The Way to Dusty Death

When I was a kid, 1973's The Way to Dusty Death was one of my favorite Alistair MacLean books. This was partly due to my older brother's influence; a huge auto racing fan, he followed and mythologized the Grand Prix racing circuit that forms this book's core. My liking for it was also probably age-based, though, as a rereading many years later shows it to be "Alistair MacLean for 13-year-old boys." That's not necessarily a criticism; it's more of a pointer toward the audience best suited to this book.


Plot keypoints

Johnny Harlow, fantastically skilled Grand Prix champion, is suddenly losing his nerve — and his sobriety. His friends and enemies alike watch Johnny submerge himself in a morass of scotch, shaky behavior, and dangerous — even deadly — crashes. Meanwhile, a pall also hangs over his Coronado racing team for another reason: the disappearance of the owner's wife. What connection could there be between a kidnapping and a driver's downward spiral? And will the owner's daughter, the beautiful Mary, lose hope in her mother's return, or faith in her beloved Johnny?



  • If you like auto racing, you'll enjoy some of the scenes and references to the Grand Prix circuit.
  • As with a turbocharged engine, once the action starts, it revs along at high RPMs.
  • He adds some interesting looks at family dynamics, among the owner, his daughter, and her brother.



  • The best MacLeans are subtle, nuanced, psychological thrillers. This one works in broad, almost cartoonish brush strokes. The characters are largely stereotyped, and the plot is occasionally clumsy and generally unrealistic.
  • It takes the good-vs.-bad action a long time to start; nearly half the book is spent just documenting Harlow's dissolution. Only a patient reader will hang in long enough to reach the meat of the story.
  • Not to give too much away, but Johnny Harlow is that worst type of Alistair MacLean protagonist: the man of superhuman talents, fantastic ability to anticipate events, and nearly infallible judgment. Would the world's greatest driver transform himself into James Bond (except more so)? This strained my credibility.
  • Characters are forever invoking the Deity and questioning others' sanity. (Sample quote from a bad guy: "God's sake, Harlow, are you mad?") I doubt that high-level criminals (or good guys, for that matter) go around frequently spouting those sorts of phrases.



If you're an adolescent boy, you'll probably enjoy the vroom-vroom and bang-bang and smack!-oof! nature of this book. Adults can find Alistair MacLean books that better fit their intellectual desires.



 (6 out of 10)