Saturday, April 05, 2008

RIVER OF DEATH by Alistair MacLean

I'm fond of a quote I read somewhere years ago: I keep the story moving so quickly the reader doesn't have time to slow down and realize how poor the writing is. It is attributed--at least in my memory--to novelist Alistair MacLean and while I don't agree that his writing is poor, I definitely agree that his stories are thrilling, wild, and extremely fast.

Mr. MacLean was a mega-bestseller in the Sixties and Seventies and was one of the first writers whose work really connected with me. He wrote sleek little thrillers that were long on action, loaded with dialogue, and populated with hard men that had a certain British sophistication that read just right. And none of the characters in his stories was exactly what they seemed; the bad guy was often not revealed until the final pages and it was usually a bit of a surprise.

I try to read a novel or two of MacLean's work each year, but I've fallen behind the last few. So a few nights back I decided to make amends and pulled one of his later titles off the bookshelf and devoured it in a few sittings. The title: River of Death.

River of Death is classic MacLean--two brutal and tough men playing a game that will end in the destruction of one and a mean victory for the other. It is populated with the usual: the wealthy businessman who is as comfortable in the shadows as he is in the boardroom; the mysterious stranger who is more than anyone estimates; and the strong but fragile woman who could bring down the house.

It takes place in the deep jungles of Brazil and has a few twists, a heap of action, a mysterious lost city, Nazi gold, murder, genocide, and nearly everything else you can think of. And it does it all in 215 pages--and that's in mass market!

River of Death is a great piece of escapist fiction. It took my mind off taxes, accounting, leaky windows, and everything else that keeps me awake at night. It enthralled me for a few hours with exhilarating action, suspense, and style. It is one of the last novels Alistair MacLean wrote--it's a common thought that his later work is inferior to his early stuff and I absolutely agree. It isn't nearly on the level of Where Eagles Dare, H.M.S. Ulysses, or The Guns of Navarone, but even with the lack of depth--characterization, sharper and more clever plotting, richer settings, and tighter prose--his earlier work had, River of Death is still pretty damn good. And it made me want to get all those other old MacLean titles down for another peruse.

A NOTE: River of Death was made into a mediocre film in 1989 starring Michael Dudikoff, Donald Pleasance, and Roberth Vaughn. It was directed by Steve Carver. I rented this one as a teenager, and I really don't remember much about it except disappointment. But who knows, maybe it's better than my memory.

No comments: