River of Death 

While it wasn't his last book chronologically, River of Death was the final Alistair MacLean novel that I read (in late 2010). It shows clear signs of having been written during his waning-effort period of the early 1980s. Still, it is not nearly devoid of interesting material; it just feels like an early draft that needed to be fleshed out further. A few characters are well developed, while others appear two-dimensional and hastily created. Some scenery is described in loving detail, creating a palpable atmospheric sense, while the surroundings are glossed over in other sections. I can't wholeheartedly recommend River of Death, but it packs enough intrigue to make a quick perusal worthwhile. I also thought that this storyline could be turned into a good movie; in fact, a movie version (with a greatly altered plot) was released in 1989, but it wasn't what I'd call good (see my review here).


Plot keypoints

In the waning days of World War II, a pair of rogue German SS officers have a falling-out over a fortune in looted treasures. Pause the action ... and resume it decades later in Brazil. A shadowy magnate named Smith is delighted when itinerant explorer John Hamilton offers to take him to a fabled lost city, deep in the treacherous jungles. Along with his two masterful helpers, Hamilton leads Smith and his associates toward an unexpected climax, where vengeance awaits and few people are what they seem to be.



  • Viewed in its own right, the plotline is a promising intermingling of Nazis, gold, savage tribes, and multiple revenge.
  • MacLean's superb sense for portraying characters and their surroundings is evident in many scenes, though not nearly all.
  • To his credit, MacLean just subtly hints at a possible future romantic thread, without nearly overdoing that angle as he did in some of his other works from this era.



  • Outside of its "classic MacLean" scenes, this book often consists of forgettable prose and cliched action. For example, more than once we see a good guy knock an enemy unconscious with one blow from a knife handle, and the descriptions are boringly matter-of-fact.
  • When (pardon the following minor spoiler) some bad guys capture the good guys, they make the typical mistake of not guarding the heroes closely enough, despite the obvious threat posed by a crew who had overcome many obstacles to infiltrate the enemy camp.
  • There are a few of MacLean's usual "alcohol solves everything" scenes, though they're not as heavy-handed as in some other books.



River of Death is sometimes excellent but too often just okay. It had potential to be much more.



 (5 out of 10)