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Friday, 5 April 2019

Book review - River of Death

Alistair MacLean’s River of Death (1981) is not vintage MacLean, written the year before the dreadful Partisans, and yet it inspired a movie of the same name!

The hardback blurb says: ‘It takes Spaatz more than 30 years to track down his old SS comrade in South America to exact revenge for his betrayal and the theft of a hoard of gold they had amassed together in the last months of the war. But as Spaatz’s small strike-force makes its perilous way through the final stages of the deadly pursuit, Spaatz has failed to consider there may be others in his party with quite different motives but no less determined to bring their quarry to justice.’

The reissued paperback blurb says: … the classic tale of adventure and the dark secrets of a lost city in the Brazilian jungle, from the acclaimed master of action and suspense. The Lost City: Hamilton knows the way to the ruins deep in the Brazilian jungle - and the secret they hold. The millionaire who calls himself Smith seeks the lost city to avenge a wrong from his hidden past. Their journey down the River of Death is an epic of violence and danger. But the secret that awaits them in the lost city is more dangerous still - as a legacy of theft, treachery and murder stretching back to war-torn Europe comes to a deadly climax beneath the ancient walls.’

We can’t blame the author for the poor blurbs. The identity of Spaatz isn’t revealed until we’re near the end of the book; and there’s no so-called ‘strike-force’. And really there is no dark secret – it seems to be known by most of the group with Hamilton, once their identities are revealed. As for the deadly climax – it mostly occurred off-stage, the hero uninvolved.

So, to the book itself. The Prologue starts during the war, and the event described in the blurb, with Spaatz being double-crossed, and is in the classic MacLean WWII style. Then, again, in the opening chapter we’re in traditional MacLean territory with mysterious characters following other mysterious characters. The main character is in fact Hamilton, an overconfident too-clever-by-half hero-by-numbers that MacLean has used often, but this time with much less depth.

After a lot of padding, to-ing and fro-ing, Hamilton is hired by the press magnate to take Mr Smith and his party to the Lost City of the Mato Grosso that Hamilton has recently discovered. Needless to say, there are ulterior motives harboured by several members of the party.

There is too much dialogue and not enough action for an adventure novel or a thriller.

There are exciting portions in the book, mostly towards the end, on the river, the so-called Rio da Morte, where native tribesmen are encountered and pose a threat. But the conflict never really creates the necessary tension. And we’re never really there with Hamilton et al.

As this is a MacLean novel few people are what they seem!

The book had its moments, I suppose, but overall this was disappointing. A quick relatively light read.

Editorial comment

These comments are criticising the publisher and editor as much as the author. Apparently, MacLean wrote many of his novels in about 35 days and never re-read them once he’d finished them. It is also believed that his later novels (maybe this one included) were ghost-written based on his ideas.

Names. Nearly all writers do it. Get fixated on character names beginning with the same letter. Ancient advice is to avoid this. Maclean didn’t here. We have Hamilton, Hiller, Dr Hannibal Houston, and Heffner.

Consistency. On p27 Hiller trains a rifle on a character called Serrano (and no, he isn’t a ham actor but an antiquities expert). Then while still in the same scene, on p30 Hiller pockets his own gun. (Must have deep pockets).

Repetition. Hiller seems intent on sucking Hamilton into his scheme, and alludes to hooking him, and then gaff and land him (p37) Then a short while later, Hiller had been sure ‘he had his fish hooked: now he had it gaffed and landed.’ (p53)


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