When Eight Bells Toll

Part of his excellent run of mid-career works, Alistair MacLean's 1966 thriller When Eight Bells Toll highlights his writing skill, experience, and ambition. Scenery, thoughts, and physical sensations are described with colorful, unhurried prose. This provides a nice contrast to the sudden violence that materializes whenever his protagonists seem to be making headway against the forces of evil. One of the fairly small number of stories he wrote from a first-person perspective, When Eight Bells Toll is a typically solid MacLean yarn.


Plot keypoints

Ships bearing valuable cargo — along with their crews — have been disappearing in Scottish waters. As the story begins, British agents assigned to shepherd one of these ships turn up dead. Can their colleagues, former marine salvage man Philip Calvert and his partner Hunslett, succeed where others have failed? And with so many people they encounter acting suspiciously — the police, the noble shipping magnate, his once-famous wife, the local lord's daughter — is there anyone they can trust?



  • MacLean's ability to paint word pictures was flourishing at this stage of his career.
  • His affection for boats and Scotland makes this story feel like a labor of love.
  • Peppered heavily with unforeseen actions and plot twists, the book is a genuine hard-to-put-down page-turner.
  • Readers are kept well in the dark regarding the sympathies and motives of some of the main characters, increasing the aura of suspense.



  • Stories that unfold almost entirely in boats are just not my favorite. The reader is expected to know a lot of nautical jargon and to keep straight the connections, depths, navigation hazards, etc., of a series of Scottish waterways. Some people's cuppa, perhaps, but not mine.
  • A first-person narrative has pluses and minuses. The protagonist isn't an omniscient observer, but the reader does expect to find out everything that the protagonist knows. So it's annoying when MacLean chooses to blot out bits of conversation, to keep us in suspense. For instance: "So I poured him another whisky, a large one, and told him what had happened, what I knew and as much of what I thought I knew as seemed advisable to tell him." This way, he skips part of the middle of a crucial conversation, and that happens multiple times in this book. Some of what actually transpired during those skipped parts is revealed in the how-we-solved-the-mystery monologue near the end. (That monologue extends for seven or eight pages ... an awkward and tiresome way to wrap up an action story.)
  • I found it highly unlikely that the type of people behind this book's crimes would really tolerate, much less encourage, the ruthless violence and terror used in carrying them out. Some humanitarian touches are thrown in, but still, the masterminds' personas don't match their underlings' actions.



A complex and suspenseful tale, told in intricate prose, still falls short of MacLean's very best.



(7 out of 10)