Running Blind by Desmond Bagley (1970)

How in hell did Kennikin get ahead of me? That was my first bitter thought.
But idle thoughts were no use and action was necessary. (Chapter 5, III)

This is a first-person spy thriller told by British counter-espionage agent Alan Stewart and set in Iceland, where he has gone to do a simple courier job which goes badly wrong, and where he also has an apartment and a girlfriend who swiftly gets dragged into the turmoil.

Facts

Being Factual Bagley, the location is the cue for plenty of facts and figures about Icelandic geography, history, language, food and customs.

I frowned. Most people think that because Greenland is covered with ice and is wrongly named then so is Iceland, and there’s not much ice about the place. They’re dead wrong. Thirty-six icefields glaciate one-eighth of the country and one of them alone – Vatnajökull – is as big as all the glaciated areas in Scandinavia and the Alps put together. (Ch 4, II)

There’s even a brisk summary of the most famous of the Icelandic sagas, Njal’s saga.

Voice

The narrator’s voice is mostly very flat and factual. This is Bagley’s default style – no metaphors or similes, precious little description – just facts. But having just read Landslide, where Bagley creates a credibly ballsy Canadian persona, I know it’s also a deliberate choice. The most noticeable element of the style is how much the hero swears, saying ‘bloody’ and ‘bastard’ a lot, in a way he didn’t in the earlier books, and Alistair MacLean never does. I blame it on the Permissive Society.

‘I don’t know, damn it! I wish to hell I did.’ I retrieved the carbine. ‘Let’s get on with it.’
So on we went along that bastard of a track, round and round, up and down, but mostly up, until we had climbed right to the edge of Vatnajökull, next to the ice. (Ch 4, III)

Phony philosophy

‘There’s only one way of opting out of the world and that’s by dying,’ said Slade with phony philosophy.

Adventure stories are primarily entertainment and the entertainment is in exercising the predatory parts of our brains, either in calculating and scheming against the enemy or in direct physical action. Adventure authors could be distributed around a graph with axes for cerebrality and action, with Le Carré at the chess-playing pole, MacLean at the blood and gore physicality pole and Deighton a rather confusing combination of the two.

Bagley is an odd case because there’s quite a lot of cold factual information (gleaned from enyclopedias and then sown into the text) but no subtlety at all. There are none of the abrupt twists and unexpected revelations which make MacLean’s books so riveting, there is none of the super-subtlety of le Carré’s psychological battles or the clever-clever gaming of Deighton’s texts.

Bagley’s simple heros commit to a course of action and then see it through, overcoming various physical challenges on the way and getting the girl in the end. The goodies remain goodies. There is a clean-cut, honest innocence about Bagley’s novels. Although they make a few fashionably jaded comments about contemporary life these are just Daily Mail whinging ie they don’t penetrate the surface, they aren’t fully dramatised in the story. Characters may spout a bit of philosophy or politics at the appropriate moment in the plot – ‘If only the people back home knew what wicked deeds were done to keep them safe’ or some such – but it is phony philosophy, untroubling and easy-to-digest oiling for the machinery of the plot.

In this overtly spy novel he makes a stab at the cynicism and world-weariness which are associated with the genre – his boss seems to be playing a double game, sending one of his colleagues in to assassinate him and threatening to alert his KGB opposite number to his whereabouts – but it is an easy and obvious cynicism, expressed, in this example, in the tritest metaphor of all for espionage, the game of chess.

Graham was dead – a pawn suddenly swept from the board. He had died because he obeyed orders blindly, just as I had done in Sweden; he had died because he didn’t really understand what he was doing. (Ch 3, II)

If that’s meant to have dramatic impact it fails because Bagley is announcing as news what have become, in the 45 years since this novel was published, the basic clichés of the genre: trust no-one, everyone is out to get you, your own side are more dangerous than the nominal ‘enemy’, we’re all just disposable pawns in a Great Game.

