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.

[Buy this at Amazon] and help support the blog.

Comments on this post are now closed. If you have particular grounds for adding a late comment, comment on a more recent post quoting the URL of this one.

Search
Archive
Tags 1920s 1930s 1940s 1950s 1960s 1970s 1980s 1990s 2000s 2010s 3d printing action aeronautics aikakirja anecdote animation anime army astronomy audio tech base commerce battletech beer boardgaming bookmonth chain of command children chronicle church of no redeeming virtues cold war comedy computing contemporary cornish smuggler cosmic encounter coup cycling dead of winter doctor who documentary drama driving drone ecchi espionage essen 2015 essen 2016 essen 2017 existential risk falklands war fandom fantasy film firefly first world war flash point food garmin drive gazebo geodata gurps gurps 101 harpoon historical history horror hugo 2014 hugo 2015 hugo 2016 hugo 2017 hugo-nebula reread in brief avoid instrumented life kickstarter learn to play leaving earth linux mecha museum mystery naval non-fiction one for the brow opera perl photography podcast politics powers prediction privacy project woolsack pyracantha quantum rail ranting raspberry pi reading reading boardgames social real life restaurant reviews romance rpg a day rpgs science fiction scythe second world war security shipwreck simutrans south atlantic war squaddies stationery steampunk stuarts suburbia superheroes suspense television the resistance thirsty meeples thriller tin soldier torg toys trailers travel vietnam war war wargaming weather wives and sweethearts writing about writing x-wing young adult
Special All book reviews, All film reviews
Produced by aikakirja v0.1