Thursday, May 7, 2015

Captured, Rescued, Captured, Rescued, Captured, Tortured, Rescued

I discovered the novels of Alistair MacLean when I was maybe 11 years old. I saw the movie version Where Eagles Dare on TV and loved it, not just for the complex and fascinating plot, but also for the image of Clint Eastwood duel-wielding Schmeisser submachine guns while single-handedly holding off hordes of Nazis. Seriously, who DOESN'T love that part?

By coincidence, I saw the novel on the drug store spinner rack a few days later. I happened to have some paper route money, so I immediately bought it, read it and loved it even more than the movie. After that, for Christmas and birthdays, I could give my parents a list of Alistair MacLean novels I hadn't read yet and say "I'll take any of these."

MacLean lost his mojo by 1977 with the awful novel Seawitch (though some would say he lost it a few books earlier). 1984's San Andreas isn't bad, but otherwise books from the late 1970s and 1980s had lost the feeling of excitement, suspense and surprise that filled his earlier books.

But when he was good, MacLean was great. A few of his early novels stand out because they contain elements of tragedy. And for a writer who often specialized in smart-aleck protagonists pulling off wild schemes, it's interesting to see effectively he pulled off tragedy.

1959's The Last Frontier is set in Hungary, which at the time was ruled by a repressive Communist regime and--a few years earlier--had suffered horribly after the Russians sent tanks in to crush an uprising. The ensuing story is laced with real tragedy as it takes a hard look at a people being crushed by a dictatorship, all leading up to a bittersweet ending.

The novel, by the way, was titled The Secret Ways in most U.S. printings.

A British agent named Michael Reynolds is sent into Hungary to rescue a scientist named Jennings, who defected to the East but might now have reason to regret that decision. Reynolds is a complete professional, trained to set aside his feelings and do his job as coldly and efficiently as he can.

But remaining cold and unemotional is pretty much impossible after he hooks up with Jansci, a former Ukrainian general who now runs an underground operation dedicated to smuggling people out of the country. Jansci is, well, he's awesomely cool. Despite a tragic life that's left him with horrible physical scars--after seeing most of his family killed by the forces of tyranny--he still wants nothing more than peace for his fellow man. He doesn't really care about politics. He simply wants to help suffering people get to some place where they no longer need suffer. It is impossible for Reynolds to work with Jansci without being at least partially infected by the man's intense empathy.

Jansci's organization includes "The Count," a trusted officer in the Hungarian secret police who uses his position to covertly help people; Jansci's pretty daughter Julia; and Sandor, a big and impossibly strong man who's loyalty to Jansci is complete.

Sandor is a character type MacLean loved to include in his novels--a big, strong but still intelligent man who would generally get to do something epically cool before the novel ends. Sandor has several such moments, culminating in an intense hand-to-hand fight against an equally strong secret policeman.

Reynolds is captured, rescued, captured again, rescued, captured once more, tortured and rescued before he finally gets a chance to save Jennings. This involves crawling over the icy slick roofs of several train cars during a blizzard. But even after this, a final confrontation with the secret police is waiting for him. During this confrontation, Reynolds and his allies will be faced with making a horrible choice.

MacLean injects an atmosphere of palpable danger and tension into the story, as well as describing the cold weather so vividly it would make you shiver even if you were reading it at the beach on a hot day. Each of Reynolds' successive rescues is undeniably more outlandish than the previous one, but MacLean had a talent for making the outlandish seem real. This talent is tied closely to MacLean's characterizations; most importantly to his ability to make us believe Reynolds' allies are truly awesome. When the Count, for instance, acts with extreme cleverness and daring to save the day, we really believe that he's just that good.

In fact, for much of the novel, Reynolds is practically just an observer, with Jansci and his friends doing much of the cool stuff. It's only when the chance to rescue Jennings finally arrives that Reynolds really steps to the forefront and becomes the true hero of the story. But even then, he must depend on the others. The Count and Sandor both play key roles in the final action scenes.

There is one aspect of the novel that some MacLean fans criticize. Several times, the action pauses while Jansci expounds on his views of mankind, tyranny and world peace. He's obviously being used as a mouthpiece for what MacLean had to say about all this--and that's fine. I think these speeches help establish Jansci's character and carry real emotion. But their insertions into the story are a little contrived and I understand why some readers might dislike them. An arguable flaw found in a few of MacLean's early novels is a tendency towards melodrama. Jansci's sudden speechifying and a few other elements of The Last Frontier can be said to be a symptom of this.

But even if a reader does sometimes wish Jansci would stop talking, The Last Frontier is still a riveting espionage yarn and its tragic elements give it real heart.

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