Shortly after moving into our old house, my wife and I stepped into the wonderful maze of the remaining independent bookseller in Lafayette that also happened to be in our neighborhood. Inside, in one of those lovely moments of finding something from your past, I came across a copy of Alistair MacLean’s South by Java Head. As an adolescent reader, I had rapidly run through my father’s collection of MacLean novels. They were, in a way, my next step after the Hardy Boys.
I had read the Navarone books, and I remembered reading a whole lot of others, but I had never read South by Java Head, which was MacLean’s third published novel. Strangely enough, it was a lot like one of my favorites of MacLean, The Golden Rendezvous, which I had carried with me as a battered paper back through many years of graduate school. Reading South by Java Head scratched an itch and it didn’t spur me to read more of MacLean for a while. A few years went by and I found myself purchasing a few more here and there, but I wasn’t drawn to read them. Not until this past summer when something about being in the new house returned me to MacLean and I read The Golden Rendezvous (again), Ice Station Zebra, and Night Without End.
And now I am reading The Secret Ways, and my initial response is that I like South by Java Head and The Golden Rendezvous better. Unlike the other books, at least those I have re-read so far, SbJH and TGR do not feature professional spies as protagonists but rather capable men simply caught up in larger events. It may be no accident that both men are executive officers of merchant ships. MacLean was himself a sailor: his first book H.M.S. Ulysses was, I believe, based fairly closely on his naval experience. Perhaps he is at his best when imagining himself caught up in larger events.
Another response is that MacLean’s prose, when he is at his best, is quite good. Better than Clive Cussler. I am listening to Cussler’s The Chase right now as an Audible book, and I have listened to two of the books from the Oregon Files series. Cussler’s prose really can’t be even described as workman-like, for at times it is so — clumsy? awkward? — that it actually gets in the way of itself. (Please note that I am quite sure Cussler doesn’t care one whit about evaluations of his prose style: the man has produced a remarkable oeuvre not only in his “only-author” books but also in the franchises he has set up with other authors. He is able to do so because readers have come to expect a certain kind of book from him and his name is a trustworthy brand to deliver that content. I should be so industrious and smart as Cussler … I just wish I could edit him here and there. That’s all.)
I read both MacLean and Cussler less as an English professor and more as a writer: Could I do this? Could I pull off this plot line? How would I do it different? What story can I tell? What do they do well that I could imitate/use in my own work, no matter whether it is nonfiction or fiction?
I have no idea if there is any scholarly treatments of either author. Ian Fleming has certainly achieved a certain status now. Perhaps it is time to give MacLean his due. I wonder where he fits within the larger chronology of the development of the spy thriller or whatever one calls this genre that also includes the work of Cussler and Robert Ludlum — remember his three word titles? — and later folks like Tom Clancy and I suppose now Dan Brown(?).