The Dogs of War by Frederick Forsyth (1974)

Methodically he began to go over the possibilities he could envisage. (p.322)
Like all people who try to exhaust a subject, he exhausted his listeners. (Oscar Wilde)

The Dogs of War was Frederick Forsyth’s third novel and another doorstopper at 438 pages long, easily twice the length of the average novel by Hammond Innes, Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley et al.

Plot

The ‘plot’ is relatively simple: Machiavellian industrialist and head of a multinational mining firm, Sir James Manson, learns that a hill in the (fictional) African state of Zangaro contains a fortune in platinum, the third rarest element on earth. Only problem is the despotic ruler of Zangaro is a) a paranoid maniac b) likely to give any mineral concession to the Soviet Union. Therefore Sir James hires mercenaries to overthrow him and instal a friendly alternative. Meanwhile, he plans to buy up an old, worthless company in the UK, with valueless shares. He’ll get the new ruler of Zangaro to assign the mining rights to this company, publicise the fact along with the scale of the platinum discovery, sit back and watch the value of the shares go through the roof. That’s where he and his creepy subordinates will make their fortunes.

There are some complications –

  • the scientist who did the survey leaks the story to a friend, who is a communist, who leaks it to the Soviet Union, who despatch a rival prospecting mission
  • the leader of the mercenaries, Cat Shannon, has a bitter enemy in the underworld who takes out a contract on him
  • Cat himself starts an improbable and scanty affair with Julie, the daughter of the industrialist

But the striking feature of this book is not the plot.

The information

It is the overwhelming deluge of information about every subject even peripherally related to the story which drowns the plot. Large chunks of the book are pure information. Not dialogue, or character exploration or description –  but encyclopedia entries or high-level journalistic articles on the following subjects:

  • how to collect, label and analyse mineral samples
  • the world market for platinum, with the leading producer countries and main firms
  • the history of mercenaries in Africa with a rundown of the leading men in the field and their full CVs
  • the colonial and post-colonial history, geography, economy and ethnic make-up of Zangaro
  • how to get a forged passport
  • a history of the post-WWII arms trade with a full rundown of the leading companies and governments in the sector
  • a detailed explanation of how to search for and then take over a shell company
  • explanations of the private banking sectors of Belgium, Switzerland, Lichtenstein and Luxemburg
  • the intricacies of finding an end-user licence for arms dealing
  • what exact type of boat you need to ship arms through the Mediterranean to Africa
  • a detailed breakdown of the entire kit – clothes, equipment, all armaments and ammunition, radios, flares etc – required to mount a small coup
  • a detailed costing of the above
  • a detailed project plan for the above
  • how to smuggle arms across the Franco-Belgium border
  • how to arrange transit certificates in Spain
  • the ethnic and linguistic make-up of Yugoslavia
  • the role of Freetown in supplying stevedores

and many, many more. The central 200 pages of the book, although they feature ‘characters’ and dialogue, are really a lightly fictionalised project plan for the various tasks and actions the central figures have to undertake, complete with a thorough detailing of all risks and dependencies. To say that the dialogue, or the prose generally, is ruthlessly cut back to the exposition of fact is an understatement.

‘I shall be in Madrid on the 19th and 20th,’ he said. ‘I have another business deal to attend to. I shall be at the Mindanao Hotel. If you want to contact me, you can find me there. If loading is for the 20th, the chances are the convoy and escort from the Spanish Army will run the shipment down to the coast during the night of the 19th to arrive at crack of dawn. If you are going to board the ship at all, I think you should do so before the militay convoy arrives at the docks.’

‘I should be in Madrid on the 19th,’ said Shannon. ‘Then I could check with you that the convoy had indeed left on time. By driving fast to Valencia, I could be there ahead of it, and board the Toscana as the rejoining seaman before the convoy arrives.’ (p.359)

The majority of the content falls into two types: 1. fantastically detailed, dry and dull descriptions of the immensely convoluted comings and goings of Shannon and his team as they fly all over Europe arranging the funding and buying of the equipment for the coup – interspersed with fantastically detailed, dry and dull descriptions of Manson and associates setting up the shell company.

He rang BEA and booked an economy class return on the morning flight to Brussels, returning at 1600 hours, which would get him back to his flat by six. Following that he telephoned four telegrams abroad, one to Paarl, Cape Province, South Africa, one to Ostende, one to Marseilles and one to Munich… Finally he summoned a taxi and had it take him back to Lowndes Hotel. He checked out, paid his bill and left as he had come, anonymously. (p.173)

Or

Simon Endean’s letter sent on Tuesday night arrived at ten on Thursday morning at the Handelsbank in Zürich. According to the instructions in it, they telexed £10,000 to the account of Mr Keith Brown at the Kredietbank in Brugge. By noon Mr Goossens had seen the telex, and wired £5,000 to Mr Brown’s account in the West End of London. Shortly before four that afternoon, Shannon made a check call to his bank and learned the credit was there waiting for him. He asked the manager personally to give him drawing facilities in cash up to £3,500 the following morning. He was told it would be available for collection by eleven-thirty. (p.204)

Or

Shannon spent the evening writing out a full statement of accounts for Endean. He pointed out that the total had eaten up the bulk of the £5,000 transferred from Brugge, and that he would leave the few hundreds left over from the sum as a reserve. Lastly, he pointed out that he had not taken any part of his own £10,000 fee for the job, and proposed either that Endean transfer it straight from Endean’s Swiss bank account into Shannon’s Swiss account, or remit the money to the Belgian bank for credit to Keith Brown. (p.215)

Or

There was still £7,000 in the Keith Brown account, but a debit of £2,000 for the four mercenaries’ salaries was due in nine days. He drew a banker’s cheque in favour of Johann Schlinker and placed it in an envelope containing a letter from him to Schlinker that he had written in is hotel room the previous night. It informed Schlinker that the enclosed cheque for 4,800 dollars was in full payment for the assorted marine and life-saving articles he had ordered a week earlier, and gave the German the name and address of the Toulon shipping agent to whom the entire consignment should be sent in bond for export, for the collection of M Jean-Baptiste Langarotti. Lastly, he informed Schlinker he would be telephoning him the coming week to enquire if the end user certificate for the ordered 9 mm ammunition was in order. (p.281)

There are literally hundreds of pages like that – prose written by a computer describing the activities of robots or automatons.

The second type of subject matter is the article – a 2-, 3- or 4-page-long factual explanation of one of the many aspects of the practical job of funding, organising and mounting a coup.

Belgium has, from the point of view of those wishing to operate a discreet but legal bank account, many advantages that outweigh those offered by the much better publicised Swiss banking system. Not nearly as rich or powerful as Germany, nor neutral like Switzerland, Belgium nonetheless offers the facility of permitting unlimited quantities of money to pass in and out without government control or interference. (p.179)

Or

Under British company law, any person acquiring ten per cent or more of the shares of a public quoted company must identify himself to the directors within fourteen days. The aim of the law is to permit the public to know who owns what, and how much, of any public company. (p.185)

Or

To establish an indigenous arms industry is not difficult, provided it is kept basic. It is relatively simple to manufacture rifles and submachine guns, ammunition for both, along with hand grenades and hand guns. The level of technology, industrial development and the variety of the raw materials is not large, but the smaller countries usually buy their weaponry ready-made from the larger ones, because their internal requirements are too small to justify the necessary industrialisation, and they know their technical level would not put them into the export market with a chance. (p.229)

Or

Metal can be welded to metal, and to get the hardest join, it usually is. But a barrel that has once contained oil or ignitable fuel always retains a residue film on the inner surface of the metal. When heated, as it must be by welding, the film turns to fumes, and can easily explode very dangerously. ‘Sweating’ a piece of tinplate onto another piece does not give the same strength of join, but can be done with steam heat at a lower temperature. (p.311)

Or

There is no great technical difficulty in running an illegal consignment across the Belgian-French border in either direction, and that includes a quantity of black market arms. Between the sea at La Palme and the junction with Luxembourg near Longwy, this border sprawls for miles, and most of it in the south-east corner is through heavily wooded hunting country. Here the border is crossed by scores of side roads and tracks through the forest, and by no means all of them are manned. (p.337)

This is not really what is usually thought of as ‘fiction’. It is an article or encyclopedia entry. As is:

Cargo sent [to the other end of Africa] will be shipped in a bigger vessel. The advantage of a small coaster is that she can often load a cargo at very short notice and deliver it two days later a couple of hundred miles away. Big ships spend longer in port while turning round. But on a long run like that from the Mediterranean to South Africa, a bigger ship makes up in extra speed what she spent in port. For the exporter [the small coaster] has little attraction over 500 miles. (p.307)

There is little or no colour, life, whimsy, imagination, insight, awareness, fancy, wit or humour in the book. It is a relentless list of bank accounts and transactions and flights and travel arrangements and purchases of guns and boats and combat gear and meetings and deals in colourless hotels. By about page 250 I had had enough and reading this book had turned into a real grind.

Characters or cogs?

As in the previous novels there is quite a large cast of characters whose intricate interlockings Forsyth manages with amazing skill and precision. But reading this one made it more obvious than before that the characters play stock roles: the Machiavellian industrialist, his sex-mad daughter, his sleek fixer, the conscience-stricken scientist, the tough prospector, the grizzled mercenary, the brutal African dictator.

Worse, novelists generally tell you the background of their characters but it is characteristic of Forsyth that, every time he introduces a new person, he presents their entire CV in one go. There is absolutely no subtlety.

Alan Baker was an expatriate, a Canadian who had settled in Germany after the war and married a German girl. A former Royal Engineer during the war, he had got himself involved during the early post-war years in a series of border-crossing operations into and out of the Soviet Zone, running nylons, watches and refugees. From there he had drifted into arms running for the scores of tiny nationalist or anti-communist bands of maquis who, left over from the war, still ran their resistance movements in Central and Eastern Europe. (p.241)

A brisk résumé of their life & career replaces the more traditional literary strategy of creating character through accumulated psychological insights. There are no psychological insights. –This is X’s history. Right, now you know all you need to know about X. Right, Shannon met X in this hotel at this time and they made the following decisions about the shipment of guns and arranged the transfer of x amount of money to the y bank in z.

Mr Harold Roberts was a useful man. Born sixty-two years earlier of a British father and a Swiss mother, he had been brought up in Switzerland after the premature death of his father, and retained dual nationality. Entering banking at an early age, he had spent twenty years in the Zürich head office of one of Switzerland’s largest banks, before being sent to their London branch as an assistant manager. That had been just after the war, and over the second twenty-year period of his career he had risen to become the manager of the London branch, retiring at the age of sixty. By then he had decided to take his retirement and his pension in Swiss francs in Britain. (p.289)

The interest isn’t in the characters per se – once created they remain the same with little or none of the development we might expect in a novel. It’s in the way the large cast of characters fit together so intricately – and not even necessarily into a ‘plot’ (none of Forsyth’s plots after the Jackal have anything like the same excitement). It’s the way they fit together into a worldview, a worldview in which worldy wise men transfer funds between secret bank accounts, set up shady holding companies, meet mercenaries in safe hotel rooms, buy illegal weapons, pass each other in the departure lounge of an international airport without realising it.

They’re not characters, they’re the parts in a beautifully-crafted Swiss watch, unchanging, predictable cogs which interlink to make the whole go tick tick tick.

A worldwide web

The trope of two characters in the plot having their paths cross without either knowing it occurs several times in each book – not to further the plot, but to foreground this feeling of the web or network. The classic instance in Day of the Jackal is one evening towards the climax of the novel when the two protagonists, detective Lebel and the Jackal, are both in Paris, and both lean out of their windows one night, and it turns out their windows are only 300 yards apart – but of course, neither knows what the other looks like.

Here, on page 118:

The evening that Cat Shannon was changing planes at Le Bourget to catch the Air Afrique DC-8 to West Africa, Dr Chalmers was having dinner with an old college friend, now also a scientist and working in industrial research.

Or

Martin Thorpe stepped into Sir James Manson’s office about the time Cat Shannon was taking off from Hamburg. (p.245)

These ships-that-pass-in-the-night moments aren’t important for the plot. They are symptoms or epitomes of Forsyth’s worldview, which is all about complex interlinking. When I was a teenager, reading this kind of book, I think these moments added to the thrilling sense that this was the grown-up world, and that everyone behaved like this. The ships moments create a world.


But God, for really long stretches, this book is soooo boring.

Shannon was invited into Mr Stein’s private office, where Mr Lang and a junior partner were already seated. Along one wall were three secretaries, as it turned out the secretaries of the three accountants present. With the required seven stockholders on hand, Mr Stein set up the company within five minutes. Shannon handed over the balance of £500 and the thousand shares were issued. Each person present received one and signed for it, then passed them to Mr Stein who agreed to keep them in the company safe. Shannon received 994 shares in a block constituted by one sheet of paper and signed for them. His own shares he pocketed. The articles and memorandum of association were signed by the chairman and company secretary, and copies of each would later be filed with the Registrar of Companies for the Archduchy of Luxembourg. The three secretaries were then sent back to their duties, the board of three directors met and approved the aims of the company, the minutes were noted on one sheet of paper, read out by the secretary and signed by the chairman. That was it. Tyrone Holdings SA existed in law. (p.276)

Climax

After such an unconscionably long foreplay this reader was hoping for a spectacular climax.

The actual firefight starts on page 413 and is all over by page 423. It is described as coldly, clinically and thoroughly as all the preparations – but because of the subject, and the stakes, it is actually heart-poundingly thrilling. And bloody.

Not often does one see a bazooka the size of the warhead on a Yugoslav RPG-7 hit a man in the small of the back. (p.420)

But the payoff turns out to be not in the brutal ‘battle’ (in reality the wholesale slaughter of scores of more or less defenceless African guards under the steady pounding of the mercenaries’ mortar rockets, bazookas and machine guns), it’s in the final few pages, when there is a massive plot twist and Shannon – wildly improbably – is revealed to have been behaving for the finest humanitarian principles after all.

Why? How? What? You’ll have to buy or borrow The Dogs of War and go on the same gruelling pilgrimage yourself to find out.

Textbook

According to Wikipedia, the book is quoted and praised as ‘a textbook for mercenaries’. I’m not surprised. But textbook is the key word. It is exactly like reading a long, exhaustively thorough textbook. Fine if you’re taking an exam in the subject or toying with mounting your own African coup. Not so great as a work of fiction…

The movie

Took a while for this one to be turned into the movie, which wasn’t released until 1980. It was directed by John Irvin and stars Christopher Walken and Tom Berenger, along with a long tail of British character actors (Colin Blakeley, Jim Broadbent in a minor role, George Harris later famous for BBC TV’s Casualty).

At least part of the interest of the novel is the extensive network of characters and deals done exclusively in Europe, repeating and extending the extraordinary knowledgeability which Forsyth demonstrated in Jackal. But the movie makes the hero and background of most of the characters American. Crucially, it transforms Shannon from a decent, extremely intelligent and methodical European into a New York street punk, swaggering, chewing gum, torturing people, tossing empty beer cans around, shouting a lot. It’s a surprise he can even read, you wouldn’t trust him to throw a party in a bar, it is not credible that such an uptight, angry adolescent could organise something of the byzantine complexity of Forsyth’s coup, and this switch decisively throws away the professional (surprisingly moral) integrity of the novel.


