"No," said Merrick flatly as he shoved his only belonging – a toothbrush given to him by his previous guard – under the stone bed-ledge on the other side of the cell.
Well, that was a direct enough answer. Or would have been, if Tyrrell had been the type to accept 'no' for an answer.
If he had been the type to accept 'no,' he wouldn't have spent two years persuading Merrick to become his cell-mate.
"Is it because . . ." He paused, wondering how to put this delicately. Because the Magisterial Republic of Mip had originally been colonized by the two warring nations of Yclau and Vovim, cultural clashes among Mippite citizens were inevitable. It was said that even Cecelia – the great Cecelia – had been rejected by a suitor's family, which was clearly a sign of lunacy in that family. Some of the Yclau-descended folk had strange notions about maintaining the purity of their families. Anyone ethnic or foreign or darker than a pasty shade of white was considered off-limits. That would make Tyrrell extremely off-limits. "It isn't because I was born in southern Vovim, is it?"
Merrick looked annoyed. "What, do you think I have something against players?"
Tyrrell straightened his spine. Like most emigrants from Vovim, he had acted in plays from time to time. Street plays, with no props other than broken objects dug out of the local garbage heap, but they were plays just the same. "Do you?" he responded in a challenging voice.
Merrick's mouth twisted. He was busy tightening the blankets on the bed-ledge with what seemed to Tyrrell to be unnecessary thoroughness, given that they were both about to go to bed. Unless – Tyrrell brightened at the thought – Merrick intended that they use only one bed-ledge.
After a moment, Merrick said, "The Bijou. The City Opera. The Frederick.. . ."
It turned out to be a very long recital. Tyrrell was impressed. "You've been to all the theaters in this city?"
"All the theaters in the whole of eastern Mip." Merrick mumbled the words.
"Gods preserve us – that many?"
Merrick glared at his blanket. "Does it matter? I've spent plenty of time with players. Let's move on to more important subjects."
Tyrrell hated to think what Merrick's idea was of an important subject. Probably how to strangle all the guards at Mercy Life Prison. He asked, "Is it because I'm short?"
Merrick sighed as he turned toward Tyrrell. "Look," he said, "you could be six feet tall, with dashing dark eyes, and skin a delicious shade of sepia—"
Tyrrell began to tick off in his mind which men in the prison fit this description.
"—and I still wouldn't fuck you. I'm just not interested in doing that. Not with you. Not with anyone here."
"Married?" Tyrrell asked sympathetically. So many men in the prison were, or had left behind love-mates, male or female, when they were convicted of their crimes and sent to spend the rest of their lives in Mercy Prison.
Merrick's gaze turned toward the flagstoned floor. "Hell."
"You don't have to swear at me," said Tyrrell reproachfully.
"I'm not swearing. I'm praying to Hell to rise up and kidnap you to his domain so that I won't have to continue this conversation. Look—"
And suddenly his voice was low, as low as it had been when he had finally made the amazing declaration that he would submit a formal request to his guard that he be transferred to Tyrrell's cell. So Tyrrell held his breath, because he knew that Merrick was never low-voiced – never, never, never – unless he was saying something that cost him a great deal to say.
This collection of Alistair MacLean's short works ends with a rather sad essay by the author, in which he disavows any intentions to be literary or me...moreThis collection of Alistair MacLean's short works ends with a rather sad essay by the author, in which he disavows any intentions to be literary or meaningful - sad because his first novel, "H.M.S. Ulysses," was in fact both literary and meaningful, and all the more entertaining as a result. Alas, he reports that a couple more of his meaningful novels didn't go over well with the readers. (I suspect that one of them must have been "The Last Frontier," which, for all its virtues, includes long monologues about the benefits of peace between nations.) MacLean concluded from the readers' reactions that "messages are for Western Union," rather than concluding, as he should have, that a skillful writer must make his messages entertaining and must integrate them carefully into the storyline.
Fortunately, Alistair MacLean's disavowal of meaningful content was not applied to many of the works in this collection.
The subtitle "Collected Short Stories" is misleading, because eight of the works in this collection are actually narrative nonfiction on World War II maritime disasters . . . but are no less compellingly written than MacLean's fiction.
When the Hood was with you, nothing could ever go wrong. Every man in the Royal Navy knew that.
And not only in the Navy. It is seventeen years now since the Hood died but none of the millions alive today who had grown up before the Second World War can forget, and will probably never forget, the almost unbelievable hold the Hood had taken on the imaginations and hearts of the British public. She was the best known, best loved ship in all our long naval history, a household name to countless people for whom Revenge and Victory were only words. The biggest, most powerful ship of the line in the inter-war years, she stood for all that was permanent, a synonym for all that was invincible, held in awe, even in veneration. For millions of people she was the Royal Navy, a legend in her own lifetime . . . But a legend grows old.
