Running Blind by Desmond Bagley (1970)

How in hell did Kennikin get ahead of me? That was my first bitter thought.
But idle thoughts were no use and action was necessary. (Chapter 5, III)

This is a first-person spy thriller told by British counter-espionage agent Alan Stewart and set in Iceland, where he has gone to do a simple courier job which goes badly wrong, and where he also has an apartment and a girlfriend who swiftly gets dragged into the turmoil.

Facts

Being Factual Bagley, the location is the cue for plenty of facts and figures about Icelandic geography, history, language, food and customs.

I frowned. Most people think that because Greenland is covered with ice and is wrongly named then so is Iceland, and there’s not much ice about the place. They’re dead wrong. Thirty-six icefields glaciate one-eighth of the country and one of them alone – Vatnajökull – is as big as all the glaciated areas in Scandinavia and the Alps put together. (Ch 4, II)

There’s even a brisk summary of the most famous of the Icelandic sagas, Njal’s saga.

Voice

The narrator’s voice is mostly very flat and factual. This is Bagley’s default style – no metaphors or similes, precious little description – just facts. But having just read Landslide, where Bagley creates a credibly ballsy Canadian persona, I know it’s also a deliberate choice. The most noticeable element of the style is how much the hero swears, saying ‘bloody’ and ‘bastard’ a lot, in a way he didn’t in the earlier books, and Alistair MacLean never does. I blame it on the Permissive Society.

‘I don’t know, damn it! I wish to hell I did.’ I retrieved the carbine. ‘Let’s get on with it.’
So on we went along that bastard of a track, round and round, up and down, but mostly up, until we had climbed right to the edge of Vatnajökull, next to the ice. (Ch 4, III)

Phony philosophy

‘There’s only one way of opting out of the world and that’s by dying,’ said Slade with phony philosophy.

Adventure stories are primarily entertainment and the entertainment is in exercising the predatory parts of our brains, either in calculating and scheming against the enemy or in direct physical action. Adventure authors could be distributed around a graph with axes for cerebrality and action, with Le Carré at the chess-playing pole, MacLean at the blood and gore physicality pole and Deighton a rather confusing combination of the two.

Bagley is an odd case because there’s quite a lot of cold factual information (gleaned from enyclopedias and then sown into the text) but no subtlety at all. There are none of the abrupt twists and unexpected revelations which make MacLean’s books so riveting, there is none of the super-subtlety of le Carré’s psychological battles or the clever-clever gaming of Deighton’s texts.

Bagley’s simple heros commit to a course of action and then see it through, overcoming various physical challenges on the way and getting the girl in the end. The goodies remain goodies. There is a clean-cut, honest innocence about Bagley’s novels. Although they make a few fashionably jaded comments about contemporary life these are just Daily Mail whinging ie they don’t penetrate the surface, they aren’t fully dramatised in the story. Characters may spout a bit of philosophy or politics at the appropriate moment in the plot – ‘If only the people back home knew what wicked deeds were done to keep them safe’ or some such – but it is phony philosophy, untroubling and easy-to-digest oiling for the machinery of the plot.

In this overtly spy novel he makes a stab at the cynicism and world-weariness which are associated with the genre – his boss seems to be playing a double game, sending one of his colleagues in to assassinate him and threatening to alert his KGB opposite number to his whereabouts – but it is an easy and obvious cynicism, expressed, in this example, in the tritest metaphor of all for espionage, the game of chess.

Graham was dead – a pawn suddenly swept from the board. He had died because he obeyed orders blindly, just as I had done in Sweden; he had died because he didn’t really understand what he was doing. (Ch 3, II)

If that’s meant to have dramatic impact it fails because Bagley is announcing as news what have become, in the 45 years since this novel was published, the basic clichés of the genre: trust no-one, everyone is out to get you, your own side are more dangerous than the nominal ‘enemy’, we’re all just disposable pawns in a Great Game.

Similarly, although the novel gives the appearance of plot twists, there aren’t really any: Stewart hates his boss, Slade, from the start and, it turns out, justifiably; he fears his Russian enemy Krennikin from the start and is right to do so; he is saddened that his old mate Jack Case seems to be siding with Slade, but he turns out to be the ‘Genuine Buddy Who Is Cruelly Betrayed’ figure. What would have surprised me a bit is if his long-term girlfriend had turned out to be spying on him but this is Bagley so, no, she is as good as he paints her from the start, in fact comes up trumps and saves the day.

Decisive action beats idle thoughts

This book dates from before the Great Cynicism of the 1970s and suffers from its simplicity and honesty. But whereas crashing obviousness is not a problem for the high-spirited heroes of such straighforward actioners as The Golden Keel, The Vivero Letter, Landslide or The Spoilers who just have to biff the bad guys, it is a problem when Bagley attempts a genre which has come to signify subtlety, complex undercurrents and confusion. He is good at action, at the practicalities of disposing of a body, fording a river, stalking an assassin, dressing a wound and the rest of it – a lot less good at psychology.

We expect our spies to be clever if nothing else. The Ipcress narrator is always several steps ahead of the reader, as is Le Carré’s Smiley. Bagley’s Stewart is the opposite, slower than the reader. It is one thing to admit you’re at a loss in an adventure story, especially when you’re a Bagley hero masquerading as Joe Ordinary and wanting to involve the reader in your perilous plight. But we expect our spies to be smart and are disappointed when we can figure out things quicker than them.

‘I don’t know,’ I said despondently. ‘It’s too damned complicated and I don’t know enough’… I needed more than help, I needed a new set of brains to work out this convoluted problem.

These remarks come under the category of identifiers, phrases designed to help or make the reader identify with the hero. Bagley does this more than MacLean; he is known for the (supposed) ‘ordinary’ nature of most of his heroes. Thus the ‘thoughts’ of a Bagley protagonist given in the text are at least as much to rope the reader in, to make the hero accessible to the average reader, as an actual attempt to mimic the thought processes of a spy. If they are meant to be his thought processes, then he’s pretty dim.

This playing to the gallery also explains his late ’60s sexism.

I set out toward the Land Rover at a dead run, holding Elin’s arm, but she dragged free. ‘The coffee pot!’
‘The hell with it!’ Women are funny creatures; this was not a time to be thinking of domestic economy. I grabbed her arm again and dragged her along.

These kinds of remarks aren’t interesting for anything they tell us about Mr Bagley, they are much more interesting as an insight into how he conceives of his audience, its reflexes and expectations, ie middle-aged, middle England, Daily Mail-reading men, complete with their prejudices against women, the trendy young, foreigners and so on. The steady stream of not-too-demanding quips, would-be cynical remarks, moans about Modern Life or very obvious quotes from the only poet his readers have heard of, Shakespeare, paint a vivid portrait of the target audience for this kind of flat, efficient, clichéd melodrama. It’s effective and professional at what it does, but this is not a good book.

Related links

Cover of the 1973 Fontana paperback edition of Running Blind

Cover of the 1973 Fontana paperback edition of Running Blind

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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