Juggernaut by Desmond Bagley (1985)

I strolled in the night air over to the rig and stood looking up at the great slab of the transformer. Over one million pounds’ worth of material was being trundled precariously through Africa by a company on the verge of going bankrupt, with a civil war possibly about to erupt in its path, and what the hell was I going to do about it? (p.64)

This is the second of the two novels left in manuscript form at Bagley’s untimely death in 1983, and completed and published with the help of his wife, Joan.

Neil Mannix

It’s a pacey first-person action adventure told by Neil Mannix, an American troubleshooter working for big multinational corporation British Electric. BE have the contract to build a massive power station in the northern, desert region of the (fictional) west African country, Nyala. The first of the vast transformers involved in the build is already being shipped out there, and scheduled to be transported from the docks to the northern destination by the sub-contracting haulage firm, Wyvern Haulage.The flat-bed transporter will be pulled very slowly by three trucks accompanied by supply lorries and cars – quite a convoy. In addition the Nyalan government has tasked a platoon of soldiers in jeeps and lorries, led by a Captain Sadiq to guard it.

Mannix’s job is to cover every aspect of a multi-million pound operation like this, gauging risk and anticipating problems. As the operation gets under way, he discovers this is the haulage company’s first job – though the individual truckers are very experienced, they’ve only just formed the company; and it quickly becomes plain there are problems with the quality of maps, roads and bridges on into the remote desert region where the station is to be built. So a bit of worry…

Civil war

But all this is eclipsed when the political tensions Mannix has also got wind of suddenly erupt into full scale civil war, with the Nyalan air force attacking sections of the army and our heroes (Mannix, the 20 or so riggers and drivers and the 50 or so Nyalan troops) find themselves smack in the middle.

If this was a Frederick Forsyth novel we would be given a panoptic, God-like overview of events, with successive chapters taking us into the presence of the leaders of the coup, the head of the government and army, and a clinical analysis of the power politics involved. If it was a classic Alistair MacLean there would be an enemy agent in among the crew, and a big, game-changing surprise half-way through.

But this old-fashioned novel is a more straightforward adventure in the tradition of Hammond Innes: a competent but fairly ordinary guy is thrust into a perilous situation and has to cope with a series of crises which unfold with no higher scheme or rationale.

Thus almost immediately radio contact is lost with the outside world and Mannix is left in charge of the transporter and crew with no idea what’s going on. The result is a series of chaotic events: the town they are slowly heading towards, Kodowa, is heavily bombed by the Nyalan Air Force. When they arrive they find it on fire with plenty of dead and dying scattered around. A light airplane, damaged by army fire, crash lands in the scrub not far away and turns out to contain Wingstead, the head of the haulage firm who had been determined to fly up to be with his team, though his pilot Max Otterman, is badly injured in the crash.

They make camp just outside Kodowa and are astonished when a nun blunders into their camp, revealing that not far away is a hospital swamped with casualties. They drive the transporter over to the building so that its generator can supply power and their fridge be used to store medicine, but it is not a long-term solution for either party.

A mobile hospital

In a slightly bizarre turn of events, the nun and black doctor in charge say there’s another hospital 50 miles north – along the route the transporter is taking anyway – could the rig itself and the accompanying tractors and trucks carry the hospital’s 100 patients and nurses and supplies to it? After a hurried conference our guys say yes and so the sick and dying are arranged over the transporter, tractors, lorries, cars etc and the now rather odd-looking convoy slowly lumbers off north. Only to discover the once remaining bridge between them and the northern hospital has been bombed and the river is impassable.

More discussions and they decide to turn south back to the bombed-out town and then west back into the edge of the jungle towards a fork on the big local river which forms the border with the neighbouring country. For two reasons: The village there has cotton warehouses which could be converted into some kind of building for the sick; our crew would then have the option of getting across the river and eventually being repatriated to Blighty.

Characters and confrontations

Unlike Night of Error there’s quite a large cast of characters, maybe 40 named people, who are initially a little hard to keep track of, but certain key players emerge. Mannix develops tremendous respect for the captain in charge of the Nyalan army unit assigned to protect them, Captain Sadiq; for the black hospital doctor, Dr Katabisirua (‘a man dedicated and inspired’ p.306), and for the tough-minded nun, Sister Ursula, who is assisting him.

He learns which of the dozen or so crew he can trust and which are twisters. Five crew rebel against Mannix’s decisions and leadership and, after harsh words, are sacked and told to make their own way to freedom. They leave after stealing some supplies but the next day four come crawling back. One returnee takes Mannix aside to tell him that the tough Irishman, McGrath, tracked them down, harangued them to return and, when the dissident ringleader refused, shot him dead on the spot. Mannix confronts McGrath about it and after some shouting, decides uneasily it’s better to have him working for the team than against.

Some oil riggers – two Americans, some Russians, a French – isolated by the bombed town and blown-up bridge attach themselves to the convoy. Mannix is forced to confront one of them, the angry and violent Russ Burns. In a showdown scene the two are squaring up for a fight in front of the rest of the men when McGrath appears out of nowhere, pushes Burns back against the transporter and starts to cut his throat until Burns swears allegiance to Mannix. Mannix has mixed feelings: McGrath is dangerous; but it’s very handy having him as his enforcer.

Juggernaut

All the time they are managing the slow (ten miles an hour or less) progress of the transporter covered with about 100 sick patients in makeshift beds under makeshift awnings, and slowly this begins to have a strange effect. In the background the bush telegraph circulates among the natives rumours of the giant lorry with a vast load, covered in sick people and white magicians performing healing and curing; and gradually the team acquires a following of blacks, of poor, homeless men, women and children who accompany the convoy on its tortuous route, stopping and camping when they camp, waking and moving on when they do.

The transporter comes to acquire a kind of magical importance, not only for the natives, but even for Mannix and his team: it becomes a psychological fetish, a symbol that will see them safe through the harrowing chaos of civil war. As one of the characters points out, rather like one of the big wheeled carts of the Indian god Juggernaut (Jagannath), under which his crazed devotees threw themselves to be crushed to death.

The rebels

The civil war finally catches up with them and the convoy is seized by rebel army forces. About fifty men and two Saracen armoured cars led by a callous Colonel Maksa – the kind of African soldier who wears enormous shades and enjoys intimidating people. Just before their arrival Captain Sadiq and his men withdraw silently into the jungle and Mannix tells his people to act innocent as the rebels enter the camp. Despite this the soldiers aggressively round everyone up into the cotton warehouse, bullying and poking the sick on the transporter – we later learn they kick to death Max the wounded pilot. They are brutal. It is scary. Mannix notices McGrath has managed to elude the round-up.

Colonel Maksa wants to know where Sadiq and his men are, and questions each one of the crew in turn. When the argumentative Russ Burns foolishly says he won’t be pushed about by some goddam rebel, Maksa simply shoots his head off. A nun faints, one of his crew throws up, Mannix is petrified with fear. At that moment McGrath appears, shoots Maksa and, in the confusion, the only soldier accompanying Maksa inside the warehouse is overpowered and knocked unconscious.

Now McGrath comes into his own, planning how they’ll lure the remaining officers into the warehouse by pretending to be Maksa, and take them out one by one. Then they’ll fan out across the compound to take on the soldiers, while he and one of the crew take one of the tractors (whose back panels are made of steel and concrete to give them ballast, making them more effective at pulling the transporter) and drive it backwards towards the remaining Saracen holding the small nearby bridge.

McGrath had liaised with Sadiq so that at an arranged signal Sadiq’s men will begin lobbing mortars and firing into the rebel troops. And this is what happens – though it turns out more confused and chaotic than it sounds, with both sides firing wildly and mortars going off all over the place. But McGrath does manage to ram the 10 ton Saracen with the 40 ton towing tractor, Sadiq’s mortar and gunfire decimates the rebel soldiers who, deprived of any officers (lying unconscious and trussed up in the warehouse) turn tail and run across the bridge and off west.

In the morning our guys bury the dead – soldiers, three of our crew, some of the African patients, the murdered pilot. Then they hook up the damn transporter, tend to the patients still positioned all over it and in the lorries, and set off at the customary crawl along the road west, towards the river and the border followed, as usual, by the crowds of native worshippers. These had melted into the forest when the soldiers came; now they reappear to worship their god, Juggernaut.

About page 240 of this 320-page book the bizarre caravanserai finally arrives at the junction of rivers, so wide it looks like a lake. Mannix and the other leaders discuss with some locals the best way to cross into the neighbouring country. They think their troubles are over…

The raft

They aren’t. Turns out the official ferry is a few miles downriver and in the hands of the rebels. The road they’ve followed leads down to a primitive pontoon at the riverside. Back along the way is a general store run by a scared local who tells them about the nearby dumps of old oil cans, tyres, bits and bobs, along with a repair shop for fixing the pontoon and boats which run from it.

Sizing up all the resources, Mannix gets excited: with boyish enthusiasm he sketches out to his audience of truckers, riggers, mechanics, electricians and fixers how they could probably create a raft from the drums, rope, and planks and use it to seize the proper ferry by attacking at night from the river. Once secured, the ferry could take the crew and all the patients across the wide river to freedom. What, about it lads? Shall we give it a go? They say yes and set about designing and building a raft and the text is full of details about the design, buoyancy calculations, raw materials, fitting and shaping and hammering and roping together which are involved.

