Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Guns of Navarone: Alistair MacLean

The Guns of Navarone was Alistair MacLean's second novel, and one of the best known of his works. Published in 1957, it is set during World War II on a Greek island in the Aegean Sea. This is my submission for the Crimes of the Century meme, hosted by Rich at Past Offences. Every month a year is selected and bloggers read a crime book, watch a film, or listen to a radio show from that year and comment on their selection.

Summary from the back of my Sterling trade paperback edition:
Twelve hundred British soldiers are isolated and waiting to die on the small island of Kheros, off the Turkish coast. Their lives can be saved if only the long-range, large-caliber, and catastrophically accurate guns of Navarone are silenced before the British Royal Navy arrives. 
Manned by a mixed garrison of Germans and Italians, Navarone is a grim iron fortress perched high atop an island ringed by cliffs. Captain Keith Mallory and his small, handpicked team of saboteurs must scale the sheer cliffs and infiltrate the German base to blow up the massive guns.
When I first picked this book to read as my book for 1957, I wondered if it truly fit the definition of crime fiction. However, when I checked it out, I found that it was selected as #89 on The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time by the British Crime Writers' Association. So I stopped worrying and proceeded to devour it.

The men on the team are of various backgrounds and talents. The team leader, Mallory, is a New Zealander and was a famed rock climber before the war. Andrea, a Greek soldier whose specialty seems to be bulk, strength, and indestructibility, has worked with Mallory in the past. Dusty Miller is an American and a specialist in explosives. Casey Brown is a Scottish engineer who also specializes in radio communications. Andy Stevens is the youngest and least experienced member of the team, but is also a talented mountain climber.

It would be hard to name a favorite character. Most of them are fleshed out with some background explaining their role and temperament, and the characters are further developed by their interactions while on the mission. If I had to point out any flaws, it would be that this is a very male universe, and most of the characters are just too good, too heroic. But truly, these facts did not bother me. This was standard at the time the book was written, and this is a war story; the environment and activities were not ones that women would usually take part in.

I don't know how this book succeeds at being suspenseful. It seems fairly clear from the beginning that the team will succeed to some extent in their goal. This reader assumed that there must a traitor who provides additional tension. But even as the book seems to have a very obvious plot line, it still kept me reading eagerly. The author throws enough spanners into the works to ratchet up the tension and it never got dull.

I did see the movie many years ago on  DVD, but I had forgotten much about the plot. One difference in the movie is that there are women characters, but I did not remember that.  I will be watching the movie in the next month and hope to write a post about that later.

See other reviews at Past Offences and Gravetapping.

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Publisher:   Fawcett Gold Medal edition, 1957. Pub. same year as the Doubleday 1st ed.
Length:      288 pages
Format:      Paperback
Setting:      Greece
Genre:       Adventure, Thriller
Source:      Purchased both copies at the Planned Parenthood book sale.

15 comments:

  1. I've heard of the movie, but have never seen it. Maybe the book would be more my style.

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    1. The book is very good, Ryan. It has been too long since I have seen the movie, but I expect to enjoy it, even if it strays away from the book.

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  2. What a coincidence, I just re-read one of his books recently (FEAR IS THE KEY), first time in decades. Truth is, I don't really read adventure stories like this much and tend to get mored a bit by the long technical bit or long descriptions of boats at sea ...

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    1. I don't remember any long descriptive passages of the boat trip or the climb, Sergio... ok, maybe the climb went on. But in some cases I skim over passages like that. Really I remember it all being pretty entertaining.

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    2. Fear Is the Key is classic Maclean. The movie version is also surprisingly good.

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    3. I do remember liking this (and the movie too) - but with a lot of adventure stories that feature long journeys, especially by sea, I do tend to switch off I'm afraid. I didn't mean this one too specifically, but it was the case in other Maclean books I've read (I'm probably thinking of HMS ULYSSES) it just bored me - but its a flaw with this kind of book, not specifically the author. I really enjoyed re-reading FEAR IS THE KEY and am posting a review of it and the movie next week.

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    4. Thanks, Dfordoom and Sergio, now I will be adding Fear is the Key to my list of his books to read.

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  3. Really interesting choice, Tracy! I haven't thought of this book for a very, very long time. But I think you're right; it really does 'count' as a crime novel. I'm glad you found it suspenseful and interesting.

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    1. I have been wanting to read this book for a long time, Margot, and I am glad I finally did.

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  4. When I was a teenager I was such a fan of Alastair MacLean, and read all his books - I liked the WW2 ones a lot, but then went over more to the thriller-esque ones. But I do remember this one well. IIRC, there's someone who speaks Greek, but luckily it doesn't matter that his Greek is as taught in Brit public schools and not the local version... And I remember someone with gangrene, and a discussion on whether the Germans would use drugs to get info from a dying man...

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    1. I cannot recall if I have ever read his books before, Moira. I certainly enjoyed this one, and I look forward to trying others. I think your memory is pretty good. I do remember wondering how Greek learned in school would help, but did not bother me much. And the gangrene is there for sure.

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  5. Nicely reviewed, Tracy. MacLean is one of two of my favourite thriller authors, the other being Jack Higgins. I read many of his novels in my youth and remember this, along with "Where Eagles Dare" and "Ice Station Zebra," all too well. He became more famous after many of his books were adapted to film. He also wrote a lone western called "Breakheart Pass" which was also made into a film. It's another good book with some interesting characters.

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    1. Thanks, Prashant. I thought I remembered that MacLean was high on your list of authors. I will be looking for copies of his other books. I had heard of Breakheart Pass but did not realize it was a Western. (Now I just have to get to Higgins' books.)

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  6. I have a MacLean or two but not this one and I've not yet tried him. I know of the film but can't remember if I've seen it.... one day for both!

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    1. I don't remember that much about the movie, Col, but I was surprised it had been so long since we had watched it (2000). I think I will enjoy it when I watch it again.

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