Puppet on a Chain 

Written in his less-great-but-still-gripping late-1960s period, Alistair MacLean's Puppet on a Chain sends the reader careening through the dark byways of Amsterdam and a many-tentacled international drug ring. The story packs many wallops, thanks to near-ceaseless action, countless plot twists, and the gripping first-person narration of a relentless Interpol cop. MacLean's well-crafted prose is an artful accomplice that helps pull the reader ever deeper into the crime web and the protagonist's attempts to destroy it before it destroys any more lives. This is among his fastest-paced and creepiest books about good battling evil; it's a shame that a couple of weak points intrude to hold this tale back from ranking even higher among his thrillers.


Plot keypoints

Drawn by a friend's offer of important information about heroin smuggling, Major Paul Sherman flies into Amsterdam, together with two lovely assistants. No sooner has he landed than a murderous criminal organization sets out to deny him that information — and all other insights into their activities — by any means necessary. His attempts to investigate the drug gang leave him and his colleagues in grave danger, not knowing whether anyone they meet can really be trusted.



  • MacLean's lively and sometimes humorous writing keeps the reader enthralled.
  • You never have to wait long for action; it leaps out from almost every page.
  • Sherman's resourceful strategies, which help him oppose a massive conspiracy almost single-handed, are mostly believable.
  • As the story moves along, many pieces of the conspiracy are exposed in shocking fashion.
  • If you like seeing evildoers get their comeuppance, this tale will suit you; you just know they will pay for their crimes, and their punishments are commensurate with the scale of their sins.


  • The baddies' scheme is unrealistically convoluted; too many people taking too many steps to get the process from point A to point B.
  • Without meaning to spoil the plot, I'll reveal that the baddies sometimes have Sherman under their control — but they never eliminate him. Sure, you want to see him stick around ... but after the first couple of escapes, as he continues to unravel their schemes, you'd think they would learn. Instead, some of the more psychopathic criminals try to get pleasure from his predicaments. Hard to believe the big boss wouldn't simply order him to be terminated.
  • Too often, MacLean portrays intelligent females as naive doe-eyed little girls where the male protagonist is concerned. In the midst of this mission's death and danger, he shows Sherman's Interpol gal pals flouncing about in nightgowns and absurdly cooing over him. An intended romantic note clangs sourly on the very last page. He could write about women and romance more deftly (e.g., in The Secret Ways); too bad that was usually a weakness in his works.



Overlook the overly complex drug scheme and the occasionally absurd descriptions of women, and you'll find Puppet on a Chain a high-speed roller-coaster ride with dizzying twists.



(8 out of 10)