South by Java Head

MacLean's third novel continues his exploration of seaborne peril. Based partly on his World War II experiences in the Royal Navy, South by Java Head brings characters from many countries together in a small boat, where they face the wrath of both nature and wartime enemies. The success of his preceding book, The Guns of Navarone, had introduced many new readers to his thrilling stories, and South by Java Head would surely have kept most of them hooked and awaiting his next adventure.


Plot keypoints

As Singapore falls to the invading Japanese in 1942, a diverse group of desperate characters commandeers the last boat leaving. Soldiers, nurses, skilled seamen, and even a small child find themselves afloat in dangerous waters, facing long odds of survival. Who can save the day? Cunning seaman John Nicolson and his crewmates? The enigmatic and mysterious interloper who calls himself Brigadier Farnholme? Van Effen, the steady and capable Dutchman? Gudrun Drachmann, whose scars bear testament to her earlier encounter with the Japanese military? Or will the typhoon, exposure, and pursuing Japanese forces prove too much for them?



  • MacLean's intricate, unhurried prose paints detailed pictures of scenery, weather, and the protagonists' psyches.
  • His knowledge of maritime topics shines through his descriptions of boats, nautical maneuvers, and the sometimes-cruel sea.
  • Hidden motives and relationships add some unexpected, welcome plot twists.



  • So many perils, so many life-or-death escapades ... the reader must suspend disbelief even more than usual to follow this unlikely series of escapes.
  • The characters spend so much time in boats that a less nautically inclined reader is likely to weary of fo'c'sles and bosuns and bilges.
  • Japanese are uniformly portrayed as evil, ugly sub-humans. By contrast, the single German agent acts very honorably and says that his countrymen would do the same. Due to his Pacific service, Alistair MacLean surely knew people who were treated savagely by the Japanese military, but his cruelly sterotypical descriptions of "those yellow devils," with their "tiny, porcine eyes," are jarring when seen in a modern light. (Millions of civilians could testify [if they had survived] how barbaric the German forces often were in those same days.)
  • The romantic side story is forced and underdeveloped, seemingly laid in just to provide a distraction from the endless misery and a motivation for late heroics.



Plenty of action, interspersed with long sequences of quiet desperation. Certainly well crafted, but — for the reasons cited above — not one of my very favorite MacLeans.



(7 out of 10)