I read a large number of Alistair MacLean books in high school. Because we were poor, living in a poor community, my reading was indelibly guided by the reading tastes of the all-volunteer Community Library’s volunteers and donors. Ergo, I read a lot of McBain, Parker, and MacLean because the storefront library had a large number of old paperbacks by its donors’ favorite authors, some of whom became my favorite authors, too.
Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that I bought this book at the Bridgeton Trails branch of the St. Louis County library for a quarter as it sells off its books to make room for more Internet connections. So I happened upon a couple of Alistair MacLean books I’d read before and would like to revisit.
This book, as its title suggests, takes place in the former Yugoslavia during World War II. A Royalist sympathizer helps to smuggle a group of other royalist sympathizers into Yugoslavia from its ally Italy, where they can help the war effort of their friends the Germans and the leaders against the Partisans. One does need a bit of grounding in history, particularly World War II in the middle of Europe, to understand the overarching framework of the novel. Since it’s less straightforward than the English versus the Germans, a reader might be forgiven for forgetting which group is the good guys and which group is the bad guys.
Of course, as it’s MacLean, the master of the suspenseful switchback, regardless of which group is the good guys and which group is the bad guys, the main character is either not on the side that he starts on, or he is actually on the side he starts on but is pretending to be a double agent to find out the real double agents, or…. Well, it’s enough to say that MacLean books are quite romps in which anything can happen.
But this book, with its slightly more obscure setting and almost esoteric historical plotline, doesn’t work on all levels because of the unfamiliarity with the macroplayers. It also doesn’t present a very clear picture of the problem that the group is supposed to solve at the end of the book. Take down the artillery on a Mediterranean island? Breach an impregnable Alpine fortress? Nah, just get into Yugoslavia. It strikes me more like a Star Trek device: We’re traveling through the Adriatic, and something happened. Since it’s MacLean, it’s something complicated, but nevertheless the reader lacks a compelling goal to draw one along.
Still, it’s a pretty good book. Its writing style alone merited my enjoyment. British and mid-century in its character (although written later), it plays with longer sentences and more elaborate phrasing than contemporary suspense fiction. That alone carried me through the substandard (for MacLean) plot and characterization.