"Partisans" is one of those disappointing adventure novels that build up a nice head of steam before crashing into a wall.
During World War II, a Yugoslavian agent under apparent German command takes a team of compatriots deep into his native country, where Italian, German, and their Cetnik "allies" watch each other as suspiciously as they do their Partisans foes. The agent, Petersen, has a message to deliver, though what that message is and who he has to deliver it to is a mystery.
What makes "Partisans" enjoyable is the leisurely way it begins, with much circuitous banter and some dark doings on darkened city streets and aboard an Italian torpedo boat. You know Petersen can't be working for the Nazis, but what about those with him? Who can he trust? Who can we trust? One settles in expecting a variant of the commando tales MacLean famously presented in such books as "The Guns Of Navarone" and "Where Eagles Dare," though laced with a welcome sardonic edge courtesy of Petersen.
Agreeing an attempted assassination against them was committed by amateurs, Petersen adds: "But the effect of an amateur bullet can be just as permanent as a professional one."
Or take his impression of an Italian officer he meets: "He's reasonable, personable, smiling, open-faced, has a firm handshake and looks you straight in the eye - anyone can tell at once that he's a member of the criminal classes."
As the novel goes on, you begin to realize it isn't going anywhere, that the banter is all you will get. The plot advances only because Petersen and his group keep getting captured by various forces who then leave them unharmed, which Petersen explains is part of his mysterious plan. A rotund pal drinks alcohol by the quart, while another keeps a strange, surly silence. A couple of women along for the trip call Petersen a "monster," then break into tears over such things as having to ride a pony over a mountain.
More annoyingly, one never is able to work out what Petersen is up to until the end of the novel, at which point he explains it all to you and his comrades in such a roundabout way none of it makes much sense.
Maybe he was having a poke at the au currant thrillers of the time. When "Partisans" was published in 1983, MacLean was struggling with a form of novel he helped popularize but which had been picked up by more sophisticated writers like Frederick Forsyth and Ken Follett, who jammed labyrinthine storylines into books twice as large as MacLean's. Of course, MacLean's simpler stories could be quite wonderful, too, but here we are handed a plot so convoluted no one could understand it. Even the flap jacket for the original hardcover describes a story with little resemblance to what's in the book.
That's a shame, because "Partisans" has the makings of a good tale, with interesting characters and a charged background of multiple, conflicting loyalties running riot in an exotic locale. MacLean throws a lot of plates in the air, and you wonder how he is going to get them all down. Then he surprises you by letting them crash to the floor.