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Book Review: The Last Frontier by Alistair Maclean

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The novels of Alistair Maclean are some of the best works of popular fiction written in the last century. They include books that went on to inspire Hollywood classics such as The Guns of Navarone (Gregory Peck, David Niven, Anthony Quinn), Where Eagles Dare (Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood), and Ice Station Zebra (Rock Hudson). One of my personal favorites, however, is The Last Frontier.

For a fairly complex novel, The Last Frontier has a straightforward Cold War plot: Michael Reynolds is a British spy sent behind the Iron Curtain to rescue a British ballistics expert, Dr. Harold Jennings. In Budapest, he finds some unlikely allies in the form of three remarkable men – Jansci, once Major General Alexis Illyurin, now a revolutionary leader of great interest to the Soviets; the Count, a master of disguise who has managed to infiltrate the ranks of the dreaded Hungarian secret police, the AVO (later the AVH); and Sandor, a man of extraordinary strength and unswerving loyalty.

The plan calls for a simple grab job — Dr. Jennings is in Budapest being briefed for an upcoming press conference — but with the Russians on guard, nothing is going to be easy. For one thing there is Jansci’s private life. His wife is lost, snatched by government forces in a routine pogrom when he was not at hand and sent to some concentration camp where he cannot trace her in spite of his best efforts. Adding to this worry is his daughter Julia who refuses to leave him or her mother behind for safer climes.

Then there is Jansci himself. Reynolds is introduced as a hard and dangerous man of little moral compunction and willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish his goals no matter what or who gets in his way. Jansci is his almost exact opposite, a sort of Gandhian figure who consciously chooses not to take Reynolds’ path in spite of having every opportunity, not to mention ability.

The two men develop a fascination and admiration for each other, but inevitably find themselves clashing on certain ideological and philosophical points. Early on in the novel, there is a long dialogue between these two during which they go back and forth about the nature of fear, Communism, people, the West, and Russians in general. Although circumstances have changed beyond recognition since then, more than a half-century later it is still a thought-provoking piece of writing.

Reynolds argues that he can only see one unifying factor, one underlying reason why the world keeps coming back to the brink of an awful precipice with its threat of nuclear annihilation, human misery, and the obstruction of free thought – and that reason is Communism. Jansci disagrees. Communism, he says, “remains only as a myth, an empty lip-service catchword in the name of which the cynical, ruthless realists of the Kremlin find sufficient excuse and justification for whatever barbarities their policies demands.”

In his opinion it is fear that threatens the world the most: The fear of the men in power as to what the future will bring, of past mistakes in leadership that might one day come back to haunt them, of the reactions of their own people and, most of all, of the outside world and what the penetration of its ideas might do to them and their culture. He thinks of these as human faults and can understand them. 

“You like the Russians. Even the Russian is your brother?” Mask it as he tried with politeness, Reynolds could not quite conceal the incredulity in his question. “After what they have done to you and your family?”

“A monster, and I stand condemned. Love for your enemies should be confined to where it belongs – between the covers of the Bible – and only the insane would have the courage, or the arrogance or the stupidity, to open the pages and turn the principles into practice. Madmen, only madmen would do it – but without these madmen, our Armageddon will surely come.”

Written in the 1950s, it is no wonder that with ideas such as these, The Last Frontier was a miserable commercial failure compared to some of Maclean’s other works. It is only in its ideological heart that this book differs from the rest of its brethren. Other than that it is classic Maclean.

Reynolds is suitably beaten up and put through the wringer, emerging as a better man with a bitter smile and Julia on his arm. The supporting cast and villains are by turns ominous (several AVO agents), heartbreaking (I’ll freely admit that the Count’s soliloquy about his only surviving child clogs my throat every time I so much as think about it) and comforting (the silent Sandor is just about the most useful human being I’ve ever read of).

The details of torture, murder, casual violence, corruption, and genocide as part of daily life behind the Iron Curtain are chilling. The Last Frontier, also published as The Secret Ways in the United States, is an action-packed emotional wringer of a book that offers a little more to think about than your average paperback. Normally that spells disaster. In this case, I recommend it highly.

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