The Golden Keel by Desmond Bagley (1963)

‘It’s like something from the Spanish Main,’ she said, ‘or a Hammond Innes thriller.’ (Ch 1, 6)

This is a ripping yarn, a gripping tale, a cracking story, the best of the four Bagleys I’ve read so far.

Like the author, the hero Peter ‘Hal’ Halloran makes his way across Africa after World War II and ends up in South Africa. Here he becomes a successful boat designer and builder and one day meets a drunk in a bar who assures him he fought with the Italian partisans and tells a long story about how he and a few others ambushed a convoy of Nazis which turned out to be carrying a fortune in Italian government gold, jewels, currency and papers. The partisans hid the lorries bearing the treasure in abandoned mine workings and blew up the entrance but have been pondering on and off for the last 15 years how to get their hands on it.

This turns out to be much more complicated than you’d think as you can’t just carry four tons of gold through airport security. Hal’s idea is to sail from SA to Italy in a yacht of his own design and manufacture, melt the gold down into the shape of a keel, and swap it for the lead keel they’ve sailed there with – then sail home with a golden keel!

Except things become much more complicated than they expect – as they fall foul of a criminal mastermind in the stopping-off point of Tangiers, then are forced to take into partnership survivors of the Italian partisans who know about the treasure, and then are subject to an all-out attack by Italian mobsters who have discovered the scheme. All this before they make the final nerve-racking voyage across the Med into the teeth of a ferocious storm and chased by an enemy gunship.

Bagley’s expert knowledge of boat building and sailing are well to the fore but highly relevant and dramatically convincing. Many of the characters are stereotypes – the smooth-talking gangster, the noble Italian patriarch, the weak alcoholic who fouls things up, the angry Afrikaaner who turns out to be a pillar of strength, not to mention the little girl who helped the partisans but 15 years later has blossomed into a raven-haired beauty – but they work here, in the context of a fast-moving thriller, the whole thing is well-handled and immensely enjoyable.

Related links

Cover of the 1973 Fontana paperback edition of The Golden Keel

Cover of the 1973 Fontana paperback edition of The Golden Keel

Bagley’s books

1963 The Golden Keel – South African boatbuilder Peter ‘Hal’ Halloran leads a motley crew to retrieve treasure hidden in the Italian mountains by partisans during WWII, planning to smuggle it out of Italy and back to SA as the golden keel of a boat he’s built for the purpose.
1965 High Citadel – Pilot Tim O’Hara leads the passengers of a charter flight crash-landed in the Andes in holding off attacking communists.
1966 Wyatt’s Hurricane – A motley crew of civilians led by meteorologist David Wyatt are caught up in a civil war on the fictional island of San Fernandes just as a hurricane strikes.
1967 Landslide – Tough Canadian geologist Bob Boyd nearly died in a car wreck ten years ago. Now he returns to the small town in British Columbia where it happened to uncover long-buried crimes and contemporary skulduggery.
1968 The Vivero Letter – ‘Grey’ accountant Jeremy Wheale leads an archaeology expedition to recover lost Mayan gold and ends up with more adventure than he bargained for as the Mafia try to muscle in.
1969 The Spoilers – Heroin specialist Nick Warren assembles a motley crew of specialists to help him break up a big drug-smuggling gang in Iraq.

1970 Running Blind – British secret agent Alan Stewart and girlfriend fend off KGB killers, CIA assassins and traitors on their own side while on the run across the bleak landscape of Iceland.
1971 The Freedom Trap – British agent Owen Stannard poses as a crook to get sent to prison and infiltrate The Scarperers, a gang which frees convicts from gaol but who turn out to be part of a spy network.
1973 The Tightrope Men – Advertising director Giles Denison goes to bed in London and wakes up in someone else’s body in Norway, having become a pawn in the complex plans of various espionage agencies to get their hands on vital secret weapon technology.
1975 The Snow Tiger – Ian Ballard is a key witness in the long formal Inquiry set up to investigate the massive avalanche which devastated the small New Zealand mining town of Hukahoronui.
1977 The Enemy – British Intelligence agent Malcolm Jaggard gets drawn personally and professionally into the secret past of industrialist George Ashton, amid Whitehall power games which climax in disaster at an experimental germ warfare station on an isolated Scottish island.
1978 Flyaway – Security consultant Max Stafford becomes mixed up in Paul Billson’s quixotic quest to find his father’s plane which crashed in the Sahara 40 years earlier, a quest involving extensive travel around North Africa with the charismatic American desert expert, Luke Byrne, before the secret is revealed.

1980 Bahama Crisis – Bahamas hotelier Tom Mangan copes with a series of disastrous misfortunes until he begins to realise they’re all part of a political plot to undermine the entire Bahamas tourist industry and ends up playing a key role in bringing the conspirators to justice.
1982 Windfall – Max Stafford, the protagonist of Bagley’s 1978 novel Flyaway, gets involved in a complex plot to redirect the fortune of a dead South African smuggler into a secret operation to arm groups planning to subvert Kenya, a plot complicated by the fact that an American security firm boss is simultaneously running his own scam to steal some of the fortune, and that one of the key conspirators is married to one of Stafford’s old flames.
1984 Night Of Error – Oceanographer Mike Trevelyan joins a boatload of old soldiers, a millionaire and his daughter to go looking for a treasure in rare minerals on the Pacific Ocean floor, a treasure two men have already died for – including Mike’s no-good brother – and which a rival group of baddies will stop at nothing to claim for themselves, all leading to a hair-raising climax as goodies and baddies are caught up in a huge underwater volcanic eruption.
1985 Juggernaut – Neil Mannix is the trouble shooter employed by British Electric to safeguard a vast transformer being carried on a huge flat-bed truck – the juggernaut of the title – across the (fictional) African country of Nyala towards the location of a flagship new power station, when a civil war breaks out and all hell breaks loose.

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