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Alistair Stuart MacLean (Scottish Gaelic: Alasdair MacGill-Eain; 21 April 1922 – 2 February 1987) was a Scottish novelist who wrote popular thrillers and adventure stories. His works include The Guns of Navarone, Ice Station Zebra and Where Eagles Dare – all three were made into popular films. He also wrote two novels under the pseudonym Ian Stuart. His books are estimated to have sold over 150 million copies, making him one of the best-selling fiction authors of all time.[2]

Alistair MacLean
Alistair MacLean, late in life
Alistair Stuart MacLean

(1922-04-21)21 April 1922
Shettleston, Glasgow, Scotland
Died2 February 1987(1987-02-02) (aged 64)
Resting placeCéligny, Switzerland
Other namesIan Stuart
EducationDaviot local system
Inverness Royal Academy
Hillhead High School
Alma materUniversity of Glasgow
OccupationAuthor and teacher
Years active1955 to 1986
EmployerRoyal Navy (1941–1946)
Gallowflat School (1946–1956)
Known forThrillers
Home townShettleston
Net worth£73,347 (at death)[1]
Height5 ft 7 in (170 cm)
Spouse(s)Gisela Heinrichsen (1953–1972)
Mary Marcelle Georgius (1972–1977)
ChildrenThree sons (one adopted) with Gisela


Early lifeEdit

Alistair Maclean was descended from Clan Maclean.

MacLean was the son of a Church of Scotland minister[3] and learned English as a second language after his mother tongue, Scottish Gaelic. He was born in Glasgow but spent much of his childhood and youth in Daviot, ten miles south of Inverness. He was the third of four sons.[4]

World War TwoEdit

He joined the Royal Navy in 1941, serving in World War II with the ranks of Ordinary Seaman, Able Seaman, and Leading Torpedo Operator. He was first assigned to PS Bournemouth Queen, a converted excursion ship fitted for anti-aircraft guns, on duty off the coasts of England and Scotland.

Beginning in 1943, he served on HMS Royalist, a Dido-class light cruiser. There he saw action in 1943 in the Atlantic theatre, on two Arctic convoys and escorting aircraft carrier groups in operations against Tirpitz and other targets off the Norwegian coast. He took part in Convoy PQ 17 on Royalist.[4]

In 1944 he and Royalist served in the Mediterranean theatre, as part of the invasion of southern France and in helping to sink blockade runners off Crete and bombard Milos in the Aegean. During this time MacLean may have been injured in a gunnery practice accident.

In 1945, in the Far East theatre, MacLean and Royalist saw action escorting carrier groups in operations against Japanese targets in Burma, Malaya, and Sumatra. (MacLean's late-in-life claims that he was captured by the Japanese after blowing up bridges and tortured by having his teeth pulled out have been dismissed by both his son and his biographer as drunken ravings.[5][6]) After the Japanese surrender, Royalist helped evacuate liberated POWs from Changi Prison in Singapore.

Post-war jobsEdit

MacLean was discharged from the Royal Navy in 1946. He then studied English at the University of Glasgow, working at the post office and as a street sweeper.[7] He graduated in 1953, and briefly worked as a hospital porter, and then worked as a school teacher at Gallow Flat School in Rutherglen.[8]

HMS UlyssesEdit

While a university student, MacLean began writing short stories for extra income, winning a competition in 1954 with the maritime story "Dileas". The publishing company Collins asked him for a novel and he responded with HMS Ulysses, based on his own war experiences, as well as credited insight from his brother Ian, a master mariner. The book was written over three months.[7]

Maclean later described his writing process:

I drew a cross square, lines down representing the characters, lines across representing chapters 1–15. Most of the characters died, in fact only one survived the book, but when I came to the end the graph looked somewhat lopsided, there were too many people dying in the first, fifth and tenth chapters so I had to rewrite it, giving an even dying space throughout. I suppose it sounds cold blooded and calculated, but that's the way I did it.[9]

The book sold a quarter of a million copies in hardback in England in the first six months of publication. It went on to sell millions more.[9] Film rights were sold though a movie was never made.[10] MacLean was able to devote himself to writing.[8][11]

Later lifeEdit

His next novel, The Guns of Navarone (1957), was about an attack on the fictitious island of Navarone (based on Melos). The book was very successful, selling over 400,000 copies in its first six months.[7] MacLean followed it with South by Java Head (1958), based on Maclean's experiences in the South East Asia seas in World War Two, and The Last Frontier (1959), a thriller about the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. Film rights for Java Head were sold but no movie resulted.[12] His next novels were Night Without End (1959) and Fear Is the Key (1961). The Last Frontier was turned into a movie, The Secret Ways (1961), which was not very successful while the film version of The Guns of Navarone (1961) was hugely successful.[citation needed]

