Bahama Crisis by Desmond Bagley (1980)

I turned at a metallic noise at the door. The first man to enter had a shotgun pointed at my belly. He was dressed in jeans and a checkered shirt open almost to the waist, and had a lined grim face. He took one pace inside the room and then stepped sideways, keeping the gun on me. ‘On the bed.’ The barrel of the gun jerked fractionally. I backed away and sidled sideways like a crab to the bed. The muzzle of that gun looked like an army cannon. (p.146)

First-person action adventure yarn which Bahamian businessman Tom Mangan kicks off with a brief history of the Bahamas, situating himself as the successful scion of one of the oldest families of the islands’ white settlers, married to a beautiful wife with two lovely daughters, the owner of a couple of successful tourist hotels, planning ahead for the anticipated expansion of air tourism to the islands. Indeed, he has everything a forty-something man could desire – when tragedy strikes.

One fine day he waves his wife and one of his daughters off in the family motorboat driven by the trusty Peter which will take them 120 miles across peaceful seas to Miami on a trip to visit relatives – except the boat never arrives and three days later his daughter’s badly decomposed body is recovered 200 miles in the wrong direction.

Local police speculate it’s cocaine smugglers who have a recognised modus operandi – steal a domestic boat, repaint it, use it for one drug run from south to north America, then scuttle it. More rarely, they hijack a boat in use, as appears to have happened here. ‘Was there anyone else aboard?’ the police ask. Yes, a hand Peter had hired for the journey. ‘Did he know this hand, had he ever met him, did he see him?’ Er, no. ‘Aha. That was probably your hijacker. Sorry Mr Mangan.’

The disappearance occured as Mangan was in the middle of high-level business talks: an American acquaintance from business school, Billy Cunningham, represents the extended Cunningham clan which owns lots of interests in Texas and wants to expand into the Caribbean. After initial discussions, then due diligence by lawyers and auditors, Tom and Billy sign a deal which gives our man 10% of shares in, and makes him President of, the new Theta Corporation, which will combine his local know-how and contacts with the huge resources of the Cunninghams for investment and expansion.

During the socialising surrounding Billy’s visits Mangan meets Billy’s beautiful spoilt cousin, Debbie, 25 years old and on the rebound from a dashed love affair. —Hmm. A gorgeous young lady on the rebound, a recently bereaved wealthy businessman in need of comfort, what could possibly happen?… In the short term he suggests she throws herself into charitable work: why not bring poor black kids from the slums of Texas out to the Caribbean and teach them to swim and surf and sail? Off she goes inspired.

Meanwhile, one slender clue emerges from the boat-napping. When the boat left the quay Tom’s daughter forgot her camera which she’d been running round taking snaps on in the last minutes before departure. Debbie has the film developed and one or two pics show the face of the mystery hired hand. He’s white, a well-known Californian yacht bum named Kayles, who was in the islands in the weeks running up to the disappearance; now he’s nowhere to be found.

Tom passes what he knows on to the local police, headed by Deputy-Commissioner Perigord. But then things move on to a longer-term description of Tom’s adept handling of business. The deal is signed with the Cunningham Clan; Tom moves immediately to create a new boat hire division, starts the building of new hotels in underdeveloped islands, sets up a school devoted to training locals to become top hotel staff and so on. Debbie, along with some young teacher friends, sets up her charity to bring deprived city kids out to the islands for the holiday of a lifetime. After a year of being close to each other, Tom does the inevitable and proposes and she accepts. He has not only gone into business with Cunningham money, he’s married into it too.

Thoughts

After the stratospherically high-level politics of Frederick Forsyth’s novel The Devil’s Alternative – published in the same year – with its conversations about nuclear war set in the Politburo and West Wing, with its quick cross-cuts from the Kremlin to a dockyard in Japan to the SAS training barracks in Devon – this Bagley novel feels small and personal, almost cosy. One man’s account of how he got mixed up in some nasty but essentially local crime activities, almost a police procedural about how he uncovers the conspiracy behind the immediate crime. Although, in the event, the perspective does expand a little…

More plot

Things go badly for the Bahamas tourist trade. There’s a severe outbreak of legionella disease which kills nearly fifty tourists; a vast funfair on one of the islands burns down; and there’s a sudden riot in the capital Nassau in which three locals are killed. It’s as if the islands are cursed!

