Less than fifty years ago, Alistair MacLean’s novels were international best-sellers that spawned major motion pictures. Today, his novels are out-of-print in America and MacLean, once considered a “master storyteller,” is virtually unknown to an entire generation of readers. This is tragic, for MacLean was one of the few authors of the last one-hundred years who both displayed a genuine comprehension of man’s potential for heroism and possessed the ability to convincingly portray this potential in literary form.
In her introduction to the reprinting of Victor Hugo’s Ninety-Three, Ayn Rand advised a new generation of that book’s readers: “Do not look for ‘the folks next door’—you are about to meet a race of giants, who might have and ought to have been your neighbors.”1 This insight is equally true of MacLean’s best novels, for in them he created a gallery of remarkable heroes who remain undaunted in the face of epic forces seeking their destruction.
MacLean’s best novels, written in the 1950s and 60s, pit British sailors, soldiers, and secret agents against Nazi and Soviet antagonists. His plots generally eschew romance in favor of non-stop, high-voltage action that grips the reader early and keeps him riveted until a final climactic showdown. MacLean’s first book, H.M.S. Ulysses, was published in 1955 and is one of his best. Set during World War II on the notoriously dangerous supply route Murmansk Run, it tells the story of a mutinous crew that—after too many days and nights of bleak and bitter convoy duty—rebels against overbearing authority. The British Admiralty, locked in the Allied struggle against Hitler and grossly undersupplied with men and warships, sends the Ulysses out on one last convoy mission through Arctic waters to supply Soviet efforts against Germany. But this is no ordinary supply run: The Ulysses and the convoy she protects are being offered up as bait to lure out of hiding the sister ship of the legendary Bismarck—the mighty battlewagon Tirpitz. The trip is, in effect, a one-way ticket to a hell in which the convoy will suffer incessant, numbing cold, furious Arctic storms, and unceasing assault by German planes, submarines, and cruisers.
The book’s tag line reads, “The story of men who rose to heroism, and then to something greater.” It is admirably exact. Although they are consistently outfoxed by cunning German commanders and suffer one crushing blow after another, the crew members of the Ulysses demonstrate in battle after interminable battle their unbreachable determination to protect the merchant vessels assigned them. MacLean neither trenchantly examines the nature of this “something greater” than heroism nor explores the characters of the select individuals able to achieve it. Instead, he provides a brutal, gut-wrenching—but uplifting—dramatization of what it looks like in action. The crew members of the Ulysses—sleep-deprived, malnourished, chronically wet, frostbitten, and tubercular—are thrown into an inescapable death conflict with a swarming, ruthless enemy. And yet these horrific conditions, presented in harrowing detail, are not the dominant essence of the novel. Rather, they constitute the ghastly backdrop against which a select few strive heroically to accomplish their mission. At story’s end, a reader may shake his head, uncertain as to whether he has witnessed triumph or tragedy, but certain that he has witnessed rare moments of august grandeur.
H.M.S. Ulysses is not representative of MacLean’s early work. The combination of the British Admiralty’s distrust of the mutiny ship, the crew’s consequent expendability, and the bitter Norse hell to which they are consigned pervades the novel with an inescapable gloom. Further, its final word is that an elite cadre among men can ascend to rarefied heights of valor—and that most men, including those in the upper echelons of command, cannot understand, much less appreciate, their extraordinary deeds. The heroes of the Ulysses die in horrific splendor inconceivable to men of plebeian character. . . .
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MacLean’s early books, written in the 1950s and 60s, are uniformly superb. Several are masterpieces, including the four discussed in this article. Unfortunately his later books, written in the 1970s and 80s, are weak and not recommended.
For those interested in obtaining and reading MacLean’s out-of-print novels, there is good news: His early books sold so well during his heyday that used copies can readily be found for sale at Amazon.com or for loan through local libraries.
1 Ayn Rand, The Romantic Manifesto (New York: Penguin, 1971), pp. 154-55.
2 Alistair MacLean, The Secret Ways (New York: Fawcett Books, 1959), p. 99.
3 Ibid., pp. 99–100.