Similarly, although the novel gives the appearance of plot twists, there aren’t really any: Stewart hates his boss, Slade, from the start and, it turns out, justifiably; he fears his Russian enemy Krennikin from the start and is right to do so; he is saddened that his old mate Jack Case seems to be siding with Slade, but he turns out to be the ‘Genuine Buddy Who Is Cruelly Betrayed’ figure. What would have surprised me a bit is if his long-term girlfriend had turned out to be spying on him but this is Bagley so, no, she is as good as he paints her from the start, in fact comes up trumps and saves the day.

Decisive action beats idle thoughts

This book dates from before the Great Cynicism of the 1970s and suffers from its simplicity and honesty. But whereas crashing obviousness is not a problem for the high-spirited heroes of such straighforward actioners as The Golden Keel, The Vivero Letter, Landslide or The Spoilers who just have to biff the bad guys, it is a problem when Bagley attempts a genre which has come to signify subtlety, complex undercurrents and confusion. He is good at action, at the practicalities of disposing of a body, fording a river, stalking an assassin, dressing a wound and the rest of it – a lot less good at psychology.

We expect our spies to be clever if nothing else. The Ipcress narrator is always several steps ahead of the reader, as is Le Carré’s Smiley. Bagley’s Stewart is the opposite, slower than the reader. It is one thing to admit you’re at a loss in an adventure story, especially when you’re a Bagley hero masquerading as Joe Ordinary and wanting to involve the reader in your perilous plight. But we expect our spies to be smart and are disappointed when we can figure out things quicker than them.

‘I don’t know,’ I said despondently. ‘It’s too damned complicated and I don’t know enough’… I needed more than help, I needed a new set of brains to work out this convoluted problem.

These remarks come under the category of identifiers, phrases designed to help or make the reader identify with the hero. Bagley does this more than MacLean; he is known for the (supposed) ‘ordinary’ nature of most of his heroes. Thus the ‘thoughts’ of a Bagley protagonist given in the text are at least as much to rope the reader in, to make the hero accessible to the average reader, as an actual attempt to mimic the thought processes of a spy. If they are meant to be his thought processes, then he’s pretty dim.

This playing to the gallery also explains his late ’60s sexism.

I set out toward the Land Rover at a dead run, holding Elin’s arm, but she dragged free. ‘The coffee pot!’
‘The hell with it!’ Women are funny creatures; this was not a time to be thinking of domestic economy. I grabbed her arm again and dragged her along.

These kinds of remarks aren’t interesting for anything they tell us about Mr Bagley, they are much more interesting as an insight into how he conceives of his audience, its reflexes and expectations, ie middle-aged, middle England, Daily Mail-reading men, complete with their prejudices against women, the trendy young, foreigners and so on. The steady stream of not-too-demanding quips, would-be cynical remarks, moans about Modern Life or very obvious quotes from the only poet his readers have heard of, Shakespeare, paint a vivid portrait of the target audience for this kind of flat, efficient, clichéd melodrama. It’s effective and professional at what it does, but this is not a good book.

Related links

Cover of the 1973 Fontana paperback edition of Running Blind

Cover of the 1973 Fontana paperback edition of Running Blind

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 Spoilers by Desmond Bagley (1969)

This is a great action adventure yarn, starting slow and factual with the body of a dead junkie in a Notting Hill flophouse and building to exciting shoot-outs in the Iraqi desert before an explosive climax in the Mediterranean.

Bagley returns to third-person narrator which allows him to describe and portray a wider range of characters, especially as – like in High Citadel – they are split into two groups with two completely different narrative arcs.

Heroin

The story is about heroin and heroin smugglers. Interesting that in this same year, 1969, Alistair MacLean published his thriller about heroin smuggling, the gruesome Puppet On A Chain. A hot topic? Something in the air? Interesting to compare and contrast the two author’s approaches to the same issue. Bagley is characteristically more formal and factual, giving an interesting overview of the problem of heroin addiction in London, the work of a reforming doctor in the area, along with the basic facts about Papaver somniferum, the supply chains from the East, and the prices and profits to be made along the supply chains to America, before the novel metamorphoses into an action adventure in the deserts of Kurdistan, which is where our heroes find an enormous heroin factory.

MacLean’s feels like a thriller as it is full of violence and the threat of violence and the tension of impending violence from the very start. Bagley’s is an adventure as it takes well over 100 pages of careful factual build-up to get to any action scenes ie there isn’t the same sense of tension, of suppressed anxiety, as in the MacLean.

