Alistair MacLean

Alistair MacLean

Infobox Person
name=Alistair MacLean

caption= Alistair MacLean, late in life
birth_date=birth date|1922|4|28|mf=y
birth_place= Glasgow, Scotland
death_date=death date and age|1987|2|2|1922|4|28
death_place= Munich, Germany

Alistair Stuart MacLean (28 April 1922 - 2 February 1987; Scottish Gaelic: "Alasdair MacGill-Eain") was a Scottish novelist who wrote successful thrillers or adventure stories, the best known of which are perhaps "The Guns of Navarone" and "Where Eagles Dare", both having been made into successful films. He also wrote under the pseudonym Ian Stuart.


MacLean was the son of a minister, and learned English as his second language after his mother tongue, Scottish Gaelic. He was born in Glasgow but spent much of his childhood and youth in Daviot, 10 miles south of Inverness.

He joined the Royal Navy in 1941, serving in World War II with the ranks of Ordinary Seaman, Able Seaman, and Leading Torpedo Operator. He was first assigned to PS "Bournemouth Queen", a converted excursion ship fitting for anti-aircraft guns, on duty off the coasts of England and Scotland. From 1943, he served on HMS "Royalist", a "Dido"-class light cruiser. On "Royalist" he saw action in 1943 in the Atlantic theatre, on two Arctic convoys and escorting carrier groups in operations against "Tirpitz" and other targets off the Norwegian coast; in 1944 in the Mediterranean theatre, as part of the invasion of southern France and in helping to sink blockade runners off Crete and bombard Milos in the Aegean Sea (during this time MacLean may have been injured in a gunnery practice accident); and in 1945, in the Far East theatre, escorting carrier groups in operations against Japanese targets in Burma, Malaya, and Sumatra. (MacLean's late-in-life claims that he was captured by the Japanese and tortured have been dismissed by both his son and his biographer as drunken ravings. [Webster p. 191] ) After the Japanese surrender, "Royalist" helped evacuate liberated POWs from Changi Prison in Singapore.

MacLean was released from the Royal Navy in 1946. He then studied English at the University of Glasgow, graduating in 1953, and then worked as a school teacher in Rutherglen.

While a university student, MacLean began writing short stories for extra income, winning a competition in 1954 with the maritime story "Dileas". The publishing company Collins asked him for a novel and he responded with "HMS Ulysses", based on his own war experiences, as well as credited insight from his brother Ian, a Master Mariner. The novel was a great success and MacLean was soon able to devote himself entirely to writing war stories, spy stories and other adventures.

In the early 1960s, MacLean published two novels under the pseudonym "Ian Stuart" in order to prove that the popularity of his books was due to their content rather than his name on the cover. They sold well, but MacLean made no attempt to change his writing style and his fans may easily have recognized him behind the Scottish pseudonym. MacLean's books eventually sold so well that he moved to Switzerland as a tax exile. From 1963–1966, he took a hiatus from writing to run a hotel business in England.

MacLean's later books were not as well received as the earlier ones and, in an attempt to keep his stories in keeping with the time, he sometimes lapsed into overly improbable plots. He also struggled constantly with alcoholism, which eventually brought about his death in Munich in 1987. He is buried a few yards from Richard Burton in Céligny, Switzerland. He was married twice and had three sons with his first wife.

MacLean was awarded a Doctorate of Literature by the University of Glasgow in 1983.

Style of writing

Compared to other thriller writers of the time, such as Ian Fleming, MacLean's books are exceptional in one way at least: they have an absence of sex and most are short on romance because MacLean thought that such diversions merely serve to slow down the action. Nor do the MacLean books resemble the more recent techno-thriller approach. Instead, he lets little hinder the flow of events in his books, making his heroes fight against seemingly unbeatable odds and often pushing them to the limits of their physical and mental endurance. MacLean's heroes are usually calm, cynical men entirely devoted to their work and often carrying some kind of secret knowledge. A characteristic twist is that one of the hero's closest companions turns out a traitor.

Nature, especially the sea and the Arctic north, plays an important part in MacLean's stories, and he used a variety of exotic parts of the world as settings to his books. Only one of them, "When Eight Bells Toll", is set in his native Scotland. MacLean's best books are often those in which he was able to make use of his own direct knowledge of warfare and seafare, such as "HMS Ulysses" which is now considered a classic of naval fiction.

Stylistically, MacLean's novels can be broken down into four periods:
# "HMS Ulysses" through to "The Last Frontier". These featured third-person narratives and a somewhat epic tone, and were mostly set during World War II. "The Last Frontier" contained overt philosophical and moral themes that were not well received. MacLean then switched gears to —
# "Night Without End" through to "Ice Station Zebra". These all featured first person (and sometimes unreliable) narration laced with a dry, sardonic, self-depreciating humour, and were all set in contemporary times. These are MacLean's most intensely plotted tales, masterfully blending thriller and detective elements. MacLean then retired from writing for three years, returning with —
# "When Eight Bells Toll" through to "Bear Island", a varied collection that still maintained a generally high quality, with some books harking back to each of the first two periods but usually taking a more cinematic approach (not surprising since he began writing screenplays during this time). Finally —
# "The Way to Dusty Death" to the end. There were no more first-person stories, and his prose often sagged badly, with excessive dialogue, lazily described scenes, and poor characterization. Some of the books are better than others, and all sold reasonably well, but MacLean never regained his classic form.

