High Citadel by Desmond Bagley (1965)

O’Hara’s lips quirked as he mentally reviewed his garrison. An old man and a young girl; two sedentary academic types; a drunk and someone’s maiden aunt; and himself – a broken-down pilot. On the other side of the river were at least twenty ruthless men  – with God knows how many more to back them up. His muscles tensed at the thought that they were communists… (Chapter 3, II)

Desmond Bagley (1923 – 1983) was a British journalist and author of 16 thrillers, the last two published posthumously. Along with Alistair Maclean (b.1922) and Hammond Innes (b.1913), Bagley helped establish the conventions of the modern thriller genre, a tough, resourceful lone hero up against a gang of desperadoes involved in a fiendish scheme.

All three authors published throughout the 1960s and 70s in stylish and distinctive paperbacks by Fontana books at the bargain price of 25p or 30p or even 35p.

Though almost exactly contemporary with MacLean, Bagley started publishing almost a decade later. After various adventures in Africa, including working in the mining industry for some years, he gravitated towards journalism, then short story-writing and only published his first novel, The Golden Keel, in 1963 at the age of 40.

High Citadel

This is his second novel. It is a ‘motley crew’ thriller ie a small random assortment of passengers are moved from an intercontinental airplane experiencing engine trouble, to the knackered Dakota freighter of a ramshackle charter company to be flown by jaded pilot Tom O’Hara across the Andes in the fictional country of Cordillera, based on Chile.

Set-up

O’Hara is surprised when his shiftless hispanic co-pilot pulls a gun on him and forces him to land at a makeshift landing strip high in the mountains, though the hijacker dies in the resulting crash. At which point it is revealed that one of the older passengers is a well-known politician who has returned to the country with the aim of overthrowing the military dictator, Lopez. But it is not the dictator’s men who organised the hijack, but the communists who also want this good democrat dead.

Thus begins a narrative in which the 10 or so survivors of the crash must make their way back to civilisation, despite attacks by the communists which turn into a miniature war.

  • Tim O’Hara – Irish charter airplane pilot, flew fighters in the Korean War, wife left him, became a drunk
  • Filsom – owner of ramshackle Andes Airways for which O’Hara flies a beaten-up old Dakota
  • Grivas – his co-pilot, who pulls a gun and forces him to land high in the Andes
  • Aguillar – elderly politician, the democratic leader before a military dictator seized power
  • Benedetta – his niece and carer
  • Miguel Rohde – Aguillar’s bodyguard, with a gun
  • Forester – very capable American businessman, who also flew fighters in the Korean War
  • Peabody – fat drunk Yank
  • the Coughlins – elderly couple reliving their honeymoon; both killed in the crash
  • Dr Willis – academic studying high altitude conditions
  • Miss Ponsky – elderly American spinster
  • Dr Armstrong – pipe-smoking medieval historian on holiday; turns out to be a specialist in medieval weapons and supervises the manufacture of a working crossbow and trebuchet

Plot development

The actual hijacking is over very quickly. The plane has crashed at a landing strip for abandoned mine workings and the survivors set off the next day to walk down the track to civilisation. However, as they turn a corner leading to the only bridge over a deep river they are fired on by armed forces on the other side. It is the communists, the old rope bridge has partly given way as one of their lorries crossed it on the way up to rendezvous with the plane to capture and kill Aguillar, and they are busy repairing it.

This leads to the heart of the book which is a stand-off: communist guerillas on one side of the gorge with jeeps and lorries and lots of guns; our motley crew of survivors on the other with just one gun but – in an unexpected development – an academic who turns out to be a specialist in medieval weapons and shows our guys how to make lethal crossbows and a working trebuchet using tools in the workshop of the abandoned mining camp. Our chaps hold off the guerillas by preventing them repairing the bridge, while the toughest men – Rohde and Forester – set off to cross a high pass in the Andes to the other side and contact troops who (hopefully) have been suborned to support the democrat politician.

