The World War II nautical adventure San Andreas (1984) is an odd bird. While showing off Alistair
MacLean's familiarity with oceanic military operations of that era, it is a long and sometimes slow-moving
drama that also focuses on developing connections among key characters even as they await almost certain doom.
(Perhaps this is a good allegory for war duty: long periods of inaction during which relationships are formed and
strengthened, flavored with sudden deadly onslaughts.) Hewing closely to many familiar MacLean themes, San
Andreas barely avoids parody in some areas, such as the motley collection of people rescued by the ship
from various disasters. All the same — and despite the overly langorous pace — I was surprised at
the energetic prose in many parts, more reminiscent of earlier Alistair MacLean books than of the dreck
he produced in his final years.
Laws of war make hospital ships such as Britain's San Andreas off-limits to enemy attacks. In this
case, the German enemy pays no heed to those laws. The ship's desperate voyage across the North Sea is
interrupted by a savage assault that wipes out part of its crew and leaves it weakened in the face of
great danger. As if the enemies outside weren't troublesome enough, saboteurs are also damaging the ship and its
crew from within. With the ship's captain badly injured, bosun Archie McKinnon and a handful of
reliable officers must figure out how to survive bomber and U-boat attacks while rooting out the evildoers
aboard the San Andreas.
- From the prologue on, this often reads like classic MacLean, showing how all-too-human protagonists (in a
well-detailed naval setting) struggle to shorten the long odds against their very survival.
- Given the amount of real action that occurs, the book feels too long by about a third. Many pages are spent
describing unenthralling events such as repairs being made to portions of the ship.
- As usual, one protagonist is clever enough to anticipate almost everything the enemies will attempt ... and
on the few occasions when he overlooks a threat, he is full of self-recrimination, even though nobody else had
seen it coming either. That gets a bit old.
- Though more substantial than in some of his other later works, the romantic subplots (plural!) still don't
feel genuine; just too much cleverness and over-emoting, while a real war is raging around them.
- Some plot twists that seem to be in the works never quite materialize. For example, the half-German British
nurse and the half-British German pilot almost seem to know each other ... but we never learn more about their
connections, or why they are immediately so chummy.
- The universal solution to any physical or mental problem is, as in so many other MacLean books, alcohol. If
I urgently needed to figure out how to evade a U-boat or how to navigate through unknown waters without
instruments, I wouldn't spend time going into rapture over a glass of scotch.
While San Andreas falls short (or perhaps overly long) of its early promise, it is a fairly diverting step up
from other 1980's-era Alistair MacLean novels.
♦♦♦♦♦♦ (6 out of