Altogether, MacLean published 28 novels and a collection of short stories, as well as books about T. E. Lawrence and James Cook.

MacLean also wrote screenplays, some of them based on his novels and others later novelized by other writers. Around 1980, he was commissioned by an American movie production company to write a series of story outlines to be subsequently produced as movies. He invented a fictitious United Nations organization called UNACO, and the books were later completed by others. Among these are "Hostage Tower" by John Denis and "Death Train" by Alastair MacNeill. Some of these works bear little resemblance to MacLean's style, especially in their use of gratuitous sex and violence.

Many of MacLean's novels were made into films, but none completely captured the level of detail and the intensity of his writing style as exemplified in classics such as "Fear is the Key"; the two most artistically and commercially successful film adaptations were "The Guns of Navarone" and "Where Eagles Dare".

After his death, the popularity of his work saw a decline, and, as per, as of 2006 none of his novels are in print in the U.S. However, most are currently still in print in paperback in the UK.

List of works


Other Movies

Notes on the books

*"Force 10 from Navarone", MacLean's only sequel, picks up from where the film version of "The Guns of Navarone" leaves off, not his original novel. The book anticipates the much lighter works of MacLean's later years, and seems to be more of a tossed-off "pastiche" of his other works, occasionally descending into nearly farcical humour.
*MacLean's only other use of inter-novel continuity is a police character from "Puppet on a Chain" reappearing in "Floodgate".
*MacLean wrote the novel and screenplay of "Where Eagles Dare" at the same time. In effect it was commissioned by Richard Burton, who wanted to make a "boy's own" type adventure film that he could take his son to see. The book and screenplay differ markedly in that, in the book, Smith and Schaffer at times go out of their way "not" to kill anyone, whereas in the film they basically shoot anything that moves. In fact, the film contains Clint Eastwood's highest on-screen body count. Also, in the book, Schaffer is considerably more talkative than Eastwood's considerably more laconic version.
*"Where Eagles Dare" and "Guns of Navarone" have similar plots; the "MacLean Formula" used in both is as follows: impregnable fortress which requires a commando team to be sent in; one of the team is not what he/she seems; betrayal in a public place; barricade a door for the getaway; mountain climbing; escape by jumping into water; good guys win. Amazingly, all these contrivances seem to work quite well.
*There have been reports of a "lost" MacLean novel titled "Snow on the Ben", but it appears to be by a different Ian Stuart (refer ISBN 0-7089-6503-2).
*MacLean's chief female characters are frequently named Mary, or a variation thereupon (Marie, Maria). They are usually described as intelligent, whether they are professionals like the hero or not. Some are exceptionally adept at the spy game; more come through strong despite a lack of experience. A few seem puzzlingly incapable. MacLean's characterization of these is a key, although subtle, plot point.
*A number of MacLean's chief male characters are named John. In a few of his mid-period books, his male protagonists have "savagely scarred" faces that they believe render them unattractive to women; they are usually proven wrong by book's end.
*The lead female character dies in a few of the early to mid period books. The male lead protagonist always survives and is successful in countering the odds.
*His villains become more stereotypical and self-referential over time, usually featuring a coldly competent and ruthless mastermind paired with a hulking, brutishly powerful subordinate.
*Exceptions to the little-romance rule include one novel where the protagonist is rewarded for his labors by winning the love of the beautiful daughter of a millionaire, and conversely another which ends with its protagonist committing murder to avenge the death of his beloved. In other books, the romantic angle is in the past, as the hero's wife has been killed in a road accident by a "drunken driver".
*In several books (most notably the Navarone books, Partisans, Circus) MacLean gives his usual cynical hero two assistants: a smaller man who is highly gifted with one particular weapon (knives, explosives), and a very large, immensely strong man who has intelligence equal to the protaganist, smokes foul-smelling cigars or cigarettes, and is often the hero's best friend.
*MacLean was known to reuse plot devices, characterizations, and even specific phrases. For example, the description "huddled shapelessness of the dead" occurs in some form in several stories.
*Clive Cussler plagiarized (or paid homage to) MacLean's "Ice Station Zebra" in his "Raise the Titanic!" and MacLean's "The Secret Ways" in his "The Mediterrean Caper". Fans of other thriller authors, such as Len Deighton, Dale Brown, and Tom Clancy, will find plenty of foreshadowings of their favorite authors' work in MacLean's own novels.
* The cover of Alistair MacLean novel features in the Bollywood classic film Aradhana, during the scene of the classic song "Mere Sapno Ki Rani"


* Lee, Robert A. "Alistair MacLean: The Key is Fear". Borgo Press, 1976. ISBN 0-89370-203-X.
* Webster, Jack. "Alistair MacLean: A Life". Chapmans Publishers, 1991. ISBN 1-85592-519-2. (Alternate title: "Alistair MacLean: A Biography of a Master Storyteller".)
* [ Literary Encyclopedia entry]
* [ Fan site]
* [ Fan site]

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