In the early 1960s, MacLean published two novels under the pseudonym "Ian Stuart" in order to prove that the popularity of his books was due to their content rather than his name on the cover. These were The Dark Crusader (1961) and The Satan Bug (1962). They sold well, and MacLean made no attempt to change his writing style. He also continued to publish novels under his own name such as The Golden Rendezvous (1962) and Ice Station Zebra (1963).[citation needed]

"I'm not a novelist," he once said. "That's too pretentious a claim. I'm a storyteller, that's all. I'm a professional and a craftsman. I will make that claim for myself." [13] Maclean also claimed he wrote very fast (35 days for a novel) because he disliked writing and the "sooner he finished the better". He never re-read a book after it was finished.[13] His novels were notable for their lack of sex. "I like girls," said MacLean. "I just don't write them well. Everyone knows that men and women make love, laddie – there is no need to show it."[13]

MacLean's books eventually sold so well that he moved to Switzerland as a tax exile. From 1963 to 1966, he took a hiatus from writing to run a hotel business in England, purchasing the Jamaica Inn on Bodmin Moor.[14][15]

During this time a film was made of The Satan Bug (1965). MacLean returned to writing with When Eight Bells Toll (1966).[16]


Producer Elliot Kastner approached MacLean looking for film scripts which prompted MacLean to write Where Eagles Dare. In July 1966 Kastner and his producing partner Jerry Gershwin had purchased five screenplays from MacLean: Where Eagles Dare, When Eight Bells Toll, and three other unnamed ones.[17][18] (Kastner made four MacLean movies.) MacLean also wrote a novel for Where Eagles Dare which was published in 1967. The book was a best seller and the 1968 film version was a huge hit.[19] "MacLean is a natural storyteller," said Kastner. "He is a master of adventure. All his books are conceived in cinematic terms. They hardly need to be adapted for the screen; when you read them, the screen is in front of your mind."[20] MacLean wrote a sequel to Guns of Navarone, Force 10 from Navarone (1968). A film version was announced in 1967 but did not result for another decade.[21] The same year saw the release of an expensive film based on Ice Station Zebra (1968).

Maclean wrote a thriller about narcotics, Puppet on a Chain (1969), and Caravan to Vaccarès (1970). These books all began as screenplays for Kastner.[22] MacLean then wrote Bear Island (1971), the last of his first person narratives.[citation needed] Kastner produced a film version of When Eight Bells Toll (1971) and Fear Is the Key (1972); another producer made Puppet on a Chain (1971). Neither performed particularly strongly at the box office.[23] This delayed plans announced in 1972 for MacLean's then-wife Marcelle to produce three films based on his books.[4] One of these proposed films was The Way to Dusty Death, which was to star Jackie Stewart. It ended up being a 1973 novel and a 1995 film.[4]

Geoffrey Reeve directed a film of Caravan to Vaccarès (1974). By 1973 MacLean had sold over 24 million novels.[13] "I am not a writer," he said in 1972. "I am a businessman. My business is writing."[4] MacLean had spent a number of years focusing on screenplays but disliked it and decided to return to being predominantly a novel writer. "Hollywood destroys writers," he said.[5] He wrote a biography of James Cook which was published in 1972.[24] He wrote Breakheart Pass (1974),[25] Circus (1975),[26] The Golden Gate (1976),[27] Seawitch (1977),[28] Goodbye California (1979) and Athabasca (1980).

"I read a lot, I travel some," he said in 1975. "But mostly what I don't know I invent."[29] In 1978 MacLean said he "just can't understand" why people bought his novels. "It's not as if I write that well... I blunder along from one book to the next always hopeful that one day I will write something really good."[5] Films were still being made out of his novels including Breakheart Pass (1975) (from Kastner), Golden Rendezvous (1977), Force 10 from Navarone (1978), and Bear Island (1979) but none did very well.

Maclean decided to focus on American television. He wrote a 120-page novella called Air Force One is Down which was turned down by NBC (it would be filmed in 2012). Maclean then pitched six new ideas to networks, each with a 25–30 page treatment. The Hostage Tower was approved by CBS and aired in 1980.[23]

Later novelsEdit

Maclean's later works include River of Death (1981) (filmed in 1989), Partisans (1982), Floodgate (1983), and San Andreas (1984). Often these novels were worked on by ghost writers, with MacLean providing only the outline.[30] His last novel was Santorini (1986), published after his death.[31] His estate left behind several outlines. One of them was filmed as Death Train (1993).[32]

MacLean's later books were not as well received as the earlier publications and, in an attempt to keep his stories in keeping with the time, he sometimes lapsed into unduly improbable plots.[citation needed] He also struggled constantly with alcoholism,[33] which eventually brought about his death in Munich on 2 February 1987.[34] He died of a stroke. He is buried a few yards from Richard Burton in Céligny, Switzerland. He was married twice and had two sons by his first wife, as well as an adopted third son. His niece Shona MacLean (also published under S.G. Maclean) is a writer and historical novelist.[35]