Men working together as a team. Male camaraderie. Problems arise, are discussed and solved; relevant experts make suggestions and improvements to what turns into a production line. Technical specifications, tools, processes for building and assembling. The text conveys the simple warm feeling of men working together on a technical task…

Manliness

Most novels feature novelists, writers, journalists and associated soft trades. But this adventure yarn features ‘real men’: Mannix is an action man, his job to sort out everything that can happen on dangerous and demanding assignments in extreme environments and the men he’s working with are tougher than him, physically and mentally – truckers, oil riggers, soldiers, good at fixing and repairing heavy machinery, able to look after themselves in a fight.

When the crisis strikes Mannix appoints himself top dog and has no hesitation confronting the rebel soldiers, stroppy civilians, and beating down claimants to his throne among his crew. He is very much the alpha male, as the big confrontations with McGrath and Burns and sundry smaller fry continually affirm.

From one point of view it is like a wildlife documentary about a pack of lions or other big predators: only by continually facing down his rivals can the alpha male establish and keep his position. Seen this way the narrative has almost zoological or anthropological interest.

Key among all these rivalries is the ambiguous relationship which grows between him and McGrath, ‘the odd, unwanted rapport that I sometimes felt between us…’ (p.259), ‘the common thread that sometimes linked our thoughts and actions’ (p.292).

The latter is clearly no ordinary trucker and, in his several confrontations with this laconic and violent man, it dawns on Mannix that the Irishman is on the run from ‘the Troubles’, probably a former member of the IRA. Certainly his fearlessness allows McGrath to take complete control during the firefight with the rebels, though (sardonically) acknowledging Mannix’s ultimate authority. His plan and his fearlessness win the day – but leaving Mannix to wonder how and when McGrath will finally rebel, and whether a violent confrontation with this scary man can be avoided…

It dawned on me that Mannix’s respect for McGrath’s total ability but fear of his amorality has a Freudian or psychological aspect: McGrath is Mannix’s id, the unstoppable, amoral, super-violent man Mannix could become, or deep down, is; and on the other side is his superego, the quiet capable figure of the African doctor, Dr Katabisirua, avoiding all conflict, superhumanly committed to his patients. But it’s the Mannix-McGrath dynamic and its strange ambivalence which drives the book:

Despite myself I felt a nagging touch of understanding of McGrath and his ruthlessness. He’d manoeuvred us into doing the one thing he knew best; fighting and killing. He’d done it all for the most selfish of reasons, and without compunction. And yet he was brave, efficient and vital to our cause… I would never know if he had killed Ron Jones, but the worst of it, and the thing that filled me with contempt for myself as well as for him, was that I didn’t care. I prayed that I wouldn’t become any more like him. (p.233)

In fact McGrath embodies the manly virtues of total efficiency in the name of killing, maiming and triumphing over rivals, which are vital to humans to survive situations of war and chaos – but must be risen above, expunged and repressed, if the hero is to return to ‘civilised’ society.

McGrath was a maverick, intelligent, sound in military thinking and utterly without fear. I felt that he might be a useful man to have about in a war, but perhaps on the first day of peace he ought to be shot without mercy… (p.233)

Death of the juggernaut

Our boys finish making a raft big enough to carry a lorry – the one belonging to the French man they picked up outside Kodowa – which has a load of gelignite aboard. In the dead of night they float the raft down to the ferry station, approaching from the river and taking the (it turns out) handful of disorganised rebels by surprise, driving them off and seizing control. They free the pilots of the ferry from their makeshift prison in a shed, and over the next few hours bring the enormous transporter-cum-hospital lumbering round by road from its hiding place, along with its crowd of devotees.

For the next few hours they load onto the ferry all the patients, the nuns and nurses and doctors and supplies, and watch it set off on the several mile journey across this wide wide stretch of African river to the free country on the other side. It’s at this moment that another group of rebel soldiers attack, shooting mortars and firing guns at the ferry though, mercifully, it is just out of range.

But they capture Mannix and our boys and overpower Sadiq and his men. How are they going to get out of this one? It’s at this moment that the unstoppable Principle of Action McGrath appears behind the wheel of the gelignite lorry, driving it off the ferry and through the mass of confused soldiers, while Mannix and others attack and overpower the rebel officers. Up through the shooting soldiers McGrath drives to the edge of the road overlooking the ferry point where the transporter is parked and where the lorry explodes. The blast fatally undermines the poor local road which gives way and the enormous transporter with its vast transformer slowly tips sideways and then comes tumbling, rolling over and over downhill onto the panicking soldiers, crushing them to a pulp, just like the original Juggernaut, the angry god of vengeance, crushes his devotees in his native India.

As the dust settles Mannix realises he and most of his crew are alive; most of the rebel soldiers are dead, as is their leader. And McGrath himself, the spirit of Total Violence which must be exploited but then dismissed before Civilisation can recommence, is also obliterated.

Before the big ferry set sail its pilots showed off their toy, a six-wheel amphibious truck or DUKW. Mannix rounds up all the survivors into the DUKW and they set off across the river to freedom.


Common decency

This unreconstructed, unquestioning attitude to masculinity has a dated, not unpleasantly old fashioned feel.

But maybe the biggest thing which sets it apart from more modern thrillers is the simple acceptance of the notion of decency among the male leads. Mannix beats up Russ for referring to the natives as ‘niggers’ and bans all insulting language. He and the haulage boss, Wingstead, unquestioningly go to the  aid of the hospital, put their supplies, food and fridge at the disposal of the local doctor: race doesn’t enter the picture, there is an obvious humanitarian need and these men unhesitatingly go to help.

More modern thrillers (books and movies) revel in the way these moral values have collapsed, enjoy describing the most cynical betrayals possible, celebrate treachery, corruption, decadence, unpleasantness and evil. The terrifying 2003 movie Tears of the Sun, set in Nigeria during a coup, portrays rape, torture and dismemberment. What makes Juggernaut, set in a similar situation, feel so old fashioned is – despite some of the awful scenes it depicts – the fundamental decency and moral innocence of its lead figures.

Map

A lot of time in the text is spent discussing the options of where the convoy should go next, north, west, to which town, crossing which rivers etc. I appreciate Nyala is a fictional country but a map would have been good.

Novels about African coups

  • A Man of The People (1966) by Chinua Achebe ends with a coup
  • The Dogs of War (1974) by Frederick Forsyth
  • The Coup by (1978) John Updike

Related links

Fontana paperback edition of Juggernaut

Fontana paperback edition of Juggernaut

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.

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.

Windfall by Desmond Bagley (1982)

Like its predecessor Bahama Crisis I found this an enjoyable read, not particularly thrilling, but civilised and nicely paced and intelligently plotted with a tidy line in humour and rising to a couple of exciting action scenes at the climax. It features Max Stafford, the first person narrator of Flyaway, the only repetition of a protagonist in Bagley’s oeuvre, and it was the last of Bagley’s novels to be published during his lifetime (the final two being published posthumously).

The plot

The plot starts in America, moves to London and then most of it is set in Kenya.

Ben Harden is ex-CIA like a lot of other guys in Gunnarsson security agency. He’s instructed to find out if an old guy in England, Hendrykxx, has any American relatives and finally tracks down some hippy kid in California, Hank Hendrix. As he drives away someone takes a pot shot at Hank which wings him in the shoulder, why? And when he gets back to New York, his fat rude boss, Gunnarsson not only doesn’t thank him but refuses to pay a bonus, provokes a fight, and abruptly fires Harden. Disgruntled Harden carries on digging and discovers the client for the search is a British law firm, and that Hendrix has an English cousin, Dirk Hendrick (note the different spellings of the name depending which country they live in). With nothing better to do he flies to London to visit the lawyer and then the cousin, to figure out why he got shot at and why he got fired.

Enter Max Stafford, ex-British Intelligence, now head of a large and successful private security firm. By vast coincidence he is friend to Alix Aarvik, the woman married to Dirk Hendrick, the English cousin. (Alix was sister to the main figure in Flyaway, Paul Aarvik, whose quixotic quest for his father is the narrative engine of Flyaway. Stafford and Alix nearly got together, but it didn’t quite happen and then she married Hendrick. She has just given birth to a bouncing blue-eyed baby boy and is still friendly enough with Stafford that she’s named the baby Max, after him.) After this American, Harden, comes visiting, asking her a load of questions, Alix calls Max. We meet Max and his tough, ex-Marines manservant, Sergeant Curtis, who quickly establish themselves as a tough but humorous double act.

The novel is 320 pages long and has many twists and turns. Briefly, Max discovers that Hendrykxx’s will, filed in Jersey for tax reasons, left a total of £40 million, £34 million to go to the Ol Njorowa charity in Kenya, the remaining £6 million to be split between living heirs (Dirk Hendrick and Hank Hendrix), provided they spend a month a year working at the charity.

Harden eventually meets Stafford who realises he is a useful guy to have around, especially when he tells the news that Gunnarsson has arrived in London, with a young dude he claims to be Hendrix, taking him to meet the various London lawyers involved in implementing the will – but it is not the same man Harden collared in California, it is an imposter!

In Kenya

The scene shifts to Kenya as Stafford, Sergeant Curtis and Harden fly out to investigate the charity. Almost immediately Sergeant Curtis introduces Stafford two local ‘fixers’, Peter ‘Chip’ Chipende and a Sikh, Nair Singh who come in very handy. Stafford takes a trip to the Ol Njorowa charity, which is an enormous compound surrounded by a ten foot barbed wire fence. Hmm, suspicious. He befriends one Alan Hunt, a research scientist, and his sister Judy, who show him round.

