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I have to admit that I have always been a big Maclean fan. Having said that, it would be fair to say that the quality of his work did tail off in his later novels. However, this was written by Maclean during his peak years when he was arguably the best at his craft in his genre, when his books were at the top of the best seller lists and Hollywood couldn't wait to turn his stories into box office hits.
This World War 2 story revolves around a small number of allied agents who attempt a suicidal mission to gain access to an impenetrable castle, accessible only by cable car and defended by a crack German Gestapo unit , in order to rescue a general who holds key information on the forthcoming D-Day invasion.
As the story unfolds we discover there are traitors in the midst of the allied agents and there is far more to the plan than originally meets the eye, which keeps the reader interested and never quite sure what is likely to happen next.
When on form, Maclean had a knack of grabbing the reader's interest from the very start and maintaining a good pace throughout, with twists and turns in all directions to help maintain that interest. This book is no exception.
Richard Burton (who went on to star in the film version) was quoted as saying that this was "the best adventure story I have ever read". I suspect that many readers over the years might agree.
I haven't read this for ages so I thought I'd re-read it and submit a review.
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).
Where Eagles Dare, published in 1967, was Alistair MacLean's twelfth novel and was one of a number of his works set during the Second World War. It had been written after film producer Elliott Kastner persuaded MacLean to produce a new work which could also be filmed. The film was duly released in 1968 and featured Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood in lead roles as well as a screenplay by MacLean himself.
World War II, and disaster strikes for the Allies when a plane carrying US General Carnaby crashes in Germany. The General knows more about the plans for the Second Front than anyone else and if that information were to fall into the hands of the German High Command it would ruin months of planning and push the timetable for D-Day back by months.
Carnaby has been taken to the Schloss Adler, the combined headquarters of the Gestapo and the German Secret Service in Southern Germany and it can only be a matter of time before Carnaby "breaks" and tells the Germans everything he knows about the plans for the Allied invasion of Europe.
Due to the inaccessibility of the Schloss Adler (which translates as the aptly named Castle of the Eagle) the MI6 decide to send in a small commando team led by Major Smith to rescue him. It's going to be tricky as the castle can only be reached by cablecar or helicopter and with plenty of gestapo offices around it's not the safest place to be.
But, with the odds already stacked against them things go from bad to worse as one setback after another hits the team.....
Growing up I was the sort of person that read as many books as I could by my favourite authors. I moved from Enid Blyton to the Hardy Boys to Agatha Christie and then to Alistair MacLean. I think it was probably seeing the film versions of Breakheart Pass and this book that got me interested in his stories to the extent that I ended up buying all of them.
MacLean plays to his strengths with his twelfth novel investing the story with his customary detailed descriptions and a strong mystery element which will engage and hold the interest of the reader from start to finish.
Whether it's describing the snowy landscape around the Schloss Adler, the interior of the castle itself or a knuckle clenching ride on top of the cablecar MacLean's descriptions are so vivid that he almost draws a picture for you in your mind. You can easily visualise the journey that the commandos make from the moment they parachute out of the plane and make their way towards the Schloss Adler to the fight on top of the cable car towards the end of the book. It's this detail that adds a richness to the story and allows the reader to imagine the various scenarios as they unfold. MacLean gives just enough detail to allow you picture the scene without going overboard and compromising the pace of the main plot by spending too much time on description.
The mystery element starts almost as soon as the book begins. We know that General Carnaby has been taken to the Schloss Adler and we know that Smith and his small team:- Schaffer, Harrod, Thomas, Carraciola, Christiansen, and Torrance-Smyth are sent on a mission to rescue him. Why, then, does a girl named Mary Ellison also parachute out of the same plane as the men and why does nobody else on the team other than Smith know about her?
MacLean leaves us to draw our own conclusions about why Mary is along on the mission and why Smith hasn't told any of his team about her, dropping hints at various points in the narrative. But, as soon as you think you've worked everything out, fathomed out the reasons behind the events that have occurred so far you'll find a twist in the tale that throws everything you think you know into the air and smashes all your theories into little pieces.
Then, there are the added problems of things going wrong with the mission. At least one person dies and when the team suffers other setbacks it almost appears as if the mission is doomed to failure. It's this mystery element and the fact that the reader never know quite what is going to happen next which engages and retains the interest. One thing you can't accuse this book of, unlike others I've read over the years is of being predictable.
Unfortunately the book does fall down in the area of characterisation. Much of the narrative is centred on Smith and, even though it's written in the third person, the majority of the story revolves around his actions and what happens to him. Despite this, I never really got the feeling that I knew what he was like as a person. He's portrayed as being resourceful and intelligent as well as being a good leader and comes across as being almost too perfect. But there are no clues at all what he's like "outside of work" and there's nothing in his work character that endears him to the reader.
As with most of MacLean's female characters Mary Ellison isn't really developed to any great degree. We know that she's in love with Smith and that they've worked together before but the fact that she's not really fleshed out as a character makes it difficult to care about what happens to her during the course of the story. There are a couple of times in then book when she's in real danger and even though this adds to the overall excitement of the book it's hard to be bothered about her fate because we don't know enough about her to care or feel any large degree of empathy with her.
Schaffer isn't really given any sort of depth as a character either. We know a little about his upbringing in America and don't really get to know anymore about him during the story aside from the fact he fancies a local barmaid called Heidi. The other members of the team, along with the majority of the German characters that appear are little more than names on a page and seem to exist more to drive the plot forward than for any other reason.
So, if you're looking for a book with interesting characters then this isn't really one for you to read. If, however, you're looking for an interesting story with plenty of twists and turns and enough description to allow you to picture events then this is the book for you.
For those of you that have seen the film, the film is very faithful to the book and has very minimal changes. It probably takes the same amount of time to read the book as it does to watch the film but, if pushed, I'd probably choose to watch the film purely for the reason that the actors in the film bring more to their characters than there is in the book.
If you've read other MacLean books but haven't yet tried this one it's well worth a read.
Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: HarperCollins; (Reissue) edition (4 May 2004)
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)