I am not James Bond

As in the previous novel, Bagley’s ‘I am not James Bond’ obsession recurs. Why does he feel the shadow of Commander Bond weighing so heavily on him?

‘You’ve picked the wrong man. I don’t think the man exists, anyway. You need a combination of St George and James Bond. I’m a doctor, not a gang-buster.’ (Ch 2, I)

Just after ten o’clock Warren strolled through the gambling rooms towards the bar…He watched the roulette for a moment and thought sardonically, If I were James Bond I’d be in there making a killing. (Ch 2, IV)

His decision was made and all qualms gone. He was tired of fighting the stupidity of the public, of which the queasiness of this narrow-gutted landlord was only a single example. If the only way to run his job was to turn into a synthetic James Bond, then a James Bond he’d be. (Ch 2, VI)

Mission impossible

Despite all his disclaimers the quiet studious doctor Nick Warren quite quickly morphs into the stock Bagley hero, clear-headed, unafraid, resourceful; taking the money of multi-millionaire movie mogul Sir Robert Hellier and assembling a scratch team of likely lads to help him tackle the heroin gangs at source.

  • Dan Parker – ex-Royal Navy mechanic, good with torpedoes etc
  • Andy Tozier – mercenary
  • Mike Abbott – inquisitive Fleet Street journalist
  • John Follett – Soho nightclub owner and con-man

The assembly of the team reminds me of the original TV series of Mission Impossible (1967-73) and way the plot depends on ‘stings’ or ‘cons’ just as much as violence is reminiscent of The A-Team (1983-87), though the premise of a small team tackling international criminal masterminds was a very common theme of popular TV series of the 1960s such as The Avengers (1961-69), Danger Man (1960-68), The Saint (1962-69), The Prisoner (1967-8), The Champions (1968-9), Department S (1969-70), The Persuaders (1971) and Jason King (1971-2). Even the title, the Spoilers fits in with these TV names.

And he may protest that he’s not James Bond but there’s a gorgeous nymphomaniac baddie, who likes to be wined and dined at the best hotels, there’s exotic locations in Iraq and the Lebanon, there’s clever gadgetry, with guns smuggled in as parts of Land Rovers, a torpedo being adjusted to travel super distances, a cutting-edge video recorder, there’s blowing up the baddy’s super-laboratory, escapes along secret underground passageways and improbable shoot-outs against the Kurdish militia, complete with panicked camels getting in everyone’s way.

Research

As usual with Bagley, the novel is larded with factual information and the reader is treated to lectures on:

  • the Kurdish Question ie the Kurds’ attempts to gain their own homeland
  • how to make dynamite out of fertiliser, charcoal etc
  • how torpedoes work and can be re-engineered
  • how to conceal weapon parts in a Land Rover
  • heroin manufacturer and the economics of the dope business
  • game theory

Metcalfe

Out of the blue the smuggler and baddy from Bagley’s first novel, The Golden Keel, Tom Metcalfe who chased our heroes across the Mediterranean in a high speed boat, sinks but ultimately saves them in that book – turns up here! He is running guns to the Kurdish peshmerga but rather improbably switches sides when he meets old friend and fellow mercenary Andy Tozier and learns that his deal was being funded by heroin which he, rather high-mindedly, objects to.

Related links

Cover of the 1973 Fontana paperback edition of The Spoilers

Cover of the 1973 Fontana paperback edition of The Spoilers

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 Vivero Letter by Desmond Bagley (1968)

‘This sounds like a cross between a jigsaw puzzle and a detective story,’ I said.

Quiet accountant Jeremy Wheale’s life is turned upside down when his brother is shot dead on the family farm in Devon, and a lot of people are suddenly showing interest in a family heirloom, a brass tray which turns out to be the clue to a fabulous Mayan treasure.

Manuel de Vivero was taken prisoner by the Mayans during the Spanish invasion of Central America early in the 1500s but wrote a letter from captivity in the Mayan city of Uaxuanoc to his two sons, accompanied by two presents. The set-up is that a) the city was overflowing with gold – buildings and temples and treasure and everyday utensils made from gold b) the two trays, when combined, give the clue to the location of this lost city.