The abduction

When Gunnarsson arrives with the fake Hendrix, Stafford and Harden keep tabs on them, following them from a distance. That’s how they find out when the Gunnarrson tourist party is kidnapped by bandits from Tanzania, who often kidnap tourists, strip them bare, and release them into the wild. Stafford, Chip, Nair and Curtis trail the abductors into the bush, watching but not interfering as they carry out the usual stripping and stealing the tourists’ goods. But they are surprised when Hendrix is taken off a distance by two soldiers who then take out their guns and are on the point of executing the young dude when Chip and Stafford intervene, shooting the soldiers.

Stafford, Curtis, Chip, Nair and now Hendrix, make it back to the car and back to civilisation ie their tourist compound and hotels, knowing the other hostages will be released unharmed and told to walk home and that their Kenyan tour guide will be sure they get to safety. Meanwhile, under interrogation, the imposter ‘Hendrix’ reveals he is computer hacker Jack Corliss and that Gunnarsson blackmailed him into pretending to be Hendrix, he’s not even sure why. Chip places Corliss safe and secure in a police cell.

Reveal

About half way through the novel there is a scene between Hendrick and Brice, the head of the charity, in which both are revealed to be South African spies. The charity is a front, as Stafford immediately suspected. Hendrick is in the psychopath league: having worked for South African intelligence for some time, he became intrigued by his long-lost grandfather and, using his contacts, tracked him down and found him to be a mafia-style businessman who’d amassed a fortune but was ill and going senile. Hendrick had the old man brought to Jersey and guarded by a couple of ‘carers’, while he suggested to his bosses rerouting the old man’s ill-gotten fortune into an operation to destabilise Kenya, by arming and motivating some of the many rival tribes and ethnic groups in that country. He gets the senile old man to sign a will that he, Hendrick, has created, as a token leaving money to living heirs, but really leaving most to ‘the project’.

It was bad luck the London lawyers followed their brief a bit too zealously and hired an American detective agency to track down a rumoured American cousin, very bad luck that they found him. Hendrick and Brice want to eliminate him as a wild card who will interfere with the operation, so it was they who organised for Gunnarsson’s party to be abducted by South African operatives posing as Tanzanian bandits, the sole aim being to execute Hendrix to get him out of the way.

But they hadn’t counted on the presence of Stafford and Chip to rescue Hendrix. And they also had no idea that greedy Gunnarsson from the States was himself operating a scam. Scenting a lot of money in Hendrix, Gunnarsson sacked Harden, murdered the remaining members of his ‘commune’ who would recognise him (in a house fire), and then murdered the real Hendrix himself (sealing his corpse in cement and dumped in Long Island Sound) before blackmailing Corliss to impersonate him.

Brice and Hendrick, and Stafford, have no part in this scam, which takes a long time to come to light, and confuses everyone including the reader, as we all think it must be part of an elaborate double-bluff by one of the conspirators.

Security agencies

There’s a light, comic element to the thriller, partly stemming from the jokey relationship between Stafford and Curtis, but the plot itself becomes faintly farcical when we learn that Chip and Nair are themselves working for Kenyan Intelligence who have long suspected something fishy about the Ol Njorowa charity. When Harden looks up old CIA contacts at the US embassy and Stafford finds himself being politely grilled by a ‘senior figure’ from the British embassy, Stafford himself points out that we appear to have members or ex-members of the CIA, MI6, BOSS (South African intelligence) and Kenyan intelligence all swimming in the same murky pool.

Interlude in a balloon

As part of the polite hospitable showing-round of the facilities, the ‘innocent’ scientist Alan Hunt and his sister ask Stafford if he’d like to accompany them in one of their balloon rides, which they do to photograph and research local land patterns. He says yes and there is a delightful description of a flight in a balloon – I would be surprised if it isn’t a straight description of something Bagley had experienced himself.

The plot justification is that Stafford takes aerial photos of the compound, which he gets the Kenyans to develop and analyse – he is particularly interested in the mystery building, the one where the research into animal migration is carried out, but most of the other researchers have never entered – but for the reader it’s pure fun, of a kind of carefree type you don’t get in the corralled, relentlessly focused and logical thrillers of, say, Frederick Forsyth or Robert Ludlum. It’s these rather extraneous details and ‘colour’ which makes Bagley’s thrillers feel more relaxed and enjoyable than their more modern, unforgiving counterparts.

Two climaxes

1. The island Towards the end of the book the two Kenyan agents set up a temporary base on an island in a lake not far from the charity compound. Here Stafford brings Hunt, the innocent scientist from the charity, to let him in on the secret and ask him to be their eyes and ears on the ground. But things start to get messy when Curtis, acting as lookout, spots Gunnarsson approaching in a hire boat. Gunnarsson comes ashore and is throwing his weight around about being tailed and watched and lied to when, unexpectedly, Nair arrests him and puts handcuffs on him. There is a big reveal where Gunnarsson explains that he knows nothing about the compound, he just switched Hendrix, hoping to stick with the impersonator and sooner or later get his hands on the £3 million. Aha. At last we understand the Hendrix impersonation is not part of the main conspiracy, just a sort of accidental detail.

Barely has this settled before another boat is seen approaching, which turns out to carry Brice, head of the charity, and Hendrick, with a handful of goons from the charity compound. The others hide while Nair and Gunnarsson put on an act for the visitors, pretending that Nair has just arrested Gunnarsson for fraud and embezzlement. But Brice suspects it’s a play-act and trips big clumsy Gunnarsson and, as he falls, the handcuffs come off, showing they were never locked, as Brice suspected.

Nair and Gunnarsson turn and run, pursued by Brice and goons. Stafford, Curtis, Harden and Hunt, watching from cover, make a break for it, cosh the goon guarding the boats, and quickly fire them up and cruise along the side of the island to rescue their team, despite errant gunshots from Brice’s boys.

Nair turns and hits his pursuer, then makes it out into the water, wounded by a gunshot but is hauled safely into one of the boats. Gunnarsson comes to a grotesque end as his blundering disturbs an enormous hippopotamus which chases him into the water and, in one movement, bites him in half. Yuk.

2. The base On impulse Stafford says now is the time to raid the compound, while Brice is away marooned on the island. He gets Hunt to smuggle him, Curtis and Harden into the base in the trailer of his Land Rover and to park outside the mystery building, the one where the research into animal migration is carried out and where Hunt and the rest of the researchers have rarely if ever been.

Briefly – our guys enter and find everything disappointingly innocent-looking, until someone takes a pot shot at them. This alerts Stafford to the trapdoor in the floor. He persuades Hunt to get the burner from the balloon and, carefully lifting the trapdoor from behind, to fire it into the cellar; there are more shots from the cellar which stop when the awesome and terrifying flame thrower gets going. Our team seem on the verge of success when there are shots from behind them – Brice and Hendrick have gotten off the island somehow and entered the building all guns blazing. Pandemonium! Shots are fired in all directions, then Curtis (who had been acting lookout on the roof) appears behind one baddy and disables him, when – BOOM! – everything goes black.

Epilogue

Stafford wakes up in hospital. Their flame thrower gimmick set off some of what turns out to be the big stockpile of arms and ammunition which was in the concealed basement. Harden was burned, Hunt wounded, Sergeant Curtis survived unscathed and pulled our guys to safety, Brice got a broken arm, Hendrick and the man in the basement were both killed, Stafford was badly concussed. Chip from Kenyan intelligence brings him grapes and ties up all the loose ends; the Kenyan authorities will hush it all up but use their knowledge of this secret South African operation as a bargaining chip.

In a final and very odd few paragraphs, Stafford reflects that every time he gets involved with Alix Aarvik he gets into serious trouble.

He made a mental note that the next time Alix appealed for help or advice was the time to start running. (p.320)

Neither Bagley nor Stafford take any account of the fact that his friend Alix has just lost her husband. We know he was a rotter, a ruthless amoral South African spy, willing to murder his own grandfather and other innocent bystanders in the cause – but all Alix will know is that her husband – and the father of her newly born baby – is dead, and he life will be in ruins.

Therefore, it is disconcertingly unthinking and heartless of Bagley/Stafford to end the book on such a light-hearted note. A jarring indication, perhaps, of the disregard for emotions and feelings which characterises the thriller/adventure genre as a whole.


Computers

Seems almost as soon as they were invented computers started to be hacked. When Hardin is kicked off the Hendricks case, he asks a colleague at the detective agency to hack into the company’s computer to find out who commissioned the case. There follows a conversation where the colleague points out that Gunnarsson boss checks the log of computer use and would spot the query and know it’s from him, so no dice.

Later we discover the young dude brought in to impersonate Hendrix is really Jack Corliss (p.148), a computer worker for a New York bank who was fiddling the books but discovered by Gunnarsson and blackmailed into impersonating Hendrix.

Computers, hacking, and security issues – all well-known in 1981.

Related links

Fontana paperback edition of Windfall

Fontana paperback edition of Windfall

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.

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.

Flyaway by Desmond Bagley (1978)

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 plot

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.

The climax

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’.

Why

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.

Conclusion

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.

Related links

1978 Fontana paperback edition of Flyaway

1978 Fontana paperback edition of Flyaway

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 Enemy by Desmond Bagley (1977)

‘There’s one thing about being in an organisation of spies – news gets around fast.’ (p.163)

This is another belting thriller from Bagley; man, he really hit his stride in the 1970s. There’s a question mark over some of his novels from the 1960s, which often become a bit over-excited (eg Wyatt’s Hurricane, which starts sensibly, ends up featuring a hurricane, a tsunami and a civil war all in a frenzied 200 pages). But by the 1970s his stories are much more calm, focused, factually anchored and, for that reason, when the action kicks in, all the more plausible and genuinely gripping. Like The Snow Tiger, I just couldn’t put this one down and read it through into the early hours.

