The Black Shrike


Alistair MacLean


Mystery & Thriller


Date Reviewed:

June 30, 2021

bout forty years ago, I collected and read a whole bunch of Alistair MacLean novels. The other day, I was looking at my overstuffed bookshelves, and realized that I still own twenty-two novels by MacLean, none of which I read in decades. Back then, I thought he was a master of suspense and surprising plot twists. Some of his novels are recognized classics - Breakheart Pass, Where Eagles Dare, Ice Station Zebra. The Guns of Navarone is listed as the eighty-ninth best mystery novel on The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time, as selected in 1990 by the British-based Crime Writers' Association. I remember enjoying his less famous novels, the ones that didn't get made into movies: Caravan to Vaccarès, The Way to Dusty Death, Night Without End, and the especially chilling The Secret Ways. Looking at my lineup of MacLean novels, I wondered if I would still enjoy them now, 40 years later. In fact, I couldn't even remember the basic plot of every book - had I actually read them all? I pulled The Black Shrike off of my shelf, because I couldn't remember anything about it. Would I still enjoy MacLean all these years later?

The Black Shrike has a lot of typical MacLean elements: an ultra competent agent, John Bentall, is sent out on a mission against a mysterious enemy. In this novel - the cause for alarm is the disappearance of eight British scientists, all of whom were the top men in the field of rocketry. The men answered an ad in the newspaper - The Black Shrike was published in 1961, I guess scientists were recruited via newspaper ads back then? - and were directed to meet up with their new employer in the Australia / New Zealand area. All eight men, and their wives, promptly vanished. John Bentall is to pose as a rocketry expert and answer the next newspaper ad. To provide cover, a beautiful but inexperienced agent, Marie Hopeman, will pose as his wife. The pair set out for the South Pacific. Sure enough, before they can even meet with the mysterious employer, Bentall and Hopeman are waylaid by an unsavory ship captain and his crew. The agents are imprisoned on board the sketchy tub and set out to sea. By overhearing conversations amongst the ship's crew, Bentall realizes that they are in grave danger, and concocts a desperate escape plan.

Escaping from the kidnappers is, of course, only the first obstacle. MacLean keeps throwing obstacles and plot twists at Bentall. The are surprises all along the way, and of course MacLean saves his biggest twist for the final pages.

So, did I like reading MacLean 40 years later? It was okay. I felt that The Black Shrike suffered from plausibility issues. Also, the descriptions of the workings of the solid fuel rockets seemed too involved, but may be I was just tired when reading the book. There deceptions and puzzles are still enjoyable. I may have to read another MacLean novel to judge just how well they have aged through the years, perhaps The Black Shrike just wasn't one of his classics.