Sorcerer’s Apprentice

E.S. Turner

  • Alistair MacLean by Jack Webster
    Chapmans, 326 pp, £18.00, November 1991, ISBN 1 85592 519 2
  • Alistair MacLean’s Time of the Assassins by Alastair MacNeill
    HarperCollins, 288 pp, £14.99, December 1991, ISBN 0 00 223816 0

There are rich pickings still to be had in the jungle of literature, where dead authors half-buried in brambles continue to yield abundant fruit. Hardly had the sequel to Gone with the Wind been published than the news came that Galsworthy’s Forsyte family was being given an extended life-span which would take the characters into the television age, for which they were clearly designed Already any number of hands, licensed and otherwise, have helped to further the adventures of James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, Jeeves, Billy Bunter and Charles Pooter; not forgetting, from an earlier age, Flashman and Rochester’s mad wife. In a class of their own come the surrogate writers who are authorised to enrich the leftovers of a dead storyteller. The late, prolific Alistair MacLean (‘Ach, any idiot can write a book’) did not bequeath a hero who became a household name, but he left a clutch of story lines which, for one reason or another, he did not wish to flesh out himself. Four of his plots have now been worked up by the near-homophonous Alistair MacNeill; two of his screenplays had already been turned into novels by John Denis; and a third screenplay is undergoing similar treatment by Simon Gandolfi. In this curious world there are occasional legal hiccups. One such, not so much a hiccup as a cardiac arrest, recently befell HarperCollins when they were prosecuted and heavily fined at the insistence of Warwickshire trading standards officers. The complaint was that readers of books based on MacLean outlines were being misled by the layout of the jackets into believing that these were the works of the master himself, since his name appeared in the traditional bold condensed type above the title, with that of the real writer in less assertive type below. Now, in the latest of the MacNeill series, Time of the Assassins, the two writers have their names in type of equal height, but MacLean still enjoys star billing above the title and MacNeill’s name is preceded by ‘Written by’. No doubt the implications of this case will be borne in mind by anyone who aspires to supply yet another ending for Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

The latterday MacLean industry is touched on by Jack Webster in his biography of the novelist, who died in 1987. It seems the invitation to MacNeill to tackle the master’s outlines came from Collins on the strength of a manuscript of his own he had submitted to the firm. It was ‘a heaven-sent opportunity for a man still in his twenties’, who until then had worked for the Holiday Inn chain. According to Webster, ‘the revived series of MacLean storylines proved successful enough to account for more than half the income of the copyright settlement in the year 1990-1991,’ a matter of over £500,000. ‘Understandably, Alastair MacNeill was negotiating for more than his original 30 per cent share.’ Like much of Webster’s book, this will make excruciating reading for the tribe of novelists who, however well reviewed by each other, are lucky if their sales reach four figures. (A recent article in the Author, journal of the Society of Authors, dismissed as probably ‘rhetorical’ a claim that some books sold no copies at all, but said there were titles in hardback which sold only 400 copies in a year and only 2000 in paperback: which goes some way to support Gore Vidal’s jeer that in Britain there are more novelists than novel-readers.) In Alistair MacLean we have the scarcely forgivable phenomenon of an author who made £20 million in 30 years and who had 18 titles which sold over a million copies (as against 13 James Bond books in that class). He was a man who wrote ‘airport books’ before the airports were quite ready to receive them. He defied, and survived, fashions in popular fiction, avoiding bad language and the ‘sex, snobbery and sadism’ he denounced in practitioners like Ian Fleming. His characters were never clubland heroes. He cared as little for literary critics as he did for those publishers’ editors, on both sides of the Atlantic, who were anxious to improve his none-too-elegant style and even to tighten up his plots. If, he protested, these nigglers could write irresistible ‘page-turners’ and make their fortunes, why did they not do so? It is a fair guess this edgy Scot would have despised current television programmes about books, concluding (as many other have already concluded) that these are designed to put the masses off reading.

