[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.

1954: How it all began for Alistair MacLean

A SHORT-story competition run by the Glasgow Herald’s Weekend page in 1954 attracted 942 entries from as far away as India, Canada, and the United States.

Some, we observed, did not really qualify as short stories, being straightforward accounts of holidays at home or abroad, or narratives of true incidents at a conversational rather than a literary level (an assertion that was speedily challenged by one reader in a letter to the paper).

All 942 entries were read and assessed. And, once that had been done, the judges awarded the prizes.

The authors of the fourth- and third-placed entries, respectively, Henry R. Saunders, of Gartocharn, and D.R. Miller, Greenock, both received £25. The runner-up, Iris I.J.M. Gibson, of Paisley, was given £50.

The winner, who received £100, was a 30-year-old Rutherglen schoolteacher who after his war-time naval service had studied for a degree at Glasgow University. He had had short stories published in a couple of periodicals but, until The Herald contest, he had not written one for several years. His winning entry was entitled The Dileas (‘The faithful one’). His name: Alistair MacLean.

The story, about a shipwreck off the West Highlands, was published in the Saturday edition of the Herald, on March 6, 1954. “Three hours gone, Mr MacLean, three hours – and never a word of the lifeboat”, it began.

A Herald reader, Marjory Chapman, mentioned the story to her husband Ian, who worked for Collins’s Bible department. With The Herald’s assistance he contacted MacLean and, over dinner at the old Royal Restaurant, asked if he had thought of writing a novel. No, came the reply; but Chapman persisted and, at length, MacLean gave him the manuscript of a novel, HMS Ulysses. Published in October 1955, it had sold 25,000 copies by Christmas.

His next work, The Guns of Navarone, came out the following year.

A few years before his death in 1987 MacLean asked The Herald if he could have the copyright of The Dileas. It was willingly granted, in exchange for an exclusive article that he wrote for this newspaper.

Written by By Russell Leadbetter

Ian Chapman: The Man Who Discovered Alistair MacLean

Ian Chapman (1925-2019) began his career in book publishing at William Collins, the renowned Scottish publisher. There he read a short story in ‘The Glasgow Herald’ by the unknown Glasgow-born author Alistair MacLean titled ‘Dileas’ about the sea and sailors which had won first prize in a competition run by the paper. Chapman found it finely written and totally compelling.

Chapman contacted MacLean, who was then a teacher at Gallow Flat School in Rutherglen, and invited him to join him and his wife for lunch in the grand Royal Restaurant in Glasgow’s Nile Street. The Chapmans found MacLean to be a wee bit dour with a strong Highland accent and showed little enthusiasm when Chapman suggested that he should write a novel for William Collins.

However, the Chapmans persisted at the lunch and probed MacLean on his war experiences in the Royal Navy when he sailed on the Murmansk convoys to northern Russia in terrible weather conditions and experienced savage bombardment from the German navy. Chapman instantly recognised the potential for a thrilling adventure story. MacLean left without any agreement to write even an outline and the Chapmans presumed the lunch had been a useless exercise.

But a few weeks later Chapman’s phone rang and MacLean’s strong accent asked, “So, do you want to come and collect that thing?” Chapman dashed to MacLean’s tenement in Rutherglen and was handed a bundle casually wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. MacLean simply commented, “Ach, any idiot can write a book.”

As Chapman hurried home he held the manuscript of ‘HMS Ulysses’ which told of the Russian convoys and the crew being pushed to breaking point. Chapman read the book overnight and immediately knew he had a best seller in his hands. It was published in 1955 and sold a quarter of a million copies in six months.

His career prospered and Chapman guided MacLean’s career both as publisher and agent until the author’s death in 1987

The success of ‘HMS Ulysses’ certainly ensured that Chapman moved to London in 1955 and rose to become, in 1968, joint managing director and chairman from 1981-89. He was managing director when Rupert Murdoch (chairman of News UK, of which HarperCollins is now a subsidiary) bought 41.7% of Collins. Chapman resigned in 1989, setting up Chapman Publishers with his wife Marjory which was later bought by Orion.

Alistair MacLean never wanted to live the celebrity-author lifestyle and it took all Chapman’s tact and persuasion to get him to attend the 1961 royal film premiere of ‘The Guns of Navarone’, when he was presented to the Queen. Similarly, in 1969 for the London premiere of ‘Where Eagles Dare’, Chapman eventually got MacLean not only to attend the film but organised a private table at the after-premiere banquet at the Savoy at which he and MacLean sat amongst the stars, Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood.

Alistair MacLean’s ‘San Andreas’ to become mini-series

Laurence Bowen’s London-based Dancing Ledge Productions has entered into a deal with publisher HarperCollins to adapt some, most or all novels of Alistair MacLean as mini-series to be shown on television. Each novel-to-television project will be structured as a four- or six-part mini-series.
HarperCollins owns the rights to bestselling author MacLean’s novels which also include The Guns Of Navarone, Ice Station Zebra and Where Eagles Dare. Each of those was previously turned into a feature. His books have sold over 150 million copies since 1955.
The first project under the pact is ‘San Andreas’, a thriller set on board a torpedoed WWII hospital ship. San Andreas sees the ailing ship attempt to make its way back across the North Atlantic to Scotland while a saboteur picks off members of the crew.