Related links

Forsyth’s books

1971 The Day of the Jackal – It is 1963. An international assassin is hired by right-wing paramilitary organisation, the OAS, to assassinate French President, Charles de Gaulle. The novel follows the meticulous preparations of the assassin, code-name Chacal, and the equally thorough attempts of the ‘best detective in France’, Commissaire Lebel, to track him down. Surely one of the most thoroughly researched and gripping thrillers ever written.
1972 The Odessa File – It is 1963. German journalist Peter Miller goes on a quest to track down an evil former SS commandant and gets caught up in a high-level Nazi plot to help Egypt manufacture long-range missiles to attack and destroy Israel.
1974 The Dogs of War – City magnate Sir James Manson hires seasoned mercenary Cat Shannon to overthrow the dictator of the (fictional) West African country of Zangaro, so that Manson’s mining company can get its hands on a mountain virtually made of platinum. This very long novel almost entirely amounts to a mind-bogglingly detailed manual on how to organise and fund a military coup.
1975 The Shepherd – A neat slick Christmas ghost story about a post-war RAF pilot whose instruments black out over the North Sea but who is guided to safety by an apparently phantom Mosquito, flown by a pilot who disappeared without trace during the war.
1979 The Devil’s Alternative – A Cold War, geopolitical thriller confidently describing machinations at the highest levels of the White House, Downing Street and a Soviet Politburo riven by murderous factions and which is plunged into emergency by a looming grain shortage in Russia. A plot to overthrow the reforming leader of the Soviet Union evolves into a nailbiting crisis when the unexpected hijacking of an oil supertanker by fanatical Ukrainian terrorists looks like it might lead to the victory of the hawks in the Politburo, who are seeking a Russian invasion of Western Europe.
1982 No Comebacks Ten short stories combining Forsyth’s strengths of gripping technical description and clear fluent prose, with his weaknesses of cardboard characters and improbable plots, but the big surprise is how many of them are clearly comic in intention.
1984 The Fourth Protocol – Handsome, former public schoolboy, Paratroop Regiment soldier and MI5 agent John Preston, first of all uncovers the ‘mole’ working in MI5, and then tracks down the fiendish Soviet swine who is assembling a tactical nuclear device in Suffolk with a view to vaporising a nearby US Air Force base. the baddies’ plan is to rally anti-nuclear opinion against the Conservatives in the forthcoming General Election, ensuring a Labour Party victory and then (part two of the plan) replace the moderate Labour leader with an (unspecified) hard-Left figure who would leave NATO and effectively hand the UK over to the Russians. A lunatic, right-wing fantasy turned into a ‘novel’.
1989 The Negotiator – Taciturn Clint Eastwood-lookalike Quinn (no first name, just ‘Quinn’) is the best negotiator in the business, so when the President’s son is kidnapped Quinn is pulled out of quiet retirement in a Spanish village and sent to negotiate his release. What he doesn’t realise is the kidnap is just the start of a bigger conspiracy to overthrow the President himself!
1991 The Deceiver – A set of four self-contained, long short stories relating exciting incidents in the career of Sam McCready, senior officer in the British Intelligence Service, as he approaches retirement. More gripping than the previous two novels, with the fourth and final story being genuinely funny, in the style of an Ealing comedy starring Alec Guinness.
1994 The Fist of God – A journalistic account of Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing US-led ‘Desert Storm’ operation to throw him out, complete with insider accounts of the Western military and intelligence services and lavish descriptions of scores of hi-tech weaponry. Against this backdrop is set the story of one man – dark-skinned, Arabic-speaking Mike Martin who goes undercover posing as an Arab, first in occupied Kuwait, then – even more perilously – in Baghdad itself, before undertaking a final mission to locate and assist the destruction of Saddam’s atom bomb (!) and the Supergun designed to fire it at the Allies. Simultaneously gripping in detail and preposterous in outline.
1996 Icon – Hot shot CIA agent Jason Monk is brought out of retirement to foil a fascist coup in post-communist Russia in a novel which starts out embedded in fascinating contemporary history of Russia but quickly escalates to heights of absurdity, capped by an ending in which the Russian people are persuaded to install a distant cousin of our very own Queen as the new Tsar of All The Russias! Sure.
2001 The Veteran – Five very readable short stories: The Veteran, The Art of the Matter, The Miracle, The Citizen, and Whispering Wind – well engineered, sleek and almost devoid of real human psychology. Nonetheless, the vigilante twist of The Veteran is imaginatively powerful, and the long final story about a cowboy who wakes from a century-long magic sleep to be reunited with a reincarnation of his lost love has the eerie, primal power of a yarn by Rider Haggard.
2003 Avenger – A multi-stranded narrative which weaves together the Battle of Britain, the murder of a young American aid worker in Bosnia, the death of a young woman in America, before setting the tracking down of a Serbian war criminal to South America against a desperate plot to assassinate Osama bin Laden. The least far-fetched and most gripping Forsyth thriller for years.
2006 The Afghan – Ex-SAS man Colonel Mike Martin, hero of The Fist of God, is called out of retirement to impersonate an Afghan inmate of Guantanamo Bay in order to infiltrate Al Qaeda and prevent their next terrorist attack. Quite a gripping thriller with an amazing amount of detailed background information about Afghanistan, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Islamic terrorism and so on.
2010 The Cobra – Two lead characters from Avenger, Paul Devereaux and Cal Dexter, are handed the task of wiping out the illegal cocaine trade on the authority of Barack Obama himself. Which leads to an awesome display of Forsyth’s trademark factual research, scores of pages building up a comprehensive picture of the drugs industry, and to the detailed description of the multi-stranded operation which almost succeeds, until lily-livered politicians step in to halt it.
2013 The Kill List – Another one about Islamic terrorism. The Preacher, who has been posting jihadi sermons online and inspiring a wave of terrorist assassinations, is tracked down and terminated by US marine Christopher Carson, aka The Tracker, with a fascinating side plot about Somali piracy thrown in. Like all Forsyth’s novels it’s packed with interesting background information but unlike many of his later novels it this one actually becomes genuinely gripping at the end.
2015 The Outsider – At age 76 Forsyth writes his autobiography in the form of a series of vignettes, anecdotes and tall tales displaying his characteristic briskness and dry humour. What an extraordinary life he’s led, and what simple, boyish fun this book is.

The Odessa File by Frederick Forsyth (1972)

‘You youngsters today don’t realise what it is to be proud of being a German. It lights a fire inside you. When the drums beat and the bands played, when the flags were waving and the whole nation was united behind one man, we could have marched to the ends of the world. That is greatness, young Miller, greatness your generation has never known and never will know. And we of the SS were the élite, still are the élite.’ (p.292)

Forsyth’s follow-up to the sensationally successful Day of The Jackal (1971) and published just one year later, The Odessa File is also a historical novel – in fact set in the same year, 1963, as Jackal. It is also a ‘documentary thriller’ ie it is deeply based on real events, organisations and figures which require a good deal of factual explanation in order to situate the foreground narrative into the full historical, geopolitical and diplomatic context. So much so that, at numerous points, the book reads like an encyclopedia or a Dictionary of Nazi Biography.

In Jackal the reader has to be informed about the war of independence in Algeria and its impact on French politics in order to understand the plot – here, there is a great deal of background information about the SS, their crimes against humanity during the war, how many of their officers managed to escape at the end of the war, and about the secret organisation – the Odessa – which helped those escapees and which then continued to provide a support network to former SS men in post-war Germany.

The hero

Peter Miller is a successful German freelance journalist. He made a packet tracking down and selling early photos of the Beatles from their Hamburg nightclub days, so he can now afford to pick and choose his stories, which he then sells to glossy magazines. He lives in a penthouse apartment in Hamburg with his girlfriend, Sigi, a bosomy stripper at a local club. Although a man of the world with many contacts in post-war Germany, he is surprisingly ignorant about both Nazi crimes during the war and the extent to which contemporary German society is still riddled with former Nazis. On one level the novel is a pilgrimage, a journey to understanding, in which we follow the investigative journalist as he – to his horror – discovers the power and extent of the Odessa.

The Forsyth approach – ruthlessly honed

Nothing can match the hurtling pace of Jackal as the stories of the various characters all accelerate towards the fateful day of the assassination attempt. In The Odessa File the narrative is, to start with, more discursive and contingent, slower to coalesce – although right from the start Forsyth is keen to convey the high stakes of his narrative with a bit of classic thriller prolepsis.

It is always tempting to wonder what would have happened if… or if not. Usually it is a futile exercise, for what might have been is the greatest of all mysteries. But it is probably accurate to say that if Miller had not had his radio on that night he would not have pulled in to the side of the road for half an hour. He would not have seen the ambulance, nor heard of Salomon Tauber or Eduard Roschmann, and forty months later the republic of Israel would probably have ceased to exist. (p.14)

This paragraph reveals what is at stake in the book – former Nazis are supplying technology to help the Egyptian government build long-range missiles which they intend to pack with radioactive material and bubonic plague bacilli and rain down on Israel, destroying both people and country.

(On a psychological or style level, the first two sentences of this paragraph are interesting in that they are so obviously waffle – you skip through them in order to cut to the chase, to the facts. Pace Forsyth, there is in fact a thriving section of historiography dedicated to ‘counterfactual’ history, an entire intellectual discipline which has shed light on all kinds of historical events. Granted, it barely existed in 1972, but nonetheless those first two sentences are the sound of Forsyth dispensing with abstract thought, with intellectual matters, with the Imagination – in order to focus on his core offering – ruthlessly-honed, thoroughly-researched, relentlessly-focused factual thriller narrative.)

The plot

Freelance journalist Peter Miller is driving along the Autobahn when he hears the news of President Kennedy’s assassination (November 22 1963). He pulls over in shock. Because he is pulled over he sees an ambulance hurtling past. The journalist in him follows out of habit. The ambulance stops at a shabby apartment block. An old man has gassed himself. The police are on the scene and Miller recognises a detective he knows. He meets him a few days later for a drink and the detective hands over the diary of the old man, Saloman Tauber who, it turns out, was a Jewish concentration camp survivor. The journal is, understandably, harrowing stuff, describing what he witnessed in the Riga ghetto in Latvia, and singling out the SS commandant Eduard Roschmann for his cruelty and sadism.

Just as in Jackal, the narrative now divides into several streams which run parallel, but are joined by the same timeline, so you can see various protagonists, and the various strands of this complex international plot, as they interweave and slowly pick up speed. The plotlines are conceived with mathematical precision, fitting together, interlocking with the accuracy of an engineering blueprint.

  • We follow Miller as he explores the world of Nazi hunting in 1960s Germany. He uncovers widespread reluctance to talk about the past in German society at large – even in official organisations like the police or the state Attorney General’s office. Miller meets numerous people before encountering Leon and his Jewish Nazi-hunters – and making an ill-fated attempt to pose as a former SS man to infiltrate the Odessa…
  • We meet the German community in Cairo who are working with the Egyptian authorities to recruit German scientists to come help the Egyptians develop long-range rockets to attack Israel: their aim is to a) carry on Hitler’s plan to exterminate the Jews b) establish their reputation and begin to build up power again…
  • We meet the heads of the Israeli secret services, particularly Mossad, and are privy to their top secret meetings about how to deal with the Egyptian missiles, how to deter German scientists from joining the project, up to and including assassinating them…
  • We don’t quite meet the Americans but they are important in the larger diplomatic context: for JFK was leaning heavily on the German chancellor to supply Israel with tanks and munitions, which the Israelis desperately need, knowing they face attack from the Arab nations at any point. The Nazis hope that, with JFK dead, his successor Lyndon Johnson will put less pressure on the Germans to supply arms. For their part, the Israeli government must avoid embarrassing the German government for that will give the anti-Israel lobby the argument they need to cut off arms supplies to Israel. And this explains the official line that comes down from the Israeli Prime Minister, to all the security services, and down to the level of Leon and his group in Munich – do not hunt and pursue ex-Nazis, and do not carry out reprisals, as these will damage the high-level negotiations between the two governments and jeopardise the arms sales…
  • And we meet the head of ODESSA, the secret organisation of ex-Nazis in Germany, codename Werwolf, who alone knows that the MD of a popular radio factory is none other than the Eduard Roschmann Miller is looking for (his codename Vulkan) and that his factory is clandestinely developing the radio targeting devices which are all the Egyptians are waiting for to complete their anti-Israel missiles…

So, without knowing it, and simply out a sense that he ought to do something for old man Tauber, Miller sets out to find this commandant Roschmann and finds himself stumbling into a complex web of intrigue, involving a large number of institutions and organisations with competing agendas, and with agents from all sides following him and trying to stop him.

Forsyth is not shy about taking us into the innermost thoughts of the highest figures in the land – the head of Mossad, the Israeli Prime Minister, the head of Odessa. Maybe it is his journalistic background (Reuters, BBC) which makes him so confident at handling and describing in a straightforward, virile style the conversations, thoughts and actions of such a wide array of real, historical characters.

Also, it is impossible to tell from the text where real events and characters end and the fiction begins. Wikipedia tells me that Roschmann was a real-life figure and that his life on the run – assuming new identities, fleeing then returning to Germany – which Miller slowly pieces together from various sources, is completely true. Similarly, I knew that Simon Wiesenthal, the Nazi hunter, was a real character. Presumably the heads of Mossad and so on are real, named characters, certainly the Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, is.

The completeness with which historical events and characters are woven into the narrative gives the entire text an exciting sense of factual accuracy completely unlike any of the other thriller writers I’ve been reading. For long stretches it barely feels like a fiction, more like something you’d see in one of the double-page Sunday Times Insight investigative pieces – a dramatised version of completely authentic events.

Peter Miller’s story

Miller meets a succession of people in order to track down Roschmann – the Hamburg policeman, the Hamburg DA, the Z-Commission of Nazi hunters, the Jewish Archive, the Press officer in the British Embassy in Bonn, the long-standing British official Cadbury who kept personal files of the war crimes trials. This pilgrimage then takes him to London to meet Lord Russell, former legal advisor to the British Military Government, who remembers dealing with the Roschmann case after the latter was caught by Allied soldiers in December 1947. Russell advises him to seek Simon Wiesenthal, the noted Nazi-hunter. (How on earth did Wiesenthal feel about being cast into a novel, about having dialogue invented for him?)

The Wiesenthal sections consist of pure information, big slabs of backstory, as Wiesenthal fills the naive young reporter in on how tens of thousands of SS men prepared their escape from Germany well before the end of the war, were spirited south to Italy, helped by the German cardinal in Rome and often housed in Catholic monasteries, before being shipped on to South America using blank passports issued by the friendly authorities in Argentina. (Hence the arrest of Adolf Eichmann, one of the main architects of the Holocaust, in Buenos Aires in 1960.)

Wiesenthal advises Miller to try the Jewish Centre in Munich and here his request to the receptionist for information about returnees from the Riga ghetto is overheard by a survivor who introduces Miller to his organisation, a secret group of camp survivors dedicated to tracking down and killing former SS officers. Miller is blindfolded and taken to a safe house where the leader of the group, Leon, asks him if he is prepared to adopt a false identity and pass himself off as a former SS man in order to penetrate and expose the Odessa. When Miller agrees he is transported to the house of a repentant and reformed SS officer in Bayreuth where he undergoes intensive training. The false passport, the new identity, the haircut and new appearance, the training and preparation – are all reminiscent of the Jackal’s meticulous preparations before the assassination.

In this case, however, things go almost immediately wrong. Leon and his group forge letters of recommendation for Miller – now renamed Kolb after a recently deceased SS member whose identity they steal – to the local SS bigwig. What none of them know is that this man is also the Werwolf, the leader of the Odessa in Germany, who has been given the priority task by the Nazi leadership in South America with keeping Roschmann, in his guise as head of the radio factory, completely secure so he can finish the radio guidance system for the Egyptians.

Werwolf interrogates Miller – who has been well-briefed and passes scrutiny – then gives him a letter of recommendation to one Bayer who can provide safe accommodation in Stuttgart while they get the Odessa’s forger to provide Miller/Kolb with a new identity. But – in one of those accidental details which are so crucial in detective/thriller fiction – Miller can’t be bothered waiting for the delayed train to Stuttgart and so drives to Stuttgart in his distinctive black jaguar with a yellow stripe. Big mistake. He parks the car some distance from Bayer’s house but is seen by his wife out attending a charity do. Later Werwolf phones Bayer to check Kolb/Miller got there alright, and the wife answers the phone and says, ‘Yes, I saw him getting out of his car, a lovely English one, a jaguar.’ Yikes.

Parallel storylines

At a stroke Werwolf realises Kolb is a fake and is overcome with chagrin. For, in a parallel strand of the book, he has been receiving reports from around Germany that a nosy reporter is asking questions about Roschmann, and so he has activated the Odessa’s assassin, Mackensen, to find this troublesome reporter and liquidate him. And to think he had the man Miller in his front room for three hours masquerading as one of the Kameraden!

Werwolf rings Mackensen and tells him Miller is in Stuttgart, downtown with Bayer, a jolly fellow who has taken Miller into town to dinner and is getting drunk with him. Mackensen tracks the pair to Miller’s room in a seedy hotel but is not expecting what transpires – which is that Miller suddenly pushes the drunk Bayer into a chair, ties him down and begins to threaten him, demanding he tell where the forger lives. Miller is really very violent, beating Bayer and eventually snapping his little finger, at which point Bayer tells him the forger is named Winzer and lives in Osnabrück. Miller stuffs a gag in Bayer’s mouth, secures his bonds and disappears out the fire escape, walking to his car and setting off for Osnabrück.

It takes Bayer several hours to shuffle over to a bedside lamp, knock it to the floor and use a shard of broken glass from the broken bulb to cut his bonds. Finally he stands up, goes to the window and throws it open – only to be killed with one shot by the Odessa assassin who has been waiting all night at a window opposite for Miller to show himself. But even as he packs up his rifle, Mackensen knows he’s made a bad mistake. He reluctantly phones Werwolf who is enraged at his incompetence and orders him to follow Miller. Werwolf immediately phones Winzer in Osnabrück and tells him a nosy journalist with violent tendencies is on his way to interview him, and orders him to disappear into the Alps for a week’s ‘holiday’.

It is typical of Forsyth’s approach that, when the Odessa forger Winzer is introduced, we are given about ten pages detailing his entire biography from birth, paying special attention to the series of events which led him to become such a proficient forger, and a detailed account of  his work for the SS during and after the war. The forward momentum of the novel completely stalls while we read this, but it is presented so crisply and with such complete authority that it doesn’t damage the novel, on the contrary, like all the similar sections about how the SS escaped or how Israeli intelligence is structured, or how the Nazi cell in Cairo functions, it adds tremendously to the sense of documentary accuracy which characterises Forsyth’s books.

In another, parallel strand of the plot, when Leon, head of the Jewish group in Munich, contacted his controllers in Israeli intelligence and told them about the whole Kolb/Miller plot, the Israelis demanded a) that Miller not only find Roschmann, but go beyond that to get the names and contacts of all the senior figures in Odessa b) that they put their own man, identified simply as Josef, a trained agent, onto trailing Miller. Again, we get a potted biography of Josef, Mossad’s agent, as he packs and flies to Germany, land of the people he hates.

So as Miller drives to Osnabrück to find the Odessa’s secret forger, his steps are being dogged not only by an SS assassin, but also by an Israeli agent.

Miller goes to Winzer’s house and his flirtatious housemaid makes it plain that Winzer has been tipped off about his arrival and left, only 20 minutes earlier. Where? The Alps, which is too vague a location for Miller to pursue or track him down.

The gathering speed of Miller’s manhunt comes, temporarily, to a halt until, after some food and a rest, he returns and re-questions the housemaid who mentions Winzer’s aunt, lying dying of cancer in a sanatorium. Miller bluffs his way past the doctors, pretending to be the aunt’s nephew and questions her, eliciting the unexpected news that Winzer keeps a ‘file’ as insurance against being caught. Miller phones a burglar he knows, one of his many contacts in the Hamburg underworld, and persuades him to catch the train to Osnabrück to do a little job for him.

Together they break into Winzer’s house and crack the safe: the burglar keeps all the money, Miller takes Winzer’s file, the Odessa File, a list of all the SS men Winzer has forged passports for. Leafing through it Miller recognises Roschmann’s file, complete with all details about his new name and identity. Miller phones his girlfriend in Hamburg and asks her to drive to meet him and to bring with her the gun he keeps in his flat. When she arrives some hours later they have sex, almost as an aside he proposes marriage to her – then he drives off to confront Roschmann at the hilltop mansion of the now-rich industrialist.

