I never thought I will live to say this, but I was disappointed with this one. I finished with San Andreas a couple of weeks back, and I can still feel like I have a few pages left.
The story was a typical MacLean - set aboard a maimed ship in a wicked sea, infested with the enemy. There was the stoic bo'sun Archie McKinnon and the usual Scots stereotypes, the incapacitated captain, the strong, intelligent but naive nurse Janet, and several other members of the crew, a number of whom get eliminated quite early on. The suspense however remains, as the ship is crippled by saboteur/(s) and time is running out as the incredibly clairvoyant bo'sun scrambles desperately to remain ahead of the mysterious moves of the nasty Germans. Unlike some of the last few novels of MacLean, this one did not disappoint in terms of action. There was quite enough (but not too much) of leaping about and swimming in cold waters and battling the blizzard, punctuated by lengthy, sardonic discussions, which were, as usual, a treat to read.
Sabotage of naval vessels is common ground for several MacLean novels and as expected, the story was dripping with naval jargons which, I couldn't quite comprehend. I would have had to use the internet to clarify things but this is Alistair MacLean we are talking about, so I decided to use my time to find out the criminal instead. The vivid descriptions of the evil fog, the swirling sea-waters and the carnage in the bombed ship were particularly compelling, and set the mood nicely in place. There were, as expected, numerous characters, and their facades were well drawn up too. All in all, the story progresses pretty impressively, though the lack of a consistent sidekick - almost at par with McKinnon's level of efficiency and a recurring arrangement in most of MacLeans's works - was glaringly missing (I felt that Naseby should have been introduced earlier in the story). In the said circumstances, I got the feeling that we missed out on some potential glorious conversational gems. There were however, some interesting angles: the German pilot prisoner and Sister Morrison, Nurse Janet's past and of course the overriding secret of the ship and the identity of the perpetrator/(s) of the crimes. It all built up nicely, right up to page 373 of 376. And then suddenly, in a matter of two and a half pages, it was all over.
The ends were loosely tied, and closure was such a forced affair that it appeared far too realistic to me after all the superhuman efforts of McKinnon. I missed a massive showdown, the setup for which had been brilliantly set up by page 365. The tension kept mounting and then out of nowhere, there was light at the end of the tunnel. Not that I wasn't pleased for the characters, but I was saddened by what could have been. Also, the fate of Lieutenant Ulbricht keeps nagging at me, as does the almost callous treatment of Ferguson and Curran.
It may well have been that my expectations were too high from my past experience, and maybe, if this would have been my first MacLean, I might even have had more fun. Nevertheless, Archie McKinnon goes down in the list of some of the best MacLean heroes I've had the good sense to read about. So instead of brooding over San Andreas, I shall try to pick up another MacLean to set the record straight.
P.S. I loved these alternate covers for San Andreas, especially the first one, which presumably shows Archie McKinnon exactly how I imagined him...
Images courtesy: Wikipedia, www.infinitas.com.au, www.fictiondb.com