Bowen says, “I doubt there are many bookshelves in the UK that don’t have at least one Alistair MacLean thriller, so the opportunity to work with HarperCollins to adapt a number of them for screen is incredibly exciting. If you then add a writer with the talent of Tony Marchant to the mix, we have a wonderful marriage of nail-biting action and emotional complexity.”

Dancing Ledge was formed in June 2016 with backing from Fremantle Media (taking a 25% share) and a development deal with Martin Freeman. It is currently developing projects for several broadcasting channels and is working with Mark Gatiss (Sherlock, Dr Who), Dan Sefton (Mr Selfridge), Guy Hibbert (Eye In The Sky) and Simon Block (Home Fires).

[Review] ‘High Country’ by Rev. Alistair Maclean

Alistair Maclean was the third son of Reverend Alistair MacLean. While Alistair MacLean became known for this thrillers, his father was known for his fire and brimstone sermons. 47 of those sermons were collected in ‘High Country’.

Rev. MacLean and his family (Alistair MacLean is far right)

Review appeared in ‘The Living Church’  (November 30, 1952):
High Country is a delicate and delightful little book of sermons which tingles with a wholesome Scottish simplicity. The writer strives to imitate the method of our Lord, “who offers His jewels in artistic and delightful settings.” In the series of 47 sermons, dealing with the inner life, we find a beautiful gallery of pictures and a fresh selection of biographical anecdotes.

This book, extremely concrete, offers much to the person who may choose to use it as a manual for meditation. Since the sermons were first written for the author’s “congregation of simple folk”, they enunciate the fundamental truths of Christian inner experience, not in a speculative way, nor in a language about common understanding, but in a manner clear and at once appealing.

The seminarian and young priests learn much about a vigorous style of sermon-structure from this collection.. Here is a great well of fresh illustrated material and a method of preaching which can hardly fail to enliven the pulpit.

Unfortunately, the book cannot be recommended for the use of lay-readers and their work for the church. Naturally, the writer cannot escape his Calvinistic attitudes and he makes many references to Scottish literature which will mean very little to Anglican congregations.

[Movie] Remake of ‘Fear is the Key’ announced

One of the very best novels of Alistair Maclean, ‘Fear is the key’ (1961), will be made into a movie. Again.
After closing a deal to acquire the rights from StudioCanal, Cassian Elwes and Andre Gaines, are producing a remake of the 1972 classic that featured a car chase that ran for twenty minutes. The story, based on a thriller by Alistair MacLean, takes place in Louisiana and follows the character of John Talbot, a seemingly ruthless killer. The plot intricately weaves itself around a family that died in a plane crash in the Gulf of Mexico.

The original movie ‘Fear is the key’ was produced by Elwes’ step-father, Elliott Kastner, who produced the film with former Paramount chief Alan Ladd and Jay Kanter. Kastner had previously produced an adaptation of MacLean’s book ‘Where Eagles Dare’ in 1968, and Fear came about as a result of their relationship. Kastner died in 2010.

“I’ve loved this movie ever since I was a kid,” Elwes said. “It was one of my stepfather’s favorite movies, and my hope is to remake it even better than he did.”

“I’m happy to help Cassian breathe new life into ‘Fear is the Key’,” Gaines said. “The film takes the revenge thriller to the next level, and it is the type of movie you want to watch over and over again.”

Blacklist writer Terrell Garrett is currently writing the screenplay for the remake.

Alastair MacNeill Resurfaces

What happens if you disturb a nest of hornets? Well, you might get stung. Repeatedly.

Not so very long ago I wrote here about Alastair MacNeill: The entire author profile smells fishy, the submitted manuscript that started his career was never published and I’m wondering why Alastair MacNeill hasn’t written a novel since 2000 when one reads that he came to Britain to ‘pursue a career in writing’.

His agent at Christopher Little claims (personal communication, June 7, 2013) that ‘Alastair MacNeill has not permanently retired from writing, but he does not have any work that is due to be published in the near future either’ and – rather cryptically – that ‘He has not written anything under a pseudonym’. Which is technically true if Alastair MacNeill is itself a pseudonym.

Curiously, shortly after I had contact with his agents, MacNeill’s profile on their website changed. It now claims that Alastair MacNeill ‘has now moved back to live in South Africa’.

And now, out of the blue, a new novel (could one say ‘a novel novel’?) has been published under the name Alastair MacNeill. ‘Facades‘ has been released in June, 2015 and tells us that it is written by the ‘Author of Double Blind’.

But the most interesting feature is that ‘Facades’ has only been issued as an e-book. Which is rather odd, because Alastair MacNeill supposedly wrote a number of books that met with reasonable commercial success.