Communists

The drunk pilot O’Hara is given memories of being tortured by communists during the Korean War to explain his determination not to let Aguillar fall into their hands, and most of the other characters are American with a phobia of communism. O’Hara mentions Castro, whose seizure of power in Cuba had only happened 6 years earlier, in 1959, and whose agents are said to be spreading across south America fomenting revolution. The US attempt to overthrow Castro in the Bay of Pigs invasion was as recent as 1961. Whatever else it is, the novel is topical but it’s striking how the very name communist is equated with total evil, with no attempt to distinguish the Korean version from the Latin American one.

Willis was glad to get away from the certainty of a hand-to-hand fight, defenceless against the ruthless armed men who were coming to butcher them. (Ch 8, V)

They might as well be orcs or followers of Lord Voldemort. It is a binary worldview in which they are simply pure malevolence. Really?

Style

After the non-stop hysteria of MacLean, the style is commendably sane and sober as the lead characters formulate and discuss plans in a calm rational manner. The calm and sane style makes the natural forces which get involved – a blizzard which attacks the men as they are crossing the high pass, and the accompanying fog lower in the valley – all the more believable. Rohde and Forester’s ordeal in a high-altitude snow-storm is particularly gripping because understated, and when they do reach the final stages of snow exhaustion it is very plausibly described.

Forester felt warm and at ease, and to him the two were synonymous. Strange that the snow was so warm and soft, he thought; and opened his eyes to see a glar eof white before him. He sighed and closed his eyes again, feeling a sense of disappointment. It snow after all. He supposed he should make an effort to move and get out of this deliciously warm snow or he would die, but he decided it was not worht the effort. He just let the warmth lap him in comfort and for a second before he relapsed into unconsciousness he wondered vaguely where Rohde had got to. (Ch 9, I)

If anything, the style and the mentality is a little too cerebral. All the passengers accept the hijack, the crash-landing in which some passengers are horribly crushed, the forced march down the mountainside then attack by the communists, then a prolonged state of siege and being called on to fire crossbows to kill their opponents or blow up their vehicles pretty calmly. The elderly lady cries a little after she’s killed a man with a crossbow, that’s about it. Apart from the drunk Peabody who soon gets his comeuppance, all the men are calm, focused and practical.

There are a few attempts to give the characters some ‘realistic’ psychology, but these tend to sheer away into thriller cliché almost immediately: O’Hara is given a scene away from the others, discovered getting drunk by the nubile Benedetta and after a few rebuffs he confesses the story of his capture and torture by communists in Korea as she holds him to her bosom and realises he is the man for her. Tough guy opens his heart; pretty heroine falls for him with a Victorian simple-mindedness.

She felt an almost physical swelling pain in her bosom, a surge of wild, unreasonable happiness, and she knew that she had been wrong when she had felt that Tim was not for her. This was the man with whom she would share her life – for as long as her life lasted. (Ch 6, IV)

Conclusion

The book appeals to boys and men interested in the mechanics of survival but it is genre fiction because it pays almost no attention to realistic psychology, to the likely consequences of even one of this sequence of quite drastic events on the average person it claims to depict, and converts the potentially interesting cast into pawns in a simplistic battle between Good and Evil.

He felt a growing rage within him at the unfairness of things; just when he had found life again he must leave it – and what a way to leave; cooped up in a cold, dank tunnel at the mercy of human wolves. (Ch 10, II)

And then in the last 50 pages, all attempts at realism are dropped as the story goes pyrotechnic in a manner worthy of the new and fashionable James Bond films, with the enemy airfield blown up, Forester heroically piloting a stolen jet fighter against the comunist forces, all the baddies shot up and the gallant survivors driving a battered bullet-flecked truck down the hill to freedom. To top off the sense of adolescent absurdity, Dr Armstrong the academic, quotes the famous Band of brothers speech from Henry V.

Planes mentioned in the text

Related links

Cover of the 1971 Fontana paperback edition of High Citadel

Cover of the 1971 Fontana paperback edition of High Citadel

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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