The Black Shrike
(also known as The Dark Crusader)
A worthy representative of Alistair MacLean's best years, The Black Shrike (its U.S. title; originally
published as The Dark Crusader) is a gripping tale, skillfully told by Ian Stuart (MacLean's pseudonym at
the time). You'll find unexpected twists and turns, desperate measures by desperate men, and the world's fate
hanging in the balance. Steady MacLean readers will also recognize some of his signature touches: the elaborate
evil plot, ruthlessly executed by the main bad guy and his physically intimidating lieutenant; the all-too-human
good guy, fighting seemingly insurmountable odds while chastising himself for his mistakes; and the
Johnny-and-Marie romantic bit. (Am I the only one who ends up humming Robert Palmer's "Johnny and Mary" after
reading many of MacLean's books?)
Rocket fuel expert (and intelligence agent) John Bentall is sent on a hazardous mission: find out why many
leading rocket scientists have disappeared after answering newspaper ads for mysterious positions in Australia. He
(along with the beautiful agent posing as his wife) will be dangled as bait, and it isn't long before they are
snatched up and led into a situation where appearances are deceiving and misplaced trust can be deadly.
- The reader is plunged directly into the action, and it proceeds at nearly full throttle for the rest of the
book, driven by Bentall's harrowing escapades.
- The couple of bad guys who have key roles in the story are memorable characters.
- Even though the story's focus is rocket science, MacLean presents just the necessary facts in
easily digestible ways.
- His sympathy toward members of the British military is given play here; they're presented not as
unbeatable, but as ready and able when given a chance to redeem themselves.
- An important secondary character's moral ambiguity provides some relief from the usual black-vs.-white
world of spy thrillers.
- An emotionally tense ending is followed by a surprising secondary ending that brings the story full
- The evil plot weaves together so many threads, it seems unlikely to have been executed as flawlessly as it
was (up to the point where Bentall enters the picture).
- Asians are once again set up as villains — both as foot soldiers and as the evil powers behind the entire
plot. MacLean's war experiences gave him reason to mistrust some Asians, but too often, his books use them as a
- For me, the romantic touches struck an offkey note. Strangers forced together in these desperate
circumstances would have too much else on their minds.
Suspend disbelief just a tiny bit and enjoy this complex but very human Cold War tale.
♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦ (8 out of