Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Alistair MacLean's Night Without End

In the late 1950s Alistair MacLean (1922-1987) established himself as one of the premier British thriller writers and by the 1960s he was one of the world’s bestselling novelists. MacLean’s popularity was starting to falter by the 80s and continued to decline thereafter although his books remain in print in the UK. Night Without End was his fifth book, appearing in 1959.

No less than fifteen of his books were made into movies, including major box-office hits such as The Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare.

MacLean’s first novel, H.M.S. Ulysses, was a war novel based on the author’s own experiences in the Royal Navy during World War 2, experiences that had included service on two of the Arctic convoys to Russia. H.M.S. Ulysses was notable for its graphic depictions of the harsh Arctic conditions and after he switched to writing thrillers he would return to such settings again and again. Such conditions were of course ideal for thrillers. They provided opportunities for MacLean to place his characters in extreme danger in isolated locations and they also meant that his heroes would be fighting as much against the harsh and potentially deadly weather as against the bad guys.

The hero of Night Without End is Dr Peter Mason. He’s both a medical doctor and a geologist and he’s part of a scientific team based in Greenland, right in the middle of the ice sheet and many hundreds of miles from any habitation. With him are Jackstraw, a half-Danish half-Eskimo scientist, and radio operator Joss London. The other members of the scientific team are currently engaged on a field trip hundreds of miles away. Conditions at the base camp are rather primitive but the three men are accustomed to the Arctic.

Being about as far away from civilisation as you can get while still remaining on planet Earth the three are naturally somewhat surprised to hear an aircraft approaching. The only aircraft likely to be anywhere in the vicinity would be US bombers from the Strategic Air Command on exercises or meteorological aircraft from the air base at Thule in the northwest corner of the island. But such aircraft would not be flying at low altitude and this aircraft is flying at very low altitude indeed. So low that it can only be in trouble. 

The aircraft is in very big trouble and makes a crash landing nearby. To the amazement of Mason and Jackstraw it is a British BOAC airliner, a very very long way from where it should be. There are only a few passengers on board of whom nine plus the stewardess survive the crash. The base camp is certainly not equipped to feed and house ten additional people including several who are injured. Obviously the best thing to do is to radio the field team or the expedition’s base camp at Uplavnik. That’s exactly what Mason intends to do but that idea goes out the window when the camp’s powerful radio transmitter gets smashed. That’s a worrying enough incident but Mason has a great deal more to worry about when he discovers that the airliner’s pilot and one of the passengers did not die in the crash - they were shot dead at close range. The terrifying conclusion cannot be escaped that one of the surviving passengers is a murderer. Actually it’s worse than that, since the pilot and the dead passenger were shot simultaneously in different sections of the aeroplane with guns of different calibre. That means there are two murderers.

Having now no way of making contact with the outside world Mason has no means of finding out what might be behind the murders. And there is not enough food for thirteen people. The only option is to set out for the coast but with the field team having taken the only modern Sno-Cat with them they will have to make the journey in the backup snow tractor, an ancient pre-war Citroën of extremely dubious reliability. They are faced with a very long journey in an antique snow tractor with two seriously ill people and virtually no food, and with the knowledge that two members of the party are ruthless murderers.

Of course it goes without saying that there is more than murder involved. MacLean liked elaborate conspiracies, especially if they involved espionage, and even more especially if the stakes were high. The stakes here are very high indeed. 

It’s a classic setup for an exciting thriller and MacLean exploits it skillfully. He’s sparing with the action scenes, preferring to rely on suspense and atmosphere. And he provides plenty of both.

It’s easy to point to flaws in MacLean’s writing. His ear for dialogue fails him at times. He makes excessive use of foreshadowing. His characterisation is basic at best. And the romantic sub-plot falls hopelessly flat (MacLean’s romantic sub-plots were always very weak). None of this really matters. The characters have enough distinctiveness for his purposes and the book demonstrates his very real skills which prove to be more than adequate compensations for his weaknesses.

The Arctic always inspired MacLean’s considerable descriptive abilities and those abilities are displayed here to their best possible advantage. You’ll find yourself checking your own fingers and toes for frostbite, and trying to take shelter from the blizzards. He certainly knew how to build and maintain suspense. And he knew how to construct intricate plots and how to make them work. He had in fact all the strengths that a thriller writer requires while the weaknesses of his writing were in areas that were more or less irrelevant for his purposes.

In 1959 MacLean was just starting to reach his peak as a thrillerr writer and Night Without End ticks all the right boxes. An author who does not deserve the relative oblivion into which he has fallen. Very highly recommended.


  1. This is one of my favorites of MacLean's books. I've read it several times, and it never fails to satisfy.

  2. I read most of Alistair MacLean's books in the 60s and 70s, my favorites being Ice Station Zebra and Where Eagles Dare, both of which I reread over the years. Nice to see him getting a shout-out.