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 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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.