(Hodder e-book, originally published 1973)
This book begins at the French Grand Prix, where a devastating collision has caused the death of a Californian driver, Isaac Jethou, and almost killed Johnny Harlow. It’s only one of a series of crashes which have dogged the Grand Prix circuit in the past season, one of which led to the death of Harlow’s younger brother. The crash and the death of his friend appear to have completely destroyed Harlow’s nerve, and the boss of the Coronado team, MacAlpine, for which he drives, is torn between wanting to keep his star driver driving – and winning races – and wanting to make him retire immediately, for his own and everyone else’s safety. Did Harlow really cause the accident which killed Jethou, as almost everyone on the track thinks, or was it an “act of God” as the official enquiry maintained? Jacobson, Coronado’s chief mechanic concurs with the majority, but Harlow himself is unconvinced.
It becomes obvious to the reader that Harlow is playing a part, while he investigates; that of the hopeless alcoholic whose nerve is gone. In fact, as MacLean shows, he’s in complete control of his actions, and is trying to mislead almost everyone around him. Pretty soon, his main antagonists are shown to be drivers Niccolo Tracchia, Harlow’s team-mate, and Willi Neubauer, who seem to be more than ordinarily concerned about what Harlow is up to. They’re helped by Rory MacAlpine, young son of the team boss, and brother to Mary, who was herself injured in the accident; Rory is convinced that Harlow caused the crash, and is thus responsible for his sister’s injury.
The first part of the book is very interesting, with its background of motor racing in an era where accidents were more common than nowadays and safety was taken less seriously by the majority of the participants. Harlow’s investigations are well done, and there’s some amusement to be had in seeing how he outwits his opponents and hoodwinks his team. However, the book descends into revenge thriller territory towards the end, with Harlow behaving in a murderously ruthless kind of way which is quite shocking after what has gone before. It’s this ending which lets down the rest of the novel, in my opinion, by making it one of a piece with those of MacLean’s other novels (such as Seawitch, for example) where the hero’s actions are “justified” by the narrative voice and not by the events of the novel.
The characters aren’t particularly well-developed, as is usual for MacLean, but the plot is exciting and often contains interesting details about motor-racing of the era (it might almost be a different sport nowadays, with its huge teams and computerised engine systems), although MacLean doesn’t reveal all until the end. It’s also nice that he allows Mary to make the running in her romantic relationship with Harlow, which develops over the course of the novel.
So, this thriller has some good things, but isn’t one of MacLean’s best.