Alistair MacLean: The Guns of Navarone

The Guns of Navarone
Alistair MacLean
First published in the UK 1957, William Collins Sons & Co
This edition 1978, Fontana Books
ISBN: 000615400X
255 pages
Score 3/5

For whatever reason, when the CWA compiled their list of the top 100 crime novels in 1990, they included what I’d call pure thrillers. Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley, Jack Higgins: names I will always associate with my dad’s bookshelf. So when I started this blog I went home to conduct a daring dawn raid, only to find he’d charity-shopped the lot. So this copy comes from Ellis Books on Norwich market.

The classic thriller, or ‘books with Nazis on the front’, as I think of them, is not a genre I’ve really explored, and personally I wouldn’t include them in a crime list. But I’ve spent a lot of time on ‘pure’ crime this year, so I decided to give MacLean a whirl.

In The Guns of Navarone, we are in Greece, during World War Two. There are 1,200 British troops stationed on the island of Kheros in the Aegean sea. In the past few weeks the Germans have retaken most of the Greek islands, and Kheros will be next. Normally the British would order an evacuation, but there are two problems: the guns of Navarone. These enormous cannons, buried deep in a cave on the island of Navarone, dominate the naval route to Kheros and would destroy passing evacuation ships in a matter of moments.

They cannot be bombed out from the air, and naval assault is impossible. The only chance is a guerrilla assault. Jensen, the ‘brilliantly successful Chief of Operations of the Subversive Operation Executive in Cairo,’ assembles a crack team with the right skills for the job.

It’s an ensemble piece. The leader of the group is Captain Keith Mallory, ‘skilled saboteur, first-class organiser and eighteen unscathed months in the White Mountains of Crete’, and more importantly for the mission, ‘the greatest rock climber New Zealand has ever produced.’ Mallory is assisted by:

  • Dusty Miller, a laid-back American saboteur. Having said this isn’t a crime novel, Miller proves himself quite the detective at a crucial juncture.
  • Andrea, a seemingly indestructible Greek giant, veteran of the Balkans and more recently Mallory’s lieutenant in Greece. (Andrea is unfortunately reminiscent of Asterix’s friend Obelix who fell into the magic potion as a baby.)
  • Scottish engineer Casey Brown.
  • Andy Stevens, the youngster in the group, another mountaineer, inexperienced and secretly afraid.

Disguised as Greeks, they take a small boat to Navarone, dodging German patrols and gun emplacements, and begin a seemingly impossible climb of the island’s cliffs.

The Germans are, improbably for men on a remote Greek island, crack troops, and for the most part worthy opponents. One of their leaders is a Hauptmann Skoda, who is so improbably Nazi-ish that I can only assume MacLean had his tongue firmly in his cheek when he wrote him:

a small, thin man in his late thirties, neat, dapper, debonair and wholly evil. There was something innately evil about the long, corded neck that stretched up scrawnily above his padded shoulders… thin, bloodless lips… high cheekbones… sabre scar… wetly-gleaming hair… [etc. etc.] one instinctively knew that the crease of his trousers, the polish of the jack-boots, would be beyond reproach.

You can probably guess how it all ends for Skoda.

Ultimately, The Guns of Navarone is a hard-bitten adventure story very much of its time, but none the worse for that.

Final destination: A keeper

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Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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7 Responses to Alistair MacLean: The Guns of Navarone

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Rich – This was one of my first experiences with thrillers. It really is as you put it a ‘hard-bitten adventure’ and a fast-paced story. Thanks for the reminder.


  2. Moira says:

    One of my first thrillers too – I can’t imagine why as a teenager I was forever reading real boys’ books (as well as all kinds of other things). I liked this one, and also HMS Ulysses (which did lead me to find out about those WW2 Arctic convoys). McLean’s heroes had a self-deprecating touch as I recall, and the war ones contained virtually no women.


    • westwoodrich says:

      Hi Moira. Yes, I noticed the total lack of women. In the film version (featured on the cover above), it seems the two Greek resistance fighters who help the team are transformed into women. (Also Dusty Miller is transformed from an American into David Niven.)


  3. gnatseyeview says:

    I loved this book as a teen growing up in Australia. Also liked “Force Ten from Navarone.” Great author–fond memories. I think I read most of his books.


  4. Pingback: Pick of the month: November 2012 | Past Offences

  5. dfordoom says:

    MacLean is criminally underrated. THE GUNS OF NAVARONE is good but it doesn’t really give you the authentic MacLean flavour. I’d highly recommend NIGHT WITHOUT END, FEAR IS THE KEY, BEAR ISLAND (which bears no resemblance to the movie) and WHEN EIGHT BELLS TOLL – they’re much more representative of his best work.

    Another British thriller writer of that era worth checking out is Gavin Lyall.


    • pastoffences says:

      I’ve only read one Gavin Lyall, and I agree it was very very good. I’d read another MacLean – I think my dad has Eight Bells so I might try to snaffle it next time I visit.


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