Sweary

It’s a first-person narrative. Either Bagley’s style evolved during the 1970s or, as I suspect, he deliberately created a different voice for each of these books. There was swearing in the last two novels – and certainly more swearing than you get in MacLean, who tells you people swear but not necessarily the words they use. The protagonist of this one, Malcolm Jaggard, is 34, the optimum age for heroes of this kind of thriller (Bagley himself was 54 when this novel came out). His voice starts out fairly traditional, almost posh (as well as his job he enjoys a private income of £11,000 per annum, a lot in 1977) mixed with rather dated slang. But as the novel proceeds he becomes steadily more vulgar – until right at the end he, rather surprisingly, tells his boss where he can shove his job.

To stitch together some sample snippets of speech and thought…

‘Stuff the record,’ I said… ‘Who’s pinched our Who’s Who?’… ‘The man keeps a bloody low profile…’ A couple of hours later I was having a mild ding-dong with Larry… ‘Oh Christ!’ I said, ‘Nellie is a tattle-tale, too bloody gossipy by half’… I was knocking croquet balls around on the lawn when Ashton pitched up… ‘Nip round to the garage and see what’s missing,’ I said… I told her a damned sight more than I ought to have done, and to hell with the Official Secrets Act… We can have another noggin at the Coach and Horses… ‘… and has been freezing his balls off ever since…’ ‘… the bloody Russian embassy.’ ‘I’m making bloody sure I do stay out of sight’…. He was doing it deliberately, the bastard…’Oh Christ!’ I said… ‘Caught in a shell blast, my arse!’… ‘I think it’s a bloody disgrace.’…’It is bloody difficult’… Jaggard, you bastard!… there was a hell of a lot missing… ‘The bloody thing beat me in the end’… ‘We’re going to talk to that bloody auctioneer’… ‘Ashton was a clever bastard,’ I said… What a ruthless bastard he had turned out to be!…’I won’t take compliments from you, damn it!’

I said bluntly, ‘Get lost.’
He was not a man who showed astonishment easily, but he did then. ‘What did you say?’
‘You heard me. Get lost. You can take Kerr’s job and your job and stuff them wherever you like. The Minister’s backside might be a good place’ (p.251)

The plot

British Intelligence agent Malcolm Jaggard is falling in love with Penelope, daughter of well-off self-made industrialist George Ashton, when someone throws acid in the face of Ashton’s other (grown-up) daughter, in the drive to his country house. When Jaggard digs into Ashton’s background he discovers he was a high-ranking child prodigy and Soviet scientist who defected to England in the 1940s. But his life is shrouded in mystery and, when Ashton and his loyal man-servant, Benson, suddenly disappear, Jaggard can’t get access to the Classified files.

The novel turns into a Quest, a Pursuit. Jaggard’s boss, Ogilvie, tasks him with finding the two men and, after a lot of false trails, Jaggard discovers them living in Stockholm, under false names, suspiciously close to the Russian border. His daughters, his household, know nothing about it. It was a very professional disappearing act.

Jaggard suggests he simply presents himself to Ashton and asks him to return to England, but his boss, Ogilvie, insists he mount a major operation to snatch him. Half a dozen men tail Ashton round Stockholm, alerting him to the fact he’s rumbled, scaring the pair into catching a train west. Following the train Jaggard and his team detect them alighting at a tiny village stop and are planning to corral them into a car, and thence to a plane and home to Blighty. But Ashton and Benson are stubborn – what is their secret, what are they so afraid of? – and make off into snow-covered woods, where the pursuing agents are horrified to hear the sound of guns – single shots, then machine guns. My God, they’re blundering towards a Swedish Army exercise! Now Jaggard and his men close in at speed on the old man and his loyal servant when, to everyone’s amazement, just as Ashton turns towards Jaggard who is shouting to warn him – Benson shoots his master twice, and is immediately shot dead by one of the agents. Disaster!

On his return to London Jaggard has not only to explain the catastrophic failure of his mission to his boss – and then to a committee including the Home Secretary – but has to live with the knowledge he has helped kill his fiancée’s father.

But this is only half way through the book. There’s something very wrong about the whole affair and Jaggard’s boss, Ogilvie, while pretending to downgrade him, in fact gives him free rein and orders to get to the bottom of the business. In doing so Jaggard uncovers a plot which extends to the highest levels in Whitehall and which dates back to the War, and which leads Jaggard from a comfy Home Counties mansion to a grim, storm-tossed Scottish island where a secret laboratory is carrying out hair-raising germ warfare experiments.

There are some light and amusing scenes along the way – especially around the slowly-emerging significance of the enormous model train set which the agents find in the attic of the dead Ashton’s mansion – but the brutal deaths in a Swedish forest mean the book can never have a happy ending, and in fact its last few pages contain an unexpected twist which contain a horrifying message for all of us, even 40 years later. Hence the title which is lifted from an American satirist, Walt Kelly: ‘We have met the enemy – and he is Us.’

No descriptions

Bagley just isn’t into descriptions, visual descriptions, the way other novelists are. When the narrative moves to Stockholm, the opening of chapter 18 sets the scene. Or rather it doesn’t. Even when a sentence or paragraph starts out describing something it always veers back to human or anthropomorphised activity. People, animals, scenery, architecture – they aren’t painted, they always have to be doing something in Bagley. His is a dynamic imagination.

It was dark and cold in Stockholm at that time of year. All the time I was in Sweden it didn’t stop snowing; not heavily most of the time, but there was a continual fall of fine powder from leaden-grey clouds as though God up there was operating a giant flour-sifter. I was booked into the Grand, which was warm enough, and after I had made my call to Henty I looked out over the frozen Strömmen to the Royal Palace… There were swans on the Strömmen, walking uneasily on the ice and cuddling in clusters as though to keep warm. One was on an ice floe and drifting towards Riddarfjärden; I watched it until it went out of sight under the Ström bridge then turned away feeling suddenly cold in spite of the central heating. (p.117)

It’s not intended as a criticism. I’m just trying to identify the differences between, to individuate the strengths and weaknesses of, Bagley, Deighton, Innes, MacLean et al.

Instead of description of scenes and places, what you do get in Bagley is lots of factual background. And so at several places there are detailed explanations of genetics and genetic engineering, circa 1976, each instalment picking up ideas from the previous one and exploring them further, thus adding depth (and tension) to the plot.

The way Bagley incorporates his obviously in-depth background research into the drama of the text is one of his great achievements.

Computers

Same goes for his extensive knowledge of computers demonstrated by his technically precise descriptions of:

  • the Department’s central database with its remote terminals and passwords
  • the complex computer language which Ashton turns out to have programmed into his labyrinthine train set with its advanced micro-processors
  • the links along a landline which the investigating computer scientist sets up from his remote terminal to another, central information-processing computer

All this isn’t clunked into the text, it is woven seamlessly, it is part of the imaginative fabric of the story:  the computers and the genetics turn out to be what the novel is, ultimately, all about.

The anxiety of influence

As in every spy thriller from this period, there are the obligatory comments trying to distance the narrator (and the text) from the enormous shadow of Ian Fleming. After using his organisation’s new, super-powerful computer, Jaggard remarks:

Strange how the real world is catching up with James Bond. (p.28)

Later, he explains his profession to his fiancée, Penelope.

‘State security! You mean you’re some sort of secret agent. A spy?’
I laughed and held up my hands. ‘Not a spy. We’re not romantic types with double-o numbers and a licence to kill – no nonsense like that.’ (p.60)

‘You people amaze me. You think you’re James Bonds, the lot of you. Well, I don’t think I’m living in the middle of a highly coloured film, even if you do.’ (p.120)

Social history

The novel turns out to be about genetics and genetic engineering and it’s a bit of a shock to realise just how long this has been a ‘hot’ topic of debate. Same goes for three or four other political/social issues, altogether making me realise how little things really change:

  • Genetic engineering Typically thorough Bagleyesque explanation of the state of genetics in the mid-1970s, what genes are, how phagocytes are used to carry snippets of DNA etc, and the risk of it all going wrong, of creating virulent new viruses and diseases.
  • The internet Jaggard and his team use remote computer terminals to access a central computer database. They require login details and passwords, just like the computer I sit down in front of every day. When the ‘boffins’ analyse the train set they set up a link by phone line with a remote computer. Here, pre-1977, are the seeds of the internet.
  • Scottish devolution As soon as the narrative switches to Scotland, the narrator mentions Scottish nationalism and the Scots desire for devolution or even independence. In the pub in Ullapool:

There was talk of English absentee landlords and of ‘Scottish’ oil and of the ambivalent attitude of the Scottish Labour Party, all uttered in tones of amused and tired cynicism as if these people had lost faith in the promises of politicians. (p.220)

Thank goodness, 40 years later, all these issues have been sorted out by the wise men who govern us.

Related links

1977 Fontana paperback edition of the Enemy

1977 Fontana paperback edition of The Enemy

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 Snow Tiger by Desmond Bagley (1975)

Unlike its two predecessor spy novels, The Snow Tiger is less about suspense and more of a prolonged account of legal and administrative procedure, making it read more like one of Hammond Innes’ sober, factual adventure yarns – right up till the detailed and gruesome avalanche at the book’s climax, at which point it becomes quite a hard-core ‘disaster novel’.

