RogerBW's Blog

Night Without End, Alistair MacLean 22 January 2017

1959 thriller. An airliner makes a forced rough landing near a weather observation post in the highlands of Greenland. What was it doing that far north, what foul play was involved, and who is responsible?

The first-person narrator, Dr Mason, is something of a cipher; we get snatches of his background (military service, a dead wife, and so on) but never really enough to put together an idea of his personality in more than basic terms. The other characters are largely stereotypes (some of them actually mentioned as such, like Solly Levin the New York boxing manager whom even Mason thinks is too good to be true). The romance subplot can charitably be described as thin, and its main virtue is that it isn't mentioned much.

But the basic plot is: among those survivors is at least one Bad Guy. The villainous plan, whatever it may have been, has gone wrong, and said Bad Guy(s) be trying to salvage whatever can be had. There's little evidence, and Mason spends much of the book accusing the wrong people and then blaming himself for having been such an idiot, but eventually everything will be resolved.

There are three main sections to the story: the initial crash and recovery to the weather station, the trek across the ice towards the coast and possible rescue on an ancient and unreliable ice tractor, and the final struggles once the villainous element has been unmasked. That central section is the longest, and the most effective: it's good technical adventure, where MacLean was clearly well-advised on the small practical details of Arctic expeditions (though he clearly didn't check the story about sugar in petrol making the petrol useless; he almost gets it right, and does have a highly inventive means of solving the problem). Mind you, that an experienced enemy agent shouldn't recognise "Mayday" in a radio call does rather stretch my sense of plausibility (it had been standard since 1927 and used all through the Second World War); but the hostage-taker's problem (if you shoot your hostage, you will immediately be shot yourself, so you can't make credible threats if you actually hope to get away alive) was less of a cliché then than it is now.

One mystery that will never be answered: why were there only thirteen passengers and four crew on board this four-engine airliner? (Other than "the plot would be unwieldy with more", of course.) The model is never given, but the flight was meant to be from Gander to Reykjavik, some 1,600 miles; even a small aircraft like a Handley-Page Hermes carried 40+ passengers over that sort of distance.

It's decent MacLean, but not his best work.

Bonus: have a map of the intended flight plan and actual landing point point. (Assuming, as one must, that when a character talks of east longitude he actually means west; that might be sloppy editing.)

Read for Past Offences' 1959 month.

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  1. Posted by Dr Bob at 12:52pm on 22 January 2017

    I suppose that just because a plane can carry 40 passengers, doesn't mean that it will. Perhaps the plot needed a line about it being 'off season' for holidays and business trips to Reykjavik?

    Was the crash an accidental side effect of the villainous plan? Or did the bad guy think: Step 1 Get on plane. Step 2 Cause the plane I am currently standing on to crash. Step 3 If not dead, carry out some villainy.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 02:29pm on 22 January 2017

    I've been trying to dig out history on trans-Atlantic non-stop flight, and it's not at all clear to me when this became a regular thing. (Not counting airships, obviously.) I think this may have been just the previous year, in 1958. Certainly the passengers here are expecting to go on to England, rather than having business/holidays in Iceland.

    Even under the coating of ice the big bold lettering 'BOAC' was clearly visible. BOAC! What on earth was a BOAC airliner doing in this part of the world? The SAS and KLM, I knew, operated trans-Arctic flights from Copenhagen and Amsterdam to Winnipeg, Los Angeles and Vancouver via Sondre Stromfjord, about an hour and a half's flying time away to the south-west on the west coast of Greenland, just on the Arctic Circle, and I was pretty sure that Pan American and Trans World operated reciprocal services on the same route.

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