The Spy Novel That Changed My Life

Anyone who knew me in junior high or high school (or college, for that matter) could tell you that you would hardly ever see me without a novel in hand. Horror, mystery, and especially spy yarns – I was and still am a sucker for a good spy story.

I suppose I’d have to blame my mother for the horror part – she was and is a big time Stephen King fan and well, as a kid, when you see your mom’s 20 – book collection of Stephen King novels, and she is always reading one, you start to think, “Let me see what the big deal is with this Stephen King guy.”

So I read “Cujo” and loved it. And that set me on to a long string of horror novels. I remember my English teacher in junior high once talked to my mom during a parent-teacher conference about my habit of reading “those filthy horror novels.” Talk about barking up the wrong tree. My mom’s response was, “How many of your students read a 500 page novel every few weeks?” That seemed to end the discussion.

Maybe my love of books, specifically novels, would have been a phase that I just sort of grew out of at least to some extent (but probably not), had it not been for something that happened on a whim after school one day when I was in the 6th grade. Sure, we all enjoy a good novel now and again, but we’re talking about a kid who read science textbooks for fun, and was disappointed in himself if he only read one novel a month, on top of his schoolwork.

May, 1981. I often spent a couple of hours after school in the Washakie County Library, rather than taking the bus home. I read a lot of Alfred Hitchcock and Ray Bradbury short stories in that library. Same thing in the summer – sometimes if I could get one of my siblings to cover my chores, I’d ride my bicycle the six miles to town and spend the day in the library, just reading.

School had just gotten out for the summer, and it was a warm late spring day in Northern Wyoming.  I should have been out playing I suppose, but there I was, camping out in the county library with my nose in a book.

I finished the short book was reading, I remember it was a teenage yarn about a kid who gets in trouble with the law for stealing a car. Yawn. What to read next? Hmmmm. I had read every Ray Bradbury and Alfred Hitchcock book in the place. What was needed here was something new. Something different.

And then I saw it. Over by the newspapers the library had set up a little stand of paperbacks they were getting rid of – a three tiered rack of paperback books, about 7 feet long, 10 cents apiece. Nerd heaven.

And then I got a quirky idea into my head. I decided I was going to walk up to that book rack and grab a book randomly without looking, buy it, and read it. Even if it turned out to be a Harlequin, I’d read it. Expanding ones horizons and all of that.

So I did, and I did a good job of truly selecting a book at random, literally looking at the ceiling while I let my fingers glide across the gently used volumes, until they found one that seemed substantial, but not epically long. I pulled the book out of the case, my blind summer reading selection made by nothing but the hand of fate.

The book I selected would permanently alter my personality and would have a huge impact on the rest of my life, indeed becoming part of me in more ways than I can count. It was the one book, more than any other, that changed my life.

Any guesses? The Joy of Cooking? Perhaps a self-help novel?  The Bible or a book about it? How about a history book?

No on all counts. The book I pulled out of the case that morning was a paperback novel. It was Alistair MacLean’s “Athabasca.” 284 pages. The front cover showed a guy walking across a snow field with a pair of headlights and an oil rig behind him. Great. Good job, Brent. On a self dare, you have managed to select a novel about the fictional life of an oil rig worker. Zzzzzzzzzz.

Or did I? First of all, the quality of the writing hit me right away. I mean, this guy could write. His prose was flowing, complex and super-descriptive, and his writing made his characters just spring instantly to life. Same reason Mom was so infatuated with the works of Stephen King – it wasn’t the horror – it was the writing, and the pleasure of being audience to a master storyteller.

You are very likely familiar with the works of British author Alistair MacLean (born in Scotland), even if you think you aren’t. If you have ever seen any of the following movies, you have fallen under Mr. MacLean’s spell, possibly without knowing it: “The Guns of Navarone,” “Force 10 From Navarone,” “Ice Station Zebra,” “Where Eagles Dare,” “Bear Island,” Just to name a few.  In all, 18 of his 30 novels were made into major motion pictures by Hollywood, starring actors such as Richard Burton, Gregory Peck, Rock Hudson, Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, and Harrison Ford, just to name a few.

Of course I knew none of this at the time. I became engrossed in the story, though, and read a quarter of the novel that same day. “Athabasca” is about oil field workers in Northern Alaska being picked off one by one in an almost Agatha Christie style, accompanied by a string of sabotages to oil drilling equipment and the Alaska Pipeline. As the mystery unfolds, we find that it’s an international plot to cripple America’s oil reserves.

I was hooked.  Next up I read “The Golden Gate.” Terrorists hijack the Golden Gate Bridge with a city bus. I read one after another, quickly becoming a huge fan.

By the time I was in high school and ripping in to “Where Eagles Dare,” I was re-enacting scenes from Alistair Maclean novels in the woods behind my house with some friends, my brother, some rope and leftover  4th of July fireworks, some cap guns, and our imaginations. I cried in the scene in H.M.S. Ulysses where the young First Gunner’s mate aboard a U.S. frigate in World War II refuses to fire on the German battleship, because his father is commanding the enemy vessel. In college, I re-enacted the scene where Captain Mallory dies in H.M.S. Ulysses for a dramatic interpretation piece in an all-state speech competition, and got first place.

Alistair MacLean novels got me through my back surgery and learning to walk again – after they performed a spinal tap on me in the Billings hospital, I remember thinking, “If Mike Reynolds in ‘The Secret Ways’ can endure a night of torture by the Hungarian Secret Police, then I can endure this.” Which was completely stupid, I was comparing my real world pain to a character in a silly spy story, but I am here to tell you that it made me hold my chin up and grit my way through it, because that’s what Mike Reynolds would have done.

In high school, I went around talking with a British accent for a while as a sort of inside joke to myself.

Even in college, when I needed to escape the pressures of university life, I escaped into a world of war and espionage created by the Master of Suspense – Alistair Maclean. I cried again when the heroine, engaged to the hero, sacrifices herself to save America in “The Black Shrike.”

In 1989 my parents bought me a paperback copy of every Alistair MacLean novel ever written, including a first edition paperback of “H.M.S. Ulysses,” as a birthday present. It was one of the best birthday gifts I ever received. I still have the collection, and I consider it to be a prized possession. If there were ever a fire, I would save my novel, and the Alistair MacLean collection. Everything else would be secondary. (Hey man, do you know how hard some of these are to find now? They are all out print.)

I even saved the Time Magazine article in 1987 when Alistair MacLean died. I would very much like to have met him.

More than all of these things though, the stories of Alistair Maclean inspired me to write, and perhaps for that I owe him the greatest debt of all. For I enjoy writing, and I like to think I am reasonably good at it. If you have read as many Alistair Maclean novels as I have (by which I mean all of them), and have had the time to read my brain ponderings on this blog, you may notice some similarities in the writing styles. Particularly in the use of long run-on sentences that somehow make sense, even though they tie several ideas together at once, not to mention being contrasted with much shorter sentences for dramatic effect.

I learned that from him.

I don’t think it is at all an exaggeration to say that Alistair MacLean changed and enriched my life, all because I picked up a random book on a whim one late spring day in the 6th grade.

I like to think it somehow wasn’t an accident – indeed, that it wasn’t, in the end, random at all.

As always, thanks for reading!

  

   

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