Landslide by Desmond Bagley (1967)

A return to the first person narrative Bagley used in his debut novel, The Golden Keel and, as so often when thriller writers do the first person, he is channeling Chandler.

The little fat guy who appeared to be the factotum around the depot looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and tittered. ‘You must be a stranger around here.’
‘Seeing I just got off the bus it may be possible,’ I conceded. I wanted to get information, not to give it.
He grunted and the twinkle disappeared. ‘It’s on King Street; you can’t miss it unless you’re blind, he said curtly. He was another of those cracker-barrel characters who think they’ve got a franchise on wisecracks – small towns are full of them. To hell with him! I was in no mood for making friends. (Ch 1)

Yep, he’s a street-wise tough guy alright. Mind you, here it’s appropriate; he and everyone else in the novel talks with a deliberate North American slanginess as it is set in British Columbia, on the west coast of Canada. It’s a very conscious choice of tone and idiolect and over the course of the book it succeeds in building up the no-nonense, tough guy persona of the narrator, hard-up mining geologist Bob Boyd who arrives in the small town of Farrell, where he signs up to work for the big family in the area, the Mattersons, to survey land they plan to flood by building a new dam to generate power for their various businesses. Where the prose was a little prissy in Hurricane, here it is rugged and manly: eg Hurricane refers to people swearing or uttering profanities; here almost every male character says ‘bastard’ on every page.

Heavily researched

Bagley’s books contain large chunks of researched information. He worked in a room completely lined with reference books and it shows. No aspect of the plot goes by without hefty chunks of factual back-up, from pages of info to throwaway factoids.

Eg I was struck by a detail in Hurricane, when the British consul and the air stewardess are fleeing for their lives through a banana plantation, that the old man still has time to examine the roots of the plants and announce that, as they weren’t properly bedded in, they would be liable to Panama Disease. Uh-huh. Here, the old newspaperman offers Boyd a drink and Bagley has to insert half a page explaining the difference between cheap blended Scotch and true single malt whiskey. He comes across a grizzly bear and informs us of the habits and behaviour of Ursus arctos, along with the best way to manage him.

The background to the plot is the construction of a new dam in the forest of British Columbia. Unsurprisingly, Bagley has done his research into Canada’s Forestry laws.

British Columbia is very conservation-minded where its ;umber resources are concerned. Out of every dollar earned in the province fifty cents comes ultimately from the logging industry and the Government wants that happy state of affairs to continue.So the Forestry Service polices the woodlands and controls the cutting… The idea is that the amount of lumber cut, in cubic feet, should not exceed the natural annual growth. Now, when you start talking in cubic footage of lumber in British Columbia you sound like an astronomer calculating the distance in miles to a pretty far star. The forest lands cover 220,000 square miles, say, four times the size of England, and the annual growth is estimated at two and a half billion cubic feet. So the annual cutting rate is limited to a little over two billion cubic feet and the result is an increasing, instead of a wasting, asset. (Ch V, 1)

Bucket philosophy

A central theme of the plot is that the hero has amnesia, no memory of anything till he wakes up in a hospital bed aged 23 covered in burns after a bad car crash. In the early chapters he is treated by a psychologist and the author shares with us some bucket philosophy.

Everyone comes up against this problem sometime in their lives; he asks himself the fundamentally awkward question: ‘Who am I?’ There are many related questions, too, such as, ‘Why am I?’ and ‘Why am I here?‘ To the uncaring the questioning comes too late, perhaps only on the death-bed. To the thinking man this self-questioning comes sooner and has to be resolved in the agony of personal mental sweat. (Ch II)

Presented here as new and challenging ideas, this would amuse my son and his mates doing their Religion & Philosophy GCSE with its naïveté. But then again, this isn’t a philosophy text book. The pages about identity are there because the main character lost his memory in a car crash, and the themes of identity and the question whether you want to find out who you were before amnesia, drive the plot. They are only sketched in as much as the info about Canadian forestry law or the geology of ‘quick clay’, that’s to say enough to fuel the plot, and no more. This isn’t a book about amnesia, it’s a book about thrills and spills.

