Sep 06

THRILLERS FOR KIDS! #1 in a (possibly very short) series

FT + The Brown Wedge13 comments • 814 views

zebraICE STATION ZEBRA by Alistair Maclean

This was in the library of the school I left aged 12, so was probbly 9 or 10 when I first read it. This is OK: it’s Bond-for-preteens viz NO SEX!! In fact, in Zebra at least, NO WOMEN AT ALL hurrah er boo as it is set half on a nuclear submarine and half in the arctic. The hero’s brother’s wife is mentioned, to intensify the fact that the hero is upset his brother is dead, but can only say so on her behalf as TOO MUCH BLUBBIN IS UNMANLY (look I am really not being that unfair even).

i. As the scenario is male-on-male uncut, there is much JOSHING and indeed BANTER. I quite like this aged 9 — as when the Eastwood character says “Mind the step” when a villain falls out of a plane in Eagles — but it seems heavy-going today. Bond novels didn’t go in for it much –> Bond movies a lot more so (maybe they got it from Maclean) –>by the 80s it had all gone Rainer Wolfcastle, ubiquitous and a bit morally depraved (d00d a plane-full of people just died for yr one-liner!)
ii. All the Maclean plots I can remember feature the smokin out of TRAITORS. Zebra‘s are [SPOILERS ALERT] a cheery Cockney called Kinnear and a jolly Irish doctor called Jolly, who calls everyone “old boy” and “old top”. When they are unmasked their bonhomie vanishes and they both turn into ERNST STAVRO BLOFELD. Jolly also snark at the hero for spending all his time explaining to everyone how clever he’s been. This critique is WELL-FOUNDED.
iii. I wz gnna make a big deal of Maclean’s use of the first-person unreliable narrator — which seems to me rather daring (esp.given his obsession with TREACHERY) — but wikipedia got there before me, so maybe it’s not such a big deal. The hero in Zebra is cold and precise — except now and then to the reader — and a MANIPULATIVE USER, as regards his relationships with ppl on his side. He tells them nothing they don’t need to know — and NEVER STOPS MAKING STUFF UP. This allows him to explain how clever he’s been really quite a lot (though after a while you’d imagine it begins to cancel out for the by now thoroughly muddled listener). Since his explanations of his cleverness are the sole plot vehicle, the plot is quite hard to follow. Especially hard to follow is WHY HE IS BEING SUCH A BIG FAT LIAR so much of the time.
iv. The macguffin is unusually silly: a camera which can photograph a hankie from space has fallen into soviet hands. They instantly send it into space in a satellite and photograph several hankies all US missile-bases everywhere. The satellite has landed off-course in the arctic, and the Russkis have infiltrated a nearby British ice-drift camp to get it back. Why they didn’t make a COPY OF THE CAMERA to send up a SECOND TIME is not discussed: instead much overcomplicated business, half of it generated by the hero’s habit of telling lies, and dozens of grisly bodies.
v. OK not dozens, but 10! The bodycount is quite high by the time the hero stops fibbing and starts detecting.
vi. Also high is the doctorcount: there are THREE. The hero — unless he’s just making it up — and the chief villain, plus the nukesub has one also, obv. Since two of the murders require doctor-type knowledge, the nukesub’s medico has to be got out of the way. Which means he has to be introduced: as he has nothing to do qua quack in the first half of the book, he is made to operate the ICE MACHINE (which draws the underside of the arctic so the sub doesn’t bump into it). Why? Because he likes to. Er. Yes shut up shut up. Anyway, by the time he has been introduced to us he is so likeable (relatively speaking) that Maclean cannot bear to have him just killed. So he gets concussion.
vii. OK I accept he does action scenes well. The machinery between action scenes is to say the least clunky.
viii. The grislier bodies were always the bits I remember clearest. These ones AM seems particularly to have got a bit menk over (bearing in mind I was 9). [SPOILERS ALERT! SPOILERS OF YOUR DINNER!]: “I knew they were dead men, but only because Kinnaird had told me so: hideously charred and blackened and grotesquely misshapen as they were, those carbonised and contorted lumps of matter could have been any form of life or indeed no form of life… Caught, drenched, saturated by a gale-born sea of burning oil, they must have spent the last few seconds of life as incandescently blazing human torches before dying in insane screaming agony.” Ahem.

