Friday, March 20, 2009

Forgotten Books: THE WAY TO DUSTY DEATH -- Alistair MacLean

Alistair MacLean violates all the current "rules." His chapters are around 20 pages long, and some paragraphs run more than a page. He sprinkles adverbs liberally throughout. He does a lot of "telling." He's often verbose. His heroes aren't flawed. Like Johnny Harlow in this novel, they're skilled, competent guys who can go without sleep for days, get beaten to a bloody pulp (literally) and still outsmart and out-fight the bad guys ("vermin" Harlow calls them) every time.

And yet I still get a huge kick out of his novels, even some of the ones that aren't quite in his top rank, like The Way to Dusty Death. It's set up so that during most of the book, the reader has little idea what's going on. Johnny Harlow, the best Gran Prix driver ever, appears to be at fault in the accident that kills his good friend at the beginning of the book, but it's clear that there's more to it than we're told. MacLean puts his characters through their paces, witholding all kinds of information, until almost the end of the novel. The reader can put some things together by paying attention, but not everything. The book rockets right along until all is revealed, and then it's done. No hanging around. Over and out.

Maybe it's because I read MacLean's books when I was a young whippersnapper, but they continue to entertain and amuse me, even on a second or third reading. I guess my taste just hasnt' improved, and I don't mind a bit.

10 comments:

  1. I read a bunch of his but not this one. Thanks.

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  2. So what are the current "rules"? How long is a chapter or for that matter a paragraph supposed to be?

    Really, just wondering, since these days I never pay attention to anything about writing except my own instincts.

    And, Bill -- how do you do it? You have a great blog and turn out many wonderful books. You would be my hero if I didn't despise you.

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  3. Anonymous8:20 AM

    I haven't read this one either.

    I also prefer shorter chapters as a rule, but it doesn't stop me reading favorite authors who write long ones.

    Jeff

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  4. Al, the current rules, as I see 'em, are these: short chapters (James Patterson leads the way!), no adverbs, "show, don't tell," and flawed characters. I don't pay any attention them, either, being too old and set in my ways.

    As for what I do, I was just telling someone the other day that I thought you had secretly cloned yourself years ago. I mean, several books a year, video commentaries, graphic novels, essays, movies, and, well, I forget what else. You're the Energizer Bunny of mysterydom.

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  5. You're kind, Mr. Crider, but I follow your blog every day with wonder and delight. I hope to increase my web presence, but if I manage one update a week (as opposed to my current two a year), I'll be happy.

    This whole adverb thing is a sham. If you can cut the adverb and the meaning is the same fine, or if you can come up with a verb that doesn't need an adverb, cool -- but if it works, it works, and screw the experts.

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  6. Amen. As James Reasoner once told me, there aren't that many parts of speech to begin with, and he doesn't want to be deprived of one of them.

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  7. MacLean is still one of the masters of the high adventure novel. He got a little uneven toward the end of his career, but when he was at the top of his game, nobody could touch him -- Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare, When Eight Bells Toll, Golden Rendezvous, all deserve reprinting.

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  8. As do any number of others!

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  9. Puppet on a Chain is still my favorite.

    Oh, and . . . what's an adverb?

    RJR

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