Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Puppet on a Chain: Alistair MacLean

A confession to begin with: this is the first Alistair MacLean book I’ve read. Though I had seen the film version of Guns of Navarone, I somehow had an impression that most of MacLean’s works were set in the sea, which is not particularly my locale. Hence, I stayed away from MacLean. But after a recent conversation with a few friends on authors in our growing years, I realized that MacLean was more than just a maritime master. So I picked up Puppet on a Chain and tried to mentally roll back the years and read it like I was in school.

Puppet is a racy, first person narrative that sustained my interest throughout. And even though the action unfolds in rapid succession through the book, it still gives you a sense of slowness – may be it is a function of the pace of life in Amsterdam. Ideal Sunday afternoon read for a crime lover, this.

Human life is not of much of a premium in Puppet considering that people seem to falling dead right through the book – some bizarrely, some expectedly, and some, surprisingly. On the contrary, our hero Paul Sherman appears invincible. He runs Interpol’s narcotic bureau in London, and comes down to Amsterdam on an assignment. And while at every turn, there is a murder attempt on him, he comes unscathed in every instance. Of course he has to, considering he is the hero, so much so that he escapes three near-impossible situations (or is it four?) on one single day towards the end. May be he could have been a serial hero in all of the author’s works – a la Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Simon Templar, Norman Conquest, and the like.

While the use of a puppet to transport narcotics (not an unusual idea, but an effective one nevertheless) gives it a physical dimension, the title also refers to the addicts being like puppets manipulated by the pushers and the powers-that-be (or shouldn’t be?). No wonder then, that the puppet is not the only aspect of the book, as Paul Sherman “considered the relationship between fast me with fast guns and pushers and sick girls and hidden eyes behind puppets and people and taxis who followed me everywhere I went and policemen being blackmailed and venal managers and door-keepers and tinny barrel-organs.” Sums up his opposition in one fell swoop. Some of the villain characters are interestingly portrayed. For fear of revealing some of the suspense, I shall not write more about them.

Amsterdam alone makes Puppet worth the read. I remember making a similar comment in my review of March Violets about how it made me get a feel of the streets of Berlin in the 1930s. Puppet does a like job for Amsterdam of the late 1960s and its surrounds. I haven’t come across another part of the world that befits this description.

Theft, apparently, was no problem on the island of Huyler, a fact which I found hardly surprising: when the honest citizens of Huyler went in for crime they went in for it in an altogether bigger way.

After reading Puppets, I can understand why MacLean had so many loyal readers as puppets on his chain of writing.


Maxine said...

I devoured Alistair Maclean's books as a teenager. Although Puppet on a Chain was good, I put it in the category of "AM books that had begun to go formulaic after he achieved mega-fame and recognition". A sort of James Patterson of his day. I enjoyed his earlier ones much more, for example Fear is the Key, Guns of Navarone (rather different from the film) and one whose title I forget about a trek across the snowy wastes, with someone of the party being a traitor...that one really kept me awake at night!

Ian Hocking at This Writing Life had a very good Alistair Maclean post a few weeks ago. Sorry I do not have the link to hand but a Google search should do it if you are interested.

De Scribe said...

Thanks, Maxine. Will check out the Ian Hocking post. Am now catching up with my childhood misses - reading a James Bond and a Modesty Blaise now.

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