The Golden Gate is a suspense–thriller, around a meticulously planned, daring kidnapping. The book opens with master-criminal Branson, who with his crew is beginning to give effect to something they’ve been planning for a while, each team of men taking the places they’re meant to including as policemen and naval pilots. Soon we find out that two Arab guests—a King and Prince, both of whom control vast amounts of oil—are to be taken by the American President, Chief of Staff, General Cartland, the President’s ‘energy czar’, Hansen, Under-Secretary of State Muir and the Major of San Francisco, John Morrison to the site of a proposed new plant the Arab potentates are to invest in. The cavalcade, described as ‘a rolling Fort Knox’ must pass the Golden Gate Bridge and it is here that Branson and his crew strike. They take over the entire cavalcade, and the President and his guests along with the accompanying media men and women are his hostages, and he soon demands a king’s ransom (may be even more—no pun intended). Not only is Branson threatening his VIP hostages but Branson also threatens to blow up the Golden Gate Bridge.
But the ransom alone is not all Branson wants. He also wants a show. So not only is he allowing the accompanying media to remain, he also keeps holding press conferences and wants everything to play out in the public eye including fitting explosive on the bridge on live TV! The hostages too, are not hidden but right in the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Outside, Chief of Police Hendrix, FBI director Hagenbach, VP Richards and others begin to discuss how the hostages are to be freed. Branson, who has planned his crime minutely, has neutralised all the agents who were part of the entourage and media accompanying the President and his guests, but even with his attention to detail, one has escaped detection. This is the expertly trained and somewhat lethal agent Revson, on board in the guise of a photographer. Revson begins to communicate with Hagenbach with the help of some subterfuge and also the doctor and a female reporter present on the bridge and thus begins a game of wits between Branson and his crew and the authorities. Will they have to give in to Branson’s demands or will the FBI succeed in freeing the hostages?
This was an exciting read, full of suspense and tension in the atmosphere but at the same time, I did end up a little disappointed with it on some counts.
I enjoyed the setting of the book which plays out almost entirely on the Golden Gate Bridge. We learn a little of the history of the bridge—how it was built by the audacious and ‘pig-headed’ Joseph Strauss, at a jaw dropping cost; the interesting lay out of its towers which even the maker needed a manual to navigate. Also, the forbidding Golden Gate below with its dangerous tides and currents, and the bridge being the site of many suicides, known and undetected. The atmosphere of the bridge, of standing there and experiencing being there—with the fogs, rain, and storms, watching fireworks in the sky—all that comes through very well.
The book does play out, as other reviewers have also noted, like one of those hostage/thriller films but with a difference. For here while Branson and his crew are threatening lives and indeed damage to the Golden Gate Bridge, and are very capable of doing what they threaten, they stay clear of any unnecessary violence, in fact any violence at all—there are no loud threats or bullets fired (like typical hostage movies), just a quiet menace. In fact, it is emphasized throughout that Branson has never killed anyone, and when putting into effect his plans, the crew merely disables and knocks out people causing no long-term damage and certainly not taking any life. In contrast, Revson and the others seem to have no compunctions in taking out the villains (though he too, doesn’t actually kill them all), which often left me as the reader rooting for Branson and his crew, rather than the authorities.
I enjoyed the suspense that MacLean creates in the book, and in a sense keeps up as well, as the battle of wits plays out between the two sides. Branson while highly intelligent seems publicity hungry and has a bit of an ego and his opponents often use more psychological tactics to try and get to him. Meanwhile Revson begins to arrange access to equipment and also begins to tackle Branson’s men. MacLean keeps one reading to see which of them ends up getting the upper hand at the end.
However, despite the enjoyable setting and suspense elements, there were also aspects that left me rather disappointed. For instance, throughout the book, it is hinted, even said on various occasions, that Branson is wealthy and isn’t aiming for either money or fame, but there is some underlying reason, a grudge perhaps which has led him to come up with and give effect to his plan. But at no point is it properly explained what this motivation actually was. We learn something of his backstory, his disillusionment with his own father’s profession, but may be a little more would have given us some idea of why he was doing what he was.
Then we also have Branson presented as highly intelligent and one who has paid attention to every minute detail, yet when Revson is working on his counter plans, much of it seems to get past Branson even if he comes close to discovering it; also, there are elements he seems to have missed. I thought may be this could have been more balanced, as it didn’t seem to be in line with Branson’s intelligence and Revson seemed to get much of what he wished done too easily. And finally, throughout the book I kept waiting for a twist, a surprise somewhere along the line, something that would make the events really exciting but none came at all.
So, while I did enjoy reading the book, the story did end up feeling a little flat overall. I’d rate this mid-way at 3 stars.