RogerBW's Blog

The Last Frontier, Alistair MacLean 18 January 2017

1959 thriller. British agent Michael Reynolds travels to Budapest to retrieve a British scientist kidnapped by the Russians and due to be shown off at a conference. US vt The Secret Ways.

Behind the desk sat the officer in charge, a small fat man, middle-aged, red-faced and insignificant. He would have liked his porcine little eyes to have had a cold, penetrating stare, but it didn't quite come off: his air of spurious authority he wore like a threadbare cloak. A nonentity, Reynolds judged, possibly even, in given circumstances -- such as the present -- a dangerous little nonentity, but ready for all that to collapse like a pricked balloon at the first contact with real authority.

MacLean is a great storyteller in terms of plot… but rather weaker at making one care about the people. Characterisation is thin to the point of parody: the saintly old resistance fighter, the master of disguise and deception, the cunning secret police boss, the Big Guy (one good, one bad), the Girl – well, of course there has to be a Girl, right?

One does wonder somewhat about British intelligence's screening techniques for their agents, though. Reynolds fails to perform several bits of basic tradecraft, falls in love with the Girl, and gets himself subverted by the saintly resistance fighter to the point that by the end of the book he's no longer willing to do these jobs.

On the other hand, there are plenty of twists: if this book were badly translated, it might well end up with the title "aha, really I am working for the other side". That sort of thing has been endlessly re-run and parodied since, of course, but this is a book from 1959 when it was rather fresher; the days when one could expect that readers might have to have it explained to them what a Molotov cocktail, or a Dobermann pinscher, was, and when the obvious possible subversions of "we send our hostage towards you, you send your hostage towards us" weren't quite as obvious. Less successful is the saintly resistance fighter's lengthy exposition of his pacifist philosophy (in the "no killing" sense, though knocking people out is just fine), which comes over as borderline incoherent. On the other hand, the basic idea that while the Russians and other communists may not be "just like us" they are still people may have been quite revolutionary enough for the 1950s; this is a Manly Hero who doesn't kill people!

For that matter, this is the first time MacLean moved away from the Second World War (at least at novel length); he wouldn't return until Where Eagles Dare eight years later. Writing up-to-the-minute books was obviously a challenge: the secret police agency ÁVO that's the main opposition here had been renamed ÁVH in 1950 (which is mentioned but then ignored), and abolished in 1956 during the Hungarian Revolution; it was never re-established as a distinct agency, though the Ministry of the Interior took over the necessary job of torturing and killing people who didn't agree with the rulers.

In the modern day this is an ordinary thriller, somewhat dated by the fall of communism; in 1959 it was probably something of a stand-out.

Read for Past Offences' 1959 month.

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