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This review is from: Bear Island (Paperback)
All at sea on a ship carrying a film crew and a murderer...
Having spent some time in the later part of MacLean's career and being mainly disappointed it was with a sense of trepidation that I picked up Bear Island, being slowly in the process of forgetting what made him such a great writer.
Luckily page 1 reminded me and I was drawn in. His prose crackes here whereas in later work it barely simmers.
So the good news is that this is MacLean's best books, the bad news is that this is the last of top drawer outings. The slide started after this book in my opinion.
THE PLOT. The crew and cast of an upcoming film are sailing to the remote Bear Island to make their new picture. On the way however a case of food poisoning kills 3 people and Dr Marlow suspects the case was not accidental.
THE CHARACTERS. Dr Marlowe makes for a better hero than in other books as for the first half of the book he is taken by surprise, caught unawares and nearly murdered. For a MacLean hero not to be in complete control is a good change of pace. The best sequences in the book are when Marlowe gets racked with paranoia and does not know who to trust. As one of the other reviewers point out, when Marlow realises the killer is after him too is a great plot twist and kept me on tenterhooks.
However, by the end Marlowe seems to know exactly what is going without any major eureka moments and one of the characters position as a villain is just dropped into a sentence in such a off handed manner I didn't think it was relevant. The trouble is for all of Marlowe's early perplexity, he knows everything all of a sudden which makes for an unsatisfying volte-face. Moreover, I got the impression that if I were to read it again, there would be a few plot holes regarding Marlowe's knowledge.
The supporting cast is large but memorable. MacLean's later novels are weighed down with dull as dishwater characters that are highly forgettable. The cast here is mainly painted from broad strokes but is easy to remember who is who from the film's producer Otto (played by Robert Morley in the film in my head) to the bolshy female lead (played by Liz Taylor in the film in my head). One small quibble is that in the early stages a character list would have been helpful to keep track of who does what within the company.
One aspect that I appreciated is that two of the three female characters are called Mary. It is an annoyance of mine that in films, TV, books you never have two people with the same name whereas in real life you know scores of people with the same name. I digress but I appreciated MacLean addressing this issue.
PLOT. Maybe a little longer than it could have been but I never got bored which is the ultimate test. The murder mystery is a strong plot and whilst I didn't like how the resolution was revealed in a rather undramatic manner the identity of the murderer I found to be satisfying. The story is low on action but I dont think this overly affected the book.
A rattling, good MacLean book, while he still had the spark.
A sign of this being a later work is the sheer amount of drinking that goes on in this book. Seriously, the characters spend most of their time drinking whisky and when they are talking about the murders, they're talking about whisky. I got the impression MacLean was probably knocking back the hard stuff when he wrote this. By ATHABASCA the alcohol intake by so called professional investigators has reached Withnail & I standards.
Bear Island also follows the rule that the best MacLean books are set somewhere cold or wet.
So far the best MacLean books I have read are.
WHERE EAGLES DARE (cold)
ICE STATION ZEBRA (cold and wet)
SOUTH BY JAVA HEAD (wet)
BEAR ISLAND (wet)
GUNS OF NAVARONE (wet... it's on an island!)
NIGHT WITHOUT END (cold)