Oldies But Goodies: Alistair MacLean and Mary Stewart

As much as I enjoy finding new mystery and suspense authors, there’s nothing quite like revisiting old friends. I recently reread several titles of two favorite authors who dominated the bestseller lists back in the Stone Age, when I was a teen dreaming of someday being a writer. Is it any wonder that they both had an enormous influence on my own, personal style as it evolved?

Puppet On A Chain DJ First up: Alistair MacLean. He’s the guy who wrote THE GUNS OF NAVARONE, ICE STATION ZEBRA, and WHERE EAGLES DARE. In addition to being bestselling novels, all three were hit movies that I watched over and over (and now I own them on DVD). They’re probably his most famous works, but he wrote nearly 20 others, many of which are just as good. I revisited PUPPET ON A CHAIN (a Dutch agent versus drug smugglers in Amsterdam) and BEAR ISLAND (sabotage and murder on a film set near the Arctic Circle). Old-fashioned? Sure. But MacLean knew how to tell a fast-paced action tale better than just about anyone else. The no-nonsense, do-the-job-and-get-out quality of his rugged adventure stories is a perfect lesson in narrative economy. Bonus trivia: The leading ladies in most of his books are named Mary, or Marie, or Maria. Why? Because his wife’s name was Mary. You have to love a writer who uses his spouse as the prototype for all of his heroines.

The Moonspinners PB coverAnd then there’s Mary Stewart. My late sister worshipped this wonderful British author, the “queen of romantic suspense,” and she insisted I read them. I wasn’t so sure–Stewart’s paperback covers in those days featured terrified women running out of mansions in nightgowns, and they looked distinctly “girlish” to me–but this was the older sister who turned me on to Daphne du Maurier, so I listened to her. She told me that one of Stewart’s books was THE MOON-SPINNERS, the basis of a Disney/Hayley Mills movie that had recently thrilled us at the local movie theater’s Saturday Matinee. (Do they still have Saturday Matinees for kids in movie theaters? Just wondering.) I grabbed my sister’s copy of THE MOON-SPINNERS and read it, and it was better than the movie. The book was written for grown-ups, and the heroine was in much scarier trouble than Hayley Mills. And she didn’t scream all the time like Hayley did in the movie–she was actually very resourceful.

Before she became world-famous for her books about Merlin and King Arthur, Stewart wrote 12 bestselling romantic suspense novels. They all cleave to a simple formula: A lovely young Englishwoman goes to an exotic place and finds romance and life-threatening danger. THE MOON-SPINNERS takes place in Crete, and her other locales include southern France, northern England, Austria, the French Pyrenees, Corfu, and the Isle of Skye. Stewart’s elegant writing style makes all these settings come alive before your eyes. And, unlike a lot of her competitors, she always allows her leading lady to be a strong, intelligent type who usually manages to extricate herself from peril without relying on the resident hunk. In fact, the girl frequently saves him! Like Alistair MacLean’s books, her titles are a bit dated (no electronics, and everybody smokes like chimneys), but she manages to keep the strong suspense going from first page to last.

These two wonderful authors are (still) among the best in suspense, and they’re both back in print now. If you haven’t read them, try them.

2 thoughts on “Oldies But Goodies: Alistair MacLean and Mary Stewart

  1. WOW!
    I don’t even know where to start. For me, this is like finding a long sought after book in your favorite used book store… and finding out the previous owner left a twenty dollar bill in it they used as a bookmark! Tom Savage, author of four books I have telling everybody about for forever, is a fan of another author that I have read every book he ever wrote… Alistair MacLean!
    Mr. Savage, where have you been? I devoured your four books in no time… I read “Precipice” in a single afternoon and got your other three as fast as I could. They were all read as fast as I could make time to read them. Then they were passed along to friends and family with the highest recommendations. I absolutely loved them! Not knowing who’s who or what’s what until the final page, you are the MASTER at that! You got me hooked and then you fell off the face of the earth. Damn glad to have you back writing again! Just this week the mailman dropped off “Dance of the Mongoose” at my door. Don’t you just love ebay?

    And then to find out you’re also an Alistair MacLean fan is pretty cool. I have read every novel he has ever written.
    I have always been interested in World War II and I would read anything written about it. When I was 14 or 15 (’74 or ’75) I read a novel called “H.M.S. Ulysses”. It was about a British cruiser on the North Atlantic convoy runs. It changed my life. Not in an earth shattering or mind blowing way, but after reading it I set aside my ‘Alfred Hithcock and the Three Investigators’ books and started reading ‘adult’ fiction. It was, and still is, an amazing book. In the forty years since, with no exaggeration at all, I have read that book at least fifteen times. Every two or three years I’ll get it out and reread it. It is hauntingly powerful. When I’m reading it I almost feel like I’m on that ship and I know all the characters personally.
    Next came “The Guns of Navarone” and “South by Java Head”. More WWII fiction. Over the next few years or so I read everything he had written up to that time and read his new ones as they came out. Obviously my favorite is “H.M.S. Ulysses” but others would have to be “Fear is the Key”, “The Satan Bug”, “Puppet on a Chain” and “The Secret Ways”, all of which I have read numerous times. Honestly, the first nineteen books he wrote were the very best. From “The Golden Gate” on they were OK but nowhere near as good as those that came before.
    Alistair MacLean novels will always have a special place in my heart.
    Thank You,Tom Savage, for this little trip down memory lane.
    I’m thinking it’s about time again for “H.M.S. Ulysses”

    • Thanks, Chuck. I’m glad you’re also a fan of MacLean. And thanks for the longest reply I’ve ever received! I’m posting the whole thing, unedited, so everyone can see I’m not the only MacLean geek in the world. Happy reading!

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