Sunday, September 7, 2014

Fear is the Key - Alistair MacLean

“You make me sick,” I said dispassionately. “I wouldn't let you out if I could. And it was just in case I might be tempted that I left the control switch up in the rig. We've got fifteen, maybe twenty minutes to live, if you can call the screaming we’ll know living. Or, rather, the agony you’ll know.” I put a hand to my coat, ripped off the central button and thrust it into my mouth. “I won’t know a thing. I’ve been prepared for this for months. That’s no button, it’s a concentrated cyanide capsule. One bite on that and I’ll be dead before I know I’m dying.”

Fawcett Gold Medal Books
Man, our pal John Talbot is one hardcore bad ass! He’s not messing around here. He’s on a mission of vengeance and he’s not going to stop until all debts are paid, even if he’s going down too.

It’s been a long time since I've read an Alistair MacLean novel. A recent showing of Ice Station Zebra on TCM prompted me to look up one of his old novels again and give it a ride. I was not disappointed.

Fear is the Key from 1961 is from the classic earlier period of Maclean’s novels, where the plot is revealed in 1st person by the narrator through lots of dry wit and hardboiled realism. No one is to be trusted, including the narrator himself, who often withholds vital information from the reader until things come to a head in what is typically the first of several climaxes before the last page is turned.

Fear is the Key follows this classic MacLean formula brilliantly, starting off with a bang as John Talbot shoots his way out of a courthouse in Marble Springs Florida with a hostage, Mary Ruthven, in tow. John Talbot is initially presented as something of a rogue mercenary, with vague underworld connections and dealings, who is hiding out in hicksville under an assumed name until he’s busted by the local sheriff and his deputies. We quickly learn that his beautiful and stoic hostage, Mary Ruthven, is an integral figure in a plot that has been carefully planned out far in advance. A plot that includes Mary’s father, General Blair Ruthven, and his oil rig out in the Gulf of Mexico, referred to throughout as X 13. Within hours of Talbot’s escape from the courthouse, with Mary as his hostage, they run into a tough-as-nails cat named Jablonsky. Jablonsky quickly gets the drop on Talbot, only instead of returning Mary safely to her father, he decides that he can squeeze the general for some additional ransom. After some terse and wordy (one of the things you’ll discover in a MacLean novel is that characters can get talky) negotiations between Jablonsky and the General, Talbot and Mary are taken to the General Ruthven’s gated mansion on the coast. It’s there that Talbot is turned over to a couple of shady “associates” of the general, Vyland and Royale. Along with Vyland and Royale, Talbot meets a jittery “hop-head” named Larry. Larry seems way out of his league next to the cold professionalism of both Vyland and Royale, which throws Talbot off. His presence among them makes no sense, and he’s clearly a psycho on a pitstop to Kicksville USA. Larry has a habit of whickering a switchblade around Talbot, which is all a bit unsettling. Meanwhile, General Ruthven’s connection with these tough guys seems to have something to do with a salvage job off the coast of Florida. A salvage job that is right in line with Talbot’s old line of work. It takes a couple of fist fights and shoving guns in faces before Talbot is convinced that Vyland, Royale, and General Ruthven mean business in recruiting Talbot into their plans. And with that, the novel is off and running.

It’s a lot of fun discovering who the good guys are and who the bad guys are in this novel. Maclean manages to keep the suspense popping in each chapter, revealing just enough to keep Talbot and the reader off-balance throughout. In addition to the sudden, often brutal violence, Talbot manages to maintain a droll, deadpan humor while sharing the events with the reader. It all leads up to a final confrontation deep underwater in the Gulf of Mexico, trapped in a cramped and suffocating bathyscaphe, where all is revealed at last.

This is old-fashioned spy stuff at its best. Modern readers might have to adjust their expectations before jumping into a MacLean novel. For example, there is no sexy stuff going on with our icy hot babe Mary Ruthven. It’s sort of teased at through the novel that Talbot would like to take a break from all the action for a slip up her skirt, but nothing doing for our hero. I think maybe there is a brief kiss, but I’m not sure. The women in MacLean’s novels, at least the ones I've read, tend to be used as pretty scenery mostly, but usually aren't part of all the man-shit that goes down. And they still faint when the plot calls for them to. Still, Mary does manage to give Talbot a hand here and there when absolutely needed. If you want that mushy stuff, you’re better off with a James Bond caper.  

Like many of MacLean’s novels, Fear is the Key was made into a movie in the early 70s. I've never seen it, and I don’t know a thing about it other than Barry Newman stars in it. I’d probably opt for seeing Vanishing Point instead. It’s never popped up on the cable channels that I’m aware of. Maybe I’ll hunt it down at some point, and see how it compares. 

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