Alistair MacLean was born on 21 April 1922 to a Christian pastor in Glasgow. He learned English as his second language after his mother tongue, Scottish Gaelic and spent much of his childhood and youth in Daviot, ten miles south of Inverness. He was the third of four sons.
Maclean joined the Royal Navy in 1941, serving in World War II with the ranks of Ordinary Seaman, Able Seaman, and Leading Torpedo Operator. MacLean was released from the Royal Navy in 1946.
He then studied English at the University of Glasgow, graduating in 1953, and then worked as a school teacher in Rutherglen.
While a university student, MacLean began writing short stories for extra income, winning a competition in 1954 with the maritime story “Dileas”. The publishing company Collins asked him for a novel and he responded with HMS Ulysses, based on his own war experiences, as well as credited insight from his brother Ian, a Master Mariner. The novel was a great success and MacLean was soon able to devote himself entirely to writing war stories, spy stories and other adventures.
MacLean’s books eventually sold so well that he moved to Switzerland as a tax exile. From 1963–1966, he took a hiatus from writing to run a hotel business in England. He also struggled constantly with alcoholism, which eventually brought about his death in Munich in 1987. He is buried a few yards from Richard Burton in Céligny, Switzerland. He was married twice and had three sons with his first wife; the third son was adopted.
MacLean was awarded a Doctor of Letters by the University of Glasgow in 1983. Nature, especially the sea and the Arctic north, played 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 HMS Ulysses which is now considered a classic of naval fiction. Many of MacLean’s novels were made into films, but none completely captured the level of detail and the intensity of his writing style, but after his death, the popularity of MacLean’s work saw a decline.
Despite the fact that Maclean’s books were written quite a few years ago, they are still worth a read or re-read. His later books in the 80’s and 90’s, including Death Train and Dead Halt, were written in collaboration with Alistair MacNeill.
The Guns of Navarone (1957)
This is a classic World War II thriller from the acclaimed master of action and suspense. Twelve hundred British soldiers isolated on the small island of Kheros off the Turkish coast, are waiting to die. Twelve hundred lives in jeopardy, lives that could be saved if only the guns could be silenced; the guns of Navarone, vigilant, savage and catastrophically accurate. Navarone itself, a grim bastion of narrow straits manned by a mixed garrison of Germans and Italians, an apparently impregnable iron fortress. To Captain Keith Mallory, skilled saboteur, trained mountaineer, had the task of leading the small party detailed to scale the vast, impossible precipice of Navarone and to blow up the guns. The Guns of Navarone is the story of that mission, the tale of a calculated risk taken in the time of war.
Ice Station Zebra (1960)
The Dolphin, pride of America’s nuclear fleet, is the only submarine capable of attempting the rescue of a British meteorological team trapped on the polar ice cap. The officers of the Dolphin know well the hazards of such an assignment. What they do not know is that the rescue attempt is really a cover-up for one of the most desperate espionage missions of the Cold War and that the Dolphin is heading straight for sub-zero disaster, facing hidding sabotage, murder and a deadly, invisible enemy.
Bear Island (1971)
Bear Island, known as the wartime graveyard of the Arctic, where Nazi submarines lay in wait for the Murmansk convoys, is the setting for this novel. As the charter ship Morning Rose sails through wintry seas towards the island, the doctor on board, Christopher Marlowe, is kept busy attending to his sea-sick patients, the members of a film unit who are to make a film on Bear Island so secret that none of them know much about it. Another, more mysterious malady attacks them and in some cases proves fatal, but there is something highly unnatural about both the illness and its selection of victims. The Morning Rose has a murderer on board. Marlowe realizes that he is included in the elimination campaign. Before the ship has anchored under the towering cliffs of Bear Island, there has already been an attempt on his life. Then, in the encampment, events on board fuse into a pattern of terror as suspicion shifts from one member of the company to another and further deaths take place. Someone in the film unit is intent on preventing Marlowe and others from sharing the secret of the island, and what lies beyond the Gates of Pearl. Beset by the conflicting temperaments and nationalities within the frightened group, Marlowe contends with grim humour against weather, terrain and ruthless adversaries, as events build up to a tremendous climax in the darkness of the Polar night.