[Review] ‘Alistair MacLean’s War’ by Mark Simmons

When you have grown up, like I have, in the now long forgotten age that managed to do without internet, social media, and mobile phones, you would often pass your spare time reading. Then, you would eagerly scour the thriller-section in your local bookshop, searching for the latest Alistair Maclean.

‘Master Storyteller’ informed the covers of the Fawcett paperbacks the unwary. In those days, that was quite unnecessary. Alistair Maclean was one of the greatest writers of fast-paced thrillers that ever lived, though he himself claimed that he disliked writing.

Alistair MacLean was born in 1922 and too young to enter the Second World war early on. In the end, MacLean’s did see a fair bit of action in the war. However, he never was in mortal danger as most of his protagonists were.

In the spring of 1941 MacLean left his native Scotland to start his naval training. In August 1943 he joined the anti-aircraft cruiser HMS Royalist. Launched in May 1943, it needed extensive sea trails, fitting and refitting because the vessel could enter active service on March 30th, 1944.

Yes, Alistair MacLean took part in one of the most dangerous missions a vessel could be ordered to do: a run through the dark and foreboding Arctic waters, protecting a convoy bound for Murmansk. But after just one such mission, the Royalist was ordered to the Mediterranean. There, from July to September 1944, the vessel took part in several operations, but the end of hostilities loomed. After some additional refitting in Alexandria, the Royalist was sent to the Far East. For Alistair MacLean the war finally ended in March 1946, when he was officially demobilized.

Yes, Alistair MacLean saw a lot of the world, and he proved a good listener. He stored interesting nodules of knowledge in his brain. These could later filter through and become part of his thrillers. The rest, as they say, is history.

As a shy and lonely man, he had few friends. In the end, he died in 1987 like he had lived: a small dusty man in a small dusty room.

But what to make of ‘Alistair MacLean’s War’ by Mark Simmons? As MacLean died in 1987, most of the people who knew him are long dead too. Simmons extensively quotes from Jack Webster’s ‘Alistair Maclean: A life’, but the interesting idea is to also use quotes from MacLean’s own thrillers. Also, Simmons uses the war itself as a sort of canvas for the story. Tied together, these threads give the reader a novel insight in what sort of man Alistair MacLean was, what he became, and how the Royal Navy shaped his thrillers.

‘Alistair MacLean’s War’ is a valuable tribute to the life of the man who produced some of the most memorable thrillers ever to be published.

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