Back when I first started reading Alistair MacLean, I was enthralled and wanted to share my find with the world. It was disconcerting to discover how hard writing a review was. "Hah!" you'll say. "How many words and posts have you made on the fellow in the last month, hmm?" Ah, but those are on him, on his style and the elements of his writing. In the intervening years enough has gelled for me to have a semi-coherent analysis.
But the plots, still no. Take, for example, Fear Is The Key, which I started last night and finished this morning. A good review should begin with a summary, no? Well, here's my summary:
I'm not being cute. In journalistic writing, I was able to focus on the W's (and the H) to get the point of the story across. Who, [did] What, When, Where, Why, and How. For a review, sometimes all of the W's would let out a spoiler. Easy enough to avoid, right? You just tell part of the answer, and maybe leave out a couple W's and the H that reveal too much. But for Fear Is The Key, the W's and the H are Spoiler City. I'll do an exercise and see what I come up with.
Who: Uh... His name? John Talbot. But who is he? There's nothing I can say to that. In a MacLean story, identity and character are not confused or ambivalent. The reader simply doesn't know. That is, the intelligent reader doesn't know. The ordinary reader thinks he does, until he's been fooled two or three times and gives up.
[did] What: Definitely off limits. I can't offer even the tiniest smidgeon of the beginning of a hint, or you'll start guessing things.
When: Ah, well, this doesn't tell you much. 1962 or 1963, I think. The prologue is in 1958.
Where: Southeast Florida, partially, and partially off Key West on an oil rig. No, that is not any kind of a hint; you can't extrapolate from that unless you're really imaginative. Try it. I dare you. *g*
How: Double uh-uh.
Okay, we've got a protagonist, John Talbot, in Florida and the Gulf of Mexico in 1962. What kind of a summary is that? Is it anything to build a review on?
Now that I've maundered on enough to give this entry a more-than-respectable length, I might as well attempt something worthwhile about Fear Is The Key. So I don't have to restate it every two sentences, take it as a given that I could offer a less vague analysis if I didn't mind giving away plot points.
I think it's the saddest MacLean books I've read. I don't like sad books. I liked this one still because (1) it's a MacLean and (2) there's no dwelling on the sadness. It's shoved to the back of the reader's mind, just as it is in Talbot's. MacLean does not develop his characters by giving a psychological profile of their suffering. He gives the facts, and a poignant phrase, and allows human emotion to develop a deeper empathy than any words would create. Like in a Nero Wolfe I just read. To an acquaintance who'd just lost his only son, a flier, in Sicily: "I would hold up your heart if I could." From Wolfe, that irritable, contrary, unsympathetic genius, it's outrageous. Outrageous and heartbreaking.
Correspondingly, it's one of the least humorous MacLeans. Oh, his word choice is as much a delight as ever, and well-worthy of a few chuckles. But it's in first person from Talbot's point of view, and Talbot isn't in a very funny mood. He can still see the humor in things, but even his naturally dry humor is tinged by more than a little bitterness.
MacLean's more poetic titles, I ought to mention, are particularly apt, once the reader discovers what they mean. Night Without End, which takes place on the Greenland ice cap, refers to the endless darkness that falls when the midnight sun sets. Fear Is the Key and The Way to Dusty Death are even more integral to their plots.
My verdict? It's not in my absolute favorites list, but there's no real reason I can give. It's good, very good. The opening sequence/hundred pages/however many chapters is, ah, excellent reading. (Boy, he can mess with your mind!) And that's not to minimize the rest. No Save The World stuff, either. Just some rats who need a very definite squashing, and a man with a great desire to right a wrong.