MacLean, Alistair Stuart

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Alistair Stuart MacLean

BORN: 1922, Glasgow, Scotland

DIED: 1987, Munich, West Germany


GENRE: Fiction

HMS Ulysses (1955)
The Guns of Navarone (1957)
Ice Station Zebra (1963)
Where Eagles Dare (1967)
Bear Island (1971)


Despite being one of the world's best-selling writers, Alistair MacLean was consistently modest about the literary merits of his twenty-eight novels of action and adventure. He always insisted that he was a storyteller rather than a novelist, and he felt great regret that he had never written what he regarded as a “good” book. MacLean was, however, proud of his ability to create fast-moving, exciting action-adventure stories.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Gaelic Beginnings Alistair Stuart MacLean was born on April 28, 1922, in Glasgow, Scotland. He was the third of four children born to Alistair, a Church of Scotland minister, and Mary Lamont MacLean, a prize-winning singer. Soon after Alistair's birth, the family moved to the country district of Daviot, six miles south of Inverness. The MacLeans were Gaelic speakers. At his father's insistence, Alistair did not learn English until he was seven and spoke only Gaelic at home until the age of fifteen. He was educated at the local primary school in Daviot.

In 1936, when Alistair was fourteen, his father died. By this time both his older brothers had left home, one to study medicine and one to serve in the merchant marine fleet. Mary MacLean moved back to Glasgow in the spring of

1937 with Alistair and his younger brother, Gillespie. Alistair obtained a bursary to Hillhead High School in Glasgow.

Maritime Work and the Theater of War To support his widowed mother, MacLean left school and took a job at a shipping firm in the summer of 1939, just before the start of World War II. In 1941 MacLean enlisted in the Royal Navy. After initial training, he became a leading torpedo operator on the HMS Royalist, an escort ship for convoys taking supplies to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), one of the Allied Powers. MacLean fictionalized his experiences vividly in his first novel, HMS Ulysses (1955). The Royalist served in the Mediterranean and the Aegean, taking part in the 1944 bombardment of shore targets on Nazi-occupied Greek islands. MacLean used this experience as source material for his second novel, The Guns of Navarone (1957), and its sequel, Force 10 from Navarone (1968). In 1945 the Royalist was sent to the Far East, playing an important part in the liberation of Singapore. This theater of war provided the background for MacLean's third novel, South by Java Head (1958).

School and Marriage World War II ended in 1945, shortly after the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. On March 26, 1946, MacLean was officially released from the Royal Navy and, like many war veterans, went back into civilian life. In the autumn of 1946 he began to study English literature at Glasgow University, supporting himself by working in a post office and sweeping streets. He earned a second-class honors degree and graduated with a master of arts degree in 1950.

During the summer of 1949, MacLean worked as a hospital porter at the King George V Sanatorium in Surrey, where he met his future wife, Gisela Heinrichsen. They married on July 2, 1953. Gisela might have provided the inspiration for one of MacLean's later heroines, Helene Fleming of Night Without End (1960).

From Educator to Writer By the time of his marriage, MacLean had a secure job as a teacher of English, history, and geography at Gallowflat Secondary School in Rutherglen, south of Glasgow. His pupils recall him as a good teacher, although MacLean later said that he did not enjoy the work and had taken the job because it was “the logical thing to do with an honours degree in English.” Meanwhile, MacLean had begun writing in his spare time. In 1954 his short story “The Cruise of the Golden Girl” was published in Blackwood's Magazine.

A Turn for the Better MacLean's career took a dramatic turn for the better. In March 1954 he won first prize in a short-story competition run by the Glasgow Herald with his story “The Dileas.” Not only did the prize money enhance his teacher's income, but it led to MacLean's being sought out by a publisher eager to put more of his work into print. Ian Chapman, who worked for the Glasgow publishing firm Collins, found his wife crying over MacLean's story in the Glasgow Herald. Intrigued, he read “The Dileas” himself and sought out its author. Chapman met MacLean several times during the spring and summer of 1954 and urged him to write a novel. Although initially reluctant, MacLean began to write HMS Ulysses in September of 1954, shortly after the birth of his first son, Lachlan. A mere ten weeks later he presented Chapman with the finished manuscript. Chapman's initial reaction was that “he's written so fast it can't possibly be any good.” He changed his mind as soon as he read it, however, and gave MacLean a sizeable advance, becoming MacLean's publisher and lifelong friend.

