My introduction to Scottish author Alistair MacLean came in high school, when one of my English teachers assigned us all to read The Guns of Navarone, a 1957 thriller centered around the efforts of a specialist team of Allied commandos, during World War II, to silence the notorious weaponry at a German fortress in the Aegean Sea. Most of the books we’d had to read that year were pretty quiet stuff, along the lines of Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories. Navarone was something else altogether, an adventure novel that read more like one of the high-stakes action tales in my grandfather’s Argosy magazines than it did a work that some earnest curriculum planner thought would be healthy grist for the minds of teenage boys. If this was what the future of English classes held in store, I thought, let me at it!
Predictably, though, Navarone was an aberration; afterward, we went right back to reading safe “classics.” But by then I had developed an appetite for MacLean’s lean, edge-of-the-seat yarns. Finished with Navarone, I dove into Puppet on a Chain, then Fear Is the Key, Ice Station Zebra, Bear Island, The Way to Dusty Death, and finally, during my sophomore year in college, Breakheart Pass.
That last novel, published in 1974, wove MacLean’s traditional, best-selling formula of manifold tight plot twists and a cynical protagonist facing long odds into the tapestry of the familiar American Western. Supposedly set in the 1870s, the story takes place primarily aboard an ill-fated Union Pacific train steaming east to west across northern Nevada in the midst of a daunting snowstorm. Among the passengers are the governor of Nevada, Charles Fairchild; his mid-20s, black-haired niece, Marica; a tough-shelled cavalry officer, Colonel Claremont, who’s accompanied by two train cars full of troops; Indian fighter-turned-U.S. marshal Nathan Pearce and his newly acquired prisoner, John Deakin, a taciturn ex-university lecturer wanted on multiple counts of arson and murder; and an expert on tropical diseases, Dr. Edward Molyneux. The doctor’s seemingly inappropriate presence is soon explained by word that the train’s next destination, Fort Humboldt--commanded by Marica’s father--is under epidemic assault by cholera. Molyneux is reportedly taking medicine to the fort, along with coffins.
Things start to go amiss from the first, though. A couple of Claremont’s men disappear even before the train sets off from its final remote town stop. Then the doctor is discovered dead, and the locomotive’s fireman tumbles from a high overpass into a yawning ravine. When the last three train wagons--“the troop-carrying coaches and the brake van”--come uncoupled from the rest of the cars, and careen off backward into a forested gorge, it’s plain that some wicked mind is behind all of these “accidents.” Suspicion naturally focuses on Pearce’s captive, Deakin, who appears unperturbed by the lethal calamities occurring around him. However, the fact that Deakin was shackled at the time of at least one passenger death seems to absolve him of blame. But if he isn’t responsible, then who is? And what do those disasters have to do with misemployed coffins in the train’s supply wagons, or Deakin’s nocturnal wanderings over the roof of the hustling express, or Paiute Indians being welcomed at Fort Humboldt?
Author MacLean was allegedly past his prime when he wrote Breakheart Pass. Yet pretty much everything one could want in a historical thriller is found in these pages: rampant deceptions, schemes designed to incite fear, prodigious greed, calculated homicides, unexpected heroics. (Well, everything except sex: MacLean thought such complications only hobbled the pace of storytelling.) And the whole adventure takes place within a winter that’s as unforgiving as the villains who hope to profit from the carnage. MacLean’s prose may have been more pedestrian than poetic, but he could definitely keep readers on the edge of their seats.
I am not the first reader, nor will I be the last, I’m sure, to remark on the author’s disordering of historical facts. While MacLean makes clear in the book that America’s Civil War has been fought and finished, and the United States Secret Service (founded in 1865) is active in bringing malefactors to justice, he confuses things by mentioning that “the Big Bonanza strike in [Nevada’s] Comstock Lode” occurred some months ago. Actually, that rich discovery took place in 1859, when Nevada was still part of the Utah Territory. Two more years would pass before Nevada broke away, and it wasn’t until 1864 that it became the 36th state in the Union. I can only imagine that MacLean decided that such discrepancies were OK if they contributed to his story’s intent.
And reading this book again now, I find myself more able than I was originally to overlook them. The building of tension, not the exposition of historical events, was the author’s purpose in these pages, and he succeeded marvelously. Even today, and knowing how it all ends, every time I sit down with Breakheart Pass or watch the 1975 Charles Bronson film adaptation of that tale, I feel anew the frisson of anticipation, wondering who will survive that dangerous train ride ... and how the men behind the crimes on board will be brought to justice. That’s great storytelling for you!
* * *As one might expect, considerable liberties were taken with dialogue, action, and characterization to turn Breakheart Pass into the Jerry Gershwin/Elliott Kastner movie of that same name. For instance, Governor Fairchild became much younger in the personage of actor Richard Crenna, and Marica (played by Charles Bronson’s wife, Jill Ireland) morphed from being his daughter, to being his mistress. However, since MacLean apparently wrote the screenplay, the story remains faithful to the essence of the novel, and Ben Johnson turns in a wonderful performance as Marshal Pearce. It’s definitely worth watching. Below, I have embedded both the film’s trailer and its opening sequence. The theme was composed by Jerry Goldsmith, who also provided the scores for Chinatown, Planet of the Apes, and several Star Trek films.
READ MORE: “Alistair MacLean and the Human Cost of War,” by Barbara D’Amato (The Outfit); “Murder on the Literary Express: Top 10 Train Thrillers” (AbeBooks).