The idea of a set of physical artefacts which need to be combined to give the location of lost treasure is slightly reminiscent of the founding adventure story, Treasure Island (1883) but reminds me more of the Tintin adventure, The Secret of the Unicorn (1943) where the maps found in three model boats must be combined to give the location of the treasure.

Thriller or adventure?

Like The Golden Keel maybe this isn’t a thriller at all, it’s more straight adventure story with some thrilling scenes at the end. According to Wikipedia, ‘Thrillers may be defined by the primary mood that they elicit: fearful excitement. In short, if it “thrills”, it is a thriller.’ For two thirds of the text this book, like Keel, does not thrill. It moves slowly and leisurely as the protagonist, in perfect safety, finds out about the Vivero Letter, the importance of his ‘tray’, persuades the rival archaeologists to collaborate and accompanies them to their luxury house in Mexico City, then to base camp on the Yucatan peninsula, then helps with the prolonged and rather boring excavations to find the ruined city.

Only in the last fifth or so of the text does the gear shift as baddies try to muscle in on the dig to steal the excavated treasure. Only at this point do we enter ‘thriller’ territory ie enter the atmosphere of tension and jeopardy and reach full throttle in the last thirty pages which combine an armed attack on the base, the arrival of a tropical hurricane, a tense escape to an underwater cavern, and then a nail-biting duel with machetes!

Coincidences

The tale is told by Wheale as first person narrative, and his ignorance of archaeology, history and so on help to smooth over a series of improbable coincidences and unlikely events – that the tray/treasure clue ever came into his family’s possession, that a couple of American archaeologists both just happened to read an article in the local Devon papers about it (!) and that brings them both to his door, that Wheale can persuade the rivals (who both know about the letter and its secret) to work together on a joint treasure hunting expedition in Mexico, and so on.

Ordinary man protagonist

But the main oddity of the story is that Bagley goes out of his way to make Wheale a boring non-entity, a timid accountant. This is established in the opening scene at a ‘swinging 60s’ party where he overhears his with-it girlfriend describe him as deadly dull, ‘a grey little man in a grey little job’. His on-impulse decision to force the two collectors to take him on the treasure hunt is supposed to be his response to this hurtful jibe. This ‘I am not a hero’ theme runs very self-consciously throughout the text:

Jemmy Wheale, New Elizabethan, adventurer at large – have gun, will travel. The thought made me smile, and the man in the mirror smiled back at me derisively. I didn’t have a gun and I doubted whether I could use one effectively, anyway. I suppose a James bond type would have unpacked his portable helicopter and taken off after Jack Gatt long ago, bringing back his scalp and couple of his choicest blondes. Hell, I didn’t even look like Sean Connery. (Ch 5, I)

And yet he is the hero. He is foolhardy enough to go to Mexico with the archaeologists, he is man enough to stand up to the bullying one, Halstead, and to provoke him by flirting with his wife. He turns out to be an advanced scuba diver, capable of organising and running a sustained joint dive to the bottom of the giant well in the abandoned city where most of the treasure is found. And then, when the baddies move in, he is tough enough to survive a helicopter crash and several days in the jungle before coming to the rescue of the other goodies, shooting dead about four of the attackers, he organises the armed resistance, getting rid of the treasure, saves the girl in the underwater cave and turns out to be an expert fencer (that’s fighter with a sword). I know a few boring English accountants. They couldn’t do all this.

This primitive world of kill or be killed was a long way from Cannon Street and the bowler-hatted boys. What the hell was a grey little man like me doing here? (Ch 10, I)

In fact the ‘ordinary joe’ schtick is a routine, part of Bagley’s brand, making him stand out distinctly from Le Carré’s spies, from the special agents who feature in MacLean’s 1960s thrillers and, of course, from the great dominating figure in this field, Commander Bond.

