Last week’s post about the modern gothic romance led to an interesting comment thread, as a discussion of Alistair MacLean sprang up in the comments. While I had not read Mary Higgins Clark before the book I reviewed last week, MacLean was an old familiar friend. I don’t recall when I first encountered him – but I was young, probably a preteen. The First Reader and I were talking about him, and for some reason Dick Francis – another childhood favorite of mine – came up. Their main characters had much of the same outlook on life, he commented. I agreed. Perhaps Francis was influenced by MacLean? he suggested. I turned back to the computer and looked it up.
There is a certain astringency to both men’s writing. Dick Francis is known for his racetrack mysteries, centered around jockeys, gleaming thoroughbreds, and nefarious crimes. MacLean wrote mostly of war, his men near noir in their grim outlooks, and his women often doomed in terrible ways. There is a flavor, for lack of a better word, in common when it comes to their leading men. But that comes from the author’s shared experiences, not from an influential passing-down. I discovered when I looked them up that although I had encountered Francis much later and associated the books I’d read with glossy modern copies, and my MacLean with often battered older paperbacks, they were in fact contemporaries.
The shared experience of having served and fought in World War II is instead what lead to the similarities. Francis fought as a pilot in the RAF. MacLean’s HMS Ulysses is very near to autobiographical. I was delighted to discover that the verisimilitude of both their writing came from the basis of having been there, done that. I’d already known Francis had been a jockey – I just hadn’t realized he’d fought in the war. Ultimately, their books would go on to shape me and what I was looking for in a beau ideal – but more than that, I internalized some of their writing as they influenced my work. When I joined a SF group on FB recently (I was invited and saw friends, so I thought it would be ok. Readers, it was very soon Not OK. And that was how I came to realize I’ve been deeply scarred by Fandom.) I was reading the introductions of dozens of my fellow writers, and realized something. While I did read Fantasy and SF as a girl, they weren’t my favorites. Instead, I sought out other authors, first, and settled for an Anne McCaffrey if I could find her (and Pern was not my favorite, the Pegasus in Space books were) and I was forbidden to read Heinlein (I sneaked him, later in my teens).
Also, SFF wasn’t as easy for me to acquire. At home, there were shelves full of Westerns. MacLean and Cussler were some of my Dad’s pleasure reads. From Mom, I read Grace Livingston Hill, Georgette Heyer, and Louisa May Alcott (so much more than Little Women). The first book set I was ever given, new, was LM Montgomery’s Anne series, along with the Emily of New Moon books. The libraries near us were usually small, since we lived rurally and then in Interior Alaska which is lightly populated. I made do with what I could find, and Maclean’s books resonated with that era of men following the wars. Men like my Dad, who served in the military for a decade. He went in following in his father’s footsteps, and he fully expected to wind up in a war, the big one, the war to end all wars… but the Cold War warmed up abruptly and Dad discovered that he wasn’t considered a veteran and was barred from entry to clubs of his fellows. He read Tom Clancy, and passed the books on to me, and through the pages of Red Storm Rising and Red October I got a glimpse of my father’s service. He wasn’t bitter about what happened after he left the military – I have never forgiven it.
It’s fascinating to see how much of an author’s life leaks through onto the pages. It’s not always a truism – there are certainly authors who do a masterful job of portraying places and people they have never been – but when I look back at the books of Francis and MacLean I can see how their lives colored their fiction. Just as you can with Ian Fleming’s Bond, drawn from his WWII experience as well. I can also see why all three were no favorites of the elite of the literati – they were real men, who had done real things, and their experiences crept into their books. Which is what made their books so popular. I like the quote from Alistair MacLean,
“I’m not a novelist,” he once said. “That’s too pretentious a claim. I’m a storyteller, that’s all. I’m a professional and a craftsman. I will make that claim for myself.”
Gratuitous promotion: I’m in an anthology! I have a version of a Russian fairytale in this collection of a dozen romantic fantasy stories. You can find Hearts’ Enchantment at any fine book retailer, but the link will take you to Amazon.
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