Saturday, 27 August 2016

The Last Frontier by Alistair MacLean - Book review

Publisher's write-up:

'Doctor Jennings, a noted scientist in possession of a precious secret, has gone over to Soviet Union: it's Michael Reynolds' mission to get him back.

Jennings' visit to a scientific congress in Budapest, gives Reynolds a unique opportunity: a chance to contact Jennings and offer him a motive to return.

To penetrate behind the Iron Curtain and reach his quarry is difficult enough; but to bring out a man uncertain, elderly and too well known is impossible. Until Reynolds discovers, within that terrifying organisation there are men ready and able to help.

These dedicated Hungarian patriots - high minded, resourceful and, when necessary, as ruthless as their enemies could be the key to Jennings' success in this deadliest missions.'

The Last Frontier is a novel by the popular writer Alistair MacLean; with a story that takes place in the east of the Iron Curtain and not his usual World War II novel. In this Michael Reynolds, a British secret agent, is given the task of bringing a nuclear scientist, Dr. Jennings back to the UK. The task is not that simple, as Jennings is based in Soviet Union and is visiting Hungary for a conference and Reynolds, is to carry out the task in Hungary; beating all odds, including the brutal secret police of Hungary, the AVO. In this mission, he has the help of certain locals; mainly a former Soviet military general named Jansci and an insider within the AVO, known as The Count.

The novel follows the standard template MacLean uses; a near impossible mission, a romantic sub-plot, and an absolute hate rant against those whom the protagonist is against. For starters, the novel maintained a good pace and got straight to the point and in the very first chapter, Reynolds crosses the border into Hungary. I also appreciate the fact that the author chose Hungary as the place for setting the novel considering, there is a lot of literature available on oppression in Communist regimes, mainly by Soviet Union and I have even read one, in Romania (The Land of Green Plums) but there is very little available on Hungary. I loved the way the author built the character of The Count, in particular, shrouded in mystery with a lot of untold past and the author brought it out little by little as the story progressed. Jansci was yet another beautifully built character with many similar characteristics, such as a troubled past and his determination to bring freedom to the peoples under Communist regimes.

But then, while I praised the way the author built the sidekicks, my main problem was with the protagonist, Michael Reynolds. He is possibly the lousiest secret agent I have ever read about; walks into obvious traps, has no original ideas and ultimately, is completely dependent on The Count and Jansci. There wasn't a single instance where he accomplished something on his own and if ever he tried, he had to be bailed out either by The Count or Jansci. Moreover, the romantic sub-plot between Reynolds and Jansci's daughter was ... lifeless; could have rather not had it at all and last, the author told very little about Reynolds himself and as a reader, I was never able to connect with him as much as I was able to, with the other two characters. Moreover, Alistair MacLean was on his hate rant again, against all the Communists; though I commend him for the fact that he tried to defend them a little, through the Count or Jansci while the Japanese or the Germans in his earlier books did not have any such lawyers. It was all the more annoying with Reynolds snatching every opportunity to say the same naive thing; the fall of Communism would bring peace and is a solution to all problems. While I am not a Communist sympathiser myself, I still found his book too one sided and yes, to be honest, a lot of modern readers might not even be able to connect with the hate campaign considering, it is nearly three decades since the fall of Communism but then, I wouldn't exactly blame the author for the problems faced by readers in future.

My expectations on this book was rather high, considering this book was said to be among the best works of Alistair MacLean but then, it disappointed me, considering that it was a very ordinary thriller and yes, if it had an extraordinary protagonist like it did in The South by Java Head, I perhaps might have enjoyed it more but the biggest drawback of this book was Michael Reynolds. I would say that this book would perhaps appeal only to hardcore Alistair MacLean readers or those who are merely enthused by blind anti-Communist literature (PS: Once again, I am not a Communist sympathiser myself but MacLean went too far).

Coming to the question of rating the book, I would say that this book is a reasonable thriller, with a lot of flaws but then, a flaw in the protagonist is a very basic flaw and thus, I would not be able to deem the book as a good read with a rating of six and hence, my rating for this book would be a five.

Rating - 5/10

Have a nice day,

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