Alistair MacLean is probably best known for giving us the WWII thrillers The Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare – both of which were adapted into to well-knows films. However, he is also the author of such lesser known works as Ice Station Zebra, Fear Is The Key, Breakheart Pass, and Night Without End.
As my first excursion into MacLean’s world, I picked up Fear Is The Key. And, boy, is it a a page-turner – in every sense of the phrase. As one reviewer aptly put it, it “keeps tension at a screaming point”. MacLean did an excellent job of creating an intelligent story that grabs you from the first page. It’s fast-paced, intense, and unpredictable. And I really mean unpredictable: you’ll never know where your going until you get there. And, in the case of this novel at least, that’s a good thing.
The protagonist of MacLean’s tale is John Montague Talbot. In the prologue, we find Talbot maintaining radio contact with a plane carrying his wife, son, and a valuable cargo worth millions. Events take a nightmarish turn, however, when the plane is viciously shot down, and Talbot listens helplessly as everything which gave his life meaning is destroyed within seconds.
When we next encounter Talbot, he is an embittered, convicted criminal on trial in a Florida court. In a rapid chain of events, Talbot turns the tables on the police officers guarding him, kidnaps the daughter of a millionaire who is present at the hearing, and after an intense car chase, makes his escape.
The rest of the story is something I’ll leave you to discover for yourself. Suffice it to say, the adventure carries on at breakneck speed, with shrewd characters, compelling plot twists, and a high stakes game where the good had better beat the bad – or else. And as memorable as tough-guy Talbot is, the three villains are even more so. There’s sharp, calculating Vyland, who runs the show; Royale, the hired killer, who’s as cold, cool and conscienceless as bad guys get; and then there’s psychopathic Larry, a drug addict with an axe to grind.
While the story revolves around a very intense and serious plot, MacLean throws in enough dry ( and sometimes grim) humor to keep the reader smiling. At one point, during a tense confrontation with another character, Talbot relates,
The first thing I noticed was the gun in his hand, and it wasn’t the sort of gun a beginner carries around with him. A big dull black German Mauser 7.63. One of those economical guns; the bullet goes clear through three people at once.
Although by far one of the best adventure yarns I’ve come across in a long time, I don’t feel comfortable recommending Fear Is The Key for anyone under 14. The violence isn’t gratuitous, but it can get pretty rough at times, and there are numerous references to drugs, including some slang phrases about drug addicts. A fair amount of swearing (albeit mostly mild) is also scattered throughout.
As with all books, Fear Is The Key should be read with Christian discernment, and measured by God’s Word. All in all, I found it to be a very enjoyable read and recommend it highly – especially for boys on the lookout for an intelligent novel that delivers action, suspense and adventure on a satisfying level.