Saturday, December 09, 2006

Adventures with Alistair Maclean

When I was in the 7th or 8th standard, I discovered Alistair Maclean. I dont remember just how I stumbled upon his books, but I think the first book of his that I ever read was "The Guns of Navarone". What a glorious, exhilarating, intensely thrilling discovery it was! For years after, that book was THE yardstick by which I measured other adventure novels. Any whiff of serious romance, any hint of anything less than heroic disregard in the hero for personal safety and physical pain, and those books, with their imperfect heroes, would fall dramatically in my estimation.

I had a healthy contempt for heroines in action books, and Mr Maclean's female protagonists did nothing to dispel that contempt. They were always feminine and shied away from violence and killing, they looked upon the hero with utter horror and distaste when he used either method against the heartless villains, even if he was only saving innocent people's lives, and always ALWAYS were so useless at whatever little task was set them (in the process of that life-saving action) that it was no wonder I didnt want any women around!

I guess I was at that age when any kind of romance was too sappy for words, so Alistair Maclean was the perfect choice. There was never any overt romantic action in his books, and what little there was was pretty aseptic, the most that happened being a kiss. I can still remember my heart sinking if there was a female protagonist who interfered with the action and forced the hero to rescue her and generally endanger both his safety and the pure adventure that I was seeking.

And of course, after reading "The Guns of Navarone", my hero against whom all other action figures paled miserably was... NOT Captain Keith Mallory, the mountain-climbing New Zealander who headed the team to Navarone, but Corporal Dusty Miller. I can't begin to describe just how much I hero-worshipped that wise-cracking, laconic, laid-back American who was "three parts Irish and one part East European" and whose every remark was sarcastic or ironic or both. How I loved that sense of humour! How I adored Dusty Miller's every remark! In fact, I even marked off my favourite quips in the copy of the novel and wrote them down separately to read over and admire while in school! (Ok, I admit was besotted and apparently had reams of time even though I was in school. Or perhaps because I was in school).

I read every single one of Alistair Maclean's books after "The Guns of Navarone" with varying degrees of satisfaction gained. "Force 10 from Navarone" was not half as good, but then hardly any sequels match up to the original. But "The Satan Bug", "Where Eagles Dare" (another HUGE favourite at the time), "When 8 Bells Toll", "Bear Island", "The Golden Rendezvous" and many others were all very satisfying reads. Sure, there were girls in the books, but I learned to ignore them for the useless time-wasters that they were!

Of course, over the years I discovered other authors and moved on (even, for the duration of my college days, stooping to reading M&Bs - I'm embarrassed but not ashamed to admit it... I had to do SOMEthing to kill time during lessons and M&Bs were the only reading matter I could borrow from the other girls). Alistair Maclean was relegated to the back of my mind for many years, although I still had happy memories of his books.

A short while back, I bought a job lot of Alistair Maclean novels on Ebay at a throwaway price and now I'm in the process of re-reading all those school-day favourites. I'm reading those books with fresh eyes, however - I'm no longer an uncritical 12-year-old... unfortunately.

So even while I'm enjoying re-reading "The Guns of Navarone" now, I'm aware that Mr Maclean's language was heavily skewed towards very complicated irony, that most of his characters whether hero or villain spoke the same way, that most of his heroes had simple first names ("John" or "Johnny" being favourite), that most of his heroines were "Mary" - in "The Way to Dusty Death", the mother was "Marie" while the daughter was "Mary"! - and that his main characters had a way of being highly self-recriminatory and prone to stupid mistakes even though they were supposed to be the best Government agent around.

Those facts, though, dont take away from the sheer romance of Alistair Maclean's books - and there's irony for you - but it was the romance of adventure and action. Just for that alone he'll always be my hero, flaws and all.

No comments: