Alistair MacLean wrote Caravan to Vaccarès in 1970 when he was still pretty much at the peak of his powers. It’s a fine example of the work of a master of the thriller genre.
Each year gypsies from all over Europe gather in Provence at the shrine of their patron saint. They even come from behind the Iron Curtain - no-one, not even a devout communist, wants to risk trying to stop them and ending up with a gypsy curse on his head. As the novel opens a young gypsy is being hunted, by other gypsies. He takes refuge in a series of gigantic limestone caverns but he does not expect this to save him. He knows he is under the shadow of death. But why is he being hunted?
At the nearby Hotel Baumanière (which boasts some of the finest food in Europe) an Englishman named Neil Bowman is having lunch with a rather charming blonde young lady. At a table nearby the young lady’s equally charming brunette friend is lunching with the extraordinary Duc de Croyter, an eminent folklorist who always turns up at this time of the year to study the culture of the gypsies. The Duc de Croyter is a huge man with a booming voice and a prodigious appetite (for food and other sensory delights) and he has an aristocratic disdain for convention, a disdain that he takes to extreme lengths.
Neil Bowman is not a folklorist. He has no occupation. He has enough money (from his very wealthy family) to have no need to trouble himself with anything as sordid and tiresome as work. What he does have is an inexplicable degree of curiosity about these gypsies. This curiosity seems like it might cost him his life. It might also cost the life of Cecile Dubois, a young woman whose only crime is that she has been seen in Bowman’s company and is therefore assumed to be involved with him in his excessive curiosity.
Bowman soon finds himself being hunted, in an extended and extremely well executed action sequence, through the grim ruins of a medieval castle high on a cliff-top.
But why is someone so keen to kill this apparently innocuous Englishman? Why were the same people so keen to kill the young gypsy? And where does the Duc de Croyter fit into all this?
In this novel MacLean employs a technique that he also uses in a number of his other books - he plunges us into an exciting and dangerous tale but he is careful to conceal from the reader exactly what the situation really is. In a suspense story the usual method is to give the reader information that the protagonist does not possess, the suspense coming from the reader’s anticipation of dangers the protagonist does not suspect. MacLean’s method was quite different. He structured his thrillers more like classic mystery novels, where the detective generally knows the answer to the puzzle long before the reader does. Oddly enough this technique worked very well for MacLean, since the reader knows the protagonist is in danger but has no way of knowing what will happen next.
Once you’re familiar with his techniques you can certainly make some educated guesses as to what’s really going on but in Caravan to Vaccarès he throws in enough additional twists that it’s exceedingly unlikely the reader will unravel all the mysteries.
MacLean was also very good at action set-pieces and this novel has several that are very good indeed - the pursuits in the limestone caves and through the castle ruins mentioned earlier plus a very clever bull-ring execution scene and a canal chase involving a power boat, a fishing boat and a Rolls-Royce limousine.
He also had a well-deserved reputation for making exceptionally effective use of harsh and forbidding landscapes. In this novel his use of the ruined castle and the endless plains of the Camargue are fine examples of this talent.
By comparison with many of his contemporaries MacLean avoided sex and graphic violence. There’s always plenty of violence but it’s fairly toned down. The truth is he had no need to resort to resort to graphic depictions of violence - he relies on maintaining a relentless pace and keeping the reader slightly off-guard and these qualities are more than sufficient to generate the necessary excitement.
While there’s no sex at all in this story there is, unusually for a MacLean novel, a very definite romantic sub-plot. Even more surprisingly, it works rather well.
Caravan to Vaccarès has everything an Alistair MacLean fan could ask for - it has the perfect combination of mystery, action, atmosphere and adventure. Superb entertainment, and highly recommended.