And now, with the long night's high-speed steaming over, the dawn in the sky and the Bismarck looming up over the horizon, the legend was about to end forever.
In these accounts, MacLean shows himself to be a first-rate nautical history writer, with a fine eye for detail and for the human aspects of the story. I suspect (though I can't verify it, since he usually doesn't cite his sources) that he is also demonstrating his talent for investigative journalism, digging down to find the deeper reasons why the disasters occurred.
The remaining stories include a quietly moving fictionalization of a typical day for minesweeping boats during World War II; a boating melodrama that first won him his fame; and four light comedies, including the wryly witty story, "McCrimmon and the Blue Moonstones."
Shocked into comparative sobriety and hoarsely uttering the war cry of his clan, McCrimmon leapt back. A high-speed camera would have recorded but a blur as his hand streaked for his Stilson wrench. Wild Bill Hickok, at his best, would have stood in silent wonder. Alas for McCrimmon, the miraculous speed of his draw was grievously hampered by the plethora of assorted cutlery in his pocket. True, it caused but a second's delay: but it is a scientifically established fact that a heavy stool, impelled by the arms of an enraged Armenian, can cover a distance of four feet in less than half that time.
But the star of the fictional works in the collection is surely "Rendezvous," a World War II naval espionage tale that begins with as effective a hook as any of MacLean's novel-length thrillers.
It was quite dark now and the Great North Road, the A1, that loneliest of Europe's highways, almost deserted. At rare intervals, a giant British Roadways truck loomed out of the darkness: a courteous dipping of headlamps, immaculate hand-signals, a sudden flash of sound from the labouring diesel - and the A1 was lonelier than ever. Then there was only the soothing hum of tyres, the black ribbon of highway, and the headlights of the Jaguar, weirdly hypnotic, swathing through the blackness.
Loneliness and sleep, sleep and loneliness. The enemies, the co-drivers of the man at the wheel; the one lending that extra half pound of pressure to the accelerator, the other, immobile and ever-watchful, waiting his chance to slide in behind the wheel and take over. I knew them well and I feared them.
But they were not riding with me tonight. There was no room for them. Not with so many passengers. Not with Stella sitting there beside me, Stella of the laughing eyes and sad heart, who had died in a German concentration camp. Not with Nicky, the golden boy, lounging in the back seat, or Passiere, who had never returned to his sun-drenched vineyards in Sisteron. No room for sleep and loneliness? Why, by the time you had crowded in Taffy the engineer, complaining as bitterly as ever and Vice-Admiral Starr and his bushy eyebrows, there was hardly room for myself.
MacLean does such a good job at depicting the shifting fortunes of the characters in "Rendezvous" that one yearns for a theme which is equally memorable - one of those Western Union messages which MacLean deliberately dropped from his later fiction. But the reader can remain grateful that, over the span of his lifetime, MacLean gave us as much as he did. This collection is testimony to that fact.(less)
"Frontier Wolf" is part of a series by Rosemary Sutcliff about a family that lives in Britain from Roman times to the Middle Ages. "The Eagle of the N...more"Frontier Wolf" is part of a series by Rosemary Sutcliff about a family that lives in Britain from Roman times to the Middle Ages. "The Eagle of the Ninth" (1954), the first volume in the series, is the most famous of Sutcliff's novels, but "The Eagle of the Ninth" was written during her early years as a writer, while "Frontier Wolf" was penned during the years when she had reached her full flowering as a historical novelist.
The plotline is simple: Centurion Alexios Flavius Aquila, in the arrogance of his youth, leads his soldiers into disaster. As punishment, Alexios is sent to the frontier above Hadrian's Wall and placed in charge of a fort full of "the scum and the scrapings of the Empire," as one character puts it. The unrespectable Frontier Scouts - or Frontier Wolves, as they are nicknamed - have a reputation for killing off commanders whom they dislike.
Then a crisis arises. Alexios's life now depends on the loyalty of his men . . . and his men's lives depend on his loyalty to them.
"Alexios, walking beside Phoenix, remembered the still summer night when he had come that way, following the old Chief to his Death Place, the Clansmen sniping this way and that along the firmer ground between the winding waterways and sky-reflecting pools. The flaming torches and the mourning throb of the drums, and the lingering late northern sunset casting its golden cloud-streamers across the sky. He supposed they were on the same track now. He must suppose it; must trust to the men with the lime-daubs between their shoulders. 'When they join the Family, they bring their loyalties with them,' Gavros had said, but he felt how it might be with him, new loyalties pulling against old, if he knew the secret and sacred ways and was being asked to betray them to men of other tribes who did not."
Into this simple tale, Sutcliff pours in everything that makes her great as an author: Careful attention to detail when describing Roman military society, British native society, and the world of nature. The ability to sum up a character's personality through a few well-chosen words. A gift for understatement that heightens rather than diminishes drama. A lyrical tongue. She caps all this off with an ending that is surprising, yet wholly satisfying.(less)