny Harlow in
The Way to Dusty Death, performers in Circus.
Want to write your own MacLean-ish story? Combine all those themes, add plenty of slam-bang action and detailed
psychological insights, and season with generous dollops of scenery, history, and weaponry. Go to it!