At which point the narrative gets very tense and very complicated, and you’ll need to read it yourself to find out what happens in the final Grand Confrontation scene, and why Miller’s quest turns out to be not at all what it seemed…


Hardware

Cars, planes, guns, ships, tanks. The detail and precision of naming and branding of boy’s toys is like an edition of Top Gear or a special Nazi supplement of Jane’s Defence Weekly.

On those winter manoeuvres in the woods around Bad Tolz, Top Sergeant Ulrich Frank commanded his first tank, an American-built M-48 Patton. It was his last manouevre with the Patton. Waiting for the troop back at camp was a row of shining brand-new French AMX-13s with which the unit was being re-equipped. Faster, more heavily armed than the Patton, the AMX would become his in another week. (p.149)

These tanks have a dual significance: they happen to be on manoeuvres and so hold up Miller in one of his various car journeys; but, although Top Sergeant Frank doesn’t know it, they are almost certainly among the soon-to-be-decommissioned weapons which are the subject of the diplomatic wrangles between Bonn and Tel Aviv. And, as it turns out, this tank is to be the subject of the final paragraph in the book, at the end of the epilogue which lists what became of all the characters in the book: this tank is traded to Israel and plays its part in the 1967 War, ending the novel with the image of it ‘caked with dust and oil, scored by bullets, its tracks worn to wafers by the rocks of Sinai’, rolling to a halt on the east bank of the Suez Canal.

Thus, even small details and episodes in the novel are drawn into the complex web of 20th century geopolitics which underpins the narrative at almost every step.

For a different kind of focus on technique, pages 251 to 253 give an unadorned, factual account of what you need to buy from which kind of store to make a home-made car bomb. Mackensen buys the ingredients and lovingly prepares one to blow up Miller’s car, with maybe predictably unintended consequences…

It is characteristic of Miller, and of this very male text, that the journalist is in love with his Jaguar which, initially, is deployed to give us a sense of his success and his young man’s enjoyment of shiny toys. Later it is used ironically by Forsyth, for it is Miller’s decision to use his car rather than the slow train which gives Miller away to Bayer’s wife and thus blows his cover before he’s even begun to infiltrate the Odessa. And it is in Miller’s car that Mackensen plants his home-made bomb, with explosive consequences… The car is a Jaguar SK 150S.

At a touch of the button the 3.8 litre engine beneath the long sloping bonnet of the Jaguar SK 150 S thundered once and settled down to its habitual and comforting rumble like an angry animal trying to get out of a cage. (p.14)

The movie

After the success of the Jackal novel (1971) and movie (1973), it’s no surprise that Odessa was snapped up and made into a movie, released in 1974, directed by Ronald Neame and starring Jon Voight.


Related links

Forsyth’s books

1971 The Day of the Jackal – It is 1963. An international assassin is hired by right-wing paramilitary organisation, the OAS, to assassinate French President, Charles de Gaulle. The novel follows the meticulous preparations of the assassin, code-name Chacal, and the equally thorough attempts of the ‘best detective in France’, Commissaire Lebel, to track him down. Surely one of the most thoroughly researched and gripping thrillers ever written.
1972 The Odessa File – It is 1963. German journalist Peter Miller goes on a quest to track down an evil former SS commandant and gets caught up in a high-level Nazi plot to help Egypt manufacture long-range missiles to attack and destroy Israel.
1974 The Dogs of War – City magnate Sir James Manson hires seasoned mercenary Cat Shannon to overthrow the dictator of the (fictional) West African country of Zangaro, so that Manson’s mining company can get its hands on a mountain virtually made of platinum. This very long novel almost entirely amounts to a mind-bogglingly detailed manual on how to organise and fund a military coup.
1975 The Shepherd – A neat slick Christmas ghost story about a post-war RAF pilot whose instruments black out over the North Sea but who is guided to safety by an apparently phantom Mosquito, flown by a pilot who disappeared without trace during the war.
1979 The Devil’s Alternative – A Cold War, geopolitical thriller confidently describing machinations at the highest levels of the White House, Downing Street and a Soviet Politburo riven by murderous factions and which is plunged into emergency by a looming grain shortage in Russia. A plot to overthrow the reforming leader of the Soviet Union evolves into a nailbiting crisis when the unexpected hijacking of an oil supertanker by fanatical Ukrainian terrorists looks like it might lead to the victory of the hawks in the Politburo, who are seeking a Russian invasion of Western Europe.
1982 No Comebacks Ten short stories combining Forsyth’s strengths of gripping technical description and clear fluent prose, with his weaknesses of cardboard characters and improbable plots, but the big surprise is how many of them are clearly comic in intention.
1984 The Fourth Protocol – Handsome, former public schoolboy, Paratroop Regiment soldier and MI5 agent John Preston, first of all uncovers the ‘mole’ working in MI5, and then tracks down the fiendish Soviet swine who is assembling a tactical nuclear device in Suffolk with a view to vaporising a nearby US Air Force base. the baddies’ plan is to rally anti-nuclear opinion against the Conservatives in the forthcoming General Election, ensuring a Labour Party victory and then (part two of the plan) replace the moderate Labour leader with an (unspecified) hard-Left figure who would leave NATO and effectively hand the UK over to the Russians. A lunatic, right-wing fantasy turned into a ‘novel’.
1989 The Negotiator – Taciturn Clint Eastwood-lookalike Quinn (no first name, just ‘Quinn’) is the best negotiator in the business, so when the President’s son is kidnapped Quinn is pulled out of quiet retirement in a Spanish village and sent to negotiate his release. What he doesn’t realise is the kidnap is just the start of a bigger conspiracy to overthrow the President himself!
1991 The Deceiver – A set of four self-contained, long short stories relating exciting incidents in the career of Sam McCready, senior officer in the British Intelligence Service, as he approaches retirement. More gripping than the previous two novels, with the fourth and final story being genuinely funny, in the style of an Ealing comedy starring Alec Guinness.
1994 The Fist of God – A journalistic account of Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing US-led ‘Desert Storm’ operation to throw him out, complete with insider accounts of the Western military and intelligence services and lavish descriptions of scores of hi-tech weaponry. Against this backdrop is set the story of one man – dark-skinned, Arabic-speaking Mike Martin who goes undercover posing as an Arab, first in occupied Kuwait, then – even more perilously – in Baghdad itself, before undertaking a final mission to locate and assist the destruction of Saddam’s atom bomb (!) and the Supergun designed to fire it at the Allies. Simultaneously gripping in detail and preposterous in outline.
1996 Icon – Hot shot CIA agent Jason Monk is brought out of retirement to foil a fascist coup in post-communist Russia in a novel which starts out embedded in fascinating contemporary history of Russia but quickly escalates to heights of absurdity, capped by an ending in which the Russian people are persuaded to install a distant cousin of our very own Queen as the new Tsar of All The Russias! Sure.
2001 The Veteran – Five very readable short stories: The Veteran, The Art of the Matter, The Miracle, The Citizen, and Whispering Wind – well engineered, sleek and almost devoid of real human psychology. Nonetheless, the vigilante twist of The Veteran is imaginatively powerful, and the long final story about a cowboy who wakes from a century-long magic sleep to be reunited with a reincarnation of his lost love has the eerie, primal power of a yarn by Rider Haggard.
2003 Avenger – A multi-stranded narrative which weaves together the Battle of Britain, the murder of a young American aid worker in Bosnia, the death of a young woman in America, before setting the tracking down of a Serbian war criminal to South America against a desperate plot to assassinate Osama bin Laden. The least far-fetched and most gripping Forsyth thriller for years.
2006 The Afghan – Ex-SAS man Colonel Mike Martin, hero of The Fist of God, is called out of retirement to impersonate an Afghan inmate of Guantanamo Bay in order to infiltrate Al Qaeda and prevent their next terrorist attack. Quite a gripping thriller with an amazing amount of detailed background information about Afghanistan, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Islamic terrorism and so on.
2010 The Cobra – Two lead characters from Avenger, Paul Devereaux and Cal Dexter, are handed the task of wiping out the illegal cocaine trade on the authority of Barack Obama himself. Which leads to an awesome display of Forsyth’s trademark factual research, scores of pages building up a comprehensive picture of the drugs industry, and to the detailed description of the multi-stranded operation which almost succeeds, until lily-livered politicians step in to halt it.
2013 The Kill List – Another one about Islamic terrorism. The Preacher, who has been posting jihadi sermons online and inspiring a wave of terrorist assassinations, is tracked down and terminated by US marine Christopher Carson, aka The Tracker, with a fascinating side plot about Somali piracy thrown in. Like all Forsyth’s novels it’s packed with interesting background information but unlike many of his later novels it this one actually becomes genuinely gripping at the end.
2015 The Outsider – At age 76 Forsyth writes his autobiography in the form of a series of vignettes, anecdotes and tall tales displaying his characteristic briskness and dry humour. What an extraordinary life he’s led, and what simple, boyish fun this book is.

The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth (1971)

This is a spectacularly brilliant book. It is utterly gripping and absorbing. If I had to give someone who’d never read a thriller an example to show them what the genre can do, it would be this one.

Compared to books by Desmond Bagley, Alistair MacLean, Eric Ambler or Hammond Innes which generally weigh in at around 220 pages, The Day of The Jackal is nearly double the length (at 382 pages in the Corgi paperback version) and twice as gripping.

The length is an indicator of its key strength, its lavish attention to detail, the depth and meticulousness of its research. Rarely can a thriller have been written with such verisimilitude.

Political background

France invaded Algeria in 1830. Very quickly it became not a colony, as in the British model of Empire, but an actual administrative department of France, fully integrated into the patrie. After World War Two there were growing calls for independence and low-level violence escalated into a full-blown war of independence which started in 1954, led by the main independence movement, the National Liberation Front or FLN.

By the late 1950s their campaign of violence – with retaliatory attacks by the French Army and paramilitary groups – had spilled over into mainland France and it had become the dominant political issue: should France cling on to Algeria at the cost of ever-increasing repression and violence, or grant the country independence? Communist, socialist and liberal deputies and opinion formers argued for independence, but the Army, the right wing and most of the colonists, or pieds noirs, were violently opposed, considering Algeria not a colony but a part of the sacred soil of France.

By 1961 it became clear that only one man could heal the massive rifts in French politics and Charles de Gaulle, the embodiment of the nation, the voice of freedom during the dark days of the Nazi occupation, was recalled from retirement and made President. Both sides expected a miracle, that he could somehow square the circle, but inevitably one side had to lose and it was the colonists – de Gaulle called two referendums in which the nation as a whole voted to withdraw from Algeria. The Army and colonists felt betrayed and opposed the plan with every means at their disposal including violence, attacking police and political sympathisers. The Organisation de l’armée secrète or OAS was founded in January 1961, in response to the first referendum, and one of its central aims was to murder the traitor, de Gaulle. No fewer than six attempts were made on the President’s life.

Plot

The novel opens with a detailed account of one of these plots, the assassination attempt mounted by Jean-Marie Bastien-Thiry in the Paris suburb of Le Petit-Clamart on 22 August 1962. The plot failed, Thiry and his co-conspirators were caught, and Thiry was executed by firing squad on 11 March 1963.

So far the book has been a completely factual account of actual historic events. This is part of what gives it such depth and conviction, not just that it is based on historical fact, but that those events are described with such a debonaire and confident combination of factual accuracy and drama.

The fiction is seamlessly woven into fact, as the radio announcement of Thiry’s execution is heard by the OAS’s second in command, Lieutenant Colonel Marc Rodin. (He has taken over control since the head, Antoine Argoud (real historical figure) was abducted from Germany by French security forces.)

Rodin convenes a meeting of two senior directors of OAS and presents them with a novel plan in his highly-guarded rooms in a Rome hotel. They will hire a foreigner, someone with no connection with France let alone the OAS. It will be done in complete secrecy by this special committee of three, telling no-one else in the organisatoin in order to ensure total security.

They draw up a shortlist of international assassins and their search brings an Englishman to their Rome hotel. He demands half a million dollars to carry out this once-in-a-lifetime hit. The three agree.

To pay for it, they order the OAS to carry out a wave of violent crime across France to raise the money, leading to a spate of robberies, thefts, burglaries, along with the response of the authorities. Meanwhile, the Jackal returns to London and starts to make his elaborate and detailed plans.

Forsyth describes in detail the clever scam whereby French security kidnap one of the bodyguards from the Rome hotel, and then the gruesome torture techniques they apply (electric clips to the nipples and penis, huge electric shocks). He reveals that a foreigner came to visit Rodin and his codename, le chacal. French security deduce a foreign assassin has been hired and convey this to their masters.

Forsyth reveals an incredibly detailed and thoroughly researched grasp of the structure of the various French security services, how they interlock and overlap with civil servants and ministers of the relevant ministries. Roger Frey, the French Minister of the Interior, convenes a meeting of the heads of all the services to discuss what to do.

The Minister stood at the head of the table. To his immediate right sat his chef de cabinet, and to his left the Prefect of Police, the political head of France’s police forces. From Sanguinetti’s right hand down the length of the oblong table sat General Gibaud, head of the SDECE, Colonel Rolland, chief of the Action Service and the author of the report of which a copy lay in front of each man. Beyond Rolland were Commissaire Ducret of the Corps de Sécurité Presidentielle, and Colonel Saint-Clair de Villaubin, an air force colonel of the Elysée staff… To the left of M.Maurice Papon, the Prefect of Police, were M.Maurice Grimaud, the Director-General of the Sûreté Nationale, and in a row the five heads of the departments that make up the Sûreté. (p.181)

At this meeting the Commissioner of the Police Judiciaire says the first thing is to establish the Jackal’s identity, a job for a detective. When asked who is the best detective in France he replies (not, alas, Inspector Clouseau who, coincidentally, made his debut film appearance in 1963) but his own deputy commissioner, Claude Lebel.

From this point onwards the novel becomes a cat and mouse narrative, split into two streams, one detailing the immensely thorough precautions and plans of the Jackal; the other describing in just as much detail the actions of the French policeman.

Several things contribute to the novel’s phenomenal power:

Timeline

The forward momentum and pace of the novel never let up, from the moment Thiry is executed in March 1963, as it follows day by day the activities of the Jackal, of the OAS and then of Lebel right up until the fateful 25 August when the plot and the novel come to their explosive climax. Almost every chapter begins or ends with a phrase like ‘as they were talking the clock passed midnight and it was Monday 15 August’. The pressure of the timeline is always present in the narrative.

Verisimilitude

The novel is mind-bogglingly well-researched. Forsyth the narrator comes across as immensely knowledgable and thoroughly in command of his material. He displays a totally convincing understanding of the intricate and complicated roles and responsibilities of all of France’s police and security agencies and then, when the hunt moves to England, a similar grasp of the overlapping responsibilities of the police, Scotland Yard, Special Branch and MI6, or ‘the Service’.

Not only are the stakes of the novel high – life and death of the leader of a major western nation, the future of France – but Forsyth’s grasp of the implications of the plot, at all levels, from the most senior geopolitical issues, through the mazes of security and police bureaucracy, down to the tiniest details of the Jackal’s preparations for the assassination, is complete. It is a masterful text, an astonishing achievement.

Sex and death

Sex, death, guns, sports cars, forged papers, security services, kidnapping, torture, international banking transactions – all are described in the same efficient, factual and powerfully credible style. Forsyth exudes confidence. He is at home with all of this stuff. One of the striking features of this and his other novels is how relaxed and matter of fact he is about sex. In the thrillers I’ve read up to the mid-1970s by Eric Ambler, Hammond Innes, Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley and John le Carré, sex has been conspicuous by its absence. The anonymous narrator of Len Deighton’s Ipcress novels alludes to having sex with his girlfriend, but only in the most oblique ways (she asks for her ear ring back). Compare and contrast with Forsyth’s frank, unashamed description of sex between the Jackal and the lonely Baroness he picks up because she has a conveniently isolated chateau where he can hide out.

The door opened and the Baroness came in. Her hair had been let down around her shoulders and she wore a pegnoir held together at the throat but open down the front. As she moved it swayed briefly open. She was quite naked beneath it, but had kept on the stockings she had worn at dinner and the high-heeled court shoes. The Jackal propped himself up on one elbow as she closed the door and walked over to the bed.

She looked down at him in silence. He reached up and slipped loose the bow of ribbon that held the nightdress closed at the throat. It swung open to reveal the breasts, and as he craned forward his hand slid the lace-edged material off her shoulders. It slid down to the floor without a sound. (1975 Corgi paperback edition, p.316)

At which point she grasps his wrists, pushes him flat onto the bed, straddling his chest, dangling her breasts in his face, then tells him to ‘perform’ as she moves her loins up over his mouth. Cunnilingus. I’ve read nothing like this in the English thriller tradition up to this point. It’s not so much that it’s rude and arousing, as that Forsyth reports it with the same confident, unembarrassed savoir faire he applies to every other aspect of his story.

And so, when he realises the Baroness has (very foolishly) used the extension in her bedroom to overhear the Jackal’s brief phone call to his OAS minder, he kills her just as coldly and efficiently, and Forsyth deploys the same unembarrassed, uncoy, uneuphemistic, accurate, factual style to describe it.

She made a rush for the door. He caught her easily and hurled her back across the room on to the bed, coming after her in three fast paces. As she bounced on the rumpled sheets her mouth opened to scream. The back-handed blow across the side of the neck into the carotid artery choked off the scream at source, then his left hand was tangled in her hair, dragging her face downwards over the edge of the bed. She caught a last glimpse of the pattern of the carpet when the forehanded chop with the edge of the palm came down on the back of the neck. (p.326)

Psychology

One reason for reading novels, and a key element in ‘literature’, is interest in the depth and fullness of ‘character’, and to observe how characters interact and change and develop through the incidents of the plot.

