Sunday, December 21, 2014

Alistair MacLean's Bear Island

Bear Island was the sixteenth novel by Alistair MacLean (1922-1987) and generally seems to be regarded as the last of his really top-notch thrillers. Published in 1971, it also includes most of the characteristic MacLean signatures.

In Bear Island MacLean returns to two subjects that obsessed him, the sea and the Arctic. That these subjects interested him is not surprising - his wartime naval experiences  included service on two of the horrifically grueling Arctic convoys to Russia.

Most of the novel takes place on board the converted trawler Morning Rose which has been chartered by a film production company, Olympus Productions. The company intends to use Bear Island to shoot location footage for its next feature film. The bleak island, located well to the north of the Arctic Circle, might seem to be an odd choice for a film company but that’s one of the mysteries that will be explained in the course of the novel. And the setting certainly suits MacLean’s purposes.

The first-person narrator of the novel is Dr Christopher Marlowe (his parents had rather literary tastes), employed by Olympus Productions as their unit doctor. You might think that  his duties would not be particularly onerous but in fact he will be kept very busy indeed as members of the film company and the ship’s crew start dropping like flies. Dr Marlowe puts this down to an outbreak of food poisoning but after three deaths the mood on board the Morning Rose is anything but cheerful. And these will not be the last deaths. By the time they reach Bear Island it’s fairly obvious that something distinctly sinister is going on. It’s also starting to become apparent that Bear Island was not chosen as their destination because of its suitability for film-making purposes.

MacLean had two great strengths as a thriller writer - his ability to tell a suspenseful story and his ability to enhance the suspense by the effective building of atmosphere. He was a powerful descriptive writer and the sea and the Arctic inspired his descriptive abilities to a very high degree. As in his earlier (and absolutely superb) thriller Night Without End the Arctic itself becomes in effect a major character, in fact in some ways it becomes more menacing than the actual villains. 

While MacLean is usually thought of as a slightly old-fashioned and fairly straightforward spinner of stories he was prepared to experiment a little. Bear Island features a first-person narrator who is perhaps not an unreliable narrator, but certainly a narrator who is less than candid with the reader. We might not suspect Dr Marlowe of actively misleading us but we certainly get the feeling that he is concealing some fairly important facts from us. It’s a rather bold narrative strategy for a thriller writer but MacLean carries it off quite successfully. Structurally the novel can be considered to be as much a mystery as a thriller, with much in common with golden age detective fiction which delighted in isolating a group of people with a murderer running amok amongst them.

MacLean was somewhat notorious for being weak at creating female characters, and for almost invariably calling his main female character Mary. Bear Island features not just one Mary, but two! The accusation is accurate enough but it’s rather irrelevant. MacLean knew his strengths and his weaknesses as a writer and quite sensibly he played to his strengths while avoiding his weaknesses. 

While the plot of Bear Island has nothing in common with Night Without End the formula is quite similar - take a group of people, isolate them in a hostile environment, throw in one or more murderous villains and then ratchet up the tension as the situation becomes a battle for survival against both Nature and human villainy. Bear Island doesn’t work quite as well as Night Without End but it’s still a gripping and well-crafted thriller and it still delivers plenty of entertainment.

The plot of the 1979 movie adaptation has almost nothing in common with the plot of the novel. Not that it’s such a bad movie; it simply has little connection with MacLean’s book.

MacLean was one of those writers who enjoyed immense success in his lifetime, followed by rapid eclipse. During the 1960s he was arguably the most successful living writer of thrillers, outselling Ian Fleming by a comfortable margin (no mean achievement given that Fleming is one of the bestselling novelists of all time). 

It’s rather interesting to compare MacLean’s career, and his style, with Fleming’s. They had a lot in common, while there were also very important differences between them. Both were Scottish and they were more or less contemporaries (Fleming was born in 1908 and MacLean was born in 1922). Both served in the Royal Navy during the Second World War (Fleming was an officer in naval intelligence while MacLean was an enlisted man and saw considerable active service). Both achieved success quickly and at about the same time. Fleming’s debut novel, Casino Royale, came out in 1953. MacLean’s first novel, H.M.S. Ulysses, appeared in 1955. Both men had a reputation for hard living and both died prematurely as a result. Both were subjected to a considerable amount of critical derision. Both gained a reputation for writing the sorts of novels that men enjoy very much but that women don’t. Both confined their attentions mostly to the thriller genre and both tried their hands at writing screenplays. Virtually everything Fleming wrote has been adapted for film while no less than eighteen of MacLean’s novels and stories have been made into movies.

The difference between them were however quite important. The Fleming formula was to take the pre-war British thriller and add more glamour, a lot more sex, a lot more graphic violence and just a dash of sadism. MacLean generally avoided not only sex but also romantic subplots. There’s plenty of violent mayhem in MacLean’s novels but it’s not overly graphic and the hint of sadism is noticeable lacking.

 MacLean’s reputation has not lasted anywhere near as well as Fleming’s and there are several reasons for this. MacLean did not create an iconic hero in the mould of James Bond. MacLean did not create any series characters at all. He also did not create the kinds of memorable villains that Fleming created. The popular writers who achieve lasting popularity and who develop cult followings are generally those who do succeed in creating truly iconic heroes and/or villains. And those writers have a chance of eventually attracting the notice of academics who are interested in them as pop culture phenomena. As a result MacLean, despite his immense success during his lifetime, has been largely ignored even by those who take an interest in popular literature. Also counting against him is the fact that even his most ardent supporters admit that the quality of his writing declined dramatically during the 1970s.

This is somewhat unfair. MacLean had some very real virtues as a writer and at his best he could produce some of the most effective works in the genre. He is overdue for rediscovery. Bear Island is thoroughly enjoyable. Recommended. 


  1. MacLean is one of my all-time favorites. I never re-read Fleming, but I can (and do) re-read MacLean with pleasure.

  2. I was interested in this post because I want to read some of MacLean's books. I cannot remember reading any of them, although I am old enough to have forgotten them. Now that I know that he did not do well with women characters, that won't bother me. I especially enjoyed reading the comparison to Ian Fleming.

  3. During my teen years I was a big fan of "Guns of Navarone," "When Eight Bells Toll," and "HMS Ulysses" among others. He is unfortunately a wordy writer -- not so bad during the 3 books I mention, but it got worse later -- and by reports I've read, in later years resented any editing changes his publishers recommended. So I haven't revisited his work in a while.

    He did write a sequel to "Guns," "Force Ten from Navarone," featuring several of the same characters. But that's not a series.