Maybe Sheila had been correct when she had described me as a grey man but only in a circumscribed way. She expected Sean Connery disguised as James Bond and what she got was me – just a good, old-fashioned, grey, average type. (Ch 1)

But asserting something in a fiction is not the same as dramatising it. Wheale doesn’t actually think or behave anything like the boring accountant the author keeps telling us he is. In Landslide Bagley keeps repeating that Bob Boyd is a man who (due to the car crash he was in) does not know his true identity and that this plunges him into some kind of existentialist crisis – but it doesn’t; it doesn’t make any difference to the way the character actually thinks or behaves. Same here with Mr grey accountant Wheale. Despite the author’s assertions to the contrary, both these characters behave like the standard Bagley hero, tough, resourceful, unafraid, physically fit and strangely attractive to the only nubile woman in the vicinity who he ends up carrying off into the sunset.

Well-researched

As usual, half the pleasure of reading Bagley is for the encyclopedia-style information which not only decorates the text but which the story is in fact premised on. A reader of  this book learns a lot about the (two) Mayan empire(s), about the geography of the Yucatan Peninsula, a lot about scuba diving to depths of 120 feet or so, there is a neat exposition of how a helicopter works (to explain how one is sabotaged), as well as some introductory facts about the Mafia in case you hadn’t heard of them before.

As in The Golden Keel (which is stuffed from start to finish with detailed information about yacht design, building and sailing) the dense factuality of Mayan history and archaeology takes the place of the ‘thrill’. As in Keel we are introduced to the possible baddy Metcalfe fairly early on, but it is only in the last 50 pages that he becomes an explicit enemy in the exciting sea race across the Med – so in this book we are introduced to the Mafia boss John Gatt fairly early on as a possible instigator of the murder of Wheale’s brother, only for him to be forgotten in the detail of diving and digging which takes up the next 150 pages, and only for him to reappear in the last 50 pages leading the attack on the archaeologists (and their treasure).

Thus the majority of the text of these books is not thrilling. It is taken up with lengthy descriptions of the interplay between fairly mundane characters, in Vivero between the accountant-turned-adventurer Wheale, the multi-millionaire archaeologist Fallon, his embittered rival Halstead, Halstead’s dishy and deluded wife Katherine, Fallon’s savvy investigator Harris (who provides the factual info about John Gatt and the mafia), as well as the factual background listed above as well as plenty of detail about how to set up a camp in a tropical rainforest, and so on.

All of this stuff is interesting, and the low-level drama between the characters is amusing in a kitschy Dallas kind of way, but thrilling it is not. A sober, factually-based adventure story with a thrilling finale is what it is.

Related links

Cover of the early 1970s Fontana edition of The Vivero Letter

Cover of the early 1970s Fontana edition of The Vivero Letter

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.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (1883)

Treasure Island or, the mutiny of the Hispaniola’ was serialised in 18 instalments in the children’s magazine Young Folks between 1881–82, before being published in book form in 1883. Stevenson used the pseudonym Captain George North. It was the magazine’s editor, James Henderson, who suggested he change the title from The Sea Cook to Treasure Island.

Plot Presumably most people know the story. What makes the text so gripping is the speed with which the sequence of sensational incidents unfolds, and the vividness of characterisation – the boy hero Jack Hawkins, Long  John Silver, marooned Ben Gunn,  sinister Blind Pew, sterling Dr Livesey, stout Squire Trelawney – what a cast! And matching speed, incidents and character, Stevenson’s style is intently focused on moving quickly and effectively from one node of action to the next, with a storyteller’s natural touch of suspense.

“Every man on board seemed well content, and they must have been hard to please if they had been otherwise, for it is my belief there was never a ship’s company so spoiled since Noah put to sea. Double grog was going on the least excuse; there was duff on odd days, as, for instance, if the squire heard it was any man’s birthday, and always a barrel of apples standing broached in the waist for anyone to help himself that had a fancy.

“Never knew good come of it yet,” the captain said to Dr. Livesey. “Spoil forecastle hands, make devils. That’s my belief.”

“But good did come of the apple barrel, as you shall hear, for if it had not been for that, we should have had no note of warning and might all have perished by the hand of treachery.

“This was how it came about.” (Chapter 10)

Style Stevenson’s sentences might be long, with numerous subordinate clauses but, unlike Conrad’s sentences, each clause adds new information and so the prose feels pacey. In Conrad the atmosphere is stagnant, impotent, smothered by tautologous repetition. In Stevenson you are continually learning new information at each step.