In Forsyth the characters are robots: the OAS characters are bent on revenge; the security characters pursue logically all administrative precautions to prevent the assassination; the Jackal is a killing machine – if ‘competence’ is a mark of the thriller protagonist, the level of professionalism he brings to every aspect of his life is off the scale – and, for his part, detective Lebel is a man given a task by his superiors who carries it out to the best of his ability.

There are a few moments or areas where a shadow of psychology creeps in:

  • In the daily briefings which Lebel is ordered to give to the entire assembled security chiefs, one of them, Saint-Clair, is consistently harsh in his criticism of the failure to arrest the Jackal – we know, and Lebel eventually proves, that this man has been going home and telling everything he’s learned to his young mistress, while she sexually pleasures him in various explicitly described ways, before she sneaks off and phones her OAS control, who then tips off the Jackal – for the is an OAS plant. The growing antagonism between Saint-Clair and Lebel almost amounts to a bit of character development, though the simplicity with which he is revealed as the leak, and accepts his humiliation is surprisingly straightforward.
  • More simply, the Baroness is given a backstory wherein her husband has abandoned her to gallivant with starlets in Paris; she is given a scene where she admires her naked body in the mirror and makes the conscious decision that, alright, she too is going to enjoy herself – and it is this decision which leads her to accede to the Jackal’s advances, and ultimately leads to her death.
  • Most tellingly, there is one long paragraph which purports to give an insight into the Jackal’s motivation.

He looked out at the jewelled sea and the lithe brown girls walking along the beach, the hissing Cadillacs and the snarling Jaguars that crept along the Croisette, their bronzed young drivers keeping half an eye on the road and the other flicking across the pavements for a likely pick-up. This was what he had wanted for a long time, from the days when he had pressed his nose to the travel agent’s windows and gazed at the posters showig another life, another world, far from the drudgery of the commuter train and the forms in triplicate, the paper clips and tepid tea. Over the past three years he had almost made it; a glimpse here, a touch there. He had got used to good clothes, expensive meals, a smart flat, a sports car, elegant women. To go back meant to give it all up. (p.277)

It is not enough. It doesn’t justify the Jackal’s superhuman precision and efficiency. In fact, it is a bit of a letdown. The Jackal isn’t a man, he is a phenomenon, an embodiment of ‘a certain type of masculinity’, raised to almost mythical status, he is Achilles, he is Beowulf. From about half way through the novel the authorities think they’ve identified him as an Englishman, Charles Calthrop, involved in previous mercenary work. Only at the very end do we learn that even this identity was a fake, that he appears to have no identifiable past.

He is, in fact, a man with no name and, like the Clint Eastwood character (who debuted in the 1964 movie A Fistful of Dollars), the very absence of backstory, or psychology, or any attempt at explanation, is crucial to his conception. He is a sort of force of nature.

The movie

The novel was a famous success, bestseller of 1971 and launched Forsyth’s long career. Inevitably it was imediately snapped up by a producer and turned into the classic thriller movie directed by Fred Zinneman and starring the impossibly plummy Edward Fox.


Related links

Forsyth’s books

1971 The Day of the Jackal – It is 1963. An international assassin is hired by right-wing paramilitary organisation, the OAS, to assassinate French President, Charles de Gaulle. The novel follows the meticulous preparations of the assassin, code-name Chacal, and the equally thorough attempts of the ‘best detective in France’, Commissaire Lebel, to track him down. Surely one of the most thoroughly researched and gripping thrillers ever written.
1972 The Odessa File – It is 1963. German journalist Peter Miller goes on a quest to track down an evil former SS commandant and gets caught up in a high-level Nazi plot to help Egypt manufacture long-range missiles to attack and destroy Israel.
1974 The Dogs of War – City magnate Sir James Manson hires seasoned mercenary Cat Shannon to overthrow the dictator of the (fictional) West African country of Zangaro, so that Manson’s mining company can get its hands on a mountain virtually made of platinum. This very long novel almost entirely amounts to a mind-bogglingly detailed manual on how to organise and fund a military coup.
1975 The Shepherd – A neat slick Christmas ghost story about a post-war RAF pilot whose instruments black out over the North Sea but who is guided to safety by an apparently phantom Mosquito, flown by a pilot who disappeared without trace during the war.
1979 The Devil’s Alternative – A Cold War, geopolitical thriller confidently describing machinations at the highest levels of the White House, Downing Street and a Soviet Politburo riven by murderous factions and which is plunged into emergency by a looming grain shortage in Russia. A plot to overthrow the reforming leader of the Soviet Union evolves into a nailbiting crisis when the unexpected hijacking of an oil supertanker by fanatical Ukrainian terrorists looks like it might lead to the victory of the hawks in the Politburo, who are seeking a Russian invasion of Western Europe.
1982 No Comebacks Ten short stories combining Forsyth’s strengths of gripping technical description and clear fluent prose, with his weaknesses of cardboard characters and improbable plots, but the big surprise is how many of them are clearly comic in intention.
1984 The Fourth Protocol – Handsome, former public schoolboy, Paratroop Regiment soldier and MI5 agent John Preston, first of all uncovers the ‘mole’ working in MI5, and then tracks down the fiendish Soviet swine who is assembling a tactical nuclear device in Suffolk with a view to vaporising a nearby US Air Force base. the baddies’ plan is to rally anti-nuclear opinion against the Conservatives in the forthcoming General Election, ensuring a Labour Party victory and then (part two of the plan) replace the moderate Labour leader with an (unspecified) hard-Left figure who would leave NATO and effectively hand the UK over to the Russians. A lunatic, right-wing fantasy turned into a ‘novel’.
1989 The Negotiator – Taciturn Clint Eastwood-lookalike Quinn (no first name, just ‘Quinn’) is the best negotiator in the business, so when the President’s son is kidnapped Quinn is pulled out of quiet retirement in a Spanish village and sent to negotiate his release. What he doesn’t realise is the kidnap is just the start of a bigger conspiracy to overthrow the President himself!
1991 The Deceiver – A set of four self-contained, long short stories relating exciting incidents in the career of Sam McCready, senior officer in the British Intelligence Service, as he approaches retirement. More gripping than the previous two novels, with the fourth and final story being genuinely funny, in the style of an Ealing comedy starring Alec Guinness.
1994 The Fist of God – A journalistic account of Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing US-led ‘Desert Storm’ operation to throw him out, complete with insider accounts of the Western military and intelligence services and lavish descriptions of scores of hi-tech weaponry. Against this backdrop is set the story of one man – dark-skinned, Arabic-speaking Mike Martin who goes undercover posing as an Arab, first in occupied Kuwait, then – even more perilously – in Baghdad itself, before undertaking a final mission to locate and assist the destruction of Saddam’s atom bomb (!) and the Supergun designed to fire it at the Allies. Simultaneously gripping in detail and preposterous in outline.
1996 Icon – Hot shot CIA agent Jason Monk is brought out of retirement to foil a fascist coup in post-communist Russia in a novel which starts out embedded in fascinating contemporary history of Russia but quickly escalates to heights of absurdity, capped by an ending in which the Russian people are persuaded to install a distant cousin of our very own Queen as the new Tsar of All The Russias! Sure.
2001 The Veteran – Five very readable short stories: The Veteran, The Art of the Matter, The Miracle, The Citizen, and Whispering Wind – well engineered, sleek and almost devoid of real human psychology. Nonetheless, the vigilante twist of The Veteran is imaginatively powerful, and the long final story about a cowboy who wakes from a century-long magic sleep to be reunited with a reincarnation of his lost love has the eerie, primal power of a yarn by Rider Haggard.
2003 Avenger – A multi-stranded narrative which weaves together the Battle of Britain, the murder of a young American aid worker in Bosnia, the death of a young woman in America, before setting the tracking down of a Serbian war criminal to South America against a desperate plot to assassinate Osama bin Laden. The least far-fetched and most gripping Forsyth thriller for years.
2006 The Afghan – Ex-SAS man Colonel Mike Martin, hero of The Fist of God, is called out of retirement to impersonate an Afghan inmate of Guantanamo Bay in order to infiltrate Al Qaeda and prevent their next terrorist attack. Quite a gripping thriller with an amazing amount of detailed background information about Afghanistan, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Islamic terrorism and so on.
2010 The Cobra – Two lead characters from Avenger, Paul Devereaux and Cal Dexter, are handed the task of wiping out the illegal cocaine trade on the authority of Barack Obama himself. Which leads to an awesome display of Forsyth’s trademark factual research, scores of pages building up a comprehensive picture of the drugs industry, and to the detailed description of the multi-stranded operation which almost succeeds, until lily-livered politicians step in to halt it.
2013 The Kill List – Another one about Islamic terrorism. The Preacher, who has been posting jihadi sermons online and inspiring a wave of terrorist assassinations, is tracked down and terminated by US marine Christopher Carson, aka The Tracker, with a fascinating side plot about Somali piracy thrown in. Like all Forsyth’s novels it’s packed with interesting background information but unlike many of his later novels it this one actually becomes genuinely gripping at the end.
2015 The Outsider – At age 76 Forsyth writes his autobiography in the form of a series of vignettes, anecdotes and tall tales displaying his characteristic briskness and dry humour. What an extraordinary life he’s led, and what simple, boyish fun this book is.

Emily Carr @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

This is the first UK exhibition dedicated to Emily Carr (1871-1945), according to the curators one of Canada’s most beloved and famous artists although, like most Brits, I’d never heard of her. Carr never married and had no significant relationships, instead dedicating her life to recording the vanishing monuments of the native peoples and the wild landscape of her native British Columbia. It is a fascinating show, the latest in Dulwich Picture Gallery’s long track record of small but wonderfully inspiring exhibitions.

Carr was the fifth daughter of a merchant who was able to fund her art studies. Her parents died when she was young, and she had to struggle against her elder sisters’ wishes that she find a good husband and settle down – instead she was determined to pursue her artistic ambitions, travelling to San Francisco to study art in the 1890s. Later in the decade and through into the early 1900s she was in London studying painting, with a spell at St Ives too. So she was starting her career right at the birth of Modern Art, as the Fauves were exploring more violent colour contrasts, as Picasso and Braque were about to invent cubism, as the pace of artistic experimentation accelerated in the years just before the Great War.

Emily Carr in San Francisco, age 21 or 22, c. 1893, Image H-02813, courtesy of the Royal BC Museum, BC Archives

Young Emily Carr in San Francisco, age 21 or 22, c. 1893 (courtesy of the Royal BC Museum, BC Archives)

The Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibition wing has six rooms, so Carr’s career is divided into six sections. For some artists this six-fold division is used to highlight different subjects or media, but for Carr it really brings out how strikingly different her style and approach was at different points of her career.

The forest

The first room shows many of her early tree and forest paintings. She had a special affinity for trees, especially the tall, muscular cedar trees which characterise British Columbia. They are like twisting columns among the sombre dark-green foliage. A classic example here is Tree Trunk (1931). Among the studies of trees is a famous image, Indian Church (1929).

Emily Carr, Indian Church, 1929, oil on canvas. ART GALLERY OF ONTARIO, Bequest of Charles S. Band, Toronto,

Emily Carr, Indian Church, 1929, oil on canvas (Art Gallery of Ontario, Bequest of Charles S. Band, Toronto)

Reproductions don’t convey how intense, claustrophobic and brooding this painting is. The commentary explains there was just such a church in the woods but Carr brought the forest much closer than it was in real life, bunched the gravestones closer up against the building, and made the church striking white against the threatening greens of the encroaching forest. It symbolises her white, European ancestry and artistic heritage, set against the fathomless depth and power of wild, unEuropean nature.

The commentary made the telling point that though she did hundreds of tree paintings, there are no leaves. Being familiar with the botanical drawings of Marianne North among others, or the feathery leaf technique of Thomas Gainsborough, I realise this was a very deliberate choice. Her foliage comes in blocks. It is similar in feel to the cubist or vorticist feel for blocks, cubes, rectangles, cones. Nature, for Carr, is forces and directions of energy, rather than fragile detail.

Totem poles

In the 1860s a wave of epidemics, mostly smallpox, swept through the native people of British Columbia, decimating them. Entire villages were wiped out and their buildings, artefacts and striking totem poles left to rot. This was the strange abandoned landscape Carr grew up into in the 1890s. Once she had discovered her first native villages she became obsessed with recording them before they decayed forever, reclaimed by the forest. The result was hundreds of watercolours and oil paintings of totem poles and the other statuary of the natives.

All of these have, I imagine, considerable historical and anthropological importance, but almost all of them are striking and hauntingly beautiful.

Emily Carr, Tanoo, Queen Charlotte Island, BC, 1913, Image PDP02145 courtesy of Royal BC Museum, BC Archives, Canada.

Emily Carr, Tanoo, Queen Charlotte Island, BC, 1913 (Image courtesy of Royal BC Museum, BC Archives, Canada)

In this, one of the most famous images, note the use of Cezanne-like inch-long rectangles of paint, the blocky effect, visible all over, but particularly in the clouds and especially in the grass.

and many many more images of totems. Two things stick out for me. 1. These are ruins. No humans anywhere. The same accusation could be made as was made against the English Lake District poets and painters – Nature is a refuge from the messiness of human life, human relationships, above all from the world of work, earning the money to buy the food to stay alive. 2. Like all ruins, they come with a ready-made emotional appeal. (cf Tate’s exhibition on Ruin Lust). The gaunt accuracy of her works contrasts with the actual crumbling decay, poignantly.

Late 20s modernism

Then she packed it in. Sometime during the Great War Carr stopped painting in oil or watercolour and took to other things, dog breeding, according to the commentary, which includes photographs of her looking very happy surrounded by her animals. She had got no recognition, sold nothing, made no money. Decided to call it a day.

Some 15 years later, in 1927, a gallery out East decided to have an exhibition about paintings of the Canadian landscape and someone suggested Carr. She sent nearly 30 works and found herself famous! She was invited to attend the exhibition and met the Group of Seven young painters who’d come together to forge a native Canadian style. She found herself praised as a forebear of their attempts and, amid the adulation and praise, was encouraged to take up her brush again.

What she produced from 1927 through the mid-1930s is strikingly different from the earlier work. It is much more modernist, even Vorticist in feel, the subject matter (nature, trees, forest, totem poles – no people) more chunky, stripped down to create solid blocks of thick colour.

Emily Carr, Big Eagle, Skidigate, B.C. c. 1930, Watercolour on paper, (Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Donated in memory of Dorothy Plaunt Dyde)

Emily Carr, Big Eagle, Skidigate, B.C. c. 1930, Watercolour on paper (Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Donated in memory of Dorothy Plaunt Dyde)

Wispy

Just as you’re getting your head around Carr’s progression from late-Victorian realist watercolour through Fauvism and cubism influences to the blocky 1930s style – you walk into the 5th room to discover a dozen or more paintings in a completely different style. The subject is still nature, forest, trees, but she has invented a new technique, based on using petrol to soften the paint once it is on the canvas and stir and spread it around in spools and wisps of colour. This experimental new technique creates a light, flowing style utterly unlike the heavy dark blocks of colour from earlier in the 1930s.

Emily Carr, Happiness, 1939, Oil on paper (University of Victoria Art Collection, Gift of Nikolai and Myfanwy Pavelic)

Emily Carr, Happiness, 1939, Oil on paper (University of Victoria Art Collection, Gift of Nikolai and Myfanwy Pavelic)

Note the emphasis on the play of light and the effect of wind, light and wind on slender trees – completely different from the heavy, static, claustrophobic images of the forest which the exhibition opened with. Many of them have the expressionist swirling of paint around the main subject reminiscent of Edvard Munch.

Final room

The final room shows yet another change in style: her last paintings, done in the late 1930s/early 1940s, are of light over the sea, beaches, the coast. According to the catalofue, ‘euphoric sky paintings, rhythmic light-filled beach scenes and clear-cut landscapes’. It would be nice to end on a positive note, but for me these don’t work. The technique they all adopt of thick lines of paint – presumably an attempt to catch the infinitely subtle play of light on water, or sunlight between clouds – fail.

Emily Carr, Untitled (Seascape) 1935, Oil on paper mounted on board (The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria)

Emily Carr, Untitled (Seascape) 1935, Oil on paper mounted on board (The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria)

Far more interesting are the couple of large paintings of decorated canoes drawn up by the sea or lake shore. The first is an accurate but rather insipid watercolour from 1908. Next to it hang two large oil paintings from 1912, just 4 years later, but a world away. Carr has been exposed to the Fauves and taken on board their experiments with colour: using colour not in relation to the ‘real world’ but in relation to the other colours in the palette and being used in the painting: so that shadows become purple or green, hillsides can be red or yellow (lessons about colour conveyed so brilliantly in the National Gallery’s recent exhibition about Making Colour). Gauguin in Canada.

Emily Carr, Indian War Canoe (Alert Bay), 1912, Oil on cardboard (The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Purchase, gift of A. Sidney Dawes)

Emily Carr, Indian War Canoe (Alert Bay), 1912, Oil on cardboard (The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Purchase, gift of A. Sidney Dawes)

Native Indian artefacts

In two of the rooms, in addition to the paintings there are display cases containing 30 or so native Indian artefacts, carved objects and tools made by the peoples whose ruined villages and totems Carr recorded so dedicatedly. They included: helmet with bear, gull mask, raven ladle, octopus spoon, sheep horn feast dish, frog mask, soul catcher, shaman’s amulet, dance wand, oyster catcher rattle.

Female mask with labret, c.1820-1830, Carved alder wood mask (©The Trustees of the British Museum)

Female mask with labret, c.1820-1830, Carved alder wood mask (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

The audio commentary had many of them explained by James Hart, a Haida hereditary chief and master carver; there was one particularly long piece where he described the myths surrounding the important figure of the raven in native mythology.

The aim, I think, is to give a sense of the Indian culture which she was painting and I certainly thought they had a tremendous depth and elegance. The historical and cultural authenticity of the native artefacts, as well as the resonance of mythical imagination behind the objects which depicted faces of animals, shamans and totems, are like gateways into a really strange and alien universe of belief and practice.