MacLean was awarded a Doctor of Letters by the University of Glasgow in 1983.[citation needed]


Algis Budrys described MacLean's writing style as "hit 'em with everything but the kitchen sink, then give 'em the sink, and when they raise their heads, drop the plumber on 'em".[36]

List of worksEdit


Year Title Notes High
1955 HMS Ulysses #8 17
1957 The Guns of Navarone #12 3
1958 South by Java Head
1959 The Last Frontier in the US The Secret Ways
1959 Night Without End #13 2
1961 Fear Is the Key
1961 The Dark Crusader in the US The Black Shrike (as Ian Stuart)
1962 The Golden Rendezvous #13 8
1962 The Satan Bug as Ian Stuart #16 1
1962 All About Lawrence of Arabia Non-fiction
1963 Ice Station Zebra #10 1
1966 When Eight Bells Toll
1967 Where Eagles Dare He also wrote the screenplay. #8 8
1968 Force 10 From Navarone #4 18
1969 Puppet on a Chain Also wrote screenplay #5 17
1970 Caravan to Vaccarès #6 12
1971 Bear Island #5 14
1972 Alistair MacLean Introduces Scotland Non-fiction, edited by Alastair Dunnett
1972 Captain Cook Non-fiction
1973 The Way to Dusty Death
1974 Breakheart Pass
1975 Circus #5 12
1976 The Golden Gate #8 2
1977 Seawitch #15 1
1978 Goodbye California #10 9
1980 Athabasca #3 [37]
1981 River of Death
1982 Partisans #15 1
1983 Floodgate #12 3
1984 San Andreas
1985 The Lonely Sea Collection of short stories (2 stories added in 2009)
1986 Santorini #13 2

Source for The New York Times Best Seller list: "Adult New York Times Best Seller Listings". Hawes Publications. Retrieved 30 August 2014. Figures are for the Adult Hardcover Fiction lists, 1956 through 1987: highest position reached and total number of weeks on list. A "—" indicates it did not make the list. Note that the Times list consisted of a Top 10 from 1963 through 1976, but a Top 15 or 16 before and after; thus, books during that middle period may have had longer stays relative to the others.

A collection of MacLean's fiction works from 1955 to 1971, published by Heron Books (London) in the mid-1970s

UNACO books by other authors

Year Title Author, using
MacLean's notes
1980 Hostage Tower John Denis
1981 Air Force One is Down John Denis
1989 Death Train Alastair MacNeill
1989 Night Watch Alastair MacNeill
1990 Red Alert Alastair MacNeill
1991 Time of the Assassins Alastair MacNeill
1992 Dead Halt Alastair MacNeill
1993 Code Breaker Alastair MacNeill
1995 Rendezvous Alastair MacNeill
1997 Prime Target Hugh Miller
1998 Borrowed Time Hugh Miller

Golden Girl series by other authors

Year Title Notes
1992 Golden Girl by Simon Gandolfi
1993 Golden Web by Simon Gandolfi
1994 Golden Vengeance by Simon Gandolfi

Films with screenplay contribution

Year Title Notes
1968 Where Eagles Dare book author/screenplay
1970 Puppet on a Chain book author/screenplay
1971 When Eight Bells Toll book author/screenplay
1975 Breakheart Pass book author/screenplay

Other films

Year Title Notes
1961 The Secret Ways book author
1961 The Guns of Navarone book author
1965 The Satan Bug book author
1968 Ice Station Zebra book author
1972 Fear Is the Key book author
1974 Caravan to Vaccares book author
1977 Golden Rendezvous book author
1978 Force 10 from Navarone book author
1979 Bear Island book author
1980 The Hostage Tower story
1989 River of Death book author
1993 Death Train story
1995 The Way to Dusty Death book author
1995 Night Watch story

Allegedly written by Alistair MacLean

Year Title Notes
1962 Bloody borderland by Tadeusz Kostecki in 1946 as Droga powrotna Płowego Jima