By far the biggest incident for Mangan, though, is when an employee sights the boat belonging to Kayles in a distant cay. Tom flies with Sam, his leading boatman, to the nearest small airport then hires the boat of a local fisherman to putter for 6 hours to the isolated cay where the boat was seen, and discovers it’s still there. They confirm it’s manned by Kayles, jump him and tie him up. Search the boat and find charts, log of journeys all over the Caribbean, and suspicious ampoules in his first aid box, containing a yellow liquid. Aha. Liquid cocaine? Heroine?

But while they’re topside searching the deck Kayles escapes and emerges firing a gun, both Tom and Sam leap overboard. When they resurface Kayles has killed Bayliss, stolen his boat and made his getaway. When Tom and Sam finally repair Kayles’s boat and make it back to civilisation, Mangan informs Commissioner Perigord of everything that happened and the latter is understandably furious he went it alone instead of letting the police handle it.

Then a small plane flown by his best pilot and carrying four VIP Yanks goes missing presumed crashed, just after Mangan cancelled his involvement in the flight at the last moment. When he gets back from these numerous entanglements he finds his wife, Debbie, has stormed out, fed up that he spends all his time on the corporation, the hotels, the business, and these other wild goose chases and none with her, leaving a note saying she’s flown back to the family in Houston.

Part two – the American chapters

This inaugurates part two of the narrative, set largely in the States: for a few days later the angry Cunningham clan phone up to say Debbie’s never arrived and they want Tom at company HQ in Houston asap. He flies into the middle of a rancorous family and boardroom argument among the bickering clan of outsize Texan personalities which make up the Cunninghams and I was once again reminded of the TV series Dallas (started 1978 – the feuding Ewing clan) and Dynasty (1981 – the feuding Carringtons). There’s an old patriarch Cunningham, two powerful sons (including Billy One, Billy’s dad), and their grandsons (including angry Frank who hates Mangan). A significant handful of them never wanted Debbie marrying Tom in the first place, and now look what’s happened!

They reveal to a shocked Mangan that Debbie has been kidnapped – they show him the ransom note – and the ransom the kidnappers are demanding is – Mangan himself! As the clan discuss and bicker, a further demand arrives, a complicated 10-step hostage handover process complete with photos of locations and detailed notes of procedures to be followed. The clan are pondering this when Tom steps down to the foyer to buy a packet of fags and is stabbed in the thigh with an injection of some kind of paralysing poison. Out of the crowd a fake doctor appears and Tom finds himself, paralysed but conscious, being whisked away in a fake ambulance. The elaborate document delivered to the Cunninghams was a delaying tactic. They were waiting for him to expose himself. And now…

Taken hostage

Tom awakens in a primitive cell somewhere rural. The Baddy arrives preceded by ‘Leroy’, a psychopath with a shotgun. The Bad Man calls himself ‘Robinson’ with a smirk and explains that, yes, they do have Debbie. ‘Robinson’ explains he is Kayles’ employer, Kayles is a fool, he was told to get from the Bahamas to Miami quickly and, since his own boat had an engine fault, heard about the need for a spare hand on Tom’s wife’s boat journey to Miami, applied, was hired, then killed all aboard – the loyal Peter, Tom’s wife and daughter.

Mangan is sickened to hear all this so casually explained. But why is he here? Because when Sam and Tom shanghaied Kayles a few weeks later, tied him up and searched the cabin – Kayles claims he overheard Tom explaining Robinson’s whole plan to Sam. Now the Bad Man needs to know what Mangan knows: ‘Tell me what you know, Mangan; tell me what you’ve told Commissioner Perigord. Or your wife gets it.’ And he leaves Tom to think it over but our man is completely puzzled. He has no idea what Robinson’s game is. He had gone along with the cops’ theory that the boat-jacking was down to cocaine smuggling and has no recollection of explaining ‘the whole plan’ to Sam. He has no idea what ‘the whole plan’ could be.

Meanwhile, being a practical type, Tom realises the potential in the full water pitcher they’ve left him in his cell to drink and/or wash with. He perches it in the thatched roof above the doorway, suspended by a thin twig, and creates a string out an old rag leading from twig to his bed – and waits…

Some hours later there come shouts from outside as of a maddened crowd, and then screams which he recognises as his wife’s. Moments later shotgun man enters the room and stands in the obvious security spot, Tom pulls the string and leaps to one side, the thugs fires and blasts half the wall out but the big jug hits him directly overhead, cracking his skull. As the number two – not Robinson, but this is no moment to hesitate – rushes in, Tom half tackles him, ripping upwards with the sharpest fragment of the porcelain bowl they had left him and which he had shattered into shards, tearing open the baddy’s stomach.