Phenomenal Success HMS Ulysses was published in September of 1955. By spring of 1956 it had sold a quarter of a million copies. Motion picture rights were sold, an American edition was published (1956), and serial rights were sold to the popular British magazine Picture Post. HMS Ulysses became one of the best-selling British novels of the twentieth century. Encouraged by the novel's phenomenal success, MacLean began a second book, The Guns of Navarone. Yet ever cautious, MacLean kept his job as a schoolteacher, being uncertain as to whether the success of his first book was just a fluke. He need not have worried: The Guns of Navarone (1957) was also a resounding success. In addition to astounding book sales, in 1961 The Guns of Navarone was made into a highly successful movie starring Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, and David Niven.

Giving up Writing The blockbuster success of his first two novels prompted MacLean to give up teaching and become a full-time writer. To escape England's punitive tax system, he and his family moved to Switzerland before the publication of his third novel, South by Java Head, in 1958. From this time onward MacLean usually wrote a novel per year, several of which were to be adapted for film—including, among others, Ice Station Zebra (1963; made into a film in 1968).

With the completion of Ice Station Zebra in 1963, however, MacLean announced his decision to give up writing and become a hotelier. He had become disillusioned with writing and was sure that owning property would be a “more worthwhile occupation.” He returned to England, moved to Cornwall, and bought the famous Jamaica Inn (known for being a base for pirates and smugglers in the eighteenth century). MacLean felt “more in contact with real life in one hour [selling trinkets in the Jamaica's souvenir shop] than during nine years of writing novels.”

The hotel project proved a disaster, and MacLean lost a good deal of money. He found writing had become “attractive again.” He continued to produce best sellers, including Bear Island (1971), published a year after he and the family moved to the Villa Murat, near the Swiss village of Celigny. By that year, MacLean's books had sold 23 million copies, earning him millions of pounds. He was one of the world's highest-paid novelists.

Divorce and Declining Years In 1972 MacLean divorced Gisela and married Marcelle Georgeus, a French movie executive and former actress. The marriage was not a happy one. By the time of the publication of Break-heart Pass in 1974, MacLean was losing a long-term struggle with alcoholism. Whether alcoholism is to blame is not known, but by the mid-1970s MacLean's creativity was beginning to suffer. Literary critics found his plots to be implausible and his dialogue stilted or melodramatic.


MacLean's famous contemporaries include:

Benjamin Creme (1922–): British painter, author, esotericist, and lecturer who champions the second coming not of Jesus Christ but of Maitreya (the new Buddha).

Jean-Luc Godard (1930–): French and Swiss filmmaker best known for being one of the pioneers of the French New Wave.

Norman Lear (1922–): American television writer and producer who has become a legend for producing such iconic shows as All in the Family and Maude.

Nathalie Sarraute (1900–1999): Russian Jewish lawyer and writer of French literature, better known as one of the pioneers of the nouveau roman style of writing.

Adolf Hitler (1889–1945): German politician and leader of the Nazi Party; he is most famous for precipitating World War II, which included the genocide of approximately 6 million Jewish people in addition to other casualties.

In January 1987 MacLean suffered a series of strokes and collapsed while on a visit to Munich. He was rushed to a hospital, but nothing could be done to save him. He died on February 2, 1987, and was buried near Gisela's home in Celigny. MacLean's obituary in the Scotsman summed up his achievement: “He wrote books to make air journeys tolerable and to take people out of themselves for a few hours. He did it very well …he gave countless hours of pleasure to millions of people. There are worse epitaphs.”

Works in Literary Context

MacLean's brief, first-person narrative style owed something to the writing of Raymond Chandler, whose works he greatly admired. While his first four novels relied on third-person narrative, starting with Night Without End (1960), he began using a first-person point of view instead—to “develop a technique of completely impersonal story-telling in the first-person.”

