Friday, June 14, 2013

Review: Bear Island


Bear Island is a suspense novel by the acclaimed author Alistair Maclean. Maclean is best known for several books that have been made into movies, including the Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare. I read several of Maclean’s books as a child, but I don’t remember a lot, so I wanted to revisit his work to see how they hold up.

Bear Island tells the story of a film crew aboard a fishing trawler en route to an isolated island in the Arctic Circle. Of course, it will come as no surprise that the film crew (or at least some of them) are more than they appear to be. Written in the first person style from the viewpoint of a Dr. Marlowe, we quickly learn that not all is well with this movie production. There are several murders onboard the ship, and as Marlowe investigates he finds himself pulled deeper and deeper into a morass of deceit and intrigue.

As the story progresses so does the body count, and when the ship’s radio is mysteriously smashed it becomes impossible to call for help. The captain must decide between continuing on to Bear Island or making for port in Norway. The decision is made to proceed and the crew arrive on Bear Island about halfway through the book. Once they are there, the trawler doesn’t stick around and they are essentially marooned with one or more killers in their midst.

This is where the story becomes more of an espionage tale as secrets are revealed and perhaps no one is who we thought they were…including our narrator Dr. Marlowe. There’s plenty of twists and turns as the murders resume on the island and things really get desperate. Why is Marlowe really on board? What secrets are the film crew hiding? And what does this have to do with hidden Nazi gold from World War II?  

Bear Island is a gripping tale of blackmail, hidden treasure and international intrigue. It is written in an old- fashioned, wordy style that just wouldn’t fly today, and to be honest there were times when the wordiness and long sentences were tedious. At the same time it’s well written wordiness, and there were times when it really worked for me. He has a wry tone, often ironic, that elicited chuckles more than a few times. The story started off slow but I stuck with it, mainly because I just love the concept. A mystery at sea, murder and intrigue, a remote island… what’s not to like?

Bear Island is also a very atmospheric story. Maclean knew the sea and ships and his firsthand knowledge and experience comes through in the writing. Most of the story takes place in stormy conditions at sea and blizzard conditions on the island itself, and Maclean’s evocative style really ratchets up the tension in the story. I thought things were  wrapped up a little too neatly and there is no way to make sense of it all without a lot of exposition at the end, but it was satisfying. The hiding place for a stash of buried loot was, I thought, ingenious. 

I found a copy in a used bookstore and gave it a try. I was ready to move on after finishing Bear Island, but I may tackle another Maclean mystery down the road. What more can you ask of an author?

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