“ALL that night we were in a great bustle getting things stowed in their place, and boatfuls of the squire’s friends, Mr. Blandly and the like, coming off to wish him a good voyage and a safe return. We never had a night at the Admiral Benbow when I had half the work; and I was dog-tired when, a little before dawn, the boatswain sounded his pipe and the crew began to man the capstan-bars. I might have been twice as weary, yet I would not have left the deck, all was so new and interesting to me—the brief commands, the shrill note of the whistle, the men bustling to their places in the glimmer of the ship’s lanterns.” (Chapter 10)

The three clauses at the end of this last sentence amplify the ‘all’ of the previous phrase. But each one describes something new, something factual and something well-selected to give a panoramic overview of dockside activities. They are like cutaways in a film. In this purely syntactical respect, quite apart from the sensational storyline, Stevenson’s style is cinematic. Also cinematic is RLS’s brisk way with detail:

“‘That?’ returned Silver, smiling away, but warier than ever, his eye a mere pin-point in his big face, but gleaming like a crumb of glass. ” (Chapter 14)

‘The rest of the arms and powder we dropped overboard in two fathoms and a half of water, so that we could see the bright steel shining far below us in the sun, on the clean, sandy bottom.’ (Chapter 16)

‘Just then, with a roar and a whistle, a round-shot passed high above the roof of the log-house and plumped far beyond us in the wood.’ (Chapter 18)

For Stevenson, poetry is in the lucid detail. Opposite of Conrad, with his murk of synonyms.

Dialogue In Conrad there is often an unintentionally comic mismatch between the lurid, nihilistic thoughts of the angst-ridden protagonists, dwelt on at great length – and their stiff-upper-lip, stiffly English, and generally brief dialogue. By contrast Stevenson’s dialogue is of a piece with the characters; their speech reveals them in an almost Shakespearian way. He did, after all, write half a dozen plays. Stevenson’s dialogue is wonderfully salty and dramatic, ready to go straight into the screenplay:

‘I saw him dead with these here deadlights,’ said Morgan. ‘Billy took me in. There he laid, with penny-pieces on his eyes.’

‘Dead—aye, sure enough he’s dead and gone below,’ said the fellow with the bandage; ‘but if ever sperrit walked, it would be Flint’s. Dear heart, but he died bad, did Flint!’

‘Aye, that he did,’ observed another; ‘now he raged, and now he hollered for the rum, and now he sang. “Fifteen Men” were his only song, mates; and I tell you true, I never rightly liked to hear it since. It was main hot, and the windy was open, and I hear that old song comin’ out as clear as clear—and the death-haul on the man already.’

Origins I came across this excellent account of the book’s origins on a website called Referautile:

—Stevenson was 30 years old when he started to write Treasure Island, and it would be his first success as a novelist. The first fifteen chapters were written at Braemar in the Scottish Highlands in 1881. It was a cold and rainy late-summer and Stevenson was with five family members on holiday in a cottage. Young Lloyd Osbourne, Stevenson’s stepson, passed the rainy days painting with watercolours. Remembering the time, Lloyd wrote:

‘… busy with a box of paints I happened to be tinting a map of an island I had drawn. Stevenson came in as I was finishing it, and with his affectionate interest in everything I was doing, leaned over my shoulder, and was soon elaborating the map and naming it. I shall never forget the thrill of Skeleton Island, Spyglass Hill, nor the heart-stirring climax of the three red crosses! And the greater climax still when he wrote down the words Treasure Island at the top right-hand corner! And he seemed to know so much about it too —— the pirates, the buried treasure, the man who had been marooned on the island … “Oh, for a story about it”, I exclaimed, in a heaven of enchantment … ‘

Within three days of drawing the map for Lloyd, Stevenson had written the first three chapters, reading each aloud to his family who added suggestions: Lloyd insisted there be no women in the story; Stevenson’s father came up with the contents of Billy Bones’s sea-chest, and suggested the scene where Jim Hawkins hides in the apple barrel. Two weeks later a friend, Dr. Alexander Japp, brought the early chapters to the editor of Young Folks magazine who agreed to publish each chapter weekly.

