Thursday, November 10, 2022

Alistair MacLean’s The Last Frontier

The Last Frontier is an early Alistair MacLean thriller, dating from 1959. It was filmed in 1961 as The Secret Ways and has also been published under that title. In my view MacLean was at his peak in the 60s and early 70s and his best books were those written in the first person. First-person narration suited MacLean’s purposes perfectly and allowed him to indulge in some of his favourite narrative tricks. The Last Frontier is written in the third person and it’s MacLean starting to really find his feet as a thriller writer. He hasn’t yet perfected his technique but he’s getting there.

There are also a couple of interesting aspects to this novel which I’ll get to later.

You know you’re in MacLean country from the first page - the hero is surrounded by a vast expanse of snow and ice and MacLean makes sure the reader feels the cold as well. It’s not the last time in the book that you’ll feel the cold seeping into your bones.

Michael Reynolds is a British spy and he’s behind the Iron Curtain and he’s cold and he’s being hunted. He’s spent months training for a very important mission and this is the first day and it’s all gone badly wrong. He expected the road-block just outside Budapest but he hadn’t expected the second road-block. Pretty soon he’s in the hands of the Hungarian secret police, the dreaded AVO. There’s no escape.

Then the first plot twist kicks in.

Reynolds’ job is to bring a British scientist back from Budapest. The scientist has no desire to return to the West but the British secret service will use whatever means necessary to persuade him to come. They’re hoping that lies, deception and emotional manipulation will work but it’s clear they’re prepared to resort to more drastic measures.

This is one of the interesting aspects I alluded to earlier. In this novel the British are the good guys but they’re as ruthless, dishonest and cynical as the communists. The novel even floats the suggestion that it was the West that was responsible for the Cold War in the first place. These thoughts are expressed by the courageous Hungarian freedom fighter Jansci who is in fact the most noble and sympathetic character in the book. Jansci takes an instant dislike to Michael Reynolds. Reynolds is everything he despises - a man without honour, without scruples, without emotions. A man of blood. And Reynolds is the novel’s hero. We’re getting close to John le Carre-Len Deighton levels of cynicism and darkness here.

There’s also some political messaging but it’s not at all what you expect in a Cold War spy thriller. It’s all about the futility of war and violence and the desirability of peace, non-violence and peaceful co-existence between the West and the communist world. Very unexpected for 1959, and any kind of messaging comes as a surprise in an Alistair MacLean novel. Usually I detest this kind of messaging but I can’t say it bothered me in this book.

Jansci and the Count, both key characters, offer a perspective on the Cold War that is radically at odds with the view that is offered in just about every other spy novel of the late 50s. It’s a perspective with which the novel’s hero, Reynolds, is increasingly in sympathy. And my impression is that MacLean had some sympathy for this radical re-appraisal of Cold War politics as well since it does constitute the major theme of the novel. In many ways The Last Frontier has a much stronger affinity with Graham Greene’s The Quiet American than with mainstream late 50s spy fiction and it can be seen as an anticipation of the moral murkiness of le Carre and Deighton. But the cynicism abut the Cold War in The Last Frontier goes way beyond anything in le Carre.

What we do expect in a MacLean are devious plot twists, relentless action and suspense and this novel delivers on all these counts. The plot is excellent. Reynolds makes mistake, all the heroic characters in the book make mistakes and all the villains make mistakes as well. Every time Reynolds thinks that this time he’s got it figured out and he’s not going to make another error everything goes horribly wrong again. He seems to keep running into brick walls but he’s been trained never to give up so he just picks himself up and has another try.

There’s a fair amount of violence and there are extended torture scenes but again MacLean surprises us. These are non-violent tortures by means of drugs intended not just to break down the victim’s resistance but to leave him nothing more than an empty shell. There’s no need to kill him afterwards because his personality will have been entirely destroyed. It’s much more horrifying than the conventional torture scenes that the average thriller writer would rely on.

Yet another surprise is the real emotional depth of the hero. We’re talking major character development here. By the end of the book the Michael Reynolds to whom we are introduced at the beginning has ceased to exist, not because his personality has been destroyed by torture but because all his prejudices and illusions and cherished beliefs have been exposed as wrong-headed and devoid of meaning. When a man has to abandon all the codes and values by which he has lived he really has to re-assemble his personality from scratch and that’s the challenge that Michael Reynolds faces.

MacLean did at times offer us damaged or flawed heroes (Fear Is the Key being an example) so perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised by the complexity of the hero of The Last Frontier.

There are still the usual spy fiction themes of loyalty and betrayal, but they’re handled in a complex way.

MacLean’s plots were so good and he was such a master of action and suspense that it’s easy to overlook the fact that he could write some pretty gritty hard-edged prose when he had a mind to.

The Last Frontier is a slightly unconventional but very effective and very entertaining spy thriller. It has a slightly different feel compared to the novels he would write in the 1960s but it’s still highly recommended. In fact it’s thematically interesting enough to qualify for a very highly recommended rating.

I've reviewed the movie version, The Secret Ways (1961), on Classic Movie Ramblings.

1 comment:

  1. This is certainly a very interesting novel. It's not one of his absolute best, but how many books are that good? It's definitely in the top-half of his work. I generally don't like the spy elements in Maclean's novels - they're often just too over the top for me - but this one works as a spy thriller.