The Snow Tiger

The entire text takes the form of an official Commission of Inquiry into a major catastrophe – a massive avalanche which destroyed the mining town of Hukahoronui in the south island of New Zealand, killing 54 people and injuring many more. The first two-thirds remind me of the slow documentary lead-up to a pre-announced disaster which characterises several Hammond Innes novels, such as the catastrophic sinking of the landing craft (also with loss of life of some 50 people) in Atlantic Fury, the lengthy Board of Inquiry which forms the core of The Wreck of The Mary Deare, or the detailed description of the Court Martial in Maddon’s Rock.

Similarly, this book is divided into the thirteen consecutive days during which the Inquiry into the avalanche sits. Each chapter starts with a detailed and pedantic account of the cross-questioning of key witnesses, then segues into a presentation of the scene itself.

Briefly, Ian Ballard returns from England to New Zealand, to the town where he grew up, sent there to take control of the town’s struggling gold mine, which is owned by his strong-willed, patriarchal grandfather, back in London. Ballard encounters all sorts of opposition, not least from the Peterson family, a powerful clan in the little town (population 800) who reckon they own the land the mine is built on and were swindled out of it by Ballard’s grandfather. What’s more they also hold an ancient grudge that Ballard was responsible for the death by drowning of one of the Peterson brothers 20 years ago – so they pick fights with Ballard whenever possible.

But when the friend Ballard made skiing in Switzerland a few years earlier, a snow expert, Dr Mike McGill, turns up to visit, he immediately points out that the steep hillside covered with snow which sweeps down to the mine entrance, and to the town itself, is dangerously unstable, a problem exacerbated when all the timber was cut down to build the mine and new houses.

While the various characters are bickering about whether to contact the authorities a minor avalanche takes place, blocking the narrow entrance to the valley, trapping all the townspeople and knocking out the electricity and phone lines. McGill takes charge of the Town Council and begins planning emergency accommodation, food and heating, and is in the middle of detailing people to find safe shelter and training some of the men in snow rescue, when the Monster Avalanche suddenly occurs.

Two strands

Around the middle of the book the contemporary strand – the description of the Inquiry slowly working its way through the evidence of the eyewitnesses – gets a new angle, a new overlay of meaning, when an old lawyer friend of Ballard’s mean grandfather flies in. This man, Stenning, announces that the grandfather sent Ballard back to Hukahoronui as a test, to see if he could handle the antagonism of the locals and the shabbiness of the mine operation. For the mean old man had – astonishingly – consigned all his shares in the parent company to a Trust. If, in Stenning’s opinion, Ballard does show himself to be man enough, the trustees will vote him onto the Board and, since this has the largest single block of shares in the corporation, at a stroke Ballard would take control of a multinational corporation valued at around £232 million! Far from being the black sheep of the family despised by the old man, he turns out to have been the old man’s last hope!

Thus the two strands – past and present – significantly pick up pace for the last 100 pages (of this 250-page book):

  • In the present Ballard has to decide whether he wants the money – and, if so, prove that he has the balls to take on the Peterson brothers and the lawyers for the union and the local management of the mine, who are all manoeuvring to make him the scapegoat for the disaster. Spice is added when Ballard falls in love with the Petersons’ winsome sister, Liz, and the most thuggish Peterson brother, Charlie, threatens to murder Ballard if he keeps on seeing her…
  • In the flashbacks (which are also proceeding in chronological order, reflecting the accounts given in the courtroom). Even though we know the outcome ie the disastrous avalanche, nonetheless the scenes become increasingly tense as catastrophe looms. From the first avalanche and the power being cut, I found it genuinely hard to put this book down, in fact I kept on reading it into the early hours.

Disaster!

When the avalanche comes it is described at length and in detail. As in the ‘disaster movies’ which were so popular in the 1970s, the creator lingers in loving detail over the range of macabre, cruel and sadistic deaths he has contrived for his character:

Rawson is getting medical supplies when the avalanche smashes through the wall smashing a big jar of hydrochloric acid all over him.

Rawson was buried about twenty yards away and was dying slowly and quite painfully as the acid ate at his flesh. Fortunately, when he opened his mouth to scream it filled with soft snow and he died mercifully and quickly of asphyxia. (p.191)

Tastes have changed. I found the relish with which so many deaths were described revolting.

  • The drinkers in the local hotel are all killed, devastated by flying bottles and broken glass.
  • A lot of the town’s old people have gathered in the mayor’s house half way up the slope opposite to the danger one: nonetheless, the 200-mile-an-hour pressure wave makes the house explode as if hit by a ten-ton bomb, and survivors describe it as a butchers’ shop covered with blood and slabs of flesh.
  • Cameron, the mine manager, is trapped in the cab of his lorry which rolls over and over in the avalanche, his foot caught between pedal and brake until he comes to rest hanging upside down, with numerous broken bones, a position he stays in until he hears the water of the river, blocked by avalanche snow, beginning to fill the cab to drown him.
  • Nice old Mrs Sawnton who manned the telephone exchange is told to make for safety but as she’s getting up the phone rings, she stays to answer it, and the entire mine building, lifted by the hurtling snow, falls on the exchange crushing her.
  • Dave Scanlon is caught in the open, hit by a flying truck which mashes him ‘to a bloody pulp’.
  • Len Baxter is killed by flying bricks then buried by snow.
  • Phil Warrick is thrown against the red-hot stove he’d been feeding all morning, forced to embrace it and burned alive.

And so it goes on, a long list of ‘innocent’ townspeople – fictional characters – killed, tortured, eviscerated, mashed, crushed, burned to bloody messes. It is compelling, gripping but not pleasant reading.

Even when the avalanche has subsided and mountain rescue teams arrive, led by a squad of notably efficient and helpful Americans, accidents still occur. An American tourist, Newman, had taken shelter in a small cave in the avalanche’s path, and is trapped in it with half a dozen others, most of whom lose hope in the claustrophobic dark. But he heroically tunnels out of the cave using a ballpoint pen, and it takes 24 hours of relentless digging for him to make it almost to the surface of the sow, a full 60 feet above him, when one of the rescuers treads through the narrow layer of snow just as he approaches the surface, stepping directly onto his head, making him lose his grip and fall the 60 feet back down the narrow twisting tunnel, breaking his neck. The others, still left in the cave are rescued alive.

These closing pages are full of vignettes like that, which are – I suppose – somehow intended to make the reader feel horror at the randomness of Fate. Perhaps you’re meant to feel more manly, because you’re tough enough to read all these horrors. Perhaps it has the same appeal as gruesome horror movies.

What makes it a disaster movie As mentioned, a number of Hammond Innes novels describe major disasters and loss of life, but only when I read this Bagley novel did I for the first time think that there might be a category of ‘disaster novels’ like there are ‘disaster movies’. I think the difference between an adventure novel with a catastrophe in it, and a ‘disaster novel’ would be the lip-smacking voyeuristic descriptions of gruesome individual deaths. In Atlantic Fury the sinking of the landing craft and loss of life is essentially a backdrop to the narrative, and we mainly read about just the narrator’s experience: here in The Snow Tiger, the detailed description of a lot of  grotesquely horrible deaths is at the imaginative heart of the enterprise, and the plight of the main protagonist (Ballard and his love affair) pales next to it.

The narrator takes a kind of sadistic pleasure in pointing out that, even after the avalanche has finished, tragedy continues, the striking example being the mid-air collision of a rescue helicopter – loaded with injured survivors – which takes off vertically into the path of a light airplane overflying the valley. Both plummet to the ground in flames. Pye, the local policeman, and Quentin, the union official, rush forward to open the helicopter doors and try and free the trapped passengers.

It was at that moment that the petrol ignited. He saw a white flash and felt searing heat, and when he inhaled his next breath he drew flaming petrol vapour into his lungs. He felt no pain and was dead before he knew it, and so was Bill Quentin, Mrs Haslam, Harry Baker and his co-pilot. (p.230)


Style

The style is clear, factual Bagley. Despite being set in the stunning mountain scenery of New Zealand, there are few if any extended descriptions. Instead Bagley is interested in the minutiae of the exchanges in the court room, or in the hotel at Hukahoronui. Just before the avalanche occurs he devotes several pages to a Wikipedia-style explanation of the complicated physical processes snow undergoes which make an avalanche happen. And when the catastrophe happens and scores of people die in garishly gruesome ways, Bagley’s flat, police-record-style descriptions make the suffering all the more vivid, disgusting and compelling.

Title

The title doesn’t refer to the animal, the white tiger – but to a proverb by the snow expert Matthias Zdarsky: ‘Snow is not a wolf in sheep’s clothing – it is a tiger in lamb’s clothing’. Similarly misleading, I thought the cover image (below) might refer to some kind of chase, as if this were an espionage novel – but it is not, it is a disaster novel, and the image depicts the gruesome moment, described above, when the helicopter and plane collide.

Related links

1970s Fontana paperback edition of The Snow Tiger

1970s Fontana paperback edition of The Snow Tiger

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 Tightrope Men by Desmond Bagley (1973)

From what Carey had said, his days of high living were over. That suited Denison. In the past few days there had been less chance of high living than of low dying. (p.236)

After the thumping obviousness and poor style of Alistair MacLean’s 1970s thrillers it is a blessing and a relief to turn to Desmond Bagley’s well-written gripping novels of the same era, and this is a real belter.

