Behind enemy lines. Surrounded by snowy peaks. Facing an impenetrable Nazi fortress.
The premise is action-thriller gold, and one of author Alistair MacLean’s talents is delivering on the promise of an exciting setup. That talent is on full display in this 1967 novel, released between ‘When Eight Bells Toll’ and ‘Puppet on a Chain’ (aren’t his titles also fantastic?). To flesh out that opening scenario, picture a small team of Allied soldiers parachuting into the Austrian Alps under cover of night, clad in wintry camouflage and packing explosives. The mission - top secret, what else? - is to infiltrate a Nazi castle perched high on a rocky summit and accessible only by gondola. That’s step one. Step two is the extraction of a captured high-ranking officer before the enemy can compel him to divulge highly sensitive intel related to iminent military campaigns. And then, of course, escape.
It’s not that simple (it never is), and there are plenty of complications and plot twists to match the suspense and well-crafted action scenes. The characters are a little 2-D, because this isn’t ‘literary fiction’ after all, but they’re still compelling enough to feel like more than just a servant to the machinations of the plot. In short, it’s just a great story. And if you enjoy it, you owe it to yourself to also check out the film adaptation, released just a year later in 1968. It’s long - even as a kid I remember the VHS copy had two tapes, plus an intermission! - but worth it to see MacLean’s twisty narrative on screen, as well as Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood donning Third Reich duds and sowing much mayhem along the way to fulfilling their mission.
Compared to action movies and thriller novels of today, your mileage may vary, but I believe both iterations still hold up well, and deliver a rewarding level of excitement and intrigue. If you’ve come this far, and can stand an additional recommendation, consider listening to Geoff Dyer’s new book ‘Broadsword Calling Danny Boy: Watching Where Eagles Dare’. Dyer doesn’t typically write about pop culture, but this recent release is his second to deal specifically with a favorite film (the first is about Tarkovsky’s ‘Stalker’). It is both a scene-by-scene synopsis and a running commentary, rendered in the author’s engaging style and with plenty of wit. Perhaps only for those true fans, I found it often hilarious and frequently revelatory in its acute observations.
Even fifty years after this vintage gem’s publication, watching or reading about Nazis getting some comeuppance is still satisfying, so grab a copy of the book, the film, or the other book, and enjoy a thrilling narrative well told.