They give you a sense of Carr’s startling ambition to try and match and capture their weird insight. In her day she was a bold and imaginative pioneer, heroic in her determination to seek out the ruined villages, sometimes hundreds of miles from the nearest white settlement, to stay there day after day, often on her own, trying to catch the secrets of these haunting objects by the equally mysterious process of covering thin canvas surfaces with strokes of coloured oil.

Towards the end of her life she described her adventures among the native peoples and their art in a best-selling book, Klee Wyck.

Harold Mortimer-Lamb, Emily Carr in Her Studio, 1939, silver gelatin print, (Promised Gift to the Vancouver Art Gallery from Claudia Beck and Andrew Gruft)

Emily Carr in her studio, 1939, by Harold Mortimer-Lamb (Promised Gift to the Vancouver Art Gallery from Claudia Beck and Andrew Gruft)

This is a great show about a fascinating, strong and uncompromising artist. It’s been extended to mid-March. Go see.

Related links


Other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

The Striker Portfolio by Adam Hall (1969)

The gun smashed upwards into his face and didn’t go off because the blow was directly on the wrist-nerve to paralyse the fingers before the index could contract, but there was risk attached and I had to sweat it out until the gun hit the ground with a negative thud and didn’t blow our legs off. (p.114)

Elleston Trevor was a prolific writer who used a large number of pseudonyms across a range of genres. He conceived and wrote the first novel about the tough secret agent, Quiller, in 1965 and there followed 18 more Quiller novels at two- or three-year intervals until the final one in 1996.

The Striker Portfolio is the third in the series. I didn’t really enjoy the first two because I found the protagonist’s behaviour frustratingly irrational, and the pace of the novels grindingly slow, with large amounts of self-centred self-analysis swamping a relatively small amount of plot, which itself depended on too-random accidents.

The plot

Someone is causing a series of crashes of the latest NATO fighter plane, the Striker, in or near their German bases. If this were a normal thriller an agent would be sent to find out why, working from clues and tips. But the Quiller books immediately establish a strange, disoriented atmosphere, where Quiller is manoeuvred into asking to go to Germany and ordered to put himself ‘in their way’, even though neither his bosses nor we know who ‘they are’. Where there should be intelligent detective work, there is Quiller’s weird, robotic psychometrics: endless paragraphs speculating what ‘they’ will do and how ‘they’ operate and so on. It’s meant to be fashionably psychological and insightful, but it comes over as laboured and very very slow.

No sooner is Quiller established in Germany than his contact is thrown out a hotel window, it’s made to look like suicide, but isn’t.

Then Quiller gets caught up in a car ‘tagging’, which sees him forced into a cul de sac, from which he is taken by gunpoint to a wrecked car lot, where he just manages to escape being shot by dodging the bullets, climbing over barbed wire and running across an Autobahn between cars.

Quiller hangs around the Luftwaffe base where a forensic centre has been set up to analyse the crashes, meeting pilots, attending a party, being propositioned by one of the wives.

Quiller makes contact with the defector (I didn’t understand how) who is visibly terrified, and manages to mention a clockmaker’s shop in a little town named Neueberg. Almost immediately two men arrive at the motel bar where they’re talking, and take the defector (Bendikt) upstairs (why doesn’t Quiller intervene?) and when he goes up to his room 15 minutes later, Quiller finds the defector strangled to death and his room trashed.

Quiller gets into his car in the car park (worrying it might be booby-trapped), drives out onto the road heading north only to realise he’s being followed by a huge Mercedes. He tries several U-turns at high speed on the empty mountain road but eventually the Mercedes catches up with him and pushes him off the road and into the trees. High speed car crash!

Quiller survives the crash, crawls out of the wreck, flags down a car and makes it to the flat of the pilot’s wife whose proposition he turned down earlier. He phones his director from her place and arranges for new car and papers. Walks to an A&E department to get stitched up, walks to the car and sets off for more driving round. He’s stopped at a police checkpoint and what should be a tense moment is the opportunity for several pages explaining the Bureau’s relationship with other countries’ agencies.

Quiller drives to the clockmaker’s shop in Neueberg which the dead defector mentioned, and hasn’t been casing it for long before one of the assassins from the early scene in the junk car lot turns up, is inside for an hour or so. When he leaves, Quiller ‘tags’ him on a midnight drive through forest down to a spooky abandoned sector of the border with East Germany.

Quiller follows the assassin to his rendezvous the other side of the border, and is picked up by East German security – featuring the stereotypical gorgeous Nazi-turned-Communist Ice Maiden of every boy’s fantasies. Despite trying to bluff it as one of their own agents, the East Germans know exactly who Quiller is and lock him up in an insane asylum used for ‘re-educating’ dissidents. This is done by the simple expedient of feeding salty food and denying any kind of liquid. In his detached, clinical way the narrator observes his own rapid mental decline until, after a few days, he is hallucinating water everywhere.

Five or so days into Quiller’s ‘torture’ he (and the reader) is surprised when the door is opened not by a security guard but by a ‘friend’ who gives him water and helps him escape through the asylum wire. Quiller stumbles across fields and – amazingly – comes across the Ice Maiden with her car. She drives him to the frontier and tells the story. Within the asylum is a cell (Die Zelle) itself separate from the East German state, dedicated to creating a new, unified Germany. They know the Americans won’t allow this while West Germany is a heavily-armed part of NATO. Therefore the plot to crash high-profile planes is designed to get America to withdraw Germany’s NATO membership.

The Ice Maiden – Helda – lists the key members of Die Zelle, who drive from the asylum to Berlin for a monthly conference. She drops Quiller where the Ostis collected him and he stumbles through the wire and is picked up by British soldiers. Once tidied up, Quiller is able to pass all this information on to his director, Ferris. The British intelligence response will be to drop special forces into E. Germany to kidnap the Zelle leaders on their monthly car trip to Berlin.

Quiller drives back to the Luftwaffe base and confronts one of the young pilots, Römhild, the one whose unhappy wife Quiller got involved with. Quiller confronts him with what he’s worked out – Römhild is the son of the leader of Die Zelle, who coerced him into leading the Striker-busting operation. His partner, Wagner, rotates around the bases and slips toxic pills into the standard pilot box of tranquilisers. At high altitude they kick in = crashed plane, dead pilot.

Quiller suddenly realises that as he drove up to the base he had seen a plane taking off. He sprints to the control tower and furiously insists they get the flyer to abort the flight and come down now now now. It works. The pilot survives. The guilty Römhild shoots himself. Quiller explains all to his director, Ferris, and then asks if he can accompany the drop into the East to take out the Zelle leaders. He wants to persuade the Ice Maiden to come back out with him. Aaaah.

Quiller characteristics

Tagging

My heart sank through my boots when I saw that Quiller’s instructions are – once again – to vaguely get in the way of ‘the adverse party’ without knowing who they are or why. This involves – just like the previous two novels, loads of bloody ‘tagging’ ie you following ‘them’ and ‘them’ following you, and both trying to ‘flush’ the other ie lose them. He tags the adverse party around Hanover. He tags the assassin from Neueberg to the border.

It was No go

And my heart also sank when I read this phrase, which I will now forever associate with the intense frustration of reading Quiller’s wordy, self-conscious narrator as he considers various options and then concludes ‘it was no go’. Again and again and again.

  • A pilot’s wife offers herself to him ‘but it was no go’.
  • He toys with shooting his car seat backwards into the man sitting in the back holding a gun to his head ‘but it’s no go’.
  • He considers the life of a defector: ‘They see quite suddenly that it’s no go.’
  • The defector is killed: Quiller phones London to say: ‘I made contact. But it was no go.’
  • ‘Even if they sent the best man in the Bureau he still wouldn’t be one hundred per cent reliable. No one is. It was no go.’
  • They are interrogating him in East Germany and offer him a break. ‘It’s no go,’ I said.

Technocratic view of the human body

The controllers’ orders, through the media of his memory and his motor-nerves, were operating the fixator muscles of his finger so that it remained still, three millimetres from the end of the primary spring’s travel, two millimetres from the end of the secondary spring’s travel and the percussion. (p.30)

Wherever possible, the narrator reduces human activity – human intention – to a cold, physical description, to a clinical, detached observation of the self, of ‘the organism’, as of a specimen. A very male manoeuvre.

Whatever I now possessed they were going to arrange that it would shortly amount to no more than a pattern of memory traces fading on the surface of a dead cortex. (p.70)

In a way the narrator doesn’t just do spy things, the narration amounts to a tedious running commentary about the state of his mind and body, while he is doing spy things.

The dread had passed. Perhaps it had been automatically set up by the organism in its own defence. The situation was dangerous and could be mortal but the necessity of working out the mechanics hadn’t allowed the onset of base fear: and a situation becomes more dangerous if there is no fear present to alert the nerves and prepare the body. Blood should be drawn to the internal organs, draining from the digestive and secretory glands and skin by contraction of the arterioles so that the heart, brain and muscles can be fed. Breathing should quicken so that the muscles can be given an oxygen reserve. The eyes should dilate, admitting more light. (p.74)

Yes, it’s not so much a spy novel, as a combined psychologist’s, biologist’s and training instructor’s commentary on a spy novel. In fact, when the narrator pretends in the early part of the novel to be a psychologist in order to interview the Luftwaffe base staff and pilots, it is in fact just a natural extension of his everyday clinical approach. The more I read of this detached, observational style, the more I realised it’s a way of avoiding any human interaction at all.

In cases like this there is a defeat mechanism: the psychic system suddenly can’t take any more because it’s overloaded. (p.66)

If you like this approach, page after page analysing the reactions of the human mind and body to stressful situations and how to train them to cope with being tagged and threatened with guns, then you’ll like this book.

The whole of the organism was prepared to arrange its survival if it could: run, fight, beat out flames, bind blood in with a tourniquet, free itself from wreckage. The components were immediately available: nerve, sinew, gas-interchange process, adrenalin supply. Intelligence alone was absent. The organism had to be told what to do, and nothing knew. (p.79)

He never uses ‘my’, referring to his mind or body or their parts, when he could use ‘the’ instead, distancing his own experiences from his controlling mind. He goes out of his way to dehumanise himself at every opportunity.

There was pain in the organism but not enough to limit movement…Quite a lot of the organism was coping well enough… the right upper forearm was still in the healing stage and the left hand wanted stitches and the rib-cage and shoulders were bruised…The subconscious had been working busily during the crisis and now it presented its findings… The memory had had to pull it out of some very cold storage… After the first few kilometres I could feel the ciliary muscles contracting and relaxing… Nervous hallucinations set in after thirty minutes or so… The will-power was coming into its own at this stage: the body had at last recognised that things were serious…

In every one of the sentences above he’s referring to his body, fore-arm, memory, and so on., but treating them like specimens in a bottle.

Brain-think / stomach-think

One of the countless ways he psychologises every situation is frequently dividing his thoughts into brain-think or stomach-think, permanently trying to conquer the latter which is regularly telling him to run or do the simple, instinctive thing. When you think about it, a pretty crude division. ‘The little animal brain inside the back of my skull was snivelling about the risk.’ (p.76)

It had been mostly stomach-think, not brain-think: the instinctive need of a trapped animal to free itself, the temptation to go as the hare had gone, ears flat and feet together. Brain-think had warned me. (p.98)

Deliberate obscurity

This, the third Quiller novel, seems to have taken a leaf out of Len Deighton’s Ipcress novels, in using deliberately obscure juxtapositions. But Deighton does it with tremendous style and humour. Hall does it dead. There is no life, humour or colour to these concrete-grey texts. Chapter Seven begins:

It happened at precisely 0951 hours: I checked my watch from habit.
‘She is beautiful.’ The manager nodded.
Most of them had gone, much earlier. (p.53)

Takes a while to figure out what each of these three sentences refer to, none of them actually very interesting (there’s another crash at 0951, the manager also sells china figurines and is in the middle of showing Quiller one, the motel is empty because most of the guests have gone.)

Training manual

Vast swathes of the text don’t tell you anything about the plot or story at all. They tell you about what it’s like to be a spy, to work in stressful situations, how to control your body, your thoughts, your subconscious mind, how to use various guns, how to escape from a car covered by two men with guns, about the psychology of being a defector, a detailed comparison of the specs of a Mercedes and an NSU, about the application of psychology to the stress experienced by fighter pilots, and so on and so on. Reams of top advice.

Never destroy a mike: it can sometimes be used to carry false information. (p.132)

There is as much lecturing as plot in the book. Large chunks read like paraphrases of the Bureau’s operational manual, including a long passage explaining the Bureau’s relationship with other national agencies.

Of course the Bureau could do nothing officially: it doesn’t exist. But no network on a world scale is ever isolated: there’s always a fringe overlap especially when something big is on the programme and any given agency will bump elbows with most organisations from the national civil police authorities up through the CID, Special Branch, MI5, MI6 and various select departments whose chiefs are known only to the PM and Home Secretary. On an overseas mission you won’t get far before you cross lines with the SID, the CIA or the Deuxième Bureau according to the area being worked. (p.100)

There are two pages like this, giving a detailed breakdown of working relations between the Bureau and other national and international agencies. And what is our man doing at the time? What prompts this disquisition? He has been stopped in a police roadblock set up following the discovery of the body of the murdered defector, Benedikt, and he is showing his false papers claiming he is a German mechanic to the police. Ie it should be a moment of drama and tension, but Hall’s texts routinely translate suspense into scads of technical and scientifically objective description. Sometimes the techno-precision can be a little laughable.

I had slept from early morning till one o’clock and was ninety-eight per cent alert and two per cent under the continuing influence of the barometric pressure. (p.105)

Conclusion

So, although it is obviously a spy novel in design and specification, the actual reading experience is more like reading the creepy diary of a disturbed and unhinged man, obsessed with monitoring, measuring and testing his own mental and physical reactions, to the almost complete neglect of any normal interaction with other human beings.

Although marketed as a spy novel – and although my summary of the plot makes it sound pretty good – it’s actually like reading an account of someone with Asperger’s Syndrome, it is almost autistic in the sense the narrator gives of being locked in his own body and mind and super-obsessed with the slightest twitch of either of them, finding patterns, incapable of communicating fluently with other characters in the novel and, arguably, with the reader.They are unpleasantly claustrophobic to read.

Which is why I won’t be reading any more Quiller novels. The covers say: spy fun; the texts themselves turn out to be – no go.

Related links

Cover of The Striker Portfolio

Cover of The Striker Portfolio

The Quiller novels

  • 1965 – The Berlin Memorandum Quiller tangles with a group of neo-Nazis led by Oktober, trying to get details of their organisation til the capture and interrogate him to get the details of his organisation.
  • 1966 – The 9th Directive Quiller is in Bangkok where he uncovers a plot to assassinate ‘a leading Royal’, which he incompetently fails to realise is really a disguised plot to kidnap him. After much shooting and a high speed road chase the Royal is exchanged for an enemy spy on the Chinese border.
  • 1968 – The Striker Portfolio Quiller investigates the unexplained crashes of NATO’s latest high speed jet and uncovers a sinister conspiracy.

Flyaway by Desmond Bagley (1978)

I awoke in daylight to find a man looking down at me. He was dark-skinned and wore nothing but a loincloth and, in his right hand, he carried a spear. Behind him was a herd of cattle, healthy-looking beasts with piebald hides and wide-spreading horns. And beyond them was a group of hunters carrying bows, some with arrows nocked to the string. I blinked in surprise and sat up and stared. The man was nothing but paint on the wall of the cave, and so were the cattle and the hunters. (p.196)

Max Stafford is head of a medium size security firm which specialises in helping commercial companies prevent industrial espionage. A sequence of incidents occur which turn his life upside down.

First, a non-descript clerk, Paul Billson, who works at one of the firms he provides security for, is reported missing; after a bit of digging Stafford discovers this ‘clerk’ was earning much more than officially recorded, but for some reason this was kept a nervous secret by his bosses. Not only that, but the clerk is the son of a famous ‘flyer’ from the 1930s, the breed that set the earliest records for flying across the Atlantic, across America etc. Seems Paul’s father – Peter Billson, known by his nickname of ‘Flyaway’ Billson, who named his planes ‘Flyaway’ – took part in a newspaper-sponsored air race from Europe to South Africa in 1936, but went missing over the Sahara. Now, 40 years later, a scurrilous newspaper article has dug up this dusty old story and accuses the long-dead Peter Billson of faking the crash and conspiring with his long-dead wife to claim the hefty insurance payout.

When Stafford goes to meet Billson’s half-sister, the slight, dark Alix Aarvik, Stafford learns that the article tipped his son, Paul, who has harboured a life-long obsession with his vanished father, over the edge: Paul cashed in his life’s savings, went to London where he threatened the journalist who wrote the article, before buying a Land Rover and assorted supplies and flying to Algiers.

Now a) after making enquiries about Billson at the newspaper office where he made his threats, Stafford is surprised to be halted in the street and soundly beaten up by three professional thugs. He is laid up in hospital for a few weeks (then again, he’s ex-Army and works in security, so he’s not as freaked out as you or I would be). b) His business partners visit and point out he hasn’t had a holiday in four years; maybe he should use this enforced interruption to delegate his workload to a new up-and-coming partner and go for a long recuperation in the sun. c) It just so happens that Stafford’s marriage is falling apart and when he comes home early from the hospital he finds another man in his wife’s bed.

Thus events conpsire to make him think: what the hell? might as well go on a wild goose chase to Africa to find this strange man as do anything else. Good practice to be out in the field again. Where’s my passport?

And so Stafford tells his directors what he’s up to, leaves contact details with his lawyer and Billson’s half-sister, and flies to Algiers.

Algeria and Innes

This fairly brief set-up has taken about 50 pages. The remaining 200 pages are all set in Algeria and south across the border into Niger and are significantly different to anything of Bagley’s I’ve read before.