As autumn came to Scotland, the Stevensons left their summer holiday retreat for London, but Stevenson was troubled with a life-long chronic bronchial condition that put an end to his work on the novel at about chapter fifteen. Concerned about a deadline they travelled in October to Davos, Switzerland where the clean mountain air did him wonders and he was able to continue, and, at a chapter a day, soon finished the story.—

Adaptations A chapter a day! The brisk pace, the focus on incident and the striking characterisation explain why over 50 movie and TV versions have been made of ‘Treasure Island’. The only one I’m familiar with is the great 1950 Disney version with the fabulous Robert Newton as Long John Silver.

The Disney production of ‘Treasure Island’ on YouTube

A Stevenson bibliography

1878
An Inland Voyage – An immensely entertaining, witty and thoughtful account of Stevenson’s trip by canoe, with a friend, along the canals of Belgium and south into France, observing rural life and types along the way.
1879
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes – More gritty than the Voyage, the Travels record 12 days walking with a recalcitrant donkey through south-central France in a book which has moments of freewheeling nature worship but comes to be dominated by Stevenson’s interest in the bloody Protestant revolt which took place in the region a century earlier.
1881
Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers – Essays including: Virginibus Puerisque i-iv including ‘On Falling in Love’, Crabbed Age and Youth, An Apology for Idlers, Ordered South, Aes Triplex, El Dorado, The English Admirals, Some Portraits by Raeburn, Child’s Play, Walking Tours, Pan’s Pipes, A Plea for Gas Lamp.
1882
The Old and New Pacific Capitals – Essays on the climate and history of Monterey and San Francisco.
Familiar Studies of Men and Books – Essays on: Victor Hugo’s Romances, Some Aspects of Robert Burns, The Gospel According to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions, Yoshida-Torajiro, François Villon, Student, Poet, Housebreaker, Charles of Orleans, Samuel Pepys, John Knox and his Relations to Women.
New Arabian Nights – A sequence of thinly-linked and not too impressive short stories.
1883
Treasure Island – One of the most famous adventure stories of all time. Andrew Lang says it single-handedly established the financial viability of a new type of short, action-packed story and inaugurated a golden age of adventure yarns from the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Rider Haggard.
The Silverado Squatters – Another travel book, following immediately after the Atlantic crossing described in An Amateur Emigrant and the trans-America train journey described in The Open Plains, this one describes Stevenson and new wife Fanny’s honeymoon in an abandoned mining camp high on the flanks of Mount St Helena, north of San Francisco.
1885
Prince Otto – An action romance set in the imaginary Germanic state of Grünewald.
More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter – co-written with Fanny Van De Grift Stevenson
A Child’s Garden of Verses Classic volume of children’s poetry.
1886
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – One of the most famous fictions of all time about an Edinburgh scientist who devises a potion which releases his unconscious urges, his animal self, an alter ego which threatens to take over his personality.
Kidnapped – Gripping historical novel about young David Balfour plunged into a series of adventures in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745.
1887
The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables – Six short stories: The Merry Men, Will O’ the Mill, Markheim, Thrawn Janet, Olalla, The Treasure of Franchard.
On the Choice of a Profession – An essay.
Underwoods (poetry)
Ticonderoga: A Legend of the West Highlands (poetry)
1888
The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses – Historical adventure novel set during the Wars of the Roses as young Master Richard Shelton escapes from his wicked ‘uncle’ and rescues the girl he loves, young Joanna Sedley.
1889
The Master of Ballantrae – Two brothers end up on opposite sides of Bonny Prince Charlie’s rebellion of 1745, the Master being the one who goes into exile and adventures in America and India before returning to haunt the stay-at-home brother, until both are driven to a macabre and gruesome fate in the New World.
The Wrong Box – Comic novel mostly written by his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, but revised by Stevenson.
1890
Father Damien: an Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu Stevenson’s angry defence of Father Damien, Catholic priest to the leper colony on the island of Molokai, against a detractor.
1891
The Bottle Imp – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a magic bottle and the love of two South Sea island natives.
Ballads – poems
1892
The Wrecker (co-written with Lloyd Osbourne) – An immensely long rambling narrative telling the life story of American Loudon Dodds, from his days as a failed art student in Paris, to his business ventures with brash Jim Pinkerton in San Francisco, to the long puzzling case of the shipwrecked Flying Scud whose mystery dominates the second half of the book and, in the final pages, reveals a gruesome and bloody tragedy at sea.
The Beach of Falesá – (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) A powerful short story about a rough white trader and the harsh revenge he takes on the fellow trader who tries to get him expelled from the island.
A Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa – factual history
Across the Plains – Travelogue following straight on from The Amateur Emigrant (which describes RLS’s 1879 journey by steamship from Glasgow to New York) and describes his ongoing journey by train from New York to California.
1893
The Isle of Voices – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a lazy South Sea islander who falls foul of his father-in-law who is a warlock with magic powers.
Catriona, aka David Balfour – A sequel to Kidnapped.
Island Nights’ Entertainments (aka South Sea Tales) – Contains the three stories referred to above.
1894
The Ebb-Tide – A novella, the third collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne, describing the ill-fated trip of three beach bums at the ends of their tethers, who unexpectedly get the opportunity to crew a schooner, plan to steal and sell it, but then meet their nemesis in the shape of a supernaturally powerful white trader.
—-December 1894 Stevenson dies, aged 44, on the South Sea Island of Vailima—-
1895
Vailima Letters – 44 letters Stevenson wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin, who published them with a preface and epilogue.
The Amateur Emigrant – A short intense account of Stevenson’s journey across the Atlantic in 1879, with descriptions of the squalid conditions of ‘steerage’ class passengers and reflections on the condition and character of the British working classes.
1896
Weir of Hermiston – Unfinished at Stevenson’s death, this fragment of nine chapters describes the childhood and young manhood of Archie Weir, sensitive son of the hanging judge old Adam Weir, how his father removes him from Edinburgh University for his subversive views and exiles him to the country estate of Hermiston where he falls in love with a local beauty, Christina Elliott – at which point a student acquaintance comes to stay, who it is hinted will become Archie’s bitter love rival – and the manuscript breaks off. Contains much mature and insightful portrayal of its characters especially, for the first time in Stevenson’s fiction, of its women characters.
In the South Seas – A collection of articles and essays describing Stevenson’s travels in the Pacific islands.
Songs of Travel and Other Verses – Poetry.
Records of A Family of Engineers – A personal history of his own family of lighthouse-building engineers, unfinished at his death.
1897
St. Ives: being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England – A long novel which Stevenson had almost completed and was finished after his death by Arthur Quiller-Couch.