The school library had the following Maclean hardbacks:
HMS Ulysses (1955): set on a ship (AM had been in the navy in the war) and therefore very extremely boring
The Guns of Navarone (1957): read book but can only remember film w.D.Niven et al
South by Java Head (1957): don’t think I read this
The Last Frontier (1959): featured a train with ice on the roof — remember nothing more
Night Without End (1959): think I read this but remember nothing
Fear is the Key (1961): famous film — if I read it I don’t recall it
The Golden Rendezvous (1962): see Night Without End
The Satan Bug (1962): library didn’t have this as was written under pseudonym Ian Stuart, but I do remember the trailers for the movie, which looked v.exciting
Ice Station Zebra (1963): see review obv
When Eight Bells Toll (1966): see HMS Ulysses
Where Eagles Dare (1967): This is surely a very silly title: did AM mean Where (Even) Eagles Dursn’t?? The film has Burton and Eastwood — and a GURL!! — and is all about smoking out traitors in the most elaborate way possible. Grisly death scene = list the various ways of falling out of or off a cablecar.
Force 10 from Navarone (1968): see Guns of Navarone except I don’t think Niven is in this one. Or actually he might be. But G.Peck isn’t.
Puppet on a Chain (1969): see Satan Bug, except AM wrote this in his own name. (I sorta hope vthis is a EUROVISION TIE-IN!)
Caravan to Vaccarès (1970): not in the library but I bought it as a paperback while on holiday!! It features HOT GYPSY ACTION — not in the form of GURLS i am glad to say but instead KNIFE FIGHTS and possibly also BULLFIGHTS!!

Caravan is when I discovered I had grown out of Maclean. Rereading Zebra just now tells me I have not grown back into him really.


  1. 1
    jeff w on 20 Sep 2006 #

    when the Eastwood character says “Mind the step” when a villain falls out of a plane in Eagles

    Apocryhal, I’m afraid. He says no such thing. Or indeed anything at all.

  2. 2

    he says it in the book!

  3. 3

    i don’t really know how to check this w/o actually rereadin WED (which i have no intention of doin) or rewatchin the film (ditto x 50)

    if apocryphal where did i pick it up? if not in the film then i am (surely?) remembering it from the book and projecting it into that part of the film

    google is not my friend :(

  4. 4
    Marcello Carlin on 20 Sep 2006 #

    Useful point to remember: McGoohan made the movie of Ice Station Zebra in the middle of filming The Prisoner and looks appropriately sunken and smouldering throughout.

  5. 5
    jeff w on 20 Sep 2006 #

    (I have seen the movie of WED about 25 times oh deres. I blame Ted Turner!)

    Moral support post: my Dad used to buy Maclean books from airport book stalls whenever he went on work trips to America, which was quite frequently in the 70s. So I devoured a lot of the books you mention between the ages of 11 and 15. Many of them were in (to me) exotic US paperback editions. I’m not familiar with some of the earlier novels, but I have read quite a few of the books that post-date the last on your list. The creative well was definitely running dry by the 80s though.

    The movie version of Puppet On A Chain (starring Sven-Bertil Taube!) is toe-curlingly bad.

  6. 6
    Ward Fowler on 20 Sep 2006 #

    Maclean wrote the screenplay of WED first, then the novel, slightly interesting way of going abt things, I think. Also the film contains one BRILLIANT scene, worthy of P K Dick at his most paranoid- reality-questioning, when Richard Burton tries to convince a room full of Nazis that he too is a Nazi fiend, on a super-secret deep deep cover undercover mission that they cldn’t poss. know abt because they are not quite Nazi enuff. Also, Ingrid Pitt as a Bavarian tavern girl, LOL!

    Lord Sukrat – hostile to any film w/ Eagle in the title (see also: The Eagle has Landed!)

  7. 7
    Forest Pines on 20 Sep 2006 #

    That’s a great scene – it’s also the only scene from WED that I can remember.

    I also read lots of Maclean in my early teens, courtesy of my parents. The Satan Bug was the best one I can remember; but as spy thrillers went, I preferred Desmond Bagley and Len Deighton.

  8. 8
    Alan on 20 Sep 2006 #

    it’s a key scene wrt the outing of the TRAITOR near the end, innit

    WED is ace, and i don’t like a lot of “war films”

  9. 9
    alext on 21 Sep 2006 #

    I read most of these too. Should we form a club?

  10. 10
    jeff w on 21 Sep 2006 #

    “We need to create enough confusion so that we can get out of the castle.”

    “Major, right now you’ve got me about as confused as I ever hope to be.”

  11. 11

    doesn’t it have a character called SHAFFER (=yes obv see above) and another character called SCHAEFFER? i seem to recall bein intrigued by that (yes i was also excited when BROOKSIDE became the first soap ever to have two characters w.identical names viz in this inst. JACKIE)

  12. 12

    haha also the HERO in ice station z. = called HALLIWELL = leslie halliwell is his younger brother and geri is his daughter

  13. 13
    top 100 photograph preteens on 4 Jun 2008 #

    […] NO SEX!! In fact, in Zebra at least … silly: a camera which can photograph a hankie from space …http://freakytrigger.co.uk/ft/2006/09/thrillers-for-kids-1-in-a-possibly-very-short-series/Carmike Cinemas, Inc. Q1 2008 Earnings Call Transcript – Seeking AlphaAlthough we have completed our […]

Add your comment

(Register to guarantee your comments don't get marked as spam.)


Required (Your email address will not be published)

Top of page