This book is very like a Hammond Innes novel, in that it is really an extended travelogue in a remote and exotic location. On almost every page I was shadowed by memories of Innes’ long novel set in the Empty Quarter of Arabia, The Doomed Oasis, which also contains lengthy descriptions of the physical geography and of the strange elusive spirit of the desert.

The main difference is that this story doesn’t have one of the main characteristics of Innes’ fiction: As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, Innes’ novels often have ‘overlays’ of coincidence: main characters are related, inherit antipathies or by coincidence end up in the same place or on the same quest: Innes novels are built up by placing layer upon layer of connection and coincidence between characters like a layer cake. The effect is initially far-fetched but, when it comes off, sometimes lends a kind of mythic or archetypal depth to the story.

Bagley’s stories are completely different. They are linear. There’s a mystery. Our guy sets off to solve it. In The Tightrope Men our guys have to extract secret weapon technology which has been buried on Soviet soil: and they do. In The Enemy our guy has to find out why industrialist Ashton went on the run: and he does. In this one, our guy has to find out why so many people are concerned about a plane which crashed in the desert 40 years ago: and he does. Despite everything the bad guys throw at him.

‘You wouldn’t take the warning back in London. You had to play the thick-headed hero and meddle in things that don’t concern you.’ (p.216)

The plot

The next step in the ‘plot’ is that, soon after Stafford arrives in Algiers, Peter Billson’s former lover, Hesther Raulier (17 back in 1936) and still living there, contacts him for an interview (ie to give us important parts of the back story). She describes the kind of man Peter was, how unlikely it is he would pull a con, and recommends he contact an American named Luke Byrne in his next scheduled stop, the southern town of Tamanrassett. Byrne has been living in the area since World War Two when the US bomber he was piloting crashed in the desert and he was the only survivor. At that moment he made the decision to desert from the armed forces and has lived thereabouts ever since, making a living as a camel breeder and from the salt trade.

From the moment Stafford meets him, the novel is really Byrne’s. He knows the varied (and awe-inspiring) terrain like the back of his hand, he knows the numerous different tribes and peoples of the desert, he speaks their various tongues, he has all the kit needed to survive, from Land Cruisers to camels, and he knows how to survive sandstorms, armed attack, how to bypass police checkpoints, how to shimmy the bureaucracy in the towns: he is Desert Superman, and Stafford becomes his adoring puppy, following him everywhere and learning gobbets of Bagley-style potted information on every page. As does the reader.

Briefly: after Byrne agrees to help Stafford, they do much searching of the desert and find Paul Billson, in a remote gully, shot and left for dead. They patch him up, get him basic medical aid, then after a lot of driving round, making excuses to the police, escaping out of town, heading south, breaking down, camping under the stars, reaching another town and realising they’re being followed etc we learn a bit more.

We learn that a Brit called Lash has put a contract out to have Billson killed and it is being carried out by a sinister Brit named Kissack who, however, is screwing it up. Stafford gets to hear these two arguing among themselves, Lash obviously the brains and very irritated with Kissack’s incompetence. Meanwhile, Byrne distributes a leaflet to the desert Arabs promising ten camels reward to anyone who can give information about the missing plane.

Throughout the text our heroes (Stafford, Byrne, the patched-up Paul and a couple of Tuareg helpers) are continually on the move and the text is studded with references to new locations, gravel plains, rocky peaks, classic sand dunes, with plenty of background information from Byrne, acting as guide, about how these geographic features were formed, about the language and customs of the local peoples, about food and water and survival. For long stretches it comes very close to reading a jaunty, slangy guidebook.

Finally, our guys are tipped off by a desert Arab about a likely sounding plane wreck up north and the narrative settles into a journey from Bilma, past Seguedine (in Niger) back up into Algeria, to Djanet and up onto the Tassli Plateau, a vast plateua criss-crossed by pre-historic watercourses and home – in its many caves – to thousands of stunning pre-historic paintings and carvings.

Here our heroes finally find the wretched plane, Flyaway, which this long and long-winded quest has been about. For the record, it is a Northrop ‘Gamma’ 2-D. They confirm that Peter Billson did crash in the desert and it wasn’t an insurance scam, probably because someone sabotaged the compass in the Algiers stopover. Then they find what’s left of Billson senior’s body in a cave, along with the harrowing diary of his slow death from starvation and dehydration.

The climax

They build a cairn over his body and leave a rough plaque, then begin to ride away. At the last minute (and contrived entirely for plot purposes) Paul Billson wants to go back and take a few last photos. Moments after he’s departed, Byrne and Stafford are ambushed by the baddies: Lash the boss, Kissack the hired killer, and a couple of Arab thugs. There follows a standard series of tropes: our boys are securely tied up; every time they wriggle the knots only get tighter; but Stafford has some old pre-historic ax heads he’d found, in his pocket; they wriggle back-to-back and start to undo each other’s ropes; meanwhile, the four baddies load the plane with petrol and set it on fire, so that it blows up; they question Byrne, he refuses to answer, psycho Kissack kicks him in the ribs, head man Lash says, ‘I detest violence’ — thriller clichés going back to Dashiel Hammett and beyond.

All the time I’d been wondering where Billson was and why the narrator made him wander off just moments before the ambush – when suddenly there’s a shot and Kissack’s head explodes. Ah. Billson has returned with the rifle. Stafford makes a dive at Lash’s legs and knocks him sideways long enough for Byrne to throw off his mostly-cut-through rope shackles, to grab the dead Kissack’s gun and to shoot Lash, and also one of the hired Arabs who’s going for his gun. It’s all over in seconds. The other Arabs flee and our boys are free, albeit Stafford has collected a bullet in the shoulder. Byrne, the all-purpose action man, sets the wound, they tidy up the scene of the crime, dispose of the bodies at some distance from the still-burning plane, mount the baddies’ camels, and set off plodding back to ‘civilisation’.

Why

So what the hell was so important about this damn plane in a desert, lost on a long-forgotten damn fool publicity air race? I was thinking smuggled diamonds, Nazi gold, any of the standard McGuffins which drive this type of book…? But no… Shall I tell you? Oh alright, then. When he gets back to London, Stafford does some undercover investigating. And when he has all the evidence, photocopied and secure with his lawyer, he confronts the Chief Baddie, Lord Brinton and tells him this story:

  • John Anderson, born Canada 1898. Comes to England, trains to be an engineer. Specialises in planes. Is engineer to Peter Billson in the famous 1936 air race. In Algiers tampers with Billson’s compass and puts sugar in the fuel tank. Billson disappears; his widow gets the £100,000 insurance payout. Anderson seduces Billson’s not-very-bright widow. Marries her in 1937, uses the £100,000 to set up his own plane construction company. Second World War, he makes a fortune, then, during the property boom of the 1950s, diversifies into property, becoming a multi-millionaire. Eventually created Lord Brinton, captain of industry, having long ago ditched Billson’s widow. She, dumped and poor, takes up with another man and has a daughter (Billson’s half-sister, Alix). Brinton discovers this and points out that, as they never formally divorced, Alix is illegitimate, and uses this threat to blackmail Peter’s widow and buy her silence for the rest of her miserable, impoverished life. It is Brinton who got Billson’s stupid son, Paul, a job at his friend, Lord McGovern’s firm, the latter acquiescing in Paul being paid more than he merited. It is Brinton who got Paul’s half-sister, Alix, a job as secretary at the same firm – the idea being they would both have nice stable jobs and never be tempted to find the truth about their father.
  • But Billson junior turns out to have been a man obsessed by his father. The random appearance of an article libelling him is all it takes to make Paul Billson pack in his job and go off on a mad quest into the desert to vindicate him. Lord Brinton can’t afford to have evidence which might incriminate him ie the crashed plane with its broken compass and petrol tank full of sugar, brought to light: so he hires Lash to cover it up, who hires Kissack to kill Paul Billson. First they beat up Stafford in London, as a warning. Then they track down and shoot Billson in the desert, but fail to finish him off. Then they follow and chase Stafford and Byrne at various points in the narrative which we’ve just read, finally cornering them by the plane – with the results described above.
  • Now, back in London, Stafford discovers that, when he left the country, his disgruntled wife sold Brinton her shares in Stafford Security. Brinton has also found out Stafford’s business partner has (the classic) personal debts and so is able to pressurise him into joining his cause; altogether they have a controlling interest in Stafford’s company and are planning to carry out far more aggressive investigations and security penetrations, generally destroying the tone and aim of the company Stafford set up. Max isn’t happy.
  • But now Stafford has photographic, documentary and eyewitness proof to verify the account given above – that Brinton’s fortune is based on murder, fraud and blackmail. Does Brinton want to go to prison for murder? At his time of life? Or will he accede to Stafford’s demands, being:
    • one and a half million pounds to go to a Peter Billson memorial trust which Stafford will administer for Paul and Alix
    • 17.5% or £262,500 for Stafford
    • Brinton to sell his shares in Max’s company back to him
  • Then Stafford will buy out his partner – the one who was betraying him to cosy up to Brinton – he’ll promote the up-and-coming man who ran things while he was away, and he will retake control of the company he loves.

Conclusion

It was a long, rather directionless haul in the middle – and the ‘secret’ driving the narrative always felt like it might be underwhelming, as – I think – it does turn out to be. But the sheer length of time and imagination we’ve spent in the desert with Byrne have changed us, the reader, as well as the characters. In the final paragraphs, having achieved everything he set out to do, Stafford stands in the middle of Piccadilly Circus and has an epiphany.

At the thought of Byrne I stopped suddenly and looked about me. I was in Piccadilly, at the Circus, and the lights and crowds were all around me in the evening dusk. And it all seemed unreal. This, the heart of the city at the heart of the world, wasn’t reality. Reality lay in Atakor, in Koudia, in the Aïr, in the Ténéré, on the Tassili.

I felt an awful sense of loss. I wanted to be with Byrne and Mokhtar and Hamiada… I wanted to say hello again to the giraffe in Agadez, to sit beside a small fire at an evening camp and look at the stars, to feel again the freedom of a Targui. (p.251)

Like so many Englishmen before him, Stafford has caught the desert bug, and so he decides to return give Byrne his fee in person. Although it’s only a half page of text, this moment of longing – not the rather sordid and accountant-dry dealings with Brinton which immediately precede it – feels like the true climax of the novel, a moment of deep emotional release after 250 pages of build-up, in a way the one genuine emotion in the whole book.

Related links

1978 Fontana paperback edition of Flyaway

1978 Fontana paperback edition of Flyaway

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.

The Enemy by Desmond Bagley (1977)

‘There’s one thing about being in an organisation of spies – news gets around fast.’ (p.163)

This is another belting thriller from Bagley; man, he really hit his stride in the 1970s. There’s a question mark over some of his novels from the 1960s, which often become a bit over-excited (eg Wyatt’s Hurricane, which starts sensibly, ends up featuring a hurricane, a tsunami and a civil war all in a frenzied 200 pages). But by the 1970s his stories are much more calm, focused, factually anchored and, for that reason, when the action kicks in, all the more plausible and genuinely gripping. Like The Snow Tiger, I just couldn’t put this one down and read it through into the early hours.

Sweary

It’s a first-person narrative. Either Bagley’s style evolved during the 1970s or, as I suspect, he deliberately created a different voice for each of these books. There was swearing in the last two novels – and certainly more swearing than you get in MacLean, who tells you people swear but not necessarily the words they use. The protagonist of this one, Malcolm Jaggard, is 34, the optimum age for heroes of this kind of thriller (Bagley himself was 54 when this novel came out). His voice starts out fairly traditional, almost posh (as well as his job he enjoys a private income of £11,000 per annum, a lot in 1977) mixed with rather dated slang. But as the novel proceeds he becomes steadily more vulgar – until right at the end he, rather surprisingly, tells his boss where he can shove his job.

To stitch together some sample snippets of speech and thought…

‘Stuff the record,’ I said… ‘Who’s pinched our Who’s Who?’… ‘The man keeps a bloody low profile…’ A couple of hours later I was having a mild ding-dong with Larry… ‘Oh Christ!’ I said, ‘Nellie is a tattle-tale, too bloody gossipy by half’… I was knocking croquet balls around on the lawn when Ashton pitched up… ‘Nip round to the garage and see what’s missing,’ I said… I told her a damned sight more than I ought to have done, and to hell with the Official Secrets Act… We can have another noggin at the Coach and Horses… ‘… and has been freezing his balls off ever since…’ ‘… the bloody Russian embassy.’ ‘I’m making bloody sure I do stay out of sight’…. He was doing it deliberately, the bastard…’Oh Christ!’ I said… ‘Caught in a shell blast, my arse!’… ‘I think it’s a bloody disgrace.’…’It is bloody difficult’… Jaggard, you bastard!… there was a hell of a lot missing… ‘The bloody thing beat me in the end’… ‘We’re going to talk to that bloody auctioneer’… ‘Ashton was a clever bastard,’ I said… What a ruthless bastard he had turned out to be!…’I won’t take compliments from you, damn it!’

I said bluntly, ‘Get lost.’
He was not a man who showed astonishment easily, but he did then. ‘What did you say?’
‘You heard me. Get lost. You can take Kerr’s job and your job and stuff them wherever you like. The Minister’s backside might be a good place’ (p.251)

The plot

British Intelligence agent Malcolm Jaggard is falling in love with Penelope, daughter of well-off self-made industrialist George Ashton, when someone throws acid in the face of Ashton’s other (grown-up) daughter, in the drive to his country house. When Jaggard digs into Ashton’s background he discovers he was a high-ranking child prodigy and Soviet scientist who defected to England in the 1940s. But his life is shrouded in mystery and, when Ashton and his loyal man-servant, Benson, suddenly disappear, Jaggard can’t get access to the Classified files.

The novel turns into a Quest, a Pursuit. Jaggard’s boss, Ogilvie, tasks him with finding the two men and, after a lot of false trails, Jaggard discovers them living in Stockholm, under false names, suspiciously close to the Russian border. His daughters, his household, know nothing about it. It was a very professional disappearing act.

Jaggard suggests he simply presents himself to Ashton and asks him to return to England, but his boss, Ogilvie, insists he mount a major operation to snatch him. Half a dozen men tail Ashton round Stockholm, alerting him to the fact he’s rumbled, scaring the pair into catching a train west. Following the train Jaggard and his team detect them alighting at a tiny village stop and are planning to corral them into a car, and thence to a plane and home to Blighty. But Ashton and Benson are stubborn – what is their secret, what are they so afraid of? – and make off into snow-covered woods, where the pursuing agents are horrified to hear the sound of guns – single shots, then machine guns. My God, they’re blundering towards a Swedish Army exercise! Now Jaggard and his men close in at speed on the old man and his loyal servant when, to everyone’s amazement, just as Ashton turns towards Jaggard who is shouting to warn him – Benson shoots his master twice, and is immediately shot dead by one of the agents. Disaster!

On his return to London Jaggard has not only to explain the catastrophic failure of his mission to his boss – and then to a committee including the Home Secretary – but has to live with the knowledge he has helped kill his fiancée’s father.

But this is only half way through the book. There’s something very wrong about the whole affair and Jaggard’s boss, Ogilvie, while pretending to downgrade him, in fact gives him free rein and orders to get to the bottom of the business. In doing so Jaggard uncovers a plot which extends to the highest levels in Whitehall and which dates back to the War, and which leads Jaggard from a comfy Home Counties mansion to a grim, storm-tossed Scottish island where a secret laboratory is carrying out hair-raising germ warfare experiments.

There are some light and amusing scenes along the way – especially around the slowly-emerging significance of the enormous model train set which the agents find in the attic of the dead Ashton’s mansion – but the brutal deaths in a Swedish forest mean the book can never have a happy ending, and in fact its last few pages contain an unexpected twist which contain a horrifying message for all of us, even 40 years later. Hence the title which is lifted from an American satirist, Walt Kelly: ‘We have met the enemy – and he is Us.’

No descriptions

Bagley just isn’t into descriptions, visual descriptions, the way other novelists are. When the narrative moves to Stockholm, the opening of chapter 18 sets the scene. Or rather it doesn’t. Even when a sentence or paragraph starts out describing something it always veers back to human or anthropomorphised activity. People, animals, scenery, architecture – they aren’t painted, they always have to be doing something in Bagley. His is a dynamic imagination.

It was dark and cold in Stockholm at that time of year. All the time I was in Sweden it didn’t stop snowing; not heavily most of the time, but there was a continual fall of fine powder from leaden-grey clouds as though God up there was operating a giant flour-sifter. I was booked into the Grand, which was warm enough, and after I had made my call to Henty I looked out over the frozen Strömmen to the Royal Palace… There were swans on the Strömmen, walking uneasily on the ice and cuddling in clusters as though to keep warm. One was on an ice floe and drifting towards Riddarfjärden; I watched it until it went out of sight under the Ström bridge then turned away feeling suddenly cold in spite of the central heating. (p.117)

It’s not intended as a criticism. I’m just trying to identify the differences between, to individuate the strengths and weaknesses of, Bagley, Deighton, Innes, MacLean et al.

Instead of description of scenes and places, what you do get in Bagley is lots of factual background. And so at several places there are detailed explanations of genetics and genetic engineering, circa 1976, each instalment picking up ideas from the previous one and exploring them further, thus adding depth (and tension) to the plot.

The way Bagley incorporates his obviously in-depth background research into the drama of the text is one of his great achievements.

Computers

Same goes for his extensive knowledge of computers demonstrated by his technically precise descriptions of:

  • the Department’s central database with its remote terminals and passwords
  • the complex computer language which Ashton turns out to have programmed into his labyrinthine train set with its advanced micro-processors
  • the links along a landline which the investigating computer scientist sets up from his remote terminal to another, central information-processing computer

All this isn’t clunked into the text, it is woven seamlessly, it is part of the imaginative fabric of the story:  the computers and the genetics turn out to be what the novel is, ultimately, all about.

