Alistair MacLean

From Academic Kids

Alistair Stuart MacLean (April 28, 1922 - February 2, 1987) was a Scottish novelist, writer of successful thrillers or adventures, the best known of which is perhaps The Guns of Navarone. He also used the pseudonym Ian Stuart.



MacLean was the son of a minister, and learnt English as his second language after his mother tongue Scottish Gaelic. He was born in Glasgow but spent much of his childhood and youth in Daviot, near Inverness. He joined the Royal Navy in 1941, serving in World War II as a torpedo man and being captured by the Japanese and tortured. After the war, he studied English at the University of Glasgow, graduating in 1953, and then worked as a teacher.

While in the University, MacLean began writing short stories for extra income and won a competition in 1954 with the maritime story "Dileas". The publishing company Collins asked him for a novel and he responded with H.M.S. Ulysses, based on his own war experiences. It was a great success and MacLean was soon able to devote himself entirely to writing war stories, spy stories and other adventures.

In the early 1960s, MacLean published two novels under the pseudonym "Ian Stuart" in order to prove that the popularity of his books was owed to their content rather than to his name on the cover. They sold well, but one must remember that MacLean made no attempt to change his style and his fans may easily have recognized him behind the Scottish pseudonym. MacLean's books eventually sold so well that he had to move to Switzerland as a tax exile. From 1963–1966 he was retired from writing while he ran a hotel business in England.

MacLean's later books were not as well received as the earlier ones and, in an attempt to keep his stories in keeping with the time, he sometimes lapsed into overly improbable plots. He also struggled constantly with alcoholism which eventually brought about his death in Munich in 1987. He was married twice and had three sons with his first wife.

Style of writing

Compared to other thriller writers of the time, such as Ian Fleming, MacLean's books are exceptional in one way at least: they are absent of sex and short of romance because MacLean thought that such diversions merely serve to slow down the action. Nor do they resemble the more recent techno-thriller approach. Instead MacLean lets little to hinder the flow of events in his books, making his heroes fight against seemingly unbeatable odds and often pushing them to the limits of their physical and mental endurance. MacLean's heroes are usually calm, cynical men entirely devoted to their work and often carrying some kind of secret knowledge. A characteristic twist is that one of the hero's closest cooperators turns out a traitor.

Nature, especially the sea and the arctic north, plays an important part in MacLean's stories, and he used a variety of exotic parts of the world as settings to his books. Only one of them, When Eight Bells Toll, is set in his native Scotland. MacLean's best books are often those in which he was able to make use of his own direct knowledge of warfare and seafare such as H.M.S. Ulysses which is now considered a classic of naval fiction.

Stylistically MacLean's novels can be broken down into four periods:

  1. H.M.S. Ulysses through The Last Frontier. These featured third-person narratives and a somewhat epic tone, and were mostly set during World War II. The Last Frontier contained overt philosophical and moral themes that were not well received. MacLean then switched gears to —
  2. Night Without End through Ice Station Zebra. These all featured first person (and sometimes unreliable) narration laced with a dry, sardonic, self-deprecating humour, and were all set in contemporary times. These are MacLean's most intensely plotted tales, masterfully blending thriller and detective elements. MacLean then retired from writing for three years, returning with —
  3. When Eight Bells Toll through Bear Island, a varied collection that still maintained a generally high quality, with some books harking back to each of the first two periods but usually taking a more cinematic approach (not surprising since he began writing screenplays during this time). Finally —
  4. The Way to Dusty Death to the end. There were no more first-person stories, and his prose often sagged badly, with excessive dialogue, lazily described scenes, and poor characterization. Some of the books are better than others, and all sold reasonably well, but MacLean never regained his classic form.

Altogether MacLean published 28 novels and a collection of short stories, as well as books about T. E. Lawrence and James Cook.