Mangan grabs the shotgun and runs out but to his dismay encounters a large crowd, a dozen or so men who all turn towards him and the first shots are fired. Realising he can’t rescue Debbie, Tom legs it into the woods and there begins a classic manhunt with the pursuers splitting into groups and cutting him off in territory they know intimately, while he blunders on blindly, cut by trees and brambles, loses shoes in the stream and is near the end of his tether as he scrambles up higher ground, trips and collapses, the shotgun goes flying – when he feels a hard boot step onto his wrist. Cut to close-up of hero squinting up into the face of a figure standing over him, his face blotted out by the southern sun.

And, just like in the corniest movie, it is not one of the pursuers (who, it transpires, are the no-good, low-down Ainslee family), it is their ornery neighbour, Dade Perkins. We are in the deepest, most backward, South and Dade tells the exhausted Tom to hide because ‘No goddam Ainslee is comin’ onto my land, no matter what you gone and done, mister’. Long story short: Dade faces down the pursuers (along with his beautiful buxom daughter Sherry-Lou, hiding in the bushes and who fires a warning shot over the pursuing posse’s heads when they threaten to ignore Dade’s threat not to go one step further). Cussing and spitting Leroy Ainslee (the main thug) and the others slope off.

Tom gets Dade to phone Billy at Cunningham HQ. Turns out the Cunninghams have harassed the Perkins for several generations, trying to hustle them off their land to seize the hardwood, cut everything back for grazing etc. Tom promises, ‘You’ll never have any more hassle from any more Cunninghams if you help us find Debbie’. Half an hour later six helicopters, Cunningham private ones and police ones, arrive and go on to storm the Ainslee compound but all the menfolk heard them coming and have fled. Tom, Billy, the cops and a doctor find Debbie in an outhouse having been gang-raped (‘and worse’). Doctors, sedation, chopper to hospital.

More disasters

Meetings: Tom meets with the Police and Commissioner Perigord who all the way through has been telling him, in exasperation, to leave it to the police, advice Mangan cheerily ignores and ignores again as the Cunningham clan circle the wagons, despatching a bodyguard of six ex-US Treasury men to protect him and Debbie.

Debbie is finally released from hospital and there are brisk descriptions of her (swift, clean) recovery from the gang-rape ordeal. (The male narrative romps on, leaving this reader with misgivings about the whole gang rape storyline…) Back at his home island, Tom catches up on hotel business and soon discovers that Sam, who accompanied him out to Kayles’ boat, has been badly injured in a suspicious accident. Are ‘they’ pursuing anyone who came into contact with Kayles? Why? Then there’s another catastrophe when the new luggage handling system at the airport goes haywire, ripping open the baggage of an entire flight of American tourists. God why all these misfortunes, is he cursed or something?

And then Legionella breaks out in his hotel and hundreds of guests go ill, the place is quarantined, Mangan has to supervise the organisational mayhem which ensues. Extensive search eventually shows the seals on the water tanks on the roof are broken. And it is here, checking it for himself with the hotels’ water engineers and security men, that Tom stumbles over an ampoule like the one he saw in the medicine box on Kayles’s yacht.

Aha. Suddenly he sees a pattern and understands why ‘Robinson’ was interrogating him. The plan is nothing as small as smuggling cocaine; it is to undermine the entire tourist economy of the Bahamas while fomenting political unrest: ‘Robinson’ is a communist subversive. What Kayles half heard as Mangan outlining the ‘whole plot’ to Sam was simply Mangan reciting a list of the misfortunes which had occurred up to that date, with no idea that they were planned.

Threaded around these events are Mangan spotting Carasco, one of the baddies who was involved in abducting him in Houston, in the hotel itself, though in a thick disguise. Hotel security, the police and the bodyguards are alerted and tail him. Although he gets away some night photos emerge of him disembarking the dinghy of a yacht named Capistrano. Aha.

