The first part of my mini-review of MacLean’s thrillers is here, while part two follows below.
Night Without End (1959) was MacLean’s fifth novel. It’s told in the first-person by Dr Mason, who with two companions – an Inuit called Jackstraw and a Briton named London – are working at a research station in the high Greenland. A plane crashes nearby, and the team go out to rescue the passengers. It’s soon apparent that there’s been sabotage and murder, and the team’s radio is smashed, making contact with the outside world impossible until the rest of the team return with more stores and spares. Since they have very little food remaining, Mason decides to take all the survivors to another station, since it’s a choice between this and death by starvation.
As in Bear Island and Ice Station Zebra, MacLean evokes the dark bitter wastes of the Arctic ice cap with economy and precision, and the horrifying situation in which they all find themselves is worsened by the fact that Mason has to reveal that at least one and possibly two of the surviving passengers are murderers. This is tense and exciting, though this is due mostly to the setting and the dilemma they face; the stolen apparatus which precipitates murder and sabotage is really something of a McGuffin – which MacLean acknowledges wryly. The characters are sympathetic and varied, including two women, and Mason is often wrong in his assumptions and deductions.
Breakheart Pass (1974) is, I think, the only one of MacLean’s novels to be historical fiction: it’s set in the west of the United States in 1873, and draws on a number of real-life events, though MacLean admits that it’s not entirely historically accurate. The book describes a journey in winter through the Nevada territory as a train carries troops and other goods up to Fort Humboldt: the garrison of which has been decimated by cholera. On board the train is the territory’s Governor Fairchild, his niece Marica (daughter of Humboldt’s commander), Colonel Claremont, the governor’s aide Major O’Brien, US Marshal Pearce, an old Army friend of O’Brien’s, the fort’s new chaplain Rev Peabody and Dr Molyneux, an expert on tropical diseases. Also along for the ride is John Deakin, outlaw and murderer. As the train travels higher into the mountains, and more people disappear or are killed, MacLean slowly reveals that almost no-one on board is telling the truth about what they’re doing.
I liked this historical setting, the clever writing, and the exciting plot. The characters are a bit MacLean stock, though I liked they way they were gradually revealed in their true guises, Marica was interesting and well-drawn, and the dialogue was fun. It’s a standard MacLean plot, apart from the historical setting, but very well done and very readable.
Goodbye California (1978), the last in the current tranche, is one of MacLean’s later novels and employs a third-person narrative. It’s main characters are policemen – father and son – in San Francisco, investigating a theft of nuclear material from the San Ruffino power plant where Ryder’s wife works. It transpires that it’s the action of a terrorist group who have also kidnapped a number of prominent nuclear scientists and forced one of them to create a series of nuclear bombs. First of all, the cops have to battle corruption in their own force – in the guise of police chief Donohue and Judge Kendrick – before they can get a lead on who might be responsible, and what their ultimate aims are. MacLean also shows us scenes from the viewpoints of the terrorists and the kidnap victims, and reveals that the terrorists, a Muslim extremist sect, plan to use the series of bombs they have created to set off a massive earthquake which will obliterate California’s coastal cities (lest you think I’ve giving away major plot points here, I should add that it’s fairly obvious from the beginning what the group want to achieve, since MacLean practically spells it out in his author’s preface). This was an interesting and enjoyable thriller, though Ryder is almost unbelievably competent – though the plot reminded me a lot of MacLean’s earlier The Golden Gate.
All in all, MacLean’s thrillers are exciting, tense and thrilling; there’s usually very little romance and no sex, though there are usually some women characters; and while people do die and are killed, MacLean tends not to dwell so much on violence as, say, Ian Fleming does in his Bond thrillers. I’d recommend you don’t read too many at once, since there is something of a sameiness about the later books, in particular, though they’re good, short, readable thrillers. I especially like The Golden Rendezvous, Ice Station Zebra, When Eight Bells Toll and Breakheart Pass. HMS Ulysses, his first book, is rather different, since it tells the story of a ship on convoy duty during the Second World War, and, while exciting, it unfortunately doesn’t stand comparison with Nicholas Monsarrat’s The Cruel Sea.