Book Review : HMS Ulysses

Following on from yesterday’s post about the Arctic Convoys, here is a review of HMS Ulysses by Alistair Maclean which I found on another wordpress site.

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Most war or action novels have a few things in common : A handsome hero who can shoot you between the eyes with his left hand while he lights a cigar with his right, a funny sidekick who never ever tries to steal the limelight, a pretty girl who is in serious and frequent need of rescuing, and plenty of ugly, stupid bad guys. My favorite one of all time (and I assure you, I’ve read a lot), however, involves a single warship at sea. The handsome hero is missing, so are sidekicks and pretty girls. The bad guys are not ugly or stupid at all. They are menacing, ruthless and brilliant; and they manage to outfox the good guys at almost every turn.

Welcome to HMS Ulysses (1955), the first novel by the Scottish author Alistair Maclean.  Maclean, incidentally, also happens to be one of my favorite authors…

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9 Responses to “Book Review : HMS Ulysses”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Most critics comment most favourably on the justly famous scene in which a very ill Captain Vallery nevertheless insists on touring his very ill ship.

    Alistair MacLean would have been in his early 20s during his service on the Arctic convoys, and he died aged 64 in 1987 of alcohol-related problems – the same problems which caused the unhappy decline in his work after his first 10 or so adventure novels. In the Glasgow Herald in 1982 he wrote about his writing, and included this paragraph:

    I feel no responsibility whatsoever towards book critics. The first criticism I ever read was of my first book, H.M.S. ‘Ulysses.’ It got two whole pages to itself in a now defunct Scottish newspaper, with a drawing of the dust jacket wreathed in flames and the headline ‘Burn this book.’ I had paid the Royal Navy the greatest compliment of which I could conceive: this dolt thought it was an act of denigration.

    (Anybody know the review reference?)

    Delighted that you are a fan too, Peter. I could spend all day at a cricket match talking about Alistair MacLean novels.

    Oddly, his best books haven’t filmed all that well. And the best film, Where Eagles Dare, is not one of his best books.

    RIP Alistair MacLean.

    • telescoper Says:

      When I was a kid everyone seemed to reading Alistair Maclean novels, but it seems his popularity hasn’t endured. You hardly hear about him these days.

      I remember in English classes at school we had to pick a favourite book and write a review. I picked HMS Ulysses and the teacher liked the piece so much I got to read my piece out in class, along with a couple of excerpts.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        I didn’t do that, but he was discussed copiously among my schoolmates. I still have my set of paperbacks. Incidentally MacLean’s Glasgow Herald article, from which I quoted above, was reprinted at the end of The Lonely Sea, a collection of his short stories on nautical themes written *before* HMS Ulysses but published only after he became famous – and all excellent. I reckon his adventure novels peaked around Fear Is The Key and Night Without End, which he wrote consecutively. Two of his more parodiable phrases were that the baddie’s face was often “contorted into a snarling rictus of terror” immediately before he got his just desserts, and he also often spoke of the “preternaturally heightened senses of those who believed they were about to die” (meaning the first-person storyteller, who then somehow escaped death).

      • telescoper Says:

        I remember Fear is the Key, which is really excellent.

      • “When I was a kid everyone seemed to reading Alistair Maclean novels, but it seems his popularity hasn’t endured. You hardly hear about him these days.”

        Go to an Iron Maiden concert. 🙂 There is a song by the same name based on Where Eagles Dare, from their Piece of Mind album.

        Interestingly, they also have a song called “Fear is the Key”, but it is not based on the Maclean book.

        Many (most?) Iron Maiden songs are based on literary or historical themes, such as the Charge of the Light Brigade. (Hey, if it’s good enough for Tennyson, it’s good enough for heavy metal.) This is in contrast to most rock music, which is basically first-person narrative. Although not an opera fan (I’m not even an oratorio fan—I gave Jephtha a try 8 days ago and decided I’ll stick to instrumental baroque music), the mindset is more or less the same: it’s a familiar, perhaps trite, story, probably not told for the first time, which is basically a vehicle for the music. And, of course, there are similarities in the posing as well. 🙂

      • telescoper Says:

        If it’s Handel’s Jephtha you’re talking about, it’s an oratorio not an opera…

      • Right: “I’m not even an oratorio fan—I gave Jephtha a try 8 days ago”

      • telescoper Says:

        Oh, apologies. My bad.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Here is the opening/title sequence of the film of Where Eagles Dare, with Ron Goodwin’s superlative theme music:

        Utterly gripping film, often tongue in cheek, as when Clint Eastwood is blasting away down the castle corridor with a machine gun in each hand. Who will ever forget the fight atop the cable car? And was the helicopter really an anachronism?

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