It was MacLean’s good fortune to start writing when people still had the reading habit that had been reinforced during the Second World War. Television had not yet turned the nation into ‘couch potatoes’. Public libraries did not relegate books to the back of the premises, giving pride of place to racks of video cassettes. The great subscription libraries of Smith’s and Boots still provided titles on demand, a service which was a splendid bonus for authors of the day; not that Alistair MacLean needed the support of subscription libraries, any more than he needed the prop of Public Lending Right. MacLean was lucky, again, in that, unlike in the post-1918 years, there was a readership avid for stories of wartime adventure, even such blood-and-guts chronicles as HMS Ulysses, based on his own experiences as a leading torpedo operator in the convoys to Murmansk. He was able to draw on the wartime scene, notably in The Guns of Navarone, for all it was worth, before turning to far-fetched plots which often had more than a touch of old Sexton Blakes.

MacLean was the product of a Highland manse, where astonishingly he was not allowed to speak the English he was taught at school. Like just about everyone else of his generation he claimed to have read comics – in his case, the Wizard – with the aid of a torch under the bedclothes. He also boasted of having read the massed works of Scott, presumably not under the bedclothes, by the age of ten. His father had a fine command of English in the pulpit and wrote a book in the same alien tongue; his mother, a prize-winning singer, was a narrow Calvinist and enemy of drink. After his war service MacLean went to Glasgow University, where he left little or no trace, avoiding not only drink (for the time being) but the other excitements, such as they were, of Gilmorehill. In his last year, as Webster notes, a fine MacLean-type plot was being hatched under his nose – the theft of the Stone of Scone from Westminster Abbey. He married a German student called Gisela (who would later attempt, in a small way, to limit the death-count of, and bad behaviour by, Germans in his novels) and settled down as a schoolteacher in Rutherglen. So far, so dull. Then in 1954 he won first prize of £100 in a Glasgow Herald short story competition with a tale of a shipwreck. It brought moisture to the eyes of Marjory Chapman, whose husband Ian worked in the Bible department of Collins in Glasgow. They took him out to dinner and urged him to write a novel. The result was HMS Ulysses, which sold 250,000 in hardback between autumn of 1955 and the following spring and picked up £30,000 in film rights, at a time when many authors were happy to dispose of such rights for £1000 or less. A best-selling first book can be a disaster in so far as its author expects subsequent books to be equally successful, but MacLean suffered no serious reverses. From now on he was a prodigiously successful literary industry; and Ian Chapman with one bound was free from the Bible department of Collins. Marjory Chapman, incidentally, was the talent-spotter who, many years on, picked out the young Alastair MacNeill.

It is the biographer’s handicap that MacLean, despite living his life under a golden shower, remained a private, prosaic and tetchy character. Writers who pound their typewriters all their lives are apt to be a thankless study, no matter how glamorous the tax havens they inhabit. MacLean was never the man to attract notice in an assembly; he tended to mumble in a thick accent; and he was wary of strangers. The self-effacing are, of course, perfectly entitled to efface themselves, but MacLean tended to denigrate himself as well. Could he possibly be worth all that money? According to Webster, he would protest: ‘I’m no good but one day I’ll write a good book.’ At one time he talked of a trilogy about the Black Prince, but nothing came of it. Knocking out thrillers was just too easy, so easy that he told a young interviewer to go off and do likewise: the young man took his advice and his novels have had sales of over seven million. Came the day when MacLean proposed to write novels under a pen-name to see whether he could prosper without the reputation which flowed from HMS Ulysses. It was the sort of idea which publishers find abhorrent, but money-spinning authors have to be humoured. Two novels written by ‘Ian Stuart’ seem not to have done quite as well as the others, though both were bought for filming; later they were reissued successfully under his own name. Mac-Lean underwent another crisis of doubt when he decided to suspend writing and tackle a real job of work: he chose to acquire and run hotels and the result was a miserable failure.