The anxiety of influence

As in every spy thriller from this period, there are the obligatory comments trying to distance the narrator (and the text) from the enormous shadow of Ian Fleming. After using his organisation’s new, super-powerful computer, Jaggard remarks:

Strange how the real world is catching up with James Bond. (p.28)

Later, he explains his profession to his fiancée, Penelope.

‘State security! You mean you’re some sort of secret agent. A spy?’
I laughed and held up my hands. ‘Not a spy. We’re not romantic types with double-o numbers and a licence to kill – no nonsense like that.’ (p.60)

‘You people amaze me. You think you’re James Bonds, the lot of you. Well, I don’t think I’m living in the middle of a highly coloured film, even if you do.’ (p.120)

Social history

The novel turns out to be about genetics and genetic engineering and it’s a bit of a shock to realise just how long this has been a ‘hot’ topic of debate. Same goes for three or four other political/social issues, altogether making me realise how little things really change:

  • Genetic engineering Typically thorough Bagleyesque explanation of the state of genetics in the mid-1970s, what genes are, how phagocytes are used to carry snippets of DNA etc, and the risk of it all going wrong, of creating virulent new viruses and diseases.
  • The internet Jaggard and his team use remote computer terminals to access a central computer database. They require login details and passwords, just like the computer I sit down in front of every day. When the ‘boffins’ analyse the train set they set up a link by phone line with a remote computer. Here, pre-1977, are the seeds of the internet.
  • Scottish devolution As soon as the narrative switches to Scotland, the narrator mentions Scottish nationalism and the Scots desire for devolution or even independence. In the pub in Ullapool:

There was talk of English absentee landlords and of ‘Scottish’ oil and of the ambivalent attitude of the Scottish Labour Party, all uttered in tones of amused and tired cynicism as if these people had lost faith in the promises of politicians. (p.220)

Thank goodness, 40 years later, all these issues have been sorted out by the wise men who govern us.

Related links

1977 Fontana paperback edition of the Enemy

1977 Fontana paperback edition of The Enemy

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.

The Snow Tiger by Desmond Bagley (1975)

Unlike its two predecessor spy novels, The Snow Tiger is less about suspense and more of a prolonged account of legal and administrative procedure, making it read more like one of Hammond Innes’ sober, factual adventure yarns – right up till the detailed and gruesome avalanche at the book’s climax, at which point it becomes quite a hard-core ‘disaster novel’.

The Snow Tiger

The entire text takes the form of an official Commission of Inquiry into a major catastrophe – a massive avalanche which destroyed the mining town of Hukahoronui in the south island of New Zealand, killing 54 people and injuring many more. The first two-thirds remind me of the slow documentary lead-up to a pre-announced disaster which characterises several Hammond Innes novels, such as the catastrophic sinking of the landing craft (also with loss of life of some 50 people) in Atlantic Fury, the lengthy Board of Inquiry which forms the core of The Wreck of The Mary Deare, or the detailed description of the Court Martial in Maddon’s Rock.

Similarly, this book is divided into the thirteen consecutive days during which the Inquiry into the avalanche sits. Each chapter starts with a detailed and pedantic account of the cross-questioning of key witnesses, then segues into a presentation of the scene itself.

Briefly, Ian Ballard returns from England to New Zealand, to the town where he grew up, sent there to take control of the town’s struggling gold mine, which is owned by his strong-willed, patriarchal grandfather, back in London. Ballard encounters all sorts of opposition, not least from the Peterson family, a powerful clan in the little town (population 800) who reckon they own the land the mine is built on and were swindled out of it by Ballard’s grandfather. What’s more they also hold an ancient grudge that Ballard was responsible for the death by drowning of one of the Peterson brothers 20 years ago – so they pick fights with Ballard whenever possible.

But when the friend Ballard made skiing in Switzerland a few years earlier, a snow expert, Dr Mike McGill, turns up to visit, he immediately points out that the steep hillside covered with snow which sweeps down to the mine entrance, and to the town itself, is dangerously unstable, a problem exacerbated when all the timber was cut down to build the mine and new houses.

While the various characters are bickering about whether to contact the authorities a minor avalanche takes place, blocking the narrow entrance to the valley, trapping all the townspeople and knocking out the electricity and phone lines. McGill takes charge of the Town Council and begins planning emergency accommodation, food and heating, and is in the middle of detailing people to find safe shelter and training some of the men in snow rescue, when the Monster Avalanche suddenly occurs.

Two strands

Around the middle of the book the contemporary strand – the description of the Inquiry slowly working its way through the evidence of the eyewitnesses – gets a new angle, a new overlay of meaning, when an old lawyer friend of Ballard’s mean grandfather flies in. This man, Stenning, announces that the grandfather sent Ballard back to Hukahoronui as a test, to see if he could handle the antagonism of the locals and the shabbiness of the mine operation. For the mean old man had – astonishingly – consigned all his shares in the parent company to a Trust. If, in Stenning’s opinion, Ballard does show himself to be man enough, the trustees will vote him onto the Board and, since this has the largest single block of shares in the corporation, at a stroke Ballard would take control of a multinational corporation valued at around £232 million! Far from being the black sheep of the family despised by the old man, he turns out to have been the old man’s last hope!

Thus the two strands – past and present – significantly pick up pace for the last 100 pages (of this 250-page book):

  • In the present Ballard has to decide whether he wants the money – and, if so, prove that he has the balls to take on the Peterson brothers and the lawyers for the union and the local management of the mine, who are all manoeuvring to make him the scapegoat for the disaster. Spice is added when Ballard falls in love with the Petersons’ winsome sister, Liz, and the most thuggish Peterson brother, Charlie, threatens to murder Ballard if he keeps on seeing her…
  • In the flashbacks (which are also proceeding in chronological order, reflecting the accounts given in the courtroom). Even though we know the outcome ie the disastrous avalanche, nonetheless the scenes become increasingly tense as catastrophe looms. From the first avalanche and the power being cut, I found it genuinely hard to put this book down, in fact I kept on reading it into the early hours.

Disaster!

When the avalanche comes it is described at length and in detail. As in the ‘disaster movies’ which were so popular in the 1970s, the creator lingers in loving detail over the range of macabre, cruel and sadistic deaths he has contrived for his character:

Rawson is getting medical supplies when the avalanche smashes through the wall smashing a big jar of hydrochloric acid all over him.

Rawson was buried about twenty yards away and was dying slowly and quite painfully as the acid ate at his flesh. Fortunately, when he opened his mouth to scream it filled with soft snow and he died mercifully and quickly of asphyxia. (p.191)

Tastes have changed. I found the relish with which so many deaths were described revolting.

  • The drinkers in the local hotel are all killed, devastated by flying bottles and broken glass.
  • A lot of the town’s old people have gathered in the mayor’s house half way up the slope opposite to the danger one: nonetheless, the 200-mile-an-hour pressure wave makes the house explode as if hit by a ten-ton bomb, and survivors describe it as a butchers’ shop covered with blood and slabs of flesh.
  • Cameron, the mine manager, is trapped in the cab of his lorry which rolls over and over in the avalanche, his foot caught between pedal and brake until he comes to rest hanging upside down, with numerous broken bones, a position he stays in until he hears the water of the river, blocked by avalanche snow, beginning to fill the cab to drown him.
  • Nice old Mrs Sawnton who manned the telephone exchange is told to make for safety but as she’s getting up the phone rings, she stays to answer it, and the entire mine building, lifted by the hurtling snow, falls on the exchange crushing her.
  • Dave Scanlon is caught in the open, hit by a flying truck which mashes him ‘to a bloody pulp’.
  • Len Baxter is killed by flying bricks then buried by snow.
  • Phil Warrick is thrown against the red-hot stove he’d been feeding all morning, forced to embrace it and burned alive.

And so it goes on, a long list of ‘innocent’ townspeople – fictional characters – killed, tortured, eviscerated, mashed, crushed, burned to bloody messes. It is compelling, gripping but not pleasant reading.

Even when the avalanche has subsided and mountain rescue teams arrive, led by a squad of notably efficient and helpful Americans, accidents still occur. An American tourist, Newman, had taken shelter in a small cave in the avalanche’s path, and is trapped in it with half a dozen others, most of whom lose hope in the claustrophobic dark. But he heroically tunnels out of the cave using a ballpoint pen, and it takes 24 hours of relentless digging for him to make it almost to the surface of the sow, a full 60 feet above him, when one of the rescuers treads through the narrow layer of snow just as he approaches the surface, stepping directly onto his head, making him lose his grip and fall the 60 feet back down the narrow twisting tunnel, breaking his neck. The others, still left in the cave are rescued alive.

These closing pages are full of vignettes like that, which are – I suppose – somehow intended to make the reader feel horror at the randomness of Fate. Perhaps you’re meant to feel more manly, because you’re tough enough to read all these horrors. Perhaps it has the same appeal as gruesome horror movies.

What makes it a disaster movie As mentioned, a number of Hammond Innes novels describe major disasters and loss of life, but only when I read this Bagley novel did I for the first time think that there might be a category of ‘disaster novels’ like there are ‘disaster movies’. I think the difference between an adventure novel with a catastrophe in it, and a ‘disaster novel’ would be the lip-smacking voyeuristic descriptions of gruesome individual deaths. In Atlantic Fury the sinking of the landing craft and loss of life is essentially a backdrop to the narrative, and we mainly read about just the narrator’s experience: here in The Snow Tiger, the detailed description of a lot of  grotesquely horrible deaths is at the imaginative heart of the enterprise, and the plight of the main protagonist (Ballard and his love affair) pales next to it.

The narrator takes a kind of sadistic pleasure in pointing out that, even after the avalanche has finished, tragedy continues, the striking example being the mid-air collision of a rescue helicopter – loaded with injured survivors – which takes off vertically into the path of a light airplane overflying the valley. Both plummet to the ground in flames. Pye, the local policeman, and Quentin, the union official, rush forward to open the helicopter doors and try and free the trapped passengers.

It was at that moment that the petrol ignited. He saw a white flash and felt searing heat, and when he inhaled his next breath he drew flaming petrol vapour into his lungs. He felt no pain and was dead before he knew it, and so was Bill Quentin, Mrs Haslam, Harry Baker and his co-pilot. (p.230)


Style

The style is clear, factual Bagley. Despite being set in the stunning mountain scenery of New Zealand, there are few if any extended descriptions. Instead Bagley is interested in the minutiae of the exchanges in the court room, or in the hotel at Hukahoronui. Just before the avalanche occurs he devotes several pages to a Wikipedia-style explanation of the complicated physical processes snow undergoes which make an avalanche happen. And when the catastrophe happens and scores of people die in garishly gruesome ways, Bagley’s flat, police-record-style descriptions make the suffering all the more vivid, disgusting and compelling.

Title

The title doesn’t refer to the animal, the white tiger – but to a proverb by the snow expert Matthias Zdarsky: ‘Snow is not a wolf in sheep’s clothing – it is a tiger in lamb’s clothing’. Similarly misleading, I thought the cover image (below) might refer to some kind of chase, as if this were an espionage novel – but it is not, it is a disaster novel, and the image depicts the gruesome moment, described above, when the helicopter and plane collide.

Related links

1970s Fontana paperback edition of The Snow Tiger

1970s Fontana paperback edition of The Snow Tiger

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.

The Tightrope Men by Desmond Bagley (1973)

From what Carey had said, his days of high living were over. That suited Denison. In the past few days there had been less chance of high living than of low dying. (p.236)

After the thumping obviousness and poor style of Alistair MacLean’s 1970s thrillers it is a blessing and a relief to turn to Desmond Bagley’s well-written gripping novels of the same era, and this is a real belter.

The man in someone else’s body

It’s told by a third person narrator who relates how Giles Denison wakes up feeling a little groggy to find he is trapped inside the body of a man 15 years older, with completely different features. The resultant panic fear and vertigo are brilliantly conveyed in Bagley’s sober, factual style, as Denison discovers more about his terrifying plight: he went to bed in Hampstead as Denison; now he’s woken up in a hotel bedroom in Oslo, Norway, as a certain Dr Meyrick. The hotel staff confirm he’s been there for three weeks, he has a hire car in his name, down in the foyer a strange woman calls him by name – is it a friend, or his wife or a mistress? He hasn’t a clue.

In his hire car he finds a doll, a souvenir from a nearby beauty spot, with a scrawled message to meet someone there the next morning. He drives there and wanders a little way into the woods only to be confronted by three thugs, one armed with a knife. He punches and runs, jumps into his car giving rise to a hair-raising chase, which ends with the others scarpering and our man detained by the Norwegian police.

The men from the embassy

Several men from the British Embassy come to free him and Denison finally tells them the full story. In a separate room McCready discusses the thing with his angry, sweary boss, Carey. They were carrying out an ‘operation’ with Meyrick; can he conceivably have been swapped with Denison? Can Denison’s mad story be true? How? Why? Carey and McCready take Denison back to the hotel where he then has a placid dinner with the woman he’d met earlier, one Diana Hansen. We know from McCready and Carey’s conversation that she is somehow part of the Meyrick ‘operation’ and Denison finds it out when he has a poke around her handbag and discovers a gun in it. It’s almost as if he’s stumbled into a spy thriller.

That night McCready and Carey drive Denison to a safe house where he is examined by a doctor and a psychologist. They conclude: Yes, he is Denison. He was kidnapped, kept unconscious for a week while persons unknown puffed his face with silicon, created scars and birthmarks (actually tattoos), dragged a slight hood of skin over his left eyebrow, permanently removed the front of his hair and dyed the rest. Excellent job.

The background

Now what? After some procrastinating, Carey explains the set-up. Meyrick is self-made millionaire in electronics, originally from Finland who fled as a boy when the Russians invaded. His father before him had been a world-class physicist, in the Nobel Prize league, and had been working on breakthrough stuff in X-rays when he was killed in a bombing raid. Prior to that, as the war got rough, he had buried a chest of all his papers in the garden. The house, the city and the entire region of Karelia was absorbed by Soviet Russia after the war.

Carey and Meyrick were working on a way to cross the border into Russia, find the house, and dig up the trunk. So. Does Denison want to help? At first, no. So Carey explains that Meyrick’s father’s work into X-rays were theoretical in the 1930s, but in 1960 the laser was developed, a weapon of amazing accuracy and power. The next stage would be the X-ray laser, and Meyrick’s father’s work has a direct bearing on building one. Now does he want to help? Reluctantly, yes.

Lyn

The situation is complicated when Meyrick’s 22-year-old daughter turns up unannounced. Now that Denison is undertaking the mission, he has the whip hand and can get Carey to get his people back in London to knock out dossiers about anyone, and so he gets the gen on the daughter, Lyn. Still, of course, he is busking it like crazy and she soon begins to realise something is going on. Not least because he’s no longer the arrogant superior bastard he used to be but seems genuinely interested in her.

Finland

Lyn and Denison travel to Finland to meet the last survivor of the lab Meyrick’s father ran before the war, a jolly fat physicist. Back in the hotel Denison tries a sauna and is knocked unconscious and wakes up in a dark room, naked in handcuffs. Immediately he is interrogated by a man brandishing a gun, but leaps at the his interrogator, the chain of his cuffs over his throat, before making it to the door and being amazed to realise he is still in the hotel, so he runs down to the lobby stark naked waving a gun. That brings the police, who release him etc once he’s told his story.

Full disclosure

There’s a scene where Carey and McCready travel to see a corpse on an island mortuary. It is almost certainly the real Meyrick. It seems that, in fog, a small vessel was run down by a large liner. C&M speculate that these are the people who ‘lifted’ Meyrick and exchanged him for the surgically-altered Denison; they were transporting Meyrick east when… this accident intervened.

Back in the hotel Denison’s relationship with Meyrick’s daughter reaches a climax when she tricks him with a whole load of false memories of her childhood which he agrees with, thus catching him out – then she angrily demands to know who he really is. Denison collapses, C&M are called, along with Dr Harding, the psychiatrist who first assessed Denison. All together in one room they reveal the truth to Lyn and make the following decisions:

  • Carey’s plan is based on the idea that the Baddies are unsure how much Denison knows – his plan is simple, to send Denison to a series of nature reserves in north Finland, with camping gear, and surveying equipment and maps, to make it look as if he’s searching for something really valuable, hoping the Bad Guys will follow him. He’ll have a deliberately vague and completely fictional map which seems to indicate where Meyrick’s father’s scientific papers are buried.
  • Mrs Hansen aka Diana, will go with Meyrick as protection, as well as McCready as liaison ie ot keep him on-project.
  • Lyn listens to all this and insists that she go as well. C&M are initially reluctant but a) Lyn threatens to blow the whole operation by going to the press b) it would offer good ‘cover’ if the daughter is accompanying the father. Hmm. They agree.
  • Lyn also insists that Dr Harding accompanies them, to monitor Denison’s physical and mental health.
  • All this is entirely a red herring, to distract the Bad Guys away from Carey and McCready who will sneak over the Russian border, go to Meyrick’s father’s old house, and dig up the box of vital secrets.

So the last hundred pages of narrative splits into two parallel streams: Denison, Lyn, Harding and Diana’s decoy mission in the north; Carey and another embassy official, Armstrong’s efforts to get to the famous garden, in the south.

Comedy

Unexpectedly, as the two sets of protagonists pursue their missions, a comic tone enters both narratives.

Up north McCready, on guard at a nature reserve where they’re camping, spots two separate groups making for our heroes, coming along the same river from different ends. He fires a few shots at each, enough to start a battle between them and thoroughly confuse the situation. Unfortunately, while they relax at this minor triumph, Denison wanders away from the camp and is coshed. Again. When he comes to he has regained a lot of his memory but the map has been stolen. Everyone is relaxed. They were fakes, anyway.

The team (Denison, McCready, Mrs Hansen and Dr Harding) move on to a different nature reserve at Sompio, since their job is to continue to act as decoy ducks until they hear that Carey and Armstrong have secured the information from the buried box. They have barely moved into a rangers’ hut before it is surrounded by Czech secret service agents who demand Meyrick’s secret. Clearly these guys don’t know about whoever it was who coshed Denison and stole the map at the first camp. Outgunned, they make a pretence of reluctantly handing over another copy of the useless map, then are locked in as the Czechs make their escape.

