Night of Error by Desmond Bagley (1984)

[Clare] moved to the liquor cabinet. Several bottles had broken in the roll, and she picked one up and stared at the jagged edges. She said slowly, ‘I’ve seen them do this in the movies.’ (p.289)

Quick summary

This is a rip-roaring, old-fashioned action adventure, with good guys and bad guys competing to follow a dead man’s cryptic clues to find mineral treasure on the floor of the Pacific Ocean. There’s a no-nonsense hero helped out by his tough ex-Army minder, a rich patron and his beautiful daughter, a ruthless adversary and his psychopath henchman, all played out against stunning South Sea scenery. What’s not to like?

Plot

Mike Trevelyan is a research oceanographer. So’s his disreputable brother Mark, but Mike has just learned his brother has died in obscure circumstances on a South Sea Island. A rough Australian named Kane calls on Mark’s wife to tell her, and then calls on Mike. He tells a long story about himself and a sailor partner, Hadley, finding Mark alone and dying of appendicitis on a small island. They fetched a doctor who operated but the wound went septic and Mark died. Kane makes his apologies and leaves… Only then does Mike remember that Mark had his appendix out when he was a boy… And there was no mention of the Swede Mark was meant to be working with, one Norgaard – what happened to him?

Mark’s effects are flown back to London, a suitcase full of clothes, notebooks and some geological samples which turn out to be manganese nodules. As Mike explains to his ex-Army mentor and friend, Geordie Wilkins (sergeant in his father’s commando during the war), these lumps of manganese and iron litter the ocean floor in their billions, generally too deep to recover, and the manganese and iron these lumps contain are easier and cheaper to mine on land.

But when the pair come back after a drink and a meal they find Mike’s flat being burgled. The burglars turn nasty, pulling knives and even a gun in the ensuing fight. Our boys just about win, the burglars fleeing in a car, but this crystallises Mike’s feeling that something is badly wrong. The gang have made off with his brother’s suitcase and all the samples – all except one, which fell under the bed – and except for Mark’s notebook, full of writing in cryptic shorthand.

At his lab the next day Mike analyses the nodule and is astonished to discover the lump is 10% cobalt – and cobalt is a vital ingredient in rocket-building. At normal concentrations of 2% or less it wouldn’t be worth bothering with. But at 10% it becomes a potentially very lucrative source. Now Mark’s notebook becomes of consuming interest: Can the shorthand be deciphered? Does it tell where this rich treasure is located? Is it near the island where Mark is supposed to have died? Why did Kane lie about his brother’s cause of death? Was foul play involved?

Usefully, Mike’s old friend Geordie owns a large yacht which he makes money out of renting and just happens to be between jobs at the moment. He says he’ll roundup some of the ‘lads’ ie the commando from the War. Mike knows his brother worked for a while for a canny Scottish mineral millionaire, Jonathan Campbell. Mike goes to see if Campbell can be persuaded to fund their trip if he’s let in on the exploitation of the cobalt. Campbell immediately sees the potential profit and agrees. And it just so happens that Campbell has a beautiful daughter, Clare, and she wants to come along on the expedition too. Handy.

The scene is set for crime and skulduggery (and a bit of snogging) leading up to a volcanic climax amid the beautiful South Sea islands.

Posthumous

According to a note at the start, Bagley wrote this novel in 1962 but put it aside to revise it, making his debut as a novelist the next year with The Golden Keel instead. After Bagley died (aged only 59, in 1983) his widow and publishers incorporated his notes into the manuscript and published it. Well done them.

Simple, clear

The novel follows the pattern of Bagley’s other novels which is that there’s a violent incident to kick start it and then a long section with the fairly peaceful making of plans, holding of conversations and eventless sailing across the Atlantic. Only in the second half are there some violent incidents and then, at the very end, things rise to a genuinely gripping and thrilling finale: they have barely discovered the location of the cobalt-rich nodules before the baddies’ vessel appears out of the mist and rams them; and both sides are still fighting it out when nature steps in with the eruption of the undersea vent which had been the source of the nodules. The resulting pandemonium makes for a gripping final thirty pages.

1962

The novel has the imaginative and moral simplicity of an earlier age. Finished in 1962 it describes characters who radiate the decency of the 1950s. It reminds me of the protagonists of Hammond Innes’ many adventure yarns or John Wyndham’s ‘cosy catastrophe’ novels from the 1950s – not the subject matter but the tone: white, middle class, decent types battling against dastardly foreigners/monsters. Even the names have a four-square cleanliness: Mike Trevelyan the hero; John Campbell the millionaire; Clare Campbell his daughter; ‘Geordie’ Wilkins the tough, reliable helper – he has a nickname because he’s working class. And the dastardly baddie is, naturally, a foreigner – Ramirez.

Environmentalism

Mildly surprising to realise that green and environmental concerns have been around since the early 1960s. This speech is put into the mouth of the industrialist Campbell:

‘For centuries people like me have been taking metals out of the earth and putting nothing back. We’ve been greedy – the whole of mankind has been greedy. As I said the other day we’ve been raping the planet.’ His voice grew in intensity. ‘Now we’ve got hold of something different and we mustn’t spoil it, like we’ve spoiled everything else that we’ve laid our greedy hands on.’ (p.259)

Fortunately mankind has learned these lessons in the past 50 years and the environment is now safe and protected for our children.

Related links

Fontana paperback cover of Night of Error

Fontana paperback cover of Night of Error

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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