Ambitious Summer Reading List: When Eight Bells Toll By Alistair MacLean (1966)

I have a never ending weakness for free stuff. If there’s a table of things up for grabs, I will definitely peruse that. One of the greatest non-work, non-people things I loved about working at Wizard was the killer free table where I encountered all kinds of amazing things ranging from CDs to action figures and every geeky thing in between. With that in mind == always, literally — I was incredibly excited to see that my local library had its own free table. To my understanding, this is where they put the things they don’t place into the system or try to sell in the store. Castoffs? I love them. That’s how I discovered more than a few great books including Clive Barker’s The Inhuman Condition and today’s entry Alistair MacLean’s When Eight Bells Toll.

Seeing this book on the table along with about a half dozen other MacLean books, I was drawn to this one in particular because of the cover and because of the non-war setting. I didn’t know anything about the author or this recurring character, Phillip Calvert but the cover and the summary made me think of a Bond-esque novel, so I figured I’d give it a shot.

What struck me about this relatively short book right off the bat was how perfectly it encapsulated the idea of starting a story in medias res. It kicks off with our hero facing down the barrel of a gun that turns out to be a former ally. Though we soon learn that he worked with this and another murdered man, you don’t actually learn why he and his partner are hanging out on a boat off of Scotland until MUCH further into the story.

The basic idea here is that Calvert is undercover on a fancy boat in an area where other fancy boats have gone missing. When they do, the crew usually winds up in some remote location, unharmed, but the vessel itself is never seen again. The further he gets into figuring out exactly who’s involved and why, the crazier everything gets for him as he winds up a target himself.

In addition to starting you right off in the middle of the action, this first person narrative can get super dense. Since Calvert has history in the naval arenas he can go (forgive the pun) incredibly in depth on related subjects as well as more general spycraft. Luckily, he’s a fairly funny fellow who makes solid jokes in the midst of all of this craziness, making him a somewhat more lighthearted take on Bond, but someone who still takes all of the death and deception around him to hear (while still understanding that his and others’ lives are on the line).

MacLain does this interesting thing where he will fill whole chapters of the book with what feels like unimportant action. For instance, when trying to figure out where the stolen boats might be, Calvert gets in a helicopter and flies around with a pilot who knows the area. By the end of this piece of the story, they’ve completely struck out and seem to have found absolutely not leads and then the chopper gets blown out of the sky! Much of tie information learned in this section also comes back later on in the story, but it sure felt like a slog the first time around.

Ultimately, though, I found myself enjoying not just the adventure, but also the way Calvert handled himself. He’s got more humanity and compasion than you might expect and makes for a character that I would definitely be interested in following on other adventures. I also feel like, now that I’ve had a dose of MacLean’s books, I’d be a little more attentive to those seemingly unimportant sections.

As always, I wonder what the book I’m reading would be like as a film and it turns out I can find out with this one as Anthony Hopkins starred as Calvert in a 1971 film that intended to go toe to toe with the Bond franchise, but never got off the ground. I still think there would be plenty of room for Calvert to make an appearance on the big screen. I mean, an incredibly capable, yet charismatic and funny secret agent? What leading man wouldn’t want to get in on that action?

I’ve slowed way down in my reading this summer. We went on another vacation, which was great, but I wound up reading Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing books instead of, well, actual books. I’m about a quarter of the way through Stranded which is a very interesting book of music critisicm written in the 70s. I’m also thinking of dropping Dune completely because I don’t usually dig fantasy, but have gotten the audiobook and may knock it out that way. We shall see!

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