I found this book waiting for me in a PaperBackSwap package when I got home one day last week. By lunch the next day, I'd finished it.Alistair MacLean's Circus
Published in 1975, Circus
is one of MacLean's last, and poorest, set of novels. I'm glad to report, however, that it was a very enjoyable read. It's not up to the technical standards of his earliest novels, but I liked it better than The Way to Dusty Death
Bruno Wildermann and his two younger brothers are known as the Blind Eagles, a group of extremely skillful trapeze and high-wire experts who perform blindfolded
. Bruno is the linchpin of the act, being in addition borderline clairvoyant and having a literally photographic memory. The Wildermanns were refugees from Eastern Europe, an unspecified country that seems to be either East Germany or Poland. His combination of skills and his background bring him to the attention of the CIA. Bruno agrees to break into a high-security prison and research center in the city of "Crau" and memorize/destroy certain plans.
The major criticisms of MacLean's latest period are excessive dialogue, "sagging" prose, poor characterization, and lazy description. These are the technical standards in which Circus
does not measure up; however, it is a long way from being the worst example. The dialogue is not excessive; I found none of it boring, and some quite amusing. The quality of the prose did not bother me or lose me, although it could have been sharper. My biggest criticism is that the antagonists do not quite live up to their menace and their knowledge. There is a definite reason to account partially for this, albeit is one I cannot reveal. Nonetheless, they do not even approach the terrifying efficiency and genuine brilliance of their counterparts in The Secret Ways.
MacLean handles the circus setup with quite a bit of skill; I found his descriptions fascinating in and of themselves. His characters are a little more nebulous than I like, yet they're interesting and I cared about them. Especially when they... never mind. Several of Bruno's fellow circus men are quite good creations. Their banter is reminiscent of Hansen, Zabrinkski, and Rawlings in Ice Station Zebra
might be held up as an example of the old "male writers write helpless females" trope. I won't go into a discussion of this, since it would be long and rife
with spoilers. Let me just say once again that MacLean uses layers of deception in his work. In Circus
, there are excellent
reasons for what he does with his characters (and I'm saying this generally, too), no matter how long it takes to see or how clichéd it seems in the meantime. In the specific instance, it's unfortunately not shown nor explained as skillfully as it was in the earlier novel that used the same idea. But it makes very, very good sense. MacLean is not an author to judge quickly. Even in 1975 he could be a master of subtlety.
After the initial exposition, things get menacing fast with two murders. I'll warn you - one is quite grisly, not for the descriptions but for the imagination. *shudder* Nonetheless, after Fear Is the Key
and The Satan Bug
, the relative lack of grimness in Circus
is a relief. It gets worse, trust me, but it's not a numbing grief or paralyzing fear that permeate the entire book. He hasn't lost the humorous touch by any means.
A very minor aside: I'm amused that the highest-up CIA man shown is an admiral. In The Hunt for Red October
, James Greer of the CIA (played by James Earl Jones) is also an admiral. Note: It's a departure for MacLean to use the CIA, although he used quite a few Americans in Ice Station Zebra
and did them well. I think the whole premise necessitated it.
I think I'd like to start including excerpts in my reviews. It's always great to get an idea of an author's style, even at its less-than-brilliant moments. In this excerpt (not necessarily the best, just the one that came to mind), a certain Colonel Sergius is having to deal with Alex, a less-than-successful... employee.
Sergius sighed. "Alas, it was ever thus. I am left to fight on virtually alone. All the decisions have to be made, all the thinking has to be done by a senior officer, which is no doubt why I am a senior officer." A false modesty was not one of Sergius's besetting sins. "Our Bruno Wildermann is clever, he may also be dangerous. He suspected, only he knows how, that he was under surveillance and put his suspicions to the test. He had this man Roebuck standing by to follow whoever might follow him. This would make Roebuck--and, by implication, the other two--something just a little bit more than friends. Roebuck followed Alex. He didn't go to borrow money, he went to inform Bruno that he, Bruno, had been followed by a man with a black coat, black moustache, very stupid." He bestowed a pitying glance on the crest-fallen shadower. "I don't suppose it ever occurred to you, Alex, to look over your shoulder? Just once?"
"I'm sorry, Colonel."
Sergius gave him a look more commonly associated with a starving crocodile which has just spotted lunch.