Desmond Bagley: Four Novels

Covers of four novels by Desmond Bagley

It was long past lunch-time when I finished the story. My throat was dry with talking and Jean’s eyes had grown big and round.
‘It’s like something from the Spanish Main,’ she said. ‘Or a Hammond Innes thriller. Is the gold still there?’

Desmond Bagley, The Golden Keel (1963)

I first encountered Desmond Bagley’s work in the early 1970s, when my elder brother got married. When he moved out of the family home he left behind a teetering stack of paperback novels, which included the entire Bagley œuvre up to that date. I took them with me on a family holiday—fortuitously, as it turned out, since we were trapped in our rented caravan for most of a week by continuous rain. So I churned happily and uninterruptedly through Bagley while my mother and father went quietly stir-crazy.

Bagley was a thriller writer, who published fourteen novels during a twenty-year career that began with the publication of The Golden Keel in 1963, and ended with his untimely death at the age of 59 in 1983. Two further novels were published posthumously. Then, three decades later, the annotated first draft of another novel, provisionally entitled Because Salton Died, was discovered among Bagley’s papers at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center in Boston, and was published as Domino Island in 2019.

I chose the quote with which I opened this post because it seems, with hindsight, remarkably prescient. It is from the early pages of Bagley’s debut novel, and the first-person narrator has just finished outlining the background to what will develop into the novel’s complicated plot. The thriller writer Hammond Innes had been writing steadily for a good quarter-century at the time Bagley’s first novel was published, but was beginning to go through a bit of a dry spell, and Bagley was just about to establish himself as a thriller writer in the Hammond Innes mould—writing detailed narratives featuring capable characters caught up in perilous situations in exotic locations.

Bagley travelled widely to research those exotic locations (in contrast to his contemporary Elleston Trevor who famously used “a library card, a telephone, and an imagination”*). I used to suppose that Bagley used the proceeds from one novel to finance the research trip for the next, but it was a rather more complicated business than that—you can find out more from the biography/autobiography Writer: An Enquiry Into A Novelist (2021) which is available for download from the website The Bagley Brief. I, for one, share Bagley’s frustration that he could never quite produce a novel based on his trip to Antarctica.

I recently decided to reread three of Bagley’s novels before embarking on my first read of Domino Island. My four novels are spaced fairly evenly across Bagley’s career (if you accept Domino Island as a final publication, rather than an early work), and they’re also a sample of the different kinds of thriller that Bagley produced.

So here we go.

The Golden Keel (1963) was Bagley’s first published novel. Its protagonist, Peter Halloran, has led a life based largely on Bagley’s own—travelling across Africa by land in the aftermath of the Second World War before ending up in South Africa, where he has come to own a boatyard in which he designs and builds yachts. In a chance conversation at his local tennis club he meets Walker, who tells him about his wartime experience fighting with the Italian partisans—and how he and his group once attacked a small convoy of trucks which turned out to be moving four tons of gold bullion northwards ahead of the Allied invasion. Having killed the soldiers manning the convoy, and discovered the gold, the partisans quickly hid the trucks in an abandoned mine, then bring down the entrance with a demolition charge. Walker and Coertze, the only two survivors of the partisan group, have been trying to come up with a plan to retrieve the gold ever since. Which Halloran supplies, in the form of the “golden keel” of the title—he plans to hire a shipyard in Italy and replace the lead in the ballast-keel of his yacht with the four tons of gold retrieved from the mine, after which they will sail the yacht to the Tangier International Zone, where it’s possible to turn up with a load of gold and convert it into hard currency, no questions asked. This creates narrative time pressure—the novel is set in early 1960, with only a few months to go before the International Zone reverts to Moroccan ownership.

There are complications, however, in the form of other interested parties, betrayals and deceptions, and a final pursuit across the Mediterranean in stormy weather.

A lot of the basic furniture of a Bagley thriller are already in place—the technical dissertations (in this case, on yacht ballast, seamanship and gold smelting); the exotic locations (South Africa, Tangier, the Riviera), the characters who are not what they initially seem, and the well-observed detail that lends verisimilitude:

I suppose that few people have had occasion to cut up gold ingots with a hacksaw. It’s a devilish job because the metal is soft and the teeth of the saw blades soon become clogged.

There are a few longueurs, however, particularly when it comes to the business of fashioning the golden keel itself. Bagley had obviously thought a lot about how that could be managed, and much of his thinking ended up on the page—I suspect a more experienced Bagley would have trimmed it down considerably. I was reminded a little of the plodding detail that marred Andy Weir’s inexplicably popular debut novel, The Martian (2011), but can assure you that Bagley didn’t push the showing-my-working boat out nearly that far.

By the time he wrote Running Blind (1970), Bagley was at the top of his game—to the extent that his research trip to Iceland was reported in the local newspapers.

The narrator of Running Blind is an ex-spy, Alan Stewart, blackmailed out of retirement by his old boss to perform one last job—ferrying a mysterious package from Reykjavik to Akureyri in Iceland, a country that Stewart knows well. Stewart and his Icelandic fiancée end up fleeing across the central volcanic wasteland of Iceland in order to evade multiple factions who seem intent on either seizing the package or killing Stewart. Or both.

Bagley had by this time learned not to start his stories with prolonged bits of biography. Running Blind starts:

To be encumbered with a corpse is to be in a difficult position, especially when the corpse is without benefit of death certificate.

… and Stewart is off and running, taking his long-wheelbase Land Rover through the remote volcanic wilderness of central Iceland in order to evade pursuit§. Bagley uses a succession of Icelandic settings to good effect, from Ásbyrgi canyon in the north to the hot springs of Geysir in the south. My favourite set piece involves the old cable-car bridge over the Tungnaá River, now bypassed and derelict:

Bagley’s trademark use of detail let us understand that Stewart is an expert in his trade, while not significantly slowing the narrative pace. This time, we learn a lot about firearms and other kinds of violence—I particularly commend the accuracy of Stewart’s little lecture on “hitting people on the head”:

There’s quite a bit of nonsense talked about hitting men on the head. From some accounts – film and TV script writers