The man in someone else’s body

It’s told by a third person narrator who relates how Giles Denison wakes up feeling a little groggy to find he is trapped inside the body of a man 15 years older, with completely different features. The resultant panic fear and vertigo are brilliantly conveyed in Bagley’s sober, factual style, as Denison discovers more about his terrifying plight: he went to bed in Hampstead as Denison; now he’s woken up in a hotel bedroom in Oslo, Norway, as a certain Dr Meyrick. The hotel staff confirm he’s been there for three weeks, he has a hire car in his name, down in the foyer a strange woman calls him by name – is it a friend, or his wife or a mistress? He hasn’t a clue.

In his hire car he finds a doll, a souvenir from a nearby beauty spot, with a scrawled message to meet someone there the next morning. He drives there and wanders a little way into the woods only to be confronted by three thugs, one armed with a knife. He punches and runs, jumps into his car giving rise to a hair-raising chase, which ends with the others scarpering and our man detained by the Norwegian police.

The men from the embassy

Several men from the British Embassy come to free him and Denison finally tells them the full story. In a separate room McCready discusses the thing with his angry, sweary boss, Carey. They were carrying out an ‘operation’ with Meyrick; can he conceivably have been swapped with Denison? Can Denison’s mad story be true? How? Why? Carey and McCready take Denison back to the hotel where he then has a placid dinner with the woman he’d met earlier, one Diana Hansen. We know from McCready and Carey’s conversation that she is somehow part of the Meyrick ‘operation’ and Denison finds it out when he has a poke around her handbag and discovers a gun in it. It’s almost as if he’s stumbled into a spy thriller.

That night McCready and Carey drive Denison to a safe house where he is examined by a doctor and a psychologist. They conclude: Yes, he is Denison. He was kidnapped, kept unconscious for a week while persons unknown puffed his face with silicon, created scars and birthmarks (actually tattoos), dragged a slight hood of skin over his left eyebrow, permanently removed the front of his hair and dyed the rest. Excellent job.

The background

Now what? After some procrastinating, Carey explains the set-up. Meyrick is self-made millionaire in electronics, originally from Finland who fled as a boy when the Russians invaded. His father before him had been a world-class physicist, in the Nobel Prize league, and had been working on breakthrough stuff in X-rays when he was killed in a bombing raid. Prior to that, as the war got rough, he had buried a chest of all his papers in the garden. The house, the city and the entire region of Karelia was absorbed by Soviet Russia after the war.

Carey and Meyrick were working on a way to cross the border into Russia, find the house, and dig up the trunk. So. Does Denison want to help? At first, no. So Carey explains that Meyrick’s father’s work into X-rays were theoretical in the 1930s, but in 1960 the laser was developed, a weapon of amazing accuracy and power. The next stage would be the X-ray laser, and Meyrick’s father’s work has a direct bearing on building one. Now does he want to help? Reluctantly, yes.

Lyn

The situation is complicated when Meyrick’s 22-year-old daughter turns up unannounced. Now that Denison is undertaking the mission, he has the whip hand and can get Carey to get his people back in London to knock out dossiers about anyone, and so he gets the gen on the daughter, Lyn. Still, of course, he is busking it like crazy and she soon begins to realise something is going on. Not least because he’s no longer the arrogant superior bastard he used to be but seems genuinely interested in her.

Finland

Lyn and Denison travel to Finland to meet the last survivor of the lab Meyrick’s father ran before the war, a jolly fat physicist. Back in the hotel Denison tries a sauna and is knocked unconscious and wakes up in a dark room, naked in handcuffs. Immediately he is interrogated by a man brandishing a gun, but leaps at the his interrogator, the chain of his cuffs over his throat, before making it to the door and being amazed to realise he is still in the hotel, so he runs down to the lobby stark naked waving a gun. That brings the police, who release him etc once he’s told his story.

Full disclosure

There’s a scene where Carey and McCready travel to see a corpse on an island mortuary. It is almost certainly the real Meyrick. It seems that, in fog, a small vessel was run down by a large liner. C&M speculate that these are the people who ‘lifted’ Meyrick and exchanged him for the surgically-altered Denison; they were transporting Meyrick east when… this accident intervened.

Back in the hotel Denison’s relationship with Meyrick’s daughter reaches a climax when she tricks him with a whole load of false memories of her childhood which he agrees with, thus catching him out – then she angrily demands to know who he really is. Denison collapses, C&M are called, along with Dr Harding, the psychiatrist who first assessed Denison. All together in one room they reveal the truth to Lyn and make the following decisions:

  • Carey’s plan is based on the idea that the Baddies are unsure how much Denison knows – his plan is simple, to send Denison to a series of nature reserves in north Finland, with camping gear, and surveying equipment and maps, to make it look as if he’s searching for something really valuable, hoping the Bad Guys will follow him. He’ll have a deliberately vague and completely fictional map which seems to indicate where Meyrick’s father’s scientific papers are buried.
  • Mrs Hansen aka Diana, will go with Meyrick as protection, as well as McCready as liaison ie ot keep him on-project.
  • Lyn listens to all this and insists that she go as well. C&M are initially reluctant but a) Lyn threatens to blow the whole operation by going to the press b) it would offer good ‘cover’ if the daughter is accompanying the father. Hmm. They agree.
  • Lyn also insists that Dr Harding accompanies them, to monitor Denison’s physical and mental health.
  • All this is entirely a red herring, to distract the Bad Guys away from Carey and McCready who will sneak over the Russian border, go to Meyrick’s father’s old house, and dig up the box of vital secrets.

So the last hundred pages of narrative splits into two parallel streams: Denison, Lyn, Harding and Diana’s decoy mission in the north; Carey and another embassy official, Armstrong’s efforts to get to the famous garden, in the south.

Comedy

Unexpectedly, as the two sets of protagonists pursue their missions, a comic tone enters both narratives.

Up north McCready, on guard at a nature reserve where they’re camping, spots two separate groups making for our heroes, coming along the same river from different ends. He fires a few shots at each, enough to start a battle between them and thoroughly confuse the situation. Unfortunately, while they relax at this minor triumph, Denison wanders away from the camp and is coshed. Again. When he comes to he has regained a lot of his memory but the map has been stolen. Everyone is relaxed. They were fakes, anyway.

The team (Denison, McCready, Mrs Hansen and Dr Harding) move on to a different nature reserve at Sompio, since their job is to continue to act as decoy ducks until they hear that Carey and Armstrong have secured the information from the buried box. They have barely moved into a rangers’ hut before it is surrounded by Czech secret service agents who demand Meyrick’s secret. Clearly these guys don’t know about whoever it was who coshed Denison and stole the map at the first camp. Outgunned, they make a pretence of reluctantly handing over another copy of the useless map, then are locked in as the Czechs make their escape.

Until, that is, shooting breaks out all round the hut: apparently another gang has stumbled across the Czechs and they’re shooting it out. — Just how many different nationalities are after this damned map? In the confusion of this battle in a marsh in the mist, our team escape using the bird-fowling punt Harding found in a nearby boathouse, with hairy moments as bullets from unknown assailants whistle all round them.

Down south Meanwhile, Carey and Armstrong rendezvous with some right-wing Finns who happen to bus into the big factory in the industrial town of Enso every day. For a payment they are ready to let two of their number be replaced by C&A. So C&A nervously go through the process of getting up early, dressing in workers’ clothes, joining the bus and travelling through the Russian border checkpoint, on to the factory, and lying low till another Finn can walk them part of the way to the famous garden.

Here they pretend to be a water pipe inspector and assistant and get permission to use a metal detector and dig up the garden from a worried housewife. There are comedy delays as the family’s little boy follows them round, then the housewife comes out for a chat. Eventually they find the damn box, open it and extract a whole load of papers covered in mathematical symbols, have just put them in secure bags and into a wheelbarrow to walk away when the man of the house turns up and, after initially being suspicious, asks for a go on the metal detector, and then wants to show it to his next door neighbour. Who is a policeman! Tantalising delays. Ealing comedy.

In both of these strands, comedy, banter and back-chat are more prominent than tension. Armstrong and Carey, in particular, have some funny exchanges as they get into their roles of Soviet supervisor and disaffected Soviet worker.

In the end

The northern team escape safely, have a wash and kip and all feel better. Everyone rendezvous at a safe house in Finland owned by British Intelligence. But here, there is one final unexpected twist in the tale…


Old fashioned and sweary

The Freedom Trap‘s first-person narration is clear, colourless and factual. The scenes set in breath-taking Finnish beauty spots are conspicuous for having next to no description. There’s a lake, there’s some birch trees. Bagley is interested in people and procedure, not in local colour.

Also his style in this one is noticeably more stilted and old-fashioned than in the smooth-flowing the Freedom Trap. He uses ‘one’ a lot. And ‘but’ instead of only – ‘A nice gun with but one fault.’ (p.244). After pre-dinner drinks Denison ‘arose’ from his chair. After the meal he turns down a cigarette and ‘soon thereafter’ pays the bill. There are a million different concepts of ‘good style’, it seems Bagley’s notion involved using slightly out-of-date and pompous phraseology, phrases which would be dropped in the 40 years up to our time, and which now stick out uncomfortably.

Denison suspected that he was encountering something of which hitherto he had only heard – the generation gap. (p.77)

‘… of which hitherto…’? Old man style. ‘Which up to now he’d only heard about’. And ‘the generation gap’? Very 1970s, along with the references to the population explosion, long-haired layabouts, smoking pot and taking LSD.