For the biographer, this would have been the thinnest of tales but for the irruption on the scene of a femme fatale in the shape of Marcelle Georgius, daughter of a French music hall entertainer. Swooping on a vulnerable target, she broke down any Calvinist inhibitions he may have retained, wrecked his marriage (not without assistance from the man himself) and carried him off to Caxton Hall, where she is supposed to have exclaimed afterwards: ‘I’ve done it! I’ve done it!’ Despite being (allegedly) pushed into an Amsterdam canal by her husband in a honeymoon quarrel she held him a besotted slave and relieved him of large sums on the pretext of planning to make films of his books. The tales that she charged him £5000 for sewing on a button and £10,000 for cutting his hair need not be taken too seriously, but the domestic atmosphere seems to have been an extortionary one. Towards the end of an increasingly stormy union Marcelle planned – or so it appears – to detain him in California so that a classic divorce shakedown could be engineered. However, the minders who now looked after his finances were able to pay off the predator with £400,000, which was regarded as a cheap settlement. She got through the money quickly and died in squalor (her own version of events appeared in a newspaper after MacLean’s death). MacLean had learned his lesson and wanted to remarry Gisela, but she had also learned hers. Meanwhile he gazed wistfully on his secretary, Sabrina Carver, niece of a field-marshal, whose affections lay elsewhere. She was one of two secretaries whom MacLean dispatched house-hunting in the tax havens, rather like a divisional commander sending scouts to find new headquarters in villas and Hôtels du Lac. One dubious reward for Sabrina Carver was to be introduced under her own name in his fiction (of which more later).

The reader’s sympathy for MacLean in the collision with Marcelle is likely to be slight. It is hard to kindle to a genius whose only recreations seem to have been arm-wrestling and, on a heroic scale, strong drink. He could be genial enough to his intimates; he lavished money on the deserving as well as the undeserving: but sooner or later he would be ‘blethering in his cups’, telling people that he was head of the CIA, that he had been beaten up by the PLO, or was suffering from leukaemia. One peculiar story has it that, while living in Dubrovnik, he gratefully accepted gifts of bacon and sausages from a senior Sainsbury but declined to meet his admiring benefactor face to face, though allowing himself to be glimpsed from the sea while posing on a balcony. If modesty could inspire behaviour like this, what might bumptiousness have done?

Jack Webster, who works for the Glasgow Herald and clearly has no wish to pillory a fellow Scot, does not set himself up as a literary critic. In essence, he says, the MacLean recipe was simply to plunge a group of people into a hostile environment, with no apparent hope of survival and a ‘Judas figure’ in their midst, and embellish the tale with plausible technical detail (or what the Army used to call ‘blinding with science’). It did not seem to matter that women were relegated to minor roles: in that kind of story it was their traditional lot. Wisely, Webster avoids any temptation to set out the plots of the many novels. He tends to be over-concerned with the film world, by whom MacLean, to his credit, was never dazzled. There was some difficulty in getting him to attend the film première of The Guns of Navarone, but eventually the edgy Highlander was lined up to meet the Queen (a photograph shows him looking sheepishly at her corsage). Eight years later he turned up at the Savoy dinner which followed the première of Where eagles dare and found there was no table for him. His loyal friend and discoverer Ian Chapman took the necessary steps, bribing two workmen with a tenner to roll out a table through the assembled guests into the heart of the gathering. It makes a good story – two sons of the manse determined that on such an occasion the prime begetter of a great and lucrative enterprise should not be wholly ignored. Those with experience of film dealings will recognise this world in which hawkish entrepreneurs buy up the rights of better men, sit on them, sell them on, buy them back and then sit on them again. It appears that the rights to HMS Ulysses were held by the head of Associated British for more than a decade and then by a Count Giovanni Volpi for twenty years or so. Volpi insisted he was really keen to make a film about warships, because such films were always successful. He is quoted as saying: ‘For HMS Ulysses I had ships lined up. You could use the Belfast. And the Belgrano would have been ideal.’ The film has still not yet been made, though the Belfast is still around.

Webster discussed the MacLean stories with Alastair MacNeill, who regretted that women played so small a part in them. In his new tale Time of the Assassins MacNeill has provided quite a substantial part for Sabrina Carver, as an agent of the undercover United Nations Anti-Crime Organisation. A lithe, karate-trained figure in a peaked cap, she looks, as another character says, ‘like a model out of one of those Coke ads, only better’. She is a passionate follower of jazz, either at live gigs, ‘or sitting at home with the headphones on, listening to the likes of David Sanborn or the Yellowjackets’. In this story she disables a knife-wielding mugger with a quick knee to the groin, shoots two rooftop guards through the head and then slays a few more villains in a sewer. Unlike the ever-sweating male characters (who are much given to inhaling deeply and exhaling sharply) she loses not a drop of perspiration in the process. What more can a substitute writer do for a dead man’s favourite secretary?