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.

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