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When Eight Bells Toll - Alistair MacLean

OK, so this is my excuse for not having been on top of my September target. The book was lying on the shelf, cosily fitted between two severely tattered editions of a monthly that my mom reads, and I was still recovering from the disappointment of San Andreas. Its times like these, that I get weak-kneed, and despite the voice in my head speaking words of wisdom, I decide that I should live in the moment and make a grab for the book; to hell with targets!

I may not be saying this too often, but I'm glad about my impetuousness. 

When Eight Bells Toll is apparently the only MacLean to have been set in the waters around his native Scotland (the rest of his sea-faring stories are based further north, near the Arctic Seas). The story is a very typical MacLean; the sea, the vessels, the gales, the stealth, the nerve-racking danger... It had all the trappings for a James Bond movie (minus the tux, maybe). The story begins almost in an instructive mode, the topic of discussion being the workings and impact of firing a Peacemaker Colt. Within the next couple of pages, the setting catapults from, say, a laboratory or classroom, to a deserted, deeply suspicious ship in the dark, treacherous waters of Torbay. There's no looking back from then on, as Calvert and his trusty second-in-command  try to figure out a bizzare sequence of ships being hijacked and people going missing. There are violent, cold-hearted cut-throats involved - mercenaries who would kill simply for the sadistic pleasure of watching a life ebb away, and our hero is fighting against all odds, with help from some of the more unimaginable sources, to survive the painful succession of attempts on his (and others') life and bring the crooks to book. 

Needless to say, the setting is impeccable; the seas and winds are rough and unpredictable, the islands are rocky and severely discouraging of human habitation and the nights are inky black and mostly stormy. On top of it all, there's Uncle Arthur breathing down Calvert's neck. 

The characters are all well-drawn, with adequate words spent on each one. Besides Calvert - the cynical, relentless agent with a tendency of carrying the world on his shoulders - there's the trusted and equally competent Hunslett and the irascible boss Uncle Arthur. The thugs are plain thugs and a little more and Durran put the creeps in me badly. There are a host of other players too, some of whom are not what they appear to be, but then that's the signature of an Alistair MacLean story, and something I will never complain about. The women of MacLean's stories are only marginally lacking in being real-life angels, and from all that I've read of his works, almost always have a painful history (yes, there are contradictions of course, but I can barely recall a pure, evil female lead, though admittedly, there are still a few MacLean books I am yet to pick up). The case continues in Eight Bells, though maybe I should not give away anymore.

The action sequences are incredibly described in painstaking details, making the read a highly cinematic experience, almost IMAX-worthy! My personal favourite is the helicopter-search episode and the subsequent underwater struggle of Calvert. I remember ignoring repeated calls for actual dinner, as I turned pages hungrily, breathless to find out how it all ended.

The story tied up neatly as usual, and there was the impressive, yet controlled showdown (again, as usual). When I finally closed the cover, I felt redeemed! Also, imagine my delight, when I discovered that the book was made into a movie in 1971, starring Anthony Hopkins as Calvert!! What more could I ask for ?! (Umm... not spoil the book on the screen, maybe? But how wrong can one go with Anthony Hopkins...)

Corin Redgrave as Roy Hunslett (left) and Anthony Hopkins as Philip Calvert (right)

SPOILERS: I can't hold on any more... Why Hunslett?? It breaks my heart...

Images courtesy:;


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