The Secret Ways

(also known as The Last Frontier)

His fourth book, The Secret Ways (its U.S. title; original title was The Last Frontier), catches MacLean at peak form. Combining a twist-and-turn espionage plot with an injection of Cold War politics, The Secret Ways is my favorite of his works. Characters are lifelike and sympathetic; unexpected dangers and salvations are fully believable; and larger points about freedom and tyranny merely spice the mixture.


Plot keypoints

Michael Reynolds, a highly trained but fallible British agent, is sent into communist Hungary to spirit out a nuclear scientist who is being blackmailed into helping the despotic government. He finds allies in the freedom-fighter underground ... but he also finds formidable enemies in the dreaded secret police.



  • MacLean spends time deepening and enriching the reader's vision of the scenery, political climate, and desperate citizens in that evil time.
  • Good guys are a varied lot, from the classic MacLean physical superman to the master of disguise to the escaped political prisoner searching ceaselessly for his wife. We even get to see many facets of the love interest, showing her as a flesh-and-blood woman rather than a stereotypical dainty dame or tough broad.
  • Action scenes are thrilling yet fresh. For instance, the battle between the good and bad strongmen is a highlight of the book's denouement, rather than a throwaway as in Circus.
  • The dark effects of communism are shown and discussed in memorable ways.
  • Reynolds makes an interesting transition from simple tool to complex moral character.
  • The entire book is a well-drawn illustration of how an indomitable spirit can overcome seemingly impossible odds.



  • Now that communism no longer dominates Eastern Europe, some characters' (and hence MacLean's) railing against it might become tiresome. (It didn't affect me that way, but the potential is there.)
  • Smaller touches also reveal the book's age; for instance, MacLean needs to explain what a Doberman Pinscher is, while modern readers probably are familiar with this dog breed.



If you like thrillers (and can mentally place yourself 50 years in the past), I give this one my highest recommendation.



 (10 out of 10)