BENGALURU: I’d have been a lot more of a discerning reader had I not discovered Alistair MacLean; and gobbled up the whole lot of those short, squat, 250-odd page Rupa reprints of his books. Between classes six and nine, I had finished off the 30-odd books that he had written, and whatever else within the general framework of thrillers that I could get my hands on - Desmond Bagley, Frederick Forsyth, Sidney Sheldon, Jeffrey Archer and the likes. So dear college literary society senior who thought a snooty ‘reads too many thrillers’ was a putdown of any kind, it isn’t quite so.
You could encounter Alistair MacLean (pronounced ma-CLAIN, and not MACK-lin as we would pronounce it then) in the sixth standard school libraries, even in our prim-and-propah countryside Catholic Missionary schools, because MacLean’s books would hardly have a kiss, leave alone lovemaking. But they would have lots and lots (and lots more) of action. MacLean’s books contained, now that I think of it, a very typically British kind of virile, muscular abstinence. But for us hormonally-charged eleven and twelve-year-olds, this move from the Hardy Boys and the Famous Fives of the world to this actual, serious, violent action was very much welcome. We gladly welcomed Sidney Sheldon, and the other kind of hormonal stimulation in about the seventh standard, but that’s for another day.
And we read. We would normally pick up a book from the library, finish a book up in 3 days, and then exchange with a friend’s book, and finish that too. MacLean was not a master of the written word by any stretch of the imagination. You would not find well-defined lead characters. Woman characters were extremely unremarkable and superficial, serving no purpose except for as plot devices. But MacLean wrote excellent action scenes. He wrote innovative plots. And he could tell a story. He has been in the Navy and had a taste of the World War II, so he knew what he was talking about. Basically, within the framework that he operated in, he worked very well.
And what stories they were! I remember the best of them vividly. The Guns of Navarone, the story of a Greek island that has become a German fortress, with the largest, badass-est guns that one can find, and which is sure death for all Allied sea-faring vessels, and the effort of a (mostly) British troop to take them down, is etched in the memory. Ice Station Zebra was a thrill-a-minute story of Cold War submarine warfare in the Arctic Ocean; Night Without End, was another yarn in that near-Polar setting, a claustrophobic, scary yarn. And the best of them all was Where Eagles Dare, later made into a movie with the blockbuster star-cast of Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton - a daredevil, spine-chilling World-War II special.
When visiting second-hand book stores even today, I sometimes stop by shelves of Alistair MacLean and lovingly pick up a book, turn a few pages and then keep it back. Thus was adolescence.