231. The Black Shrike

The Black Shrike is the American title of a thriller released originally in Great Britain as The Dark Crusader. It was written by Alistair MacLean and published under the pseudonym Ian Stuart. MacLean claimed that he had released it that way to prove that the public would buy his work even if his name was not on the cover.

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There is a sad phenomenon of writers going Hollywood. Some authors’ early books are  everything a reader could want, but as time goes on and they start seeing their novels made into movies, their literary output loses quality. Their later novels start looking like treatments in search of a screenplay writer.

Michael Crichton’s late novel Timeline, for example, was filled with wonderful ideas and brilliant vignettes, but the plot blundered along from start to finish, with sub-plots strewn aimlessly here and there – pretty much like a movie.

Donald Hamilton’s early westerns were superb. When he switched to Matt Helm spy stories, the quality dropped considerably, but at least they were gritty and intense. The movies made from them were a bad joke – although Hamilton can hardly be blamed for what Dean Martin did to them.

Alistair McLean suffered a similar fate. A close look at his early novel The Black Shrike in comparison to his later Breakheart Pass will show you the process at work. The former is excellent; the latter is a plotless collection of scenes – good scenes, but unconnected so that they fail to have a cumulative effect.

I read and enjoyed a dozen of Alistair McLean’s books during the sixties and seventies. Two stood above the rest: H.M.S. Ulysses and The Black Shrike. H.M.S. Ulysses, was a powerful and moving story of war, based on MacLean’s experiences in the British navy. The Black Shrike was a spy novel that I stumbled onto about the same time I discovered James Bond – the early, gritty, realistic Bond of the first few novels before Hollywood turned him into a cartoon. I had no idea at the time thatThe Black Shrike was written by MacLean, who was already one of my favorites.

John Bentall is a spy, during the early cold war, for an unnamed British service. He started out as a rocket fuels scientist but has been co-opted to search out subversives in that industry. He is stubborn, smart, and dedicated, but not the top spy he appears to be at the beginning of the novel. He is of heroic mold, but closer to everyman than to superman. Not Bond, at all. Bond would have made this novel completely forgettable. It is Bentall’s humanity that makes him believable, even when the action sometimes isn’t.

The story opens – and later closes – with these words:

A small dusty man in a small dusty room. That’s how I always thought of him, just a small dusty man in a small dusty room.

For me, that ranks with Call me Ishmael as one of the all time memorable novel openings, but you’ll have to read the book before you understand why. Bentall is sent by his small, dusty boss to track down a stolen missile called the Black Shrike. He is paired with a top female spy who will play his wife. To find the missile, they will become bait to lure the unknown forces who have been kidnapping British rocket fuel scientists. Events ensue, as the reader knows they will, but the surprise is that the “top female spy” turns out to be beautiful, charming, and – dumb? This major irritation for the reader is resolved when . . .

And this is where my telling has to stop to avoid spoilers.

Bentall falls in love with his “wife”, and without this development, the novel would have been nothing special. It is Bentall as a complete human being that elevates The Black Shrike above other novels in the genre.

When I decided to write a contemporary novel for the men’s adventure genre (today it would be shoehorned into the thriller genre), John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee and The Black Shrike provided patterns to follow – McGee for competence and Bentall for heart.

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