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When I'd read and devoured in turn Enid Blyton, the "Hardy Boys" series and Agatha Christie I then started collecting the novel by Alistair MacLean. I'm can't remember exactly why I chose to buy that first MacLean novel (and subsequently all of the rest) but I suspect it was to due with the fact that I'd seen film versions of both Breakheart Pass and Where Eagles Dare and then decided to give the books a try as well.
Alistair MacLean was born in Scotland in 1922 and served in the Royal Navy during World War II. His first novel, HMS Ulysees 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 Where Eagles Dare (Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood), 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). Alistair MacLean died in 1987.
Another accident on the Formula One circuit leaves driver Johnny Harlow devastated, his girlfriend Mary MacAlpine crippled and fellow racing driver dead Isaac Jethou dead after being roasted alive in his wreck of a car. Those in power know that Jethou's death is down to Harlow's reckless driving but politics come into play and the whole incident is dismissed as an Act of God. Harlow's on his way to becoming world championship and nothing can be allowed to get in the way of that.
Outwardly, Harlow puts on an appearance of depression and makes out that he's turned to the bottle to help him cope with the trauma of Jethou's death. But, in reality there are unanswered questions about the accidents have that have been happening on the circuit. Are they all genuine accidents? Are they down to sabotage? If they are down to sabotage who is orchestrating them and why?
As Harlow's investiagtions bring him closer to the truth he finds not only his own life, but those of people he cares about, in deadly danger......
Unlike some thriller writers Alistair MacLean never created a series of novels featuring one main character, or indeed a group of recurring characters. Despite this his novels do conform to a particular style and some of them share elements in common.
Perhaps the first thing you notice about a MacLean novel is that, generally speaking, any female characters don't usually play much of a major role. If there is any sort of relationship between the "hero" and a female character it's dealt with in rather a matter of fact fashion. You won't find much love, romance or sex in a MacLean novel. This is very evident in "The Way To Dusty Death" in the relationship between Johnny Harlow and Mary MacAlpine. If it weren't stated within the narrative that they were boyfriend and girlfriend you could be forgiven for thinking that they were just colleagues on the same racing team.
In the absence of love and romance most of MacLean's novels concentrate on action and adventure with the main character(s) usually being tested in some way or pushed towards the physical limit of his abilities. A number of novels are set in locations which are either isolated or which experience extreme weather conditions or both.
Some novels are written in the first person and some in the third person.
This book is written in the third person and has a very linear plotline which revolves around Harlow's investigation of the "accidents" on the racing circuit and his attempts to find out how is responsible for them. The are no real subplots involving any of the other characters or anthing else that doesn't link into the main thrust of the storyline.
So, what are the positive things about the book?
It's a fairly quick, light read and at 190 pages will take you no more than a couple of hours to get through. MacLean's style of writing is accesible and the language he uses is straightforward and undemanding.
In plot terms there are no Aston Martins with ejector seats, miniature listening devices, explosive booby traps or any other sort of "specialist equipment" that you might expect to see in this type of story. The James Bond films of the same period relied, to a certain extent, on a number of gadgets and the recent crop of Jason Bourne films have seen the titular character being able to perform any number of incredible physical feats. The Way To Dusty Death opts for a slightly less fantastical approach as Harlow relies only on his driving ability and his physical strength and dexterity. The equipment that he uses to help him accomplish objectives include such things as rope, masking tape, a gun etc and these fall more into the "normal items" category rather than any sort of spy gadgetry that appear in stories by other authors. In one sense this adds a degree of realism to the writing but, as things have moved on quite a bit since 1973, there are a number of anarchronisms such as journalist Alexis Dunnet using a typewriter for his sports articles.
The fact that there are no subplots and no "romantic interludes" means that the plot itself is fairly fast paced, with each chapter driving the action further forward. The linear approach itself is a risky one because, with just one main plot the reader needs to be interested in it or they may not as well bother to read the book. On the other hand books that often have 3, 4 or more plotlines running concurrently can often leave the reader favouring one particular plot thread and wishing that the author would just move forward with that one. Here. of course, that's not an issue because there is only one plot thread.
Harlow's a likeable enough character and, aside from the driving aspects of the plot, MacLean makes you feel that you as a reader was be capable of accomplishing everything else in the book that Harlow does so, in a sense, he's a sort of everyman character who just happens to have a great talent for Formula One racing.
On the downside Harlow takes up a large portion of the book and some of the other characters are not as well developed as they otherwise might have been. Mary MacAlpine suffers in this respect as it's hard to see what Harlow sees in her. From her point of view he's clean living, good looking, personable, successful in his chosen field and he gets on well with her family. Turn the situation around though and MacLean doesn't give us enough information about her character to allow us to understand what he sees in her (unless it's the fact that her father's a millionaire.....).
As I mentioned earlier some readers may find the story a little dated but given that it was written in 1973 that's hardly surprising. I know nothing at all about Formula One racing but I suspect the number of Grand Prix's and the order in which they are raced may not necessarily be the same as they were on 1973 so F1 fans may find references to the race season a little odd.
Overall though, this is an average MacLean story. He's written better books and he's written ones that are worse. As an introductory story to his style of writing you'd find it quick and easy to read but I don't think it would grab you to the extent that you'd want to read more of his books. For anyone that a MacLean fan and hasn't read this, give it a go as it's a quick, fairly decent read.
Paperback: 190 pages
Publisher: Fontana (1975)
Thrills and murder in the auto-racing circuit.