Spies and thrills: Romantic fiction for a growing boy

A small dusty man in a small dusty room. All these years later I remember that first line from a thriller by an once-popular Scottish writer. This is his centenary year of him but I doubt if much will be made of it. Yet, Alistair Maclean, the best-selling author of action-packed thrillers (long before that phrase became a cliché) briefly outsold even Agatha Christie.

The heroes were excessively macho, and the women mostly insubstantial figures, but the plot moved at a rolling pace, and at a certain age (12 to 14 in my case), that is an attractive combination. You like things to be in black and white, and there is no gray in these adventures. You picked up an Alistair Maclean for a romp through the world of spies and terrorists, betrayals and suspense, disasters and dangerous missions. It was romantic fiction of a sort for a growing boy.

Maclean himself didn’t have any illusions. “I’m not a novelist”, he once said. “That’s too pretentious a claim. I’m a storyteller, a craftsman.” He often found writing “boring” and “lonely” but he said, “it all boils down to that rather awful philosophy of take the money and run.”

But he was better than that self-image. Popular novelist Lee Child is among those who credit Maclean with inspiring them. The author of the Jack Reacher novels has said “even now I copy his style quite shamelessly.” Maclean, he explained, “wrote heroes who teeter awfully close to ‘over the top’ parodies, but never, ever fall over the edge. I try and keep Jack Reacher this side of parody in the way that Alistair MacLean did.”

A Maclean best-seller was usually followed by a Maclean blockbuster movie with some of Hollywood’s top actors: Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood, Gregory Peck, Anthony Hopkins, Harrison Ford, Ben Kingsley, Vanessa Redgrave, Pierce Brosnan, Charlotte Rampling.

Maclean also appeared in the odd Bollywood movie – in Aradhanafor instance, Sharmila Tagore is reading his When Eight Bells Toll while Rajesh Khanna serenades (to stretch the meaning of the word) her with Mere Sapnon ki Rani.

Maclean often connected uncle with nephew and father with son, all of them keen to grab his novel as soon as it arrived in India. The books were also popular for their singular lack of sex – “it holds up the action,” said Maclean, whose focus was on speed and thrill, not characterization or nuance.

He was prolific although the later work didn’t quite match up. Some of the bad novels were made into bad movies. At one point Maclean gave up writing and decided to go into the hotel business. But that did n’t work out and he was back at his desk.

novels like Where Eagles Dare, The Guns of Navarone, Ice Station Zebra have always seemed to be around even as Maclean ran into an author’s greatest enemy, irrelevance. I do not know if I will enjoy his books by him now. But how would a remake of Where Eagles Dare with Brad Pitt and Benedict Cumberbatch fare today?

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