MacLean also wrote screenplays, some of them based on his novels and others later novelized by other writers. Around 1980, he was commissioned by an American movie production company to write a series of story outlines to be subsequently produced as movies. Although he did write about a fictitious United Nations organisation, the books were later completed by others. Among these are "Hostage Tower" by John Denis and Death Train by Alastair MacNeill. Some of these works bear little resemblance to MacLean's style, especially in their use of gratuitous sex and violence.

Many of MacLean's novels were made into films, but none completely captured the level of detail and the intensity of his writing style as exemplified in classics such as Fear is the Key; the two most artistically and commercially successful film adaptations were The Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare.

Alistair MacLean was awarded a Doctorate of Literature at the University of Glasgow in 1983.

List of works


  • H.M.S. Ulysses (1955)
  • The Guns of Navarone (1957)
  • South by Java Head (1957)
  • The Last Frontier, in the USA The Secret Ways (1959)
  • Night without End (1960)
  • Fear Is the Key (1961)
  • The Dark Crusader, in the USA The Black Shrike (as Ian Stuart, 1961)
  • The Golden Rendezvous (1962)
  • The Satan Bug (as Ian Stuart, 1962)
  • Ice Station Zebra (1963)
  • When Eight Bells Toll (1966)
  • Where Eagles Dare (1967)
  • Force 10 from Navarone (1968)
  • Puppet on a Chain (1969)
  • Caravan to Vaccars (1970)
  • Bear Island (1971)
  • The Way to Dusty Death (1973)
  • Breakheart Pass (1974)
  • Circus (1975)
  • The Golden Gate (1976)
  • Seawitch (1977)
  • Goodbye California (1978)
  • Athabasca (1980)
  • River of Death (1981)
  • Partisans (1982)
  • Floodgate (1983)
  • San Andreas (1984)
  • Santorini (1986)

Collection of short stories

  • The Lonely Sea (1985)

Other books

  • All about Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
  • Alistair MacLean Introduces Scotland (1972)
  • Captain Cook (1972)

UNACO books by other authors

  • Hostage Tower (1980) (by John Denis)
  • Air Force 1 is Down (1981) (by John Denis)
  • Death Train (1989) (by Alastair MacNeill)
  • Night Watch (1989) (by Alastair MacNeill)
  • Red Alert (1990) (by Alastair MacNeill)
  • Time of the Assassins (1991) (by Alastair MacNeill)
  • Dead Halt (1992) (by Alastair MacNeill)
  • Golden Girl (1992) (by Simon Gandolfi)
  • Code Breaker (1993) (by Alastair MacNeill)
  • Golden Web (1993) (by Simon Gandolfi)
  • Golden Vengeance (1994) (by Simon Gandolfi)
  • Rendezvous (1995) (by Alastair MacNeill)
  • Prime Target (1997) (by Hugh Miller)
  • Borrowed Time (1998) (by Hugh Miller)

Notes on the Books

  • Force 10 from Navarone, MacLean's only sequel, picks up from where the film version leaves off, not his original novel.
  • MacLean's only other use of inter-novel continuity is a police character from Puppet on a Chain reappearing in Floodgate.
  • There have been reports of a "lost" MacLean novel titled Snow on the Ben, but it appears to be by a different Ian Stuart (refer ISBN 0708965032)
  • MacLean's chief female characters are almost always named some variation of Mary, like Mary itself, Marie, or Maria.
  • MacLean was known to plagiarize himself at times; for example, the description "huddled shapelessness of the dead" occurs in some form in several stories.
  • Clive Cussler lifted (or paid homage to) Ice Station Zebra in his Raise the Titanic! and The Secret Ways in his The Mediterrean Caper.


  • Lee, Robert A. Alistair MacLean: The Key is Fear. Borgo Press, 1976. ISBN 089370203X.
  • Webster, Jack. Alistair MacLean: A Life. Chapmans Publishers, 1991. ISBN 1855925192. (Alternate title: Alistair MacLean: A Biography of a Master Storyteller.)de:Alistair MacLean

fi:Alistair MacLean ja:アリステア・マクリーン pl:Alistair MacLean sv:Alistair MacLean


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