Title: The Guns of Navarone
Author: Alistair MacLean
MacLean, Alistair (1957). The Guns of Navarone. London: Collins
Date Updated: June 17, 2015
Like many people, I knew The Guns of Navarone only from the justly famous movie starring Gregory Peck and David Niven. Being a bookworm, I looked up Alistair MacLean’s novel and found it an enjoyable surprise. Navarone is, with Where Eagles Dare, the Scottish-born MacLean’s best known work in the United States. His story of a daring British commando raid against the fictional German-held island of Navarone is loosely based on a failed British expedition to the eastern Aegean Sea during WWII. The commandos must silence the guns of the title to permit the evacuation by sea of British troops trapped on a nearby island. The novel traces the commandos’ dangerous journey by sea to Navarone and their struggles to survive and outwit the Nazi occupation force long enough to carry out their mission.
A strength of this novel is MacLean’s portrayal of well-developed and nuanced characters. Captain Mallory, a New Zealander and pre-war mountain climber, is the leader. His deputy is Andrea, a taciturn and dangerous, yet compassionate Greek. Others are Miller, the cynical and world-weary American explosives expert, and young Stevenson, the insecure subaltern and backup climber. We are given enough of the background and voice of each of the major characters to understand why they are the way they are. MacLean took care to populate the story with an interesting supporting cast of British and German military personnel and Greek villagers. In the process, he conveys a sense of the desperately bitter partisan warfare that must have taken place in Nazi-occupied Greece.
A second strength is MacLean’s ability to weave a complicated yet compelling story. The opening chapter sets the tone with almost brilliantly concise description and dialogue. Mallory, ostensibly spirited out from a behind the lines mission in Crete for a rest, discovers that his boss has a more important mission for him. Mallory’s hastily put-together team must surmount a series of hair-raising challenges and make some tough choices along the way. In precise, often understated prose, we experience with the commandos the physical and mental fatigue of a dangerous and morally ambiguous mission. MacLean vividly portrays a harsh world of war and betrayal, in which even the best choices have brutal consequences.
This book is highly recommended to the reader looking for an enthralling adventure story, one told with style and substance. This is no mindless summer beach read. The Guns of Navarone is MacLean at his best, a pure pleasure to read. In reflection, when one looks at MacLean’s long list of books, they begin to degenerate in style, but he never loses his ability to present a different plot.