[John Carter is supervising as the SS Campari is being loaded ready to depart from a tropical port]
My shirt was no longer a shirt but just a limp and sticky rag soaked with sweat. My feet ached from the fierce heat of the steel deck plates. My forehead, under the peaked cap, ached from the ever-increasing constriction of the leather band that made scalping only a matter of time…
I was unhappy. The crew were unhappy. The passengers were unhappy. Captain Bullen was unhappy and this last made me doubly unhappy because when things went wrong with Captain Bullen he invariably took it out on his chief officer. I was his chief officer.
[a few days into the voyage, one of the passengers hosts a cocktail party]
As far as attendance went, Mr Julius Beresford had no grounds for complaint that night: every single passenger on the ship had turned up for his wife’s cocktail party and, as far as I could see, every off-duty officer on the Campari was there as well. And the party was certainly going splendidly.
commentary: This was one of my favourite thrillers when I was a teenager, and I wondered how it would stand up to a much later reading. I read all Alistair MacLean’s books back then, from the more serious war books – HMS Ulysses and The Guns of Navarone – right through to the 60s thrillers with exotic settings (Ice Station Zebra gives away its location in the title). I remembered tall humorous heroes, feisty give-it-a-go heroines, and very trusty solid Scottish Highlanders as sidekicks.
Well all those features turned up in this one, and I absolutely loved it. John Carter is Chief Officer on a cargo boat which also takes incredibly rich passengers on a very upmarket cruise. Things start going wrong as they travel round the Caribbean – crew members are disappearing, and who ARE those new passengers? It get worse and worse and eventually the ship is in the hands of the bad guys. But our narrator is a good-man-in-a-fix, and a rather complex set of adventures follows, involving gold, nuclear weapons and disappearing scientists.
It was a very imaginative (and preposterous) plot but what I really enjoyed was Carter’s deadpan narration. He was self-deprecating (although other people mentioned how wonderful he was just in case we’d missed the point), and very very funny.
The captain is the stock blunt man who hates the passengers, but MacLean makes that very entertaining. And there is an even better running joke about the ship’s doctor, Marston, a courtly, aristocratic drinker, and the dangers of being treated by him – I laughed immoderately at the endless remarks about his inadequacies. Then it turns out the doctor is very good at lying to the villains – Carter says Marston was a born actor and if only he’d taken it up, ‘the gain to both the thespian and medical world would have been incalculable.’
Meanwhile – the feisty young woman lends Johnny a black cocktail dress:
I looked at the label. Balenciaga. Should make a fair enough mask. I caught the hem of the dress between my hands, glanced at her, saw the nod and ripped, a dollar a stitch.He needs dark clothes and a mask and hood to escape notice as he ventures round the ship fighting evil. Because she is made from the right stuff, she says
“Tear off a piece for me while you’re at it… I’m coming with you.”I was surprised by how much I remembered of the book after such a long gap, but a lot of the plot turns and the clever lines were familiar. At one point Carter is (wrongly – need I say) thought to have helped the enemy too much. As his friends lay into him, he says:
“It’s all right for all of you to talk. You’ve all got families. I’ve only got myself. Can you blame me for wanting to look after all I have?” No one took me up on this masterpiece of logical reasoning.I thought this was excellent when I was 15, and I still do.
The book has a strange resemblance to Doctor at Sea, the Dirk Bogarde/James Robertson Justice comic masterpiece - it’s the thriller version, with the same cast of characters.
Some of those characters are wasted here – the blonde filmstar, Miss Harcourt, scarcely appears, and neither does her almost-namesake (had MacLean run out of names and just put his head in his hands and typed something?), cosmetics diva Miss Harrbride. But no complaints – this is splendid stuff, and makes me think I should revisit more of the author.
The Balenciaga black cocktail dress is from Kristine’s photostream.
All the ship pictures are from the Australian Maritime Museum collection, all taken by Gervais Purcell. The group of women passengers and the men looking at the ship are, weirdly, both actually connected with fitting TV on board ships. But I thought their concentration and focus would do nicely for a thriller plot. The other pictures show passengers boarding a ship of the time.