RogerBW's Blog

South by Java Head, Alistair MacLean 14 April 2017

1958 thriller/war story. In February 1942, Singapore is about to fall to the Japanese; one last ship makes it out, but those who made it aboard won't have an easy trip to safety.

This is an interestingly transitional book: it's a war story like MacLean's first two, with our heroes surviving dive bombers and surface attacks, but for the most part it doesn't deal with military forces, as most of the motley crew are civilians. And of course some of them will be secretly working for the Japanese, who are here presented in their full stereotyped wartime leering-yellow-devil evilness (none of that "we could have been friends if not for the war" here); playing spot-the-traitor is an important part of the process of reading the book. Microfilm is, of course, involved.

Character development is minimal as usual, and I suppose that's fair enough since this is mostly a thriller. I was interested mainly in the setting, but we get out of Singapore pretty quickly, and most of the action happens at sea. There are of course twists in which bad guys reveal themselves to be good guys really, and vice versa; lots of bravery, and selfishness, as appropriate to people's characters… All right, someone is grabbed by a giant clam, and barracuda are "the most voracious killers of the sea".

The action is non-stop and at times even tiring, and the ending is rather abrupt. It feels dashed off, rather than having had the care and attention that the first two books clearly received. Not peak MacLean; it's rather more on a par with his later years.

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