(HarperCollins 2009, originally published 1971)
Bear Island begins on board a ship, the Morning Rose, battering her way through the rough seas north of Shetland in late October. Apart from its crew (and ship’s doctor – and narrator – Christopher Marlowe), the ship is full of the cast and crew of a film to be made on the inhospitable and remote Bear Island, part of the Svalbard group of islands. However, the film is so secret that no-one apart from Johann Heissman, who wrote the script, and Otto Gerran, the producer, know what it’s about. The action starts immediately and almost without warning – although the majority of the non-sailors are very sea-sick, there’s more than sea-sickness affecting some of the passengers: Antonio, the make-up artist, hairdresser and wardrobe man dies, and so do two of the crew. Marlowe explains the deaths to Captain Imrie and Gerran as being accidental, from food poisoning, but he’s sure they’re due to deliberate poisoning by aconite. He has his own reasons for deliberately misleading everyone, but it’s some time before he reveals why.
Other people die, or are murderously attacked, as the old ship makes its way through the Arctic gale; Captain Imrie is pleased to offload all his passengers at the cabins in the south of the island, together with their equipment and props, and set off as soon as possible for Hammerfest. The island seems like an odd place to film anything, particularly in winter-time when there’s very little daylight, but it’s gradually revealed what’s going on, why, and who’s responsible.
MacLean, as Marlowe, reveals things gradually, thus increasing the tension – though there are in effect so many deaths, of characters whom the reader only knows about through hearsay, that their effect is rather blunted. Bear Island is a real place, and MacLean uses its remoteness, its topographic difficulty; its sheer bleakness very well, and he conveys the awfulness of the place so that you’d never want to go there! There are rather too many characters – what with the film cast and crew and the ship’s crew – that it’s difficult to keep them all clear and differentiated. Some do stand out – such as Judith Haynes, leading lady and Gerran’s daughter, who is both vulnerable and violently jealous and yet amoral; ‘Mary Stuart’, a relative of Heissman’s but not, she says, a very good actress; and Smithy, the mate and comrade-in-arms of the doctor, who is competent and unflappable – but I think the majority are names and mannerisms.
The plot is interesting, particularly once everyone is on the island and Marlowe starts letting Smithy in on what he knows, and the reader likewise; it’s certainly fast-moving and involving. Like most of MacLean’s books, it’s told in the first person, which does, I think, make for a very immediate kind of thriller: Marlowe does let the reader into his thoughts – but not all of them – and the timing of the reveals is cleverly done.
It’s not one of MacLean’s most action-led books, and the hero doesn’t have to go through the narrative carrying a severe injury; it’s a lot more reflective than some of his other books, and I think this may be down to the wintry setting and bleak inhospitableness of the island: I don’t know whether MacLean ever visited the place, but his writing about the island is very evocative.
If you like MacLean’s books, this is a slight departure from much of his oeuvre (though the lure of money is strong for the villains, which is a common trope in his books), but I wouldn’t recommend it as a place to start reading his thrillers if you’re new to his books: try the famous (and, incidentally, all filmed) The Guns of Navarone, or Ice Station Zebra, or When Eight Bells Toll, instead.