Contrasting oddly with Bagley’s occasional pompousness is the surprising vulgarity. The narrator of The Freedom Trap swore freely and the characters in this novel swear like I remember people swearing in the 1970s ie unrestrained use of bloody, bastard and bugger. (The f and c words are genuinely taboo.)

‘There was a car behind me. The driver was playing silly buggers.’ (p.39) ‘Carey’s bloody wild about that.’ (p.41) ‘You did a Steve McQueen through the Spiralen, roared through Drammen like an express train, and butted a copper in the arse.’ (p.44) ‘… a lot of balls about mysterious attackers…’ (p.45) ‘… an arrogant bastard…’ (p.46) ‘… this bloody odd situation..’ (p.50) ‘Someone has been bloody ruthless about it.’ (p.66) ‘He’s bloody competent.’ (p.69) ‘For Christ’s sake,’ said McCready. (p.70) ‘You’re a really cool, logical bastard,’ said McCready… ‘Balls!’ said McCready (p.218) ‘… those bloody rifles..’ (p.219) ‘Giles was right, you’re a thorough-going bastard.’ (p.246)

The liberal use of these swearwords throughout the text evokes a very 1970s notion of manliness – Old Spice and The Sweeney.


The tightrope walkers

In the last pages all is explained: Ever since the atom bomb was invented, mankind has been walking a tightrope. We are all tightrope walkers. There is a delicate balance of power between NATO and Soviet Russia. The people trying to maintain that balance of terror ie no one side gaining a unique advantage, are the tightrope walkers. And within Government, inside the Whitehall corridors of power, some authorities have the World War Two mindset that all wars can be won; but others know that will lead to nuclear annihilation. Therefore, policy must be finely judged to maintain the balance of power between hawks and doves, to prevent conflict ever breaking out. They, also, are tightrope walkers.

Related links

1970s Fontana paperback cover of The Tightrope Men

1970s Fontana paperback cover of The Tightrope Men

Bagley’s books

1963 The Golden Keel – South African boatbuilder Peter ‘Hal’ Halloran leads a motley crew to retrieve treasure hidden in the Italian mountains by partisans during WWII, planning to smuggle it out of Italy and back to SA as the golden keel of a boat he’s built for the purpose.
1965 High Citadel – Pilot Tim O’Hara leads the passengers of a charter flight crash-landed in the Andes in holding off attacking communists.
1966 Wyatt’s Hurricane – A motley crew of civilians led by meteorologist David Wyatt are caught up in a civil war on the fictional island of San Fernandes just as a hurricane strikes.
1967 Landslide – Tough Canadian geologist Bob Boyd nearly died in a car wreck ten years ago. Now he returns to the small town in British Columbia where it happened to uncover long-buried crimes and contemporary skulduggery.
1968 The Vivero Letter – ‘Grey’ accountant Jeremy Wheale leads an archaeology expedition to recover lost Mayan gold and ends up with more adventure than he bargained for as the Mafia try to muscle in.
1969 The Spoilers – Heroin specialist Nick Warren assembles a motley crew of specialists to help him break up a big drug-smuggling gang in Iraq.

1970 Running Blind – British secret agent Alan Stewart and girlfriend fend off KGB killers, CIA assassins and traitors on their own side while on the run across the bleak landscape of Iceland.
1971 The Freedom Trap – British agent Owen Stannard poses as a crook to get sent to prison and infiltrate The Scarperers, a gang which frees convicts from gaol but who turn out to be part of a spy network.
1973 The Tightrope Men – Advertising director Giles Denison goes to bed in London and wakes up in someone else’s body in Norway, having become a pawn in the complex plans of various espionage agencies to get their hands on vital secret weapon technology.
1975 The Snow Tiger – Ian Ballard is a key witness in the long formal Inquiry set up to investigate the massive avalanche which devastated the small New Zealand mining town of Hukahoronui.
1977 The Enemy – British Intelligence agent Malcolm Jaggard gets drawn personally and professionally into the secret past of industrialist George Ashton, amid Whitehall power games which climax in disaster at an experimental germ warfare station on an isolated Scottish island.
1978 Flyaway – Security consultant Max Stafford becomes mixed up in Paul Billson’s quixotic quest to find his father’s plane which crashed in the Sahara 40 years earlier, a quest involving extensive travel around North Africa with the charismatic American desert expert, Luke Byrne, before the secret is revealed.

1980 Bahama Crisis – Bahamas hotelier Tom Mangan copes with a series of disastrous misfortunes until he begins to realise they’re all part of a political plot to undermine the entire Bahamas tourist industry and ends up playing a key role in bringing the conspirators to justice.
1982 Windfall – Max Stafford, the protagonist of Bagley’s 1978 novel Flyaway, gets involved in a complex plot to redirect the fortune of a dead South African smuggler into a secret operation to arm groups planning to subvert Kenya, a plot complicated by the fact that an American security firm boss is simultaneously running his own scam to steal some of the fortune, and that one of the key conspirators is married to one of Stafford’s old flames.
1984 Night Of Error – Oceanographer Mike Trevelyan joins a boatload of old soldiers, a millionaire and his daughter to go looking for a treasure in rare minerals on the Pacific Ocean floor, a treasure two men have already died for – including Mike’s no-good brother – and which a rival group of baddies will stop at nothing to claim for themselves, all leading to a hair-raising climax as goodies and baddies are caught up in a huge underwater volcanic eruption.
1985 Juggernaut – Neil Mannix is the trouble shooter employed by British Electric to safeguard a vast transformer being carried on a huge flat-bed truck – the juggernaut of the title – across the (fictional) African country of Nyala towards the location of a flagship new power station, when a civil war breaks out and all hell breaks loose.

The Freedom Trap by Desmond Bagley (1971)

This is a good, functionally-written, gripping and believable thriller. Very enjoyable.

The diamond heist

Joseph Rearden arrives in London from South Africa, where he is a professional criminal. He meets with one Mr Mackintosh, in a fake office with a fake secretary, who has a job for him. They know a package of industrial diamonds is due to be delivered to a certain address over the next day or two in a bright yellow Kodachrome photo envelope. Rearden’s job is to lie in wait for the postman and, when he sees the package in his hand, mug the postie and make off with the diamonds. This Rearden does, slipping the bright pack into a larged box and palming this to Mackintosh in a crowded London market, then returning to his hotel, scheduled to catch a flight out of town the next morning and collect his money via a Swiss bank after the diamonds are sold. The perfect heist, eh?

Unfortunately, the police come calling that evening and arrest him. He has been grassed up: the police have received anonymous phone calls giving them all the evidence they need: eyewitnesses, fingerprints, the lot. Looks like Mackintosh stiffed him. Rearden is charged, taken to court and convicted. The police and his solicitor emphasise that if he reveals the whereabouts of the diamonds he’ll get a much reduced sentence. But not only does Rearden not reveal anything about Mackintosh, he refuses to even admit his guilt. He is sent down for 20 years.

Prison life

Life in prison is hard. There’s a flutter of excitement when a new boy arrives and the story goes round that he’s Slade, a high profile double-agent, who’s been caught and given 42 years. In among the conversations with other lags Rearden gets to hear of the Scarperers, a gang who can fix your escape, for a steep price. Rearden arranges a down-payment from one of his South African accounts and he is sprung from prison in a daring raid which involves smoke grenades to confuse the warders, and then the platform of a ‘cherry picker‘ being lowered into the exercise yard. At the last minute he is told Slade is going too, so he risks his own escape to bundle the older man up into the cherry picker.

The Scarperers

The gang spirit him away, promising him a new identity, but then stick a needle in him. When he wakes up he is in a luxurious apartment, with waiter service and every convenience – but bars on the windows and a guard at the door. He is sharing the place with Slade, both being held pending final payment to the Scarperers before they are delivered to their ultimate destinations. Rearden will not be released till he coughs up the rest of the payment, £10,000 – a lot of money in 1971. It takes some time to arrange payment via a Swiss bank account of his, during which a) Slade one day disappears, moved on b) there is a sudden change in the mood music. The posh polite man who comes to see them every day, who never gives his name and who Rearden calls ‘Fatface’, one day announces they know Rearden isn’t in fact Rearden. And they know about Mackintosh: so what’s the truth, fellah?

Back story

Flashback: Rearden is in fact Owen Stannard, a British agent. He worked in the Far East for many years until he was caught up in political trouble in Indonesia, shipped out, and moved to South Africa under a new identity to become a ‘sleeper’ agent. He has lived a quiet respectable life for seven years and now Mackintosh flies out from the UK to activate him. He explains that it is one thing the Scarperers running a successful organisation helping prisoners escape; Mackintosh’s interest is that, among the general run of lags, they are helping imprisoned security risks to escape.

So the plan is: Stannard will adopt the identity of South African crook Rearden, recently dead in a genuine road accident; he will come to England and pull the diamond heist and Mackintosh will make sure he is caught and sent to prison; he will wait in prison for as long as it takes for the Scarperers to contact him; he will keep an eye on Slade and, if he looks like being released, capture or, if necessary, kill him.

Got that?

Ireland

Which explains why Rearden/Stannard coshes Fatface next time he walks into the apartment, sets fire to the place, yells fire and pushes Fatface in front of him when the guard outside opens the door, so they collide and fall in a heap, while Rearden legs down the stairs, knocks out a guard, climbs a wall, across a lane, across a field, through the woods to a road where he catches a bus which turns out to be going to Limerick because it turns out that all this time he’s been held in Ireland! (Echoes of the Ipcress narrator being held and tortured for months in a prison in Albania, which, when he escapes, turns out to be an old building next to some allotments in Acton.)