Until, that is, shooting breaks out all round the hut: apparently another gang has stumbled across the Czechs and they’re shooting it out. — Just how many different nationalities are after this damned map? In the confusion of this battle in a marsh in the mist, our team escape using the bird-fowling punt Harding found in a nearby boathouse, with hairy moments as bullets from unknown assailants whistle all round them.

Down south Meanwhile, Carey and Armstrong rendezvous with some right-wing Finns who happen to bus into the big factory in the industrial town of Enso every day. For a payment they are ready to let two of their number be replaced by C&A. So C&A nervously go through the process of getting up early, dressing in workers’ clothes, joining the bus and travelling through the Russian border checkpoint, on to the factory, and lying low till another Finn can walk them part of the way to the famous garden.

Here they pretend to be a water pipe inspector and assistant and get permission to use a metal detector and dig up the garden from a worried housewife. There are comedy delays as the family’s little boy follows them round, then the housewife comes out for a chat. Eventually they find the damn box, open it and extract a whole load of papers covered in mathematical symbols, have just put them in secure bags and into a wheelbarrow to walk away when the man of the house turns up and, after initially being suspicious, asks for a go on the metal detector, and then wants to show it to his next door neighbour. Who is a policeman! Tantalising delays. Ealing comedy.

In both of these strands, comedy, banter and back-chat are more prominent than tension. Armstrong and Carey, in particular, have some funny exchanges as they get into their roles of Soviet supervisor and disaffected Soviet worker.

In the end

The northern team escape safely, have a wash and kip and all feel better. Everyone rendezvous at a safe house in Finland owned by British Intelligence. But here, there is one final unexpected twist in the tale…


Old fashioned and sweary

The Freedom Trap‘s first-person narration is clear, colourless and factual. The scenes set in breath-taking Finnish beauty spots are conspicuous for having next to no description. There’s a lake, there’s some birch trees. Bagley is interested in people and procedure, not in local colour.

Also his style in this one is noticeably more stilted and old-fashioned than in the smooth-flowing the Freedom Trap. He uses ‘one’ a lot. And ‘but’ instead of only – ‘A nice gun with but one fault.’ (p.244). After pre-dinner drinks Denison ‘arose’ from his chair. After the meal he turns down a cigarette and ‘soon thereafter’ pays the bill. There are a million different concepts of ‘good style’, it seems Bagley’s notion involved using slightly out-of-date and pompous phraseology, phrases which would be dropped in the 40 years up to our time, and which now stick out uncomfortably.

Denison suspected that he was encountering something of which hitherto he had only heard – the generation gap. (p.77)

‘… of which hitherto…’? Old man style. ‘Which up to now he’d only heard about’. And ‘the generation gap’? Very 1970s, along with the references to the population explosion, long-haired layabouts, smoking pot and taking LSD.

Contrasting oddly with Bagley’s occasional pompousness is the surprising vulgarity. The narrator of The Freedom Trap swore freely and the characters in this novel swear like I remember people swearing in the 1970s ie unrestrained use of bloody, bastard and bugger. (The f and c words are genuinely taboo.)

‘There was a car behind me. The driver was playing silly buggers.’ (p.39) ‘Carey’s bloody wild about that.’ (p.41) ‘You did a Steve McQueen through the Spiralen, roared through Drammen like an express train, and butted a copper in the arse.’ (p.44) ‘… a lot of balls about mysterious attackers…’ (p.45) ‘… an arrogant bastard…’ (p.46) ‘… this bloody odd situation..’ (p.50) ‘Someone has been bloody ruthless about it.’ (p.66) ‘He’s bloody competent.’ (p.69) ‘For Christ’s sake,’ said McCready. (p.70) ‘You’re a really cool, logical bastard,’ said McCready… ‘Balls!’ said McCready (p.218) ‘… those bloody rifles..’ (p.219) ‘Giles was right, you’re a thorough-going bastard.’ (p.246)

The liberal use of these swearwords throughout the text evokes a very 1970s notion of manliness – Old Spice and The Sweeney.


The tightrope walkers

In the last pages all is explained: Ever since the atom bomb was invented, mankind has been walking a tightrope. We are all tightrope walkers. There is a delicate balance of power between NATO and Soviet Russia. The people trying to maintain that balance of terror ie no one side gaining a unique advantage, are the tightrope walkers. And within Government, inside the Whitehall corridors of power, some authorities have the World War Two mindset that all wars can be won; but others know that will lead to nuclear annihilation. Therefore, policy must be finely judged to maintain the balance of power between hawks and doves, to prevent conflict ever breaking out. They, also, are tightrope walkers.

Related links

1970s Fontana paperback cover of The Tightrope Men

1970s Fontana paperback cover of The Tightrope Men

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.

The Freedom Trap by Desmond Bagley (1971)

This is a good, functionally-written, gripping and believable thriller. Very enjoyable.

The diamond heist

Joseph Rearden arrives in London from South Africa, where he is a professional criminal. He meets with one Mr Mackintosh, in a fake office with a fake secretary, who has a job for him. They know a package of industrial diamonds is due to be delivered to a certain address over the next day or two in a bright yellow Kodachrome photo envelope. Rearden’s job is to lie in wait for the postman and, when he sees the package in his hand, mug the postie and make off with the diamonds. This Rearden does, slipping the bright pack into a larged box and palming this to Mackintosh in a crowded London market, then returning to his hotel, scheduled to catch a flight out of town the next morning and collect his money via a Swiss bank after the diamonds are sold. The perfect heist, eh?

Unfortunately, the police come calling that evening and arrest him. He has been grassed up: the police have received anonymous phone calls giving them all the evidence they need: eyewitnesses, fingerprints, the lot. Looks like Mackintosh stiffed him. Rearden is charged, taken to court and convicted. The police and his solicitor emphasise that if he reveals the whereabouts of the diamonds he’ll get a much reduced sentence. But not only does Rearden not reveal anything about Mackintosh, he refuses to even admit his guilt. He is sent down for 20 years.

Prison life

Life in prison is hard. There’s a flutter of excitement when a new boy arrives and the story goes round that he’s Slade, a high profile double-agent, who’s been caught and given 42 years. In among the conversations with other lags Rearden gets to hear of the Scarperers, a gang who can fix your escape, for a steep price. Rearden arranges a down-payment from one of his South African accounts and he is sprung from prison in a daring raid which involves smoke grenades to confuse the warders, and then the platform of a ‘cherry picker‘ being lowered into the exercise yard. At the last minute he is told Slade is going too, so he risks his own escape to bundle the older man up into the cherry picker.

The Scarperers

The gang spirit him away, promising him a new identity, but then stick a needle in him. When he wakes up he is in a luxurious apartment, with waiter service and every convenience – but bars on the windows and a guard at the door. He is sharing the place with Slade, both being held pending final payment to the Scarperers before they are delivered to their ultimate destinations. Rearden will not be released till he coughs up the rest of the payment, £10,000 – a lot of money in 1971. It takes some time to arrange payment via a Swiss bank account of his, during which a) Slade one day disappears, moved on b) there is a sudden change in the mood music. The posh polite man who comes to see them every day, who never gives his name and who Rearden calls ‘Fatface’, one day announces they know Rearden isn’t in fact Rearden. And they know about Mackintosh: so what’s the truth, fellah?

Back story

Flashback: Rearden is in fact Owen Stannard, a British agent. He worked in the Far East for many years until he was caught up in political trouble in Indonesia, shipped out, and moved to South Africa under a new identity to become a ‘sleeper’ agent. He has lived a quiet respectable life for seven years and now Mackintosh flies out from the UK to activate him. He explains that it is one thing the Scarperers running a successful organisation helping prisoners escape; Mackintosh’s interest is that, among the general run of lags, they are helping imprisoned security risks to escape.

So the plan is: Stannard will adopt the identity of South African crook Rearden, recently dead in a genuine road accident; he will come to England and pull the diamond heist and Mackintosh will make sure he is caught and sent to prison; he will wait in prison for as long as it takes for the Scarperers to contact him; he will keep an eye on Slade and, if he looks like being released, capture or, if necessary, kill him.

Got that?

Ireland

Which explains why Rearden/Stannard coshes Fatface next time he walks into the apartment, sets fire to the place, yells fire and pushes Fatface in front of him when the guard outside opens the door, so they collide and fall in a heap, while Rearden legs down the stairs, knocks out a guard, climbs a wall, across a lane, across a field, through the woods to a road where he catches a bus which turns out to be going to Limerick because it turns out that all this time he’s been held in Ireland! (Echoes of the Ipcress narrator being held and tortured for months in a prison in Albania, which, when he escapes, turns out to be an old building next to some allotments in Acton.)

Alison

Having stolen Fatface’s wallet and cash Rearden is able, once he gets to Limerick, to phone Mackintosh’s office back in London where the prim secretary, Mrs Smith, answers. Mackintosh was recently run over and is in hospital unconscious. Oops. He is the only official who knows about Rearden’s mission ie he is not the criminal he appears to be. Could be trouble. To Rearden’s surprise Mrs Smith says she’ll be with him, with lots of money and a fake passport in three hours. How? She’ll fly there in her private plane.

What emerges is that Mrs Smith is Mackintosh’s daughter, Alison, and that he trained her from an early age in all aspects of spycraft. She and Rearden become a team and she is, in fact, better at lots of things than him, not least shooting. And of course, drop dead gorgeous.

They hire a car and drive back to the burning house. Rearden stole a contacts book off Fatface and they drive to the location of the nearest one, a coastal village beyond Galway. The locals tell them the Big House is owned by a Brit, Mr Wheeler MP, self-made millionaire, he moors his luxury yacht down in the bay. As they’re leaving the pub Rearden bumps into the big strong silent (possibly dumb) waiter who served him everyday in the safe/prison house, who recognises the escapee and they start fighting. It is here Alison that first shows her prowess with a gun, shooting Big Guy very accurately in the knee, then accelerating the car up to Rearden so he can jump in and the car screech off with a rattle of gravel against the low-angle camera. Very filmic.

Albanian spies

Now Wheeler was one of the last officials Mackintosh saw before he was run over. Hmm. Rearden and Alison do some investigating, she flying back to London to see her (still unconscious) father and using her extensive contacts. What they find is that Wheeler is not English but Albanian. He fought with the communist partisans in Yugoslavia before fleeing to England. Soon after the war, he mysteriously acquired a number of properties which set him on the road to becoming a millionaire, and from there on his aquisition of a parliamentary seat and onto various influential committees was easy.

In a killer fact, Alison has discovered he employs a large number of staff at the Big House in Ireland – and all of them are naturalised immigrants from – Albania! Rearden sketches out a hypothesis: Wheeler is a communist agent, infiltrating the Establishment at a high level. The Big House is a finishing school for other agents who come and stay long enough to perfect the language and manners of an English servant, before being recommended by Wheeler to his posh friends and moving on to become servants to God knows how many important men around the country. It is a spy network!

The yacht Artina

Meanwhile his yacht, the Artina, has sailed. Rearden and Alison follow it to Cork, then fly in her plane to see it dock in Gibraltar. But it is only there long enough to refuel (not long enough for Rearden to get abaord) before it sails on to Malta. Our team speculate that a) it has Slade aboard, and b) it is heading back to Albania.

It had been introguing Rearden that the locals in ireland thought Wheeler well known for his Chinese cooks. Now he realises that Albania, where Wheeler originally hails from, is not part of the orthodox Russian sphere of influence but, under its eccentric leader Enver Hoxha, has declared its allegiance to Maoist China.

Could it be that Slade, a Russian agent, has been promised passage to Moscow but is being betrayed by Wheeler and is ultimately headed, via Albania, for Red China, where he will spill the beans not only about British intelligence, but also about KGB operations? Ha, the irony.

Malta

So our heroes fly to Malta and it is here the novel reaches its climax.

In the first attempt, Rearden and Alison row quietly out to the yacht, Rearden scrambles aboard and makes his way to Slade’s cabin – for his guess that Slade is aboard turns out to be correct – where he plants the seed of doubt that Wheeler is Albanian, taking him to Albania and China. He has just persuaded Slade to tiptoe along the deck and try to find the boat when the floodlights come on, strong arms seize Rearden, and the famous Mr Wheeler makes his appearance, in a scene right out of James Bond.

Next to the skipper stood a tall man with ash-blond hair, who, at that moment, was fitting a cigarette into a long holder. He dipped his hand into the pocket of his elegant dressing-gown, produced a lighter and flicked it into flame… ‘So thoughtful of you to join us, Mr Stannard. It saves me the trouble of looking for you.’ (p.187)

(He might as well be sitting stroking a white cat and saying, ‘So, Mr Bond. We meet at last.’)

Oops, you think, it’s all over. Except we forgot about the amazing Alison and her Dad’s training: she quickly shoots the two goons holding Rearden and he dives overboard. They swim behind the stern, round the other side, then manage to escape ashore in all the confusion.

Attempt Two is more elaborate. Rearden and Alison buy a speedboat, hire a boatyard, weld steel rods onto the front to form a battering ram, and pile it high with fireworks. Plan: ram the yacht, breach the fuel tanks, ignite the fireworks, watch everything explode. Despite some hairy moments with the now-hopeless steering, it does the trick. The Artina goes up like a bonfire, Rearden is shot in the shoulder just as he jumps overboard in his scuba dicing suit, but is rescued – as ever – by Alison driving a little put-put.

On staggering out of the water, bleeding badly from his shoulder wound he is, rather comicaly, confronted by the arresting officer who caught him in the early part of the book. ‘I must warn you that anything you say will be taken down and may be used in evidence against you.’

Tidying up

Rearden awakens in a Maltese prison, his shoulder patched up and is immediately visited by a precise Civil Servant who explains to him (and us) the full story. Everything is as we know except that Mackintosh deliberately betrayed Rearden to Wheeler in order to make Wheeler panic and play his hand. That’s how his captors in the Irish house suddenly knew who he was; that’s why Mackintosh was run over. But, fortunately for everyone, he had written out a full account of the whole story in a letter posted to his lawyers and to be opened in the event of his death. This caused a bit of a delay, during which the chase form Ireland to Malta took place, but Mackintosh now having finally died, the lawyers opened the letter and called in the Service. And so the quiet man is in Rearden’s cell. And so they discuss how to manage everything:

  • Wheeler dead, great man killed in tragic fire
  • British divers remove and hide the ramming boat Rearden used
  • why not put it out that Rearden was also killed resisting arrest somewhere in the UK, and so he is free to resume his Stannard identity and return to South Africa

Right at the very end, a released Rearden meets Alison in the bar of a Malta hotel. They chat about this and that, and then suddenly he proposes to her. And what do you think she replies?


Flat style

I’d forgotten how flat and factual Bagley’s style is. Hardly any colour, few similes or metaphors, hardly any passages of description. Hammond Innes beats him hands-down for descriptions of exotic settings, especially of the sea. But Bagley’s clear pedestrian tone comes as a relief after reading some of Alistair MacLean’s 1970s novels, with their ham-fisted, repetitive, mannered and would-be comic style.

Bagley describes situations calmly and accurately. The sequence of Rearden mugging the postman, palming the diamonds, returning to his hotel, being visited by the police and arrested is told in a long, detailed, orderly way, as it happens. It isn’t very exciting but it builds conviction. Similarly, he describes his interviews with his solicitor and then the actual trial at considerable pedantic length. Bit dull but it does slowly, patiently build up atmosphere and verismilitude.

There’s a moment when he describes being in Malta waiting for the baddie’s yacht to arrive. Think what the Len Deighton of Horse Under Water could have done with this opportunity for Sunday supplement pyrotechnics! But Bagley describes it like an accountant.

With nearly four days to wait we suddenly found ourselves in holiday mood. The sky was blue, the sun was hot and the sea inviting, and there were cafés with seafood and cool wine for the days, and moderately good restaurants with dance floors for the nights. (p.168)

Sounds like a postcard from Doug in Accounts, only less imaginative. Bagley isn’t a visual writer, he is about activities: then this then this then this then this. But that’s no bad thing. Precisely because a lot of it is flat and humdrum, his style gives the action that much more plausibility. There is no ambiguity about events and, when things do get exciting, your pulse starts racing along with the protagonist’s.

I checked my watch for the twentieth time in fifteen minutes and decided that the time had come. I put on the scuba gear, tightened the weighted belt around my waist, and hung the mask around my neck. Then I started the engines and the boat quivered in the water. I cast off the painter and pushed the boat away with one hand and then tentatively opened the throttles a notch, not knowing what to expect. (p.206)

The anxiety of influence

These thrillers from the 1960s and 70s are so conscious of the clichéd and stereotyped ground they tread and of the wealth of spy movies or TV series which blossomed in popular culture at this period, that sooner or later they try and distance themselves from it.

The cult of James Bond has given rise to a lot of nonsense. There are no double-o numbers and there is no ‘licence to kill’. (p.113)

Depressed as I was I nearly laughed in his face. He was acting like the villain in a B picture…Fatface was an amateur who seemed to get his ideas from watching TV. (p.116)

But it is useless to resist, Mr Bond. They are a part of that time and place and world, whether they want to or not. Though Bagley the author may laugh at any connection with James Bond, the novel itself has numerous Bond-like moments, and the trailer for the movie, (below) has Bond-style titles and involves fights, shoot-outs, luxury yachts and a beautiful girl – ie it looks just like (an admittedly low budget) Bond movie.

The movie

The novel was quickly turned into a film, released in 1973, directed by the great John Huston and starring Paul Newman as Rearden, Michael Hordern as ‘Fatface’, and James Mason as the suave Grandee double agent. Looks bizarre seeing gorgeous Paul Newman in drab 1970s greys and browns reminiscent of contemporary TV shows like Porridge or On The Buses. Shame the DVD is so needlessly expensive.

Related links

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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