I don’t really understand why the novels by Ian Fleming are still popular while those of Alistair MacLean, a contemporary of his and also a writer of adventure/espionage fiction, seems to be quite forgotten. I read both authors in my teens and then l found MacLean’s writing much more engaging, I re-read his books many times. Alistair MacLean’s heroes were flawed, gritty and didn’t give a damn if their collar was ironed or not, while Fleming’s obsession with smart dressing and martinis, shaken not stirred, seemed effete and unrealistic to this teenager, I wasn’t tempted to read any of his novels more than once.
The films are another matter, using the Hollywood effect, glamourised Bond films have had huge amounts of money thrown at them and are often very watchable, while the filmed versions of MacLean’s books which I have seen – Guns of Navarone, Force 10 From Navarone, Where Eagles Dare and Ice Station Zebra – are more standard movie ‘thrillers’ and don’t live up to the thrill I have felt reading his novels.
South by Java Head has not, as far as I know, ever been filmed. Written in 1958, this was the second or third MacLean novel I read, I’ve just re-read it. This is a war story with touches of espionage, the author’s first two novels, HMS Ulysses and The Guns of Navarone were also war stories. South by Java Head tells the story of an unlikely group of people escaping from Singapore during the final stages of the city’s capture by Japanese forces in 1942. The opening scenes are highly descriptive and also dramatic and realistic, they’re immediately engrossing and introduce most of the important characters. There are quite a lot of these and the author names 23. He rapidly informs us that they will not all survive and, throughout the story, depletes their numbers with shocking suddenness and violence that wouldn’t always be out of place in Game of Thrones.
This was a book which, even though re-reading long after I had forgotten my first impression, I still found it immensely readable and well enough written to not interfere with the strong narrative flow.