  1. ^ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  2. ^ Head, Dominic (26 January 2006). The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English. Cambridge University Press. p. 431. ISBN 9780521831796.
  3. ^ "Rev. Alistair MacLean". Family Search. Archived from the original on 28 July 2014. Retrieved 23 July 2014.
  4. ^ a b c d e War Is Hell, but It Pays Off for MacLean: War Pays Off for MacLean War Pays Off for MacLean War is Hell, but It Pays Off for Alistair Johnstone, Jain. Los Angeles Times 17 Dec 1972: p1.
  5. ^ a b c Mystery of success: Alistair MacLean wants to be great Dangaard, Colin. Chicago Tribune 11 Sep 1978: b1.
  6. ^ Webster, Alistair MacLean: A Life, p. 191.
  7. ^ a b c Alistair Maclean dies aged 64 The Irish Times3 Feb 1987: 4.
  8. ^ a b "Novelist Alistair MacLean Dies at 64". AP News. Retrieved 22 August 2018.
  9. ^ a b War Is Hell, but It Pays Off for MacLean: War Pays Off for MacLean War Pays Off for MacLean War is Hell, but It Pays Off for Alistair, Johnstone, Jain. Los Angeles Times 17 Dec 1972: p1.
  10. ^ Wales, Roland (3 March 2017). "Movie Countdown: 52 – 46". From Journey's End to The Dam Busters: The Life of R.C. Sherriff, Playwright of the Trenches. Pen and Sword Books / WordPress. ISBN 1-47386-069-5. Retrieved 5 February 2018.
  11. ^ "Alistair MacLean: An enduring writer of thrillers". The Week. Retrieved 21 August 2018.
  12. ^ New Guinness Film to Cost $4 Million The Washington Post, Times Herald 20 Jan 1960: B10.
  13. ^ a b c d Best-Selling Author Alistair MacLean Dies: [FINAL Edition] The Washington Post 3 Feb 1987: b04.
  14. ^ Johnstone, Iain (10 May 1978). "The Man with the Golden Typewriter". The Australian Women's Weekly. p. 65. Retrieved 10 July 2012.
  15. ^ "His 22 Best-Selling Thrillers Have Brought Alistair MacLean Fame, Fortune and a Lonely Life". People. Retrieved 22 August 2018.
  16. ^ Cromie, Alice (25 September 1966). "Crime on My Hands". Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file). Chicago. p. n4.
  17. ^ Gene Kelly to Do 'Married' Martin, Betty. Los Angeles Times 30 July 1966: 18.
  18. ^ Aba, Marika (21 July 1968) "The Burtons... 'Just Another Working Couple'". Los Angeles Times (1923–Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif]. c18.
  19. ^ "Where Eagles Dare". TCM.
  20. ^ ALISTAIR MacLEAN DIES; BOOKS SOLD IN MILLIONS: [Obituary] McDOWELL, EDWIN. New York Times 3 Feb 1987: B.7.
  21. ^ Second 'Navarone' Film Set Martin, Betty. Los Angeles Times 13 Apr 1967: d19.
  22. ^ The Man who Knows where the Action is. Alistair MacLean and Godfrey Smith. The Sunday Times (London, England), Sunday, January 18, 1970; pg. 37[S]; Issue 7651. (1523 words)
  23. ^ a b Alistair MacLean's Eiffel Tower Drama By DAVID LEWIN. New York Times 11 May 1980: D37.
  24. ^ THE BOOK REPORT: Capt. Cook's Great Voyages Told in Sketches With Text Kirsch, Robert. Los Angeles Times 28 Sep 1972: e7.
  25. ^ BREAKHEART PASS by Alistair MacLean. Kirkus Reviews.
  26. ^ CIRCUS by Alistair MacLean. Kirkus Reviews.
  27. ^ THE GOLDEN GATE by Alistair MacLean. Kirkus Reviews.
  28. ^ SEAWITCH by Alistair MacLean. Kirkus Reviews.
  29. ^ CRITIC AT LARGE: The Scot's Got Lots of Plots Champlin, Charles. Los Angeles Times 27 Feb 1975: f1.
  30. ^ Haunted by ghost writers Hamilton, Ian. The Observer (1901–2003); London (UK) [London (UK)]19 Mar 1995: 88.
  31. ^ The Final Adventure of Alistair MacLean: SANTORINI By Alistair MacLean Doubleday. 245 pp. $16.95 By Heywood Hale Broun. The Washington Post 12 Apr 1987: BW7.
  32. ^ The New Adventures of Pierce Brosnan: ACTOR IS BACK ON TRACK WITH USA NETWORK'S 'DEATH TRAIN' SUSAN KING TIMES STAFF WRITER. Los Angeles Times 11 Apr 1993: J15.
  33. ^ Norman, Barry (2003). And Why Not?: Memoirs of a Film Lover. NY: Simon and Schuster. pp. 211–14. ISBN 978-0684020884. Retrieved 11 April 2017.
  34. ^ McDOWELL, EDWIN. "ALISTAIR MacLEAN DIES; BOOKS SOLD IN MILLIONS." New York Times, Late Edition (East Coast) ed.Feb 03 1987.
  35. ^
  36. ^ Budrys, Algis (April 1966). "Galaxy Bookshelf". Galaxy Science Fiction. pp. 67–75.
  37. ^ "PAPERBACK BEST SELLERS; MASS MARKET." New York Times, Late Edition (East Coast) ed.Apr 25 1982.

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See alsoEdit