2005
Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman

The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1912)

3 September 2012

As well as being the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic (April 15) and the death of Scott of the Antarctic (March 29), 2012 is also the centenary of the publication of The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The novel was published in instalments from April to November 1912 in The Strand magazine before being published in book form.

The plot is simple enough. Journalist Edward Malone is persuaded to join an expedition led by the intimidating Professor Challenger, along with Lord John Roxton and the sceptical Professor Summerlee, to a volcanic plateau deep in the Amazon forest where, to their amazement, dinosaurs still live, along with a race of primitive ape-men who capture our heros, and more modern native Indians who help release them. There are thrills and spills a-plenty.

What I’d forgotten was the book’s humour. No fewer than 6 of the 16 chapters are taken up with the Wellsian comedy of Malone’s forlorn love affair with the fickle Gladys, and the rambunctious character of prof Challenger, always ready to use physical violence at the slightest provocation. The book ends on a broad comic note as the returning Malone discovers the fickle Gladys has gone and married a solicitor’s clerk in  his absence.

The theme of dinosaurs living on into the modern world had been invented by Jules Vernes in Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864), an extraordinary act of imaginative innovation. But Conan Doyle’s 1912 treatment seems to have been the one which opened the floodgates.

To date there have been seven film or TV versions and six radio or audio adaptations.  I like this jacket cover for its figure of a screaming damsel. There are no women on the expedition. She has been added – as women were added to the film versions – for purely pulp or sensationalist reasons.

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