So, according to his agents, Alastair MacNeill has returned to South-Africa and – two years ago – had not any work that was due to be published in the near future. Then ‘Facades‘ became available via Amazon.co.uk. No publicity has been generated by his agents and what does a writer these days do to create his own publicity? He turns to social media and posts glowing reviews and news on Twitter and Facebook. Not Alastair MacNeill. He is curiously absent from social media.

Which begs the question again: is the pseudonym Alastair MacNeill again used by another unknown writer from the client list Christopher Little?

Simon Gandolfi and His MacLones

After writing here about The Mysteries of the MacLones, I was contacted by Simon Gandolfi, writer of five (or three) novels that were based on an script for a movie or television series in the 1970s.
Simon Gandolfi wrote: ‘Yes, I wrote five books featuring Trent. The publishers gave me a rough film treatment by MacLean featuring a protagonist living on a converted tug boat,action taking place off the UK coast. I returned the treatment as unusable. The publishers then mislaid it!

This first few sentences contain a very interesting piece of information: there appears to be an unused (or underused) rough film script, written by MacLean featuring a protagonist living on a converted tug boat and the action is situated off the UK coast. Which means a new writer can be contracted to write entirely new thriller based on Alistair MacLean’s imagination.

The protagonist, Trent, and the Caribbean, Central American and Asian story lines were entirely my creation. No reference to these books has been removed (carefully or otherwise) from my site or web blog,’ writes Simon Gandolfi. Still, no mention of these thrillers remain on his site or web blog.

The MacLean Estate did not buy back the film rights – or, if they did, I was never informed and am anxious to know what proof you have as a percentage of film rights were part of my contracts; I stopped writing Trent on discovering the doubts concerning the film rights; Chris Little was the agent.’ I personally have no idea nor proof or information about any percentage of film rights. In my view, Simon Galdolfi should simply contact the estate of Alistair MacLean to get clarification. If the doubts about the potential film rights could be resolved, Simon Gandolfi might even be tempted to write another novel featuring Trent.

Shona Maclean: The Seeker

Shona Maclean, the niece of Alistair MacLean, has written four books about Alexander Seaton, a disgraced minister turned teacher who is caught up in the political and religious turmoil of Scotland in the early 17th century.


Her next novel will be called ‘The Seeker’ and features a new protagonist called Damian Seeker.

The blurb:
No one knows where Damian Seeker originated from, who his family is, or even his real name. Mothers frighten their children by telling them tales of The Seeker. All that is known of him for certain is that he is utterly loyal to Cromwell, and that nothing can be long hidden from him.


In the new, fashionable coffee houses of London, a murder takes place. All London is ringing with the news that John Winter is dead, the lawyer Elias Ellingworth, found holding a knife over the bleeding body of the dying man, held in the Tower.


Despite the damning evidence, Seeker is not convinced of Ellingworth’s guilt. He will stop at nothing to bring the right man to justice…


The plan is to release the novel during February, 2015. It’s going to be a long wait.

HMS Ulysses vs. The Cruel Sea

When ‘The Cruel Sea’, written by Nicholas Montsarrat, was published in 1951 it was an immediate success. One of the first reviews of Alistair MacLean’s debut ‘HMS Ulysses’ (1955) described the book as “the worst insult to the Royal Navy ever published”. That certainly alerted people and the novel soon topped the world’s bestseller lists. In other reviews ‘HMS Ulysses’ and ‘The Cruel Sea’ were compared and most reviewers agreed that both novels were equally disturbing in their portraying of the horrors of the battle of the North Atlantic.

What did Alistair MacLean write to deserve such a scalding review? ‘HMS Ulysses’ is certainly not a glamorous story about heroism but about unrelenting stress, hardship, exhaustion and extreme weather conditions that took a heavy physical and psychological toll on the crew of HMS Ulysses.

These factors lead to a mutiny on the previous trip of HMS Ulysses and the admiralty, staffed by officers that remain safely ashore, decided that ship and crew should be given the one chance to redeem themselves. They were ordered to escort a Murmansk-bound convoy, and if necessary, to act as bait for the Tirpitz that was at the time holed up in a Norwegian fjord. In MacLean’s book the real enemy is not the Germans, but the horrendous conditions in the Arctic.

‘The Cruel Sea’ by Nicholas Monsarrat is also a novel that does not portray the good and the bad as white and black but both sides of the conflict are painted in shades of grey. The book, like ‘HMS Ulysses’, focuses on the crew of a woefully inadequate corvette the ‘Compass Rose’ on duty in the icy North Atlantic to protect convoys. Monsarrat’s tale revolves too around the hardship the crew must endure continuously simply to survive. But it also makes abundantly clear the tough decisions those in command of such a vessel must make while carrying out their duties.

So, which one is the better novel? The answer to that question is a personal one and I would not want to cast doubt on the heroism of these brave sailors. I think these books have so much in common that they should be seen as a testament to that intensely cruel period that many already seem to have forgotten.