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Circus is one of a number of Alistair MacLean books I bought as a teenager. I remember reading it, not long after I'd got it and enjoying it a lot. Now that I'm older I was interested to see whether my feelings about the book had changed or not.
Alistair MacLean was born in Scotland in 1922 and served in the Royal Navy during World War II. His first novel, HMS Ulysses drew on his wartime experiences and was a success. Specialising in the genres of adventures stories, spy stories and war stories MacLean wrote 28 novels and a collection of short stories during his career. A number of his novels were turned into films featuring major film stars of the day. These included Breakheart Pass (Charles Bronson), Bear Island (Donald Sutherland, Vanessa Redgrave, Christopher Lee), Ice Station Zebra (Rock Hudson) and The Guns of Navarone (Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn and David Niven).
Circus, published in 1975, was Alistair MacLean's nineteenth novel and was a return to the present after his previous novel, Breakheart Pass, which had been set in the 1870s. To date it has not been filmed, unlike a number of his other novels.
The undisputed star of the Wringfield circus is Bruno Wildermann, the greatest trapeze artist in the world who also appears to have clairvoyant powers and a photographic memory. Many years ago he and his brothers fled Eastern Europe after the secret police arrested his family and murdered his wife.
It is these factors that make Bruno the perfect candidate to carry out a CIA operation to steal the new formula for an anti-matter weapon which is held in a heavily guarded laboratory in his former homeland. The plan is that the operation will be carried out during a tour of Eastern Europe by the circus.
But, as always, not ever goes quite according to plan and as the murders and kidnappings mount up it becomes abundantly clear that someone is determined to stop Bruno succeeding at all costs.......
Anyone who has read a few Alistair MacLean will no doubt have realised that MacLean likes to push his heroes to the limits to human endurance. This may take the form of a superior mental intellect which operates effectively even under extreme conditions or it may be a purely physical phenomena in which the hero is capable of performing feats of stamina and dexterity whilst either wounded or sleep deprived, or both.
This, of course, requires some suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader as MacLean's heroes win through against almost insurmountable odds using, it seems, little more than physical adrenalin and a determination to "get the job done".
To an extent, Circus avoids these pitfalls by virtue of the fact that many of the characters are performers in a circus. If Bruno is seen to be performing feats that require some sort of acrobatic ability in the pursuit of his mission it can be accepted without any suspension of disbelief at all because that's exactly what we expect circus performers to be able to do in front of the audiences that come to see them. In this sense then, Bruno is much more believable as a central character than many of the other male characters that MacLean populates his books with. The skills he's spent years perfecting in his career perfectly complement those required for his mission.
Unfortunately the plus point in terms of character believability aren't echoed in other sections of the book. True, the story starts off quite well with two of the men that have recruited Bruno for the mission being killed, but, once the murders and kidnapping start the reader starts to question why Bruno's enemies just don't finish him off as well. There's certainly plenty of opportunity for them to do so and quite why they don't decide to "nip things in the bud" and stop Bruno's mission dead in it's tracks is never adequately explained. MacLean's novels, at least the earlier ones, are decently plotted and there always seems to be a reason why the hero hasn't been finished off by his enemies but that's not the case with this book.
The central female character in the book is one Maria Hopkins, an agent who is sent to keep an eye on Bruno as well as to act as go-between for him and his controller, Dr. Harper. She's "a petite figure, with long dark hair, rather splendid liquid dark eyes and an extraordinarily infectious laugh and smile". MacLean's female characters are never really given any degree of depth and it's often hard to see quite what qualities they possess that makes the hero fall in love with them, beyond the fact that they're attractive. Maria Hopkins doesn't deviate from this template in any way, shape or form, but then anyone who has read a couple of MacLean novels wouldn't expect anything else so this is only likely to be an issue for the reader if Circus is the first MacLean novel you're reading.
However, even the lack of depth to Maria's character pales into insignificance when compared with the clichéd characters of the Eastern European Secret Police and the manner in which they keep Bruno and the rest of the circus under observation. The speech used and the actions they take almost seem to come straight out of some 1950 B-movie, when American was obsessed with "commies" and "reds under the beds".
I also found the pacing of the book rather disappointing. My copy, published in 1987 runs to 191 pages. It seems to take an age for the circus to actually reach Europe (page 99) and then we're upto page 160 by the time Bruno makes his attempt to get into the building which houses the formula for the anti-matter weapon. In essence then, Bruno's attempt at getting the formula as well as the explanation for the deaths of the various characters during the course of the novel is all wrapped up within 31 pages. I personally found this too rushed, and, as I mentioned earlier, there's no reason at all given for why Bruno hasn't been killed before he's able to make an attempt to get the formula. Compare this with the explanation of events in MacLean's earlier novel "Where Eagles Dare" and Circus falls down very badly indeed.
Overall then, I'd say that this novel is one for confirmed MacLean fans. Casual readers are unlikely to be won over by it's rather second rate 'charms'.....
Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: Harper; (Reissue) edition (5 Jan 2009)
Alistair MacLean Ratings on Dooyoo:
Breakheart Pass (4 Dooyoo stars)
The Dark Crusader (4 Dooyoo stars)
The Satan Bug (4 Dooyoo stars)
When Eight Bells Toll (4 Dooyoo stars)
Santorini (3 Dooyoo stars)
The Way To Dusty Death (3 Dooyoo stars)
Where Eagles Dare (3 Dooyoo stars)
Circus (2 stars)