Alistair  MacLean is one of the greats of old-school adventure fiction and one of the best-selling authors of all time. Though most of his novels involve shadow operations of some kind, I’ve found them a bit less compelling than those of his fellow great, Jack Higgins, and haven’t read too many. I recently picked up MacLean’s 1975 novel, Circus, which combines a “mission impossible”-style op with Cold War espionage, and gave it a quick read.

The story’s protagonist is Bruno Wildermann, a superstar trapeze performer, tightrope walker and mentalist. Bruno is an immigrant to America from an undisclosed eastern European communist country where members of his family were killed by the regime. Not only can he perform seemingly superhuman feats of balance and agility on the high-wire, but he has a photographic memory. This makes him the perfect candidate for a daring CIA operation: to penetrate a top-secret laboratory in Bruno’s homeland where a scientist is developing a devastating anti-matter weapon, take “mental photographs” of the technical documents contained therein and then destroy them.

The first part of the novel sets up the operation, as we’re introduced to Bruno, some of his talented circus mates–including the strongman Kan Dahn, the knife-thrower Manuelo and the lasso-master Roebuck–and his CIA handlers, which includes the beautiful Maria, whose role is apparently to look pretty, admire Bruno and occasionally get hysterical. A couple of murders early on let us know that treacherous parties have infiltrated the circus and are on the scent of the CIA plot.

Things start to get interesting around 100 pages in, as Bruno is finally let in on the details of the mission he is being asked to undertake. He’s to infiltrate the Lubylan laboratory and prison facility where the scientist works and lives. There’s a power line stretching from a power station 300 yards away to the top of the Lubylan building, which Bruno is to walk across without getting fried by the 2000 volts of electricity. If he manages that, he then needs to get into the building without getting shot by guards or eaten by killer Doberman Pinscher guard dogs. His challenge is nicely illustrated in a two-page schematic at the beginning of the book:

“Your mission, should you choose to accept it: walk across a 2000 volt power line 9 stories up…”

As the circus sails across the Atlantic and rolls toward the target country the intrigue ramps up: spies are killed, sleeping compartments are bugged, shady characters are seen tailing Bruno and his mates, and a nasty secret police chief named Colonel Sergius learns of Bruno’s scheme and schemes to take him down. Meanwhile, Maria’s cover as Bruno’s love interest begins to get all too real–a corny romantic sub-plot that I could have done without.

Finally they get to the destination, where Bruno, who has more skills than you would expect of a trapeze artist, pulls off an absurd deception to fool Sergius and throw him off his trail. Then Bruno and his three circus mates undertake the audacious heist, each using his particular skills to climb, walk, rope, knife and muscle their way into the building. This was definitely the novel’s highlight, though the realism was a bit lacking; Bruno and his crew subdue the guards and get inside too easily to make it a really tense scene.

But all of this is just a setup for what MacLean really excels at: not Shadow Op believability, but plot twists, treachery and shock endings. Without spoiling it for you, let’s just say that there are traitors close to Bruno, surprise guests in the Lubylan building, and Bruno’s operation and he himself are not as they appear to be. It’s all a bit too much, like a murder mystery where you’re not entirely clued in and everything ends too tidily to be believable. My other criticism is that MacLean doesn’t bother giving his characters different voices and personalities; they all speak like cynical Oxford-educated Englishmen, including the Eastern European immigrant Bruno and the American CIA men.

It’s too bad, because MacLean had a clever “Mission Impossible” story idea here, the execution was just a bit lacking. This is probably why I haven’t read many of his novels and prefer Jack Higgins, though I understand that MacLean’s best work came years earlier. It wasn’t a bad novel, just very old-school and not as good as it could have been. Get a copy of Circus here.

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