The Satan Bug

Among the best of Alistair MacLean's pulse-pounders, The Satan Bug is a roller-coaster ride of twists, turns, red herrings, and good old-fashioned detective work. Published in 1962 under the pseudonym of Ian Stuart, it's immediately recognizable as a MacLean work from his best years (late '50s / early '60s). His typically flawed protagonist is responsible for the fate of not just his colleagues ... not even just an army ... but all life as we know it. If you're like me, this high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse with the evildoers will stimulate both your thoughts and your adrenaline production. (Note: the widely available paperback version republished with his real name shows a man dashing away with a briefcase; my 1963 "Ian Stuart" paperback's cover displays a trenchcoat-and-fedora-wearing villain with one hand grasping a struggling dame and the other pointing a gun at the reader — a wonderfully stereotypical tough-guy crime image of that era.) A movie of The Satan Bug, based on the book but reimagined in a very different physical setting, was released in 1965.


Plot keypoints

Pierre Cavell, former security chief at Britain's secretive Mordon Microbiological Research Establishment, knows what types of destructive toxins are developed and refined there. So he is naturally suspicious when a visitor to his private investigation service tries to involve him in transporting biological agents that have been spirited out of Mordon. Little does he suspect that this ruse will enmesh him in trying desperately to outwit the murderous gang that has stolen ampules of the "Satan Bug" — a fantastically deadly virus that could wipe out all life forms on Earth.



  • The intrigue and deception begins on the first page and doesn't let up until the breathtaking conclusion.
  • Cavell is a fine example of MacLean's almost endlessly cunning yet all-too-human heroes.
  • A small group of other "good guys" — a high official, a dogged inspector, and the inevitable Mary — are well developed, showing that it takes all types of people to overcome such a powerful menace. MacLean also adds color by including some distinctive and memorable characters in lesser roles.
  • Plenty of suspects and motives are shown; it's entertaining to guess who was involved in the crimes, and to what degree.
  • Clues (some blatant, some less obvious) are provided to aid readers in unraveling the events.
  • Once all the detective work has produced a main suspect, MacLean changes gears nicely to chase/action scenes.



  • Just enough characters were presented as possible suspects that I occasionally had trouble keeping them all straight — but that's probably my shortcoming, not MacLean's.
  • The sheer complexity of the criminal plot, and the personal shortcomings of some scientists who should never have passed Mordon's top-security clearances, made the book less than fully believable. Think of it as entertainment rather than realism.



MacLean melds investigation, action, and world peril into an enjoyable stew in The Satan Bug.



 (9 out of 10)