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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.

 

Early 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.

 

Top-Notch Novelist

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.

 

Downward Slide

As MacLean got older, 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 death.

 

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 that conflict 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!