Saturday, October 3, 2015

Alistair MacLean’s The Dark Crusader

Alistair MacLean’s seventh novel, The Dark Crusader (inexplicably and incongruously renamed The Black Shrike in the US) appeared in 1961. MacLean had enjoyed great success with his debut novel HMS Ulysses, a fine naval war story, in 1955 and had followed it up with the equally successful The Guns of Navarone, a wartime action adventure story, in 1957. By the time The Dark Crusader was published he had settled comfortably into the genre that best suited his talents - the contemporary thriller, usually but not always with an espionage slant.

The hero of The Dark Crusader is Johnny Bentall, a scientist who has been recruited by the British Secret Service. A number of top British scientists have recently gone missing. They had been lured to Australia by advertisements offering lucrative jobs but then simply disappeared, along with their wives. Bentall and a female Secret Service agent, Marie Hopeman, have the task of discovering the fate of the missing boffins. Bentall is posing as another scientist who has answered the same advertisement while Marie will pose as his wife. Bentall’s chief is confident that an attempt will be made to shanghai the couple, which will hopefully lead them to the persons responsible. Of course it could also get them killed, but that’s an occupational hazard for a counter-espionage agent.

Sure enough the agents are kidnapped. Their immediate fate, after they are spirited aboard a disreputable schooner captained by an even more disreputable Australian, may strike the reader as being a bit far-fetched. Do not despair. MacLean’s plotting was always sure-footed and as usual even his more outrageous plot elements do end up making perfect sense.

Bentall and Marie find themselves on a Pacific island where they encounter the eccentric English archaeologist Witherspoon. Witherspoon has made discoveries here that will revolutionise the field of archaeology but there are much stranger things on this island than ancient artifacts. Bentall will soon find out exactly why a scientist like himself with expertise in solid fuel rocket technology was chosen for this mission.

You expect a spy story to have plenty of plot twists but MacLean has really outdone himself here. The plot twists just keep on coming.

MacLean’s approach to thriller writing could almost be described as being diametrically opposed to that of his fellow Scotsman and near-contemporary Ian Fleming. In fact one cannot help suspecting that MacLean was deliberately distancing himself from the style of the Bond novels. There is no sex in MacLean’s books. Romance plays a very minor role in his stories, if it appears at all. There’s plenty of violence but MacLean avoids graphic violence. You might think this would make his books rather old-fashioned and even a bit on the cozy side but you’d be dead wrong. MacLean’s novels are actually remarkably gritty and even at times somewhat bleak. His villains are exceptionally ruthless and cold-blooded and his heroes can be pretty cold-blooded as well. 

MacLean’s heroes are not, however, cynical. They may be disillusioned but that’s quite a different thing. MacLean avoids the fashionable nihilism and cheap cynicism that infected so much popular fiction from the 1950s onwards. There is no real moral ambiguity. His stories have definite good guys and definite bad guys. The problem for his heroes is that the bad guys often look just like the good guys. MacLean’s villains are never obvious super-villains like Ernst Stavro Blofeld or Auric Goldfinger.

MacLean, like Fleming, sent his heroes to far-flung places. The key difference is that his heroes were more likely to find themselves in harsh, hostile, unforgiving settings. A MacLean hero is unlikely to be spending much time in casinos or lazing on a beach on the Côte d'Azur and is very unlikely to find opportunities to show off his knowledge of fine wines. He’ll be more likely to be battling frostbite. Much of The Dark Crusader takes place on a Pacific Island but this is not the kind of tropical paradise familiar to James Bond and his ilk. The island had been a giant phosphate mine. It is barren, bleak, ugly and cheerless. Just the kind of setting he loves to put his heroes in, and just the kind of setting that gives MacLean the chance to display his considerable gifts for creating menacing atmosphere. 

MacLean was unbelievably popular during his lifetime but he was always underrated. He was too often dismissed merely as a fine storyteller. In fact as a thriller writer he was quite bold. You can never be sure that you’re going to get a happy ending. The hero might triumph, but he might also pay a high price for his triumph. You can also never be sure that MacLean’s first-person narrators are being entirely candid with his readers - they often know rather more about what is really going on than than they appear to. There is an odd similarity to the detective fiction of the golden age, with the hero sometimes knowing more about the solution to the mystery than he is willing to reveal. And in The Dark Crusader MacLean gives the reader the same clues that his protagonist will use to unravel the puzzle. 

MacLean’s heroes are also very human. They make mistakes, often tragic mistakes, and the mistakes cannot always be put right.

The Dark Crusader, like MacLean’s other great novels, is an intelligent grownup thriller. It’s also action-packed and thoroughly entertaining. Very highly recommended.


  1. I agree. This is a terrific book, one of my favorite MacLeans. I'm surprised that nobody turned it into a movie, considering how many were. MacLean seems to be almost forgotten today for some reason.

  2. This and THE SATAN BUG appeared in England as by Ian Stuart not MacLean, though they are clearly his work.

    MacLean is closer to Hammond Innes or Victor Canning than Fleming, his heroes like theirs tending to be middle class professionals, engineers, doctors, technicians, or hard bitten pros when they are spies. They are not pseudo clubland types like Bond, but people who have had grease on their clothes and dirt under their nails. Even when they are spies like Bentall or Philip Calvert in WHEN EIGHT BELLS TOLL they are tough military types. It is hard to imagine most of them playing baccarat for high stakes at a casino on the Riviera.

    I doubt MacLean ever considered an anti Fleming style. There was never a chance the sailor who acted as a pharmacist and physicians mate on a ship in WWII was going to write like a sophisticated journalist and broker from an upper middle class British family who was assistant director of Naval Intelligence in the same war and younger brother of a bestselling writer.

    At the time MacLean began writing Fleming would not have been the man to compete with anyway. Innes, Canning, Geoffrey Household, Allan MacKinnon, Wheatley, Nevil Shute and Americans like Spillane and Ernest K. Gann would have been much closer to competition he had to worry about. That said, this one book may have been an attempt to knock off a little of the Bond audience, though before the first film came out even that would not have been equal to Innes sales.