I’ve recently started re-reading the early Alistair MacLean novels and whilst not a classic mystery, along with a number of other thrillers, it made the Crime Writers’ Association Top 100 books list in 1990 so I feel justified in giving it a full review on this blog.
1,200 Allied soldiers wait on the Aegean island of Kheros to be defeated by an impending German assault. The Royal Navy could evacuate them if only the massive guns on the nearby island of Navarone could be disabled and so far they have been immune to everything that has been thrown at them.
In one last throw of the dice, Captain Keith Mallory and his handpicked commando squad are sent to enter Navarone by the backdoor: the sheer, virtually unclimbable, South Cliff. Facing physical hardship and extreme danger at every turn, and the tightest of deadlines, can they succeed where everyone else has failed?
This book sets the template in many ways for MacLean going forward: the feats of men (and it is almost always men) attempting the impossible whilst being outnumbered and outgunned, facing the possibility of betrayal from within and at their physical limit, often in the freezing cold, and usually sleep deprived. The particular narrative here of a small, specialised group being sent undercover to achieve a specific objective would also influence other writers. This was the first book of this type that I ever read and I haven’t since come across anything similar with an earlier date so if anyone does know of any precursors please let me know.
The book touches upon various concepts that may not normally be pulled out and analysed from a thriller but I want to do so here:
1. The unfair parental expectations put on Stevens by his father. As much as the next man I want my children to be Sheffield Wednesday supporting GAD addicts and whilst one of those has already gone down the drain, I know that, in the words of the well-known proverb, you can lead a child to a well-stocked GAD library but you can’t make them read.
2. Although Stevens appears to be successful ideas this has come at a great personal cost. He is all too aware of his own fears and believes Mallory and Andrea to be fearless superheroes until the latter explains otherwise:
“We are all brave men and we are all afraid, and what the world calls a brave man, he, too, is brave and afraid like all the rest of us. Only he is brave for five minutes longer. Or sometimes ten minutes, or twenty minutes – or the time it takes a man sick and bleeding and afraid to climb a cliff.”
If Stevens had felt able to talk about his struggles, or more importantly Mallory as he himself acknowledges had spotted that Stevens was in no fit shape to be the last man on the climb, things may have worked out very differently. Speaking to myself as much as to the reader, we need to more open about our own struggles and especially be aware of what other people may be going through.
3. Whilst Jensen will send men to almost certain death with almost no chance of success the idea of sending someone to certain death with a much better chance of success i.e. “cram a Mosquito full of TNT and crash-dive it into the mouth of the gun cave” is not countenanced. But whilst you may not be able morally to send someone to certain death, it transpires that someone can be free to choose this of their own volition: after all “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
The book was filmed in 1961 starring Gregory Peck and David Niven and this diverges somewhat from the book, to its detriment in my opinion, but it did give us this wonderful theme by Dimitri Tiomkin which was later adapted in various Ska versions such as this by the Specials and successfully summarised Squadron Leader Torrance’s views into this quote from the brilliant Richard Harris.
When Googling book cover images I also found that there was a related toy:
The full CWA list can be found here on the Past Offences blog where each title has been reviewed. I own 27, have read another 23, have another 3 on my TBR pile – although The Woman in White despite being started may never get finished – and am interested in a further 4.
What Else I’ve Been Reading Recently
There Was An Old Woman by Ellery Queen – old Ellery is back in a tale that is clearly set before “Calamity Town” and I believe I have read was drafted a lot earlier as well. Two members of the eccentric shoemaking Potts family take part in an early morning duel and despite Ellery’s precautions it does not end well. This sets the scene for a mystery that rivals “The Greek Coffin Mystery” for complexity and ends with a bizarre piece of in-universe retconning. A very good read and apologies to Brad for once again relegating Queen to a mere footnote!