Final chase

An all points bulletin is put out for this yacht. Once located the troops move in, both official police, the US bodyguards and our hero along with his Yankee pal, Billy, complete with hand gun. There follows a powerboat chase through the maze of canals on the island, reminiscent of Live and Let Die (1973) or Puppet on a Chain (1972). It is a stock ‘exciting climax’ to a certain kind of 1970s made-for-TV level entertainment.

True to form, both boats race, overtake and sweep past each other, the splashed protagonists ducking and weaving and taking pot shots at each other – classically, these things climax in the baddy’s boat exploding in a fire ball, but here the baddy beaches on a low strand, runs towards a house being built, there’s more shoot-out while the bewildered builders look on. Finally, as the official police catch up and join Tom and Billy, the baddy makes a bid for freedom across a street and the up-till-then restrained Commissioner Perigord surprises Tom (and the reader) by throwing the swagger stick he has used up to this point as an ornamental sign of authority, at the fleeing ‘Robinson’. Turns out this decorative stick is tipped with lead and is a powerful weapon: it hits ‘Robinson’ on the head, who drops stunned in the road. However, before we can get hold of the Baddy, interrogate him and get the conspiracy clarified, a London Routemaster bus (common in the islands) swerves round the corner and runs clean over his head. Oh well.

Epilogue

In the Epilogue the Commissioner explains that US records show ‘Robinson’ to have been a Cuban revolutionary and his plan the systematic destruction of the Bahamian tourist economy in order to foment revolution among the impoverished population – hence everything from the legionella outbreaks, burning down of the pleasure attraction, small flight crashing with high profile VIPs abroad, even the sudden riot in Nassau.

Now everything will be alright, the tourism business return to normal, and the text ends with a fully restored Debbie bearing a baby. Restoration of order, natural rhythms, new life.

Thoughts

Like most plots which fuel this kind of thriller, the conspiracy which drives it is better seen in glimpses, as hints of some unstated dastardly plan. The final revelation of the conspiracy is not particularly plausible. It’s a hard moment for thriller writers. The final rationales all-too-often fail to fully justify the mayhem which they allegedly cause. (For example, the giant stakes behind the Forsyth thriller I just read – The Devil’s Alternative – namely the risk of the Russians launching an all-out nuclear war, ends up feeling ludicrous, over-wrought, even, maybe, to the author, so that the ending has a peculiarly comic or romantic feel about it.)

Bahama Crisis boils down to guys with guns chasing each other, being kidnapped and held in Dr No-style cells, or busting out and being chased through mangrove swamps, leading up to the familiar trope of a speedboat chase.

There is just enough characterisation to differentiate the various cardboard characters but the treatment of, for example, the rape and the post-rape impact on Debbie, or the impact on the protagonist of his wife’s abduction and murder, go about an inch deep. They are pretexts or nodes around which cluster plot functions and motivations, not real events. They have little or no psychological depth, and so minimal impact on the reader.

That said, this is tauter and more believable than many of Bagley’s earlier thrillers. As always he has done plenty of factual research which he includes often raw in the text but which sheds interesting light on the Bahamas history, geography and people. And a lot of information about running a tourist hotel, managing a chain of hotels, and the tourism business more generally. Not many novels are set in this milieu or this location and I found both congenial and interesting.

The comparison with Forsyth brings out some of Bagley’s other strengths: whereas Forsyth’s tone is lofty, detached, a journalist reporting on the events he’s describing, always detached enough to give you a full technical run-down of every gun being fired or a detailed explanation of just how the SAS is organised and which sub-section of the organisation the men he’s describing belong to – Bagley is inside the mind of a hot, sweaty, scared guy stumbling through the mangrove swamps pursued by psychos with guns.

Although they’re both thrillers, it feels like Forsyth belongs to the shiny, consumerist, Sunday Times Rich List 1980s which focuses on gadgets and well-run organisations, whereas Bagley belongs to an older tradition of visceral thrills and spills, an everyman thrown into exciting situations of peril and jeopardy, the Eric Ambler-Ian Fleming tradition. Which, on the whole, I think I prefer.

I thought Bagley would go off in his final works but I’d recommend this to anyone who fancies a slightly dated but engaging poolside read. It may lack psychological depth but it has a nice warmth towards its characters and setting. It is not deliberately heartless and cynical as the new generation of techno-thriller writers in the 1980s were.

I’m looking forward to reading his last few novels…

Related links

Fontana paperback edition of Bahama Crisis

Fontana paperback edition of Bahama Crisis

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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