Plain and Clear Prose Style and Common Themes From his first story, MacLean wrote in plain, clear prose and combined excitement and humor. This technique became the standard for his best novels. In these works he often pitted his protagonists against an adverse environment and their own internal terrors. This he did to illustrate a common theme: the power of raw human courage. MacLean's heroes struggle to overcome incredible dilemmas through a combination of intelligence and physical force.

Following his commercial success and the popularity of his narrative style, MacLean became an influential figure in the thriller genre, influencing later authors, including Dick Francis and Desmond Bagley. After his death in 1987, sales of MacLean's books declined. However, less so in Europe than in the United States.

Works in Critical Context

Generally speaking, critics disliked MacLean's work, but the public loved it, and his books sold by the millions. Sometimes he is faulted for his melodramatic style and one-dimensional characters. However, MacLean is also praised for his swift narratives and labyrinthine plots. This mixed regard can be seen for a work such as Ice Station Zebra.

Ice Station Zebra The novel is set on a U.S. Navy nuclear submarine that takes a British government representative to the Arctic to investigate the mysterious disappearance of members of a scientific expedition. Based on MacLean's usual meticulous research, the book gives a detailed and convincing picture of life aboard a submarine. Again written in the first person, the book combines excitement, humor, and suspense.

Even the Times Literary Supplement, which usually belittled MacLean's work, praised Ice Station Zebra, although the reviewer, Stephen Kroll, commented that the hero “sounds at times too much like an American private detective.” For many of MacLean's readers, however, this characteristic is one of the attractions of the novel. The hero's wry asides enliven the book and add humor to what would otherwise be a grim tale of adversity and mass murder.

Responses to Literature

  1. A common MacLean theme concerns the power of human courage. In an extended definition, explore courage: What is the origin of the word? What do you associate with the word? Make a list. What is your personal definition of courage? As a group, compare and contrast your definitions.
  2. Compare your definition of courage with the attitudes and behaviors of one of MacLean's main characters. Does the character qualify as courageous according to your definition? If so, how? If not, why not?
  3. MacLean was praised for his use of cinematic techniques in his fiction writing. Consider one or two MacLean novels and identify passages where the writing is movie-like. For instance, one technique employed by the author is crosscutting—two scenes are alternated back and forth to indicate they are happening at the same time. Find examples of this and other cinematic elements.
  4. Because of his skillful inclusion of cinematic technique in his fiction, several of Maclean's novels were adapted as movies. These movies were as successful and as popular as the works upon which they were based. Choose one of MacLean's adapted novels and compare it to its movie counterpart. How similar are the two? In what ways are they different?


Here are a few works by writers who, like MacLean, explored themes of racism and courage amid a backdrop of war:

A Farewell to Arms (1929), a novel by Ernest Hemingway. This story of Italian ambulance driver Frederick Henry in love and in war is often considered the definitive war novel.

All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), a novel by Erich Maria Remarque. This tale of a German student and his friends, who sign up to fight in World War I and discover not glory but alienation and death, is considered one of the most powerful antiwar novels ever written.

Things Fall Apart (1959), a novel by Chinua Achebe. This book tells the story of colonialism and its invasive and destructive impact on Nigerian tribal culture.

Winds of War (1971), a modern epic by Herman Wouk. In this immense work, readers get an epic, adventure, and love story at once.



Lee, Robert A. Alistair MacLean: The Key Is Fear. San Francisco: Borgo Press, 1976.

Sutherland, John. “Alistair MacLean and James Clavell.” In Bestsellers: Popular Fiction of the 1970s. London & Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981, pp. 96–107.

Webster, Jack. Alistair MacLean: A Life. London: Chapmans, 1991.


Interview with Alistair MacLean. Scotsman, June 16 1983.

Kroll, Stephen. Review of Ice Station Zebra. Times Literary Supplement (August 9, 1963; September 14, 1973).

Norman, Barry. “The Best-selling Sceptic.” London Observer (September 5, 1971), color supplement.

Web sites

Internet Movie Database (IMDB). Alistair MacLean. Retrieved March 31, 2008, from

The Literary Encyclopedia. Alistair MacLean (1922–1987). Retrieved March 31, 2008, from Last updated on June 20, 2002.