Monday, November 18, 2019

the last book I read

Bear Island by Alistair MacLean.

The Morning Rose, a somewhat geriatric converted trawler, is steaming off into the Arctic Ocean with a film crew aboard, heading for Bear Island (a southerly outpost of the Svalbard archipelago) where they hope to do some dramatic location shooting with the snow and the dramatic cliffs and a bit of the old spume and all that. The crew numbers twenty-four, comprising directors, actors, camera operators and the like as well as some administrative types like accountants, and also Dr. Marlowe, the expedition's medical officer and our first-person narrator. A nice quiet gig for the good doctor, unless anyone is careless enough to fall overboard into the icy waters, you'd think, or at least you might think that if you'd never read a mystery thriller before. For it turns out that they have an extra passenger aboard ... [dramatic orchestral stab] ... DEATH.

It's not exactly been, if you'll forgive me, plain sailing, as the seas in this part of the world are a bit gnarly at the best of times, and a few cases of seasickness are to be expected. But when Antonio, the make-up artist, lurches off greenly to his cabin during dinner only to later turn up dead in a lake of his own vomit, things have entered the arena of the unusual. Even more so when a couple of the ship's stewards turn up similarly dead and a couple more film crew members are only rescued from a similar fate by Marlowe's robust anti-poisoning methods, basically involving administering colossal quantities of salt water to provoke uncontrollable vomiting. By the time the night is over the ship is basically knee-deep in spew and corpses.

Needless to say this puts the whole expedition in some doubt, but as they are nearly at their remote destination now, and there is a significant amount of money riding on the successful completion of the shoot, it is decided by the trip's organisers - led by corpulent director Otto Gerran - that it should continue as planned while the ship steams back to Norway and reports the incidents.

The island has some spartan accommodation which the party make use of, but even this close-quarters living doesn't stop our murderer(s) continuing their killing spree, and a couple of further people turn up dead. By this time it is revealed that Dr. Marlowe is perhaps Not What He Seems, and that he has some interest in the expedition beyond just making sure everyone has enough aspirin. It turns out Marlowe is an agent of the British Government here to investigate certain members of the film company for involvement in crimes dating all the way back to World War II.

Eventually the true purpose of the trip to Bear Island becomes clear - retrieving various items of Nazi treasure secreted in various caches on the island in the latter stages of the war, spiriting it back to the UK disguised as various items of film prop equipment, laundering the ass off it and getting clean away with flipping great wodges of cash amounting to several tens of millions of pounds, back when that was an amount of money worth getting out of bed for. But who is the mastermind? And why the seemingly indiscriminate killing spree?

Strip away the Arctic location and this is really just an Agatha Christie-style country house mystery transposed to a more exciting milieu. The murderer(s) must be from among the twenty-odd people on the boat (and subsequently deposited, bar the odd corpse, on Bear Island), so it's just a question of working out who it is. You would think the story's narrator, Dr. Marlowe, would be above suspicion, but there's always the possibility that the author is pulling a Roger Ackroyd on us. There's a lengthy and very Christie-esque bit of exposition at the end which could entirely plausibly be delivered by Hercule Poirot in a drawing-room in front of a blazing fire rather than by Marlowe inside a mock-up of a submarine lashed to a jetty on a remote Arctic island. Many aspects of Bear Island are reminiscent of what I think is the only other MacLean I've read, Ice Station Zebra, which shared an Arctic location, some general twisty-turniness of plot including some doubt over the reliability of the narrator, and some general killing.

Alistair MacLean has been dead for 30-odd years now, and most of his most famous books were written 20 years or more before that (Bear Island is from 1971), so it's easy to forget what a big deal he was sales-wise. It's unclear what the source of the numbers in the list on this Wikipedia page is, but they're pretty big numbers. Apart from MacLean, the only authors to feature on both that list and this blog are Stephen King, Ian Fleming and Hermann Hesse.

Like Fleming, MacLean's attitude to women raises a bit of an eyebrow these days - there is one occasion when Dr. Marlowe, the nearest thing the book has to a hero, responds to a woman being mildly traumatised by yet another death by hitting her. The general level of alcohol consumption by just about everyone is pretty astonishing, too - I know it's the Arctic, there's not much to do, and you need the odd tot of brandy to keep the cold out, but just about everyone is sloshing back the scotch like it's going out of fashion. MacLean himself struggled with alcoholism most of his life, so maybe this is either a sneaky attempt to normalise his own habits, or just an assumption that everyone else drank as much as he did.

Anyway, Bear Island is good fun, not especially plausible if you think about it for more than a few moments, quaintly old-fashioned in many ways, and, as with most MacLean novels, obvious film material. The hit rate with MacLean adaptations was surprisingly low, though: for every Guns Of Navarone there were a dozen duds, and by all accounts Bear Island is one, despite a fairly stellar cast including Donald Sutherland and Vanessa Redgrave.

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