Alison

Having stolen Fatface’s wallet and cash Rearden is able, once he gets to Limerick, to phone Mackintosh’s office back in London where the prim secretary, Mrs Smith, answers. Mackintosh was recently run over and is in hospital unconscious. Oops. He is the only official who knows about Rearden’s mission ie he is not the criminal he appears to be. Could be trouble. To Rearden’s surprise Mrs Smith says she’ll be with him, with lots of money and a fake passport in three hours. How? She’ll fly there in her private plane.

What emerges is that Mrs Smith is Mackintosh’s daughter, Alison, and that he trained her from an early age in all aspects of spycraft. She and Rearden become a team and she is, in fact, better at lots of things than him, not least shooting. And of course, drop dead gorgeous.

They hire a car and drive back to the burning house. Rearden stole a contacts book off Fatface and they drive to the location of the nearest one, a coastal village beyond Galway. The locals tell them the Big House is owned by a Brit, Mr Wheeler MP, self-made millionaire, he moors his luxury yacht down in the bay. As they’re leaving the pub Rearden bumps into the big strong silent (possibly dumb) waiter who served him everyday in the safe/prison house, who recognises the escapee and they start fighting. It is here Alison that first shows her prowess with a gun, shooting Big Guy very accurately in the knee, then accelerating the car up to Rearden so he can jump in and the car screech off with a rattle of gravel against the low-angle camera. Very filmic.

Albanian spies

Now Wheeler was one of the last officials Mackintosh saw before he was run over. Hmm. Rearden and Alison do some investigating, she flying back to London to see her (still unconscious) father and using her extensive contacts. What they find is that Wheeler is not English but Albanian. He fought with the communist partisans in Yugoslavia before fleeing to England. Soon after the war, he mysteriously acquired a number of properties which set him on the road to becoming a millionaire, and from there on his aquisition of a parliamentary seat and onto various influential committees was easy.

In a killer fact, Alison has discovered he employs a large number of staff at the Big House in Ireland – and all of them are naturalised immigrants from – Albania! Rearden sketches out a hypothesis: Wheeler is a communist agent, infiltrating the Establishment at a high level. The Big House is a finishing school for other agents who come and stay long enough to perfect the language and manners of an English servant, before being recommended by Wheeler to his posh friends and moving on to become servants to God knows how many important men around the country. It is a spy network!

The yacht Artina

Meanwhile his yacht, the Artina, has sailed. Rearden and Alison follow it to Cork, then fly in her plane to see it dock in Gibraltar. But it is only there long enough to refuel (not long enough for Rearden to get abaord) before it sails on to Malta. Our team speculate that a) it has Slade aboard, and b) it is heading back to Albania.

It had been introguing Rearden that the locals in ireland thought Wheeler well known for his Chinese cooks. Now he realises that Albania, where Wheeler originally hails from, is not part of the orthodox Russian sphere of influence but, under its eccentric leader Enver Hoxha, has declared its allegiance to Maoist China.

Could it be that Slade, a Russian agent, has been promised passage to Moscow but is being betrayed by Wheeler and is ultimately headed, via Albania, for Red China, where he will spill the beans not only about British intelligence, but also about KGB operations? Ha, the irony.

Malta

So our heroes fly to Malta and it is here the novel reaches its climax.

In the first attempt, Rearden and Alison row quietly out to the yacht, Rearden scrambles aboard and makes his way to Slade’s cabin – for his guess that Slade is aboard turns out to be correct – where he plants the seed of doubt that Wheeler is Albanian, taking him to Albania and China. He has just persuaded Slade to tiptoe along the deck and try to find the boat when the floodlights come on, strong arms seize Rearden, and the famous Mr Wheeler makes his appearance, in a scene right out of James Bond.

Next to the skipper stood a tall man with ash-blond hair, who, at that moment, was fitting a cigarette into a long holder. He dipped his hand into the pocket of his elegant dressing-gown, produced a lighter and flicked it into flame… ‘So thoughtful of you to join us, Mr Stannard. It saves me the trouble of looking for you.’ (p.187)

(He might as well be sitting stroking a white cat and saying, ‘So, Mr Bond. We meet at last.’)

Oops, you think, it’s all over. Except we forgot about the amazing Alison and her Dad’s training: she quickly shoots the two goons holding Rearden and he dives overboard. They swim behind the stern, round the other side, then manage to escape ashore in all the confusion.

Attempt Two is more elaborate. Rearden and Alison buy a speedboat, hire a boatyard, weld steel rods onto the front to form a battering ram, and pile it high with fireworks. Plan: ram the yacht, breach the fuel tanks, ignite the fireworks, watch everything explode. Despite some hairy moments with the now-hopeless steering, it does the trick. The Artina goes up like a bonfire, Rearden is shot in the shoulder just as he jumps overboard in his scuba dicing suit, but is rescued – as ever – by Alison driving a little put-put.

On staggering out of the water, bleeding badly from his shoulder wound he is, rather comicaly, confronted by the arresting officer who caught him in the early part of the book. ‘I must warn you that anything you say will be taken down and may be used in evidence against you.’

Tidying up

Rearden awakens in a Maltese prison, his shoulder patched up and is immediately visited by a precise Civil Servant who explains to him (and us) the full story. Everything is as we know except that Mackintosh deliberately betrayed Rearden to Wheeler in order to make Wheeler panic and play his hand. That’s how his captors in the Irish house suddenly knew who he was; that’s why Mackintosh was run over. But, fortunately for everyone, he had written out a full account of the whole story in a letter posted to his lawyers and to be opened in the event of his death. This caused a bit of a delay, during which the chase form Ireland to Malta took place, but Mackintosh now having finally died, the lawyers opened the letter and called in the Service. And so the quiet man is in Rearden’s cell. And so they discuss how to manage everything:

  • Wheeler dead, great man killed in tragic fire
  • British divers remove and hide the ramming boat Rearden used
  • why not put it out that Rearden was also killed resisting arrest somewhere in the UK, and so he is free to resume his Stannard identity and return to South Africa

Right at the very end, a released Rearden meets Alison in the bar of a Malta hotel. They chat about this and that, and then suddenly he proposes to her. And what do you think she replies?


Flat style

I’d forgotten how flat and factual Bagley’s style is. Hardly any colour, few similes or metaphors, hardly any passages of description. Hammond Innes beats him hands-down for descriptions of exotic settings, especially of the sea. But Bagley’s clear pedestrian tone comes as a relief after reading some of Alistair MacLean’s 1970s novels, with their ham-fisted, repetitive, mannered and would-be comic style.

Bagley describes situations calmly and accurately. The sequence of Rearden mugging the postman, palming the diamonds, returning to his hotel, being visited by the police and arrested is told in a long, detailed, orderly way, as it happens. It isn’t very exciting but it builds conviction. Similarly, he describes his interviews with his solicitor and then the actual trial at considerable pedantic length. Bit dull but it does slowly, patiently build up atmosphere and verismilitude.

There’s a moment when he describes being in Malta waiting for the baddie’s yacht to arrive. Think what the Len Deighton of Horse Under Water could have done with this opportunity for Sunday supplement pyrotechnics! But Bagley describes it like an accountant.

With nearly four days to wait we suddenly found ourselves in holiday mood. The sky was blue, the sun was hot and the sea inviting, and there were cafés with seafood and cool wine for the days, and moderately good restaurants with dance floors for the nights. (p.168)

Sounds like a postcard from Doug in Accounts, only less imaginative. Bagley isn’t a visual writer, he is about activities: then this then this then this then this. But that’s no bad thing. Precisely because a lot of it is flat and humdrum, his style gives the action that much more plausibility. There is no ambiguity about events and, when things do get exciting, your pulse starts racing along with the protagonist’s.

I checked my watch for the twentieth time in fifteen minutes and decided that the time had come. I put on the scuba gear, tightened the weighted belt around my waist, and hung the mask around my neck. Then I started the engines and the boat quivered in the water. I cast off the painter and pushed the boat away with one hand and then tentatively opened the throttles a notch, not knowing what to expect. (p.206)

The anxiety of influence

These thrillers from the 1960s and 70s are so conscious of the clichéd and stereotyped ground they tread and of the wealth of spy movies or TV series which blossomed in popular culture at this period, that sooner or later they try and distance themselves from it.

The cult of James Bond has given rise to a lot of nonsense. There are no double-o numbers and there is no ‘licence to kill’. (p.113)

Depressed as I was I nearly laughed in his face. He was acting like the villain in a B picture…Fatface was an amateur who seemed to get his ideas from watching TV. (p.116)

But it is useless to resist, Mr Bond. They are a part of that time and place and world, whether they want to or not. Though Bagley the author may laugh at any connection with James Bond, the novel itself has numerous Bond-like moments, and the trailer for the movie, (below) has Bond-style titles and involves fights, shoot-outs, luxury yachts and a beautiful girl – ie it looks just like (an admittedly low budget) Bond movie.

The movie

The novel was quickly turned into a film, released in 1973, directed by the great John Huston and starring Paul Newman as Rearden, Michael Hordern as ‘Fatface’, and James Mason as the suave Grandee double agent. Looks bizarre seeing gorgeous Paul Newman in drab 1970s greys and browns reminiscent of contemporary TV shows like Porridge or On The Buses. Shame the DVD is so needlessly expensive.

Related links

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.

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.

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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.

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