Women

It’s 1967, Boyd is a man’s man and he knows how to treat women.

I had left Clare early on the morning following our encounter and was surprised to find her reserved and somewhat distant. True, she cooked a good man-sized breakfast, but that was something a good housewife would do for her worst enemy by reflex action. I thought that perhaps she was regretting her fraternisation with the enemy – after all, I was working for Matterson – or maybe she was miffed because I hadn’t made a pass at her. You never know with women. (Ch III, 3)

I began to think that to get rid of her was going to be quite a job; there’s nothing you can do with an uninsultable woman short of tossing her out on her can, and that’s not my style. (VI, 1)

Daily Mail complaints

Like MacLean, Bagley was old enough to live through the 1960s but not to like it. There is refrain of ‘world going to the dogs’ comments:

Any murderer can get his name in the newspapers, but if a decent man wishes to announce to the world that he’s lived happily with his wife for twenty-five or fifty years, he has to pay for it, by God!

She was tall and thin with the emaciated thinness which seems to be fashionable, God knows why. (V, 2)

Presumably he knows his Daily Mail-type audience, and these Angry-of-Tunbridge-Wells comments cement his bond with his middle-aged male readership. To the modern reader they make the narrator seem unnaturally old and out of touch. But much more importantly, make him look not savvy, ignorant of the world he’s operating in, a fatal flaw for this kind of hero in this kind of tale, who needs to appear worldly-wise, knowledgeable and in control.

The plot

Turns out Bob was badly burned and lost his memory in a car crash which conveniently killed off the Trinavant dynasty who had helped found the town, and that all their assets went to their partner Bull Matterson. Suspicious, eh? Having survived the crash, been repaired physically by plastic surgeons and mentally by the psychologist with the patter about self-examination, Bob returns to the scene of the crime, the small town where it all happened, and sets about provoking Matterson’s head-strong son and his thuggish sidekick, while contacting (and falling in love with) the only surviving Trinavant, the attractive Clare.

Boyd needles them again and again so I’m not surprised that when his revelations about his own background make the old man collapse of a heart attack, the sadistic son, Howard, is able to persuade all the loggers that Boyd hit the old man, and so organises the exciting manhunt through the Canadian forest which makes up the final 50 pages of the book. Here Boyd/Bagley come into their own with scads of boys own adventure tips and advice about surviving in the wilderness with a posse of angry lumberjacks at your heels and the traps he sets for them, the ways he outfoxes and escapes them, are highly entertaining.

All of which leads up the dramatic finale which is rather given away by the title of the book. In the last few pages Boyd gets old man Matterson to confess it was his son who set up the car crash to kill the Trinavants, rescues Clare from the dungeon in which she’s been held prisoner, gets the sheriff to believe him and to capture his enemy, Howard, and gets his prediction about the unsafety of the dam dramatically vindicated. Completely cleared, he looks set to inherit the Trinavant millions and walks off into the sunset with his best girl.

Although Bagley isn’t exactly a stylist, and although long stretches are what we could call ‘Bagley Factual’ in intention, and although the plot is a combination of Dallas-style machination with a dollop of 1970s disaster movie thrown in, Bagley has made a concerted effort to create a voice and style for his tough, reckless, aggressive hero, and over the long run it works. The swearing, the ‘bastards’, the ‘I didn’t give a damns’, the ‘one move and I’ll plug yous’, do create a distinctive (if often rather ludicrous) voice, a comic-book hero appropriate for the TV-movie story.

Of the three I’ve read so far this is the one I enjoyed most and would recommend other people to read.

Related links

Cover of the 1973 Fontana paperback edition of Landslide by Desmond Bagley

Cover of the 1973 Fontana paperback edition of Landslide by Desmond Bagley

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.

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: