Book: Fear is the Key
Author: Alistair MacLean
Year: 1961

“My red rose had turned to white.”

That is how the story begins in this vintage MacLean thriller. Set up in the Gulf of Mexico in the year 1958 it has, like many other MacLean books, the sea as an important part of the story. The love affair between Alistair MacLean and the raging foaming sea began right at the age of 19 when he joined the Navy during the Second World War. The affair was formally anointed when MacLean wrote his first novel HMS Ulysses.

Alistair Maclean
Alistair Maclean

Technically, I should be writing about The Golden Rendezvous because it possesses the distinction of being read first. But, since I read that around 10 years earlier i’ll settle for Fear is the Key which I re-read around a month back! But, before I am swept by nostalgia, I’m not here to speak about any random book of the guy who introduced me to war, espionage, beautiful women, witty sarcastic language and morally correct heroes, I’ll stop. Coming back to the sea, it is said that MacLean’s best work are the ones in which the sea plays an important part. In Fear the sea plays the central part through and through. The story begins with the protagonist sitting in his “office” awaiting a radio contact with an airplane of his courier company which is carrying a cargo of significant importance other than his family comprising of his wife and a kid. The devastating moment that makes Talbot, the hero, an anti-hero comes right then. The plane is shot down by another aircraft who somehow finds out that Talbot is shipping a fortune out of the country.

Talbot turns to a life of crime and the story picks up after quite some time with him in a court room. This is where you, if you are a seasoned reader; a lover of the precision of language and its crispiness and have a high degree of respect for the magic it weaves, will love MacLean. There is a very agreeable description of the presiding Judge, Mollison was his name, and the surrounding crowd. This is, I consider, the forte of MacLean. Brilliant description with the tangible tautness stretched to the limit of its elasticity which helps you graphically see the person described. Anyway, Talbot, using his cunning, takes on a beautiful young girl as his hostage and runs away from the courtroom; takes the cops on a merry chase and ends up in a situation which just goes from bad to worse! He is caught by a certain Jablonsky who instead of running to the police with his catch takes him to the father of the girl.

The father is like this big shot oil czar who loves his daughter more than anything else and so decides not to apprehend Talbot to the police. Instead he, along with his business partners, decide to make use of Talbot in a not so legal operation. Knowing Talbot’s field of expertise and his ways they have no problems hiring him for the job. There is a lot of on board action in the book which will easily satisfy an action lover. Hand to Hand combat is what MacLean pulls off with aplomb.

Fear is the Key- Cover
Fear is the Key- Cover

The plot opens up gradually and does not surprise anyone. The reader will definitely know where the story is going. But MacLean makes the journey a heck of a ride! For the more voracious readers I’ll tell them this. Always read MacLean with care. He has a lot of knowledge vaulted inside and spurts them out through his laconic heroes or eccentric villains.

This, is what I can tell safely if I don’t want to ruin the reading experience. To tell more would put a dampener to the spirit of the novel. But there are certain things a new reader (of MacLean) needs to keep in mind. The writer has kept in mind the political situation during the times and made a story loosely running around it. MacLean, like Forsyth, has a lot of ground work involved. Of course, since more often than not its the WW he writes for the story premise becomes a bit easier. As for my very personal opinion I think the author does his job well. Judging him by his language, his story telling technique, his characterization or his  penchant for making descriptions he does it all too well. I know many people who cannot stand description. They just want a fast book which doesn’t change its pace from the word go. I like them too. But call it beginners love or whatever I can read and re-read Maclean’s descriptive language. I guarantee that many who read Fear is the Key will definitely read the Judge’s paragraph more than once!  The man can actively describe a wiring switch for two pages! He actually did this in The Dark Crusader (awesome book, by the way)!

A few of the following are disclaimers and a few are trivia that I found out after reading more than 90% of his books (::smug::)

  1. Alistair MacLean writes extensively about spying and counter espionage. He writes so much in this genre that a reader who has read 7-8 of his books would usually never be surprised about how it ends.
  2. His books NEVER have sexually graphic scenes. Hell, I don’t remember a graphic kissing scene either.
  3. Usually his female lead is called Mary. Sometimes, like in Bear Island, he has two Marys! So he called them “Mary Dear” and “Mary Darling:! I know! I know!
  4. Sometimes he names his heroines even more wildly. In The Golden Gate, she’s called April Wednesday. Don’t ask…
  5. The Hero is very witty, very chivalrous, very correct and very “Marlboro-Man” types. MacLean is one proud Brit and he is on the verge of being a little Racist.
  6. The chemistry shown between the male and female pair is usually fun to read. Feminists might not like the way he portrays women because he usually shows them as the docile and non violent kinds for whom the Hero has to work hard to keep her out of trouble. But, for crying out loud, the guy wrote during the 50s. Let him be.
  7. The above point is negated in some books. The Golden Gate, The Satan Bug and Puppet on a Chain have some real strong female characters.

These are the few that I could think of now. So, all the ones who are in need for some serious pulp reading go gung-ho over this awesome writer and revel in the delights of reading a kick ass novel with action and break neck speed!

Siddiqui F.

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