I discovered Alistair MacLean sometime early in my high school years. As is often the case, I do not remember exactly which of his books I first read. At a guess, it would have most likely been Guns of Navarone, Ice Station Zebra, or Fear Is the Key. Whichever it was, I know I felt I had discovered a writer of excellent adventures.
MacLean’s bio at Goodreads offers a little bit more of an intro than wiki:
Alistair MacLean, the son of a Scots Minister, was brought up in the Scottish Highlands. In 1941, at the age of eighteen, he joined the Royal Navy; two and a half years spent aboard a cruiser were to give him the background for ‘HMS Ulysses’, his first novel, the outstanding documentary novel on the war at sea. After the war he gained an English Honours degree at Glasgow University, and became a schoolmaster. In 1983, he was awarded a D. Litt. from the same university.
MacLean is the author of twenty-nine world bestsellers and recognized as an outstanding writer in his own genre. Many of his titles have been adapted for film – ‘The Guns of the Navarone’, ‘Force Ten from Navarone’, ‘Where Eagles Dare’ and ‘Bear Island’ are among the most famous.
His wiki does cover a fair amount of analyses on MacLean’s writing styles, dividing them into four fairly distinct periods although as the wiki also points out:
Certain themes are repeated in virtually all of MacLean’s novels. For example, they typically feature a male character who is depicted as physically and morally indestructible (for instance, Carrington in HMS Ulysses or Andrea in The Guns of Navarone); such characters are also often described as having an almost inhuman tolerance for alcohol consumption (such as the Count in The Last Frontier or Jablonsky in Fear is the Key). MacLean was known to reuse plot devices, characterizations, and even specific phrases. For example, the description “huddled shapelessness of the dead” occurs in some form in several stories, while the villain, on realising that his death is imminent, has a face contorted into a “snarling rictus” (or wolfish grin) of terror. Names are often reused as well, with chief female characters being frequently named Mary, or a variation thereupon (Marie, Maria), while a number of MacLean’s lead male characters are named John. His villains usually feature a coldly competent and ruthless mastermind paired with a hulking, brutishly powerful subordinate.
I never really read MacLean’s works nor looked to them for some type of literary merit. I was reading them for a good, page-turning action story and on that he pretty much delivered. While I have a number of MacLean’s later books in hardback packed away, I’m not sure how many of them I would go back and re-read. I’m sure some of them would seem outdated to me. One surprise (that I’m sure I had known at one time but had forgotten) was that MacLean wrote the book Breakheart Pass.
The movies from his books though seem to be the type that I can watch most any time I come across them. Guns of Navarone with Gregory Peck, David Niven, and Anthony Quinn. Force 10 from Navarone with Harrison Ford and Robert Shaw. Breakheart Pass with Charles Bronson. And of course, Where Eagles Dare with Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood.
From wiki on the movies:
Many of MacLean’s novels were made into films, but none completely captured the level of detail and the intensity of his writing style as exemplified in classics such as Fear is the Key; the two most artistically and commercially successful film adaptations were The Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare. Moreover, MacLean also wrote screenplays, some of them based on his novels and others later novelized by other writers. MacLean wrote the novel and screenplay of Where Eagles Dare at the same time; in effect it was commissioned by Richard Burton, who wanted to make a “boy’s own” type adventure film that he could take his son to see. The book and screenplay differ markedly in that, in the book, the Smith and Schaffer characters at times go out of their way not to kill anyone, whereas in the film they basically shoot anything that moves. In fact, the film contains Clint Eastwood’s highest on-screen body count, as well as a far more laconic interpretation of the Schaffer character.
And that is an interesting distinction for a movie to have – given all the Dirty Harry movies from Eastwood and the violence, it is a WWII action flick where he kills the most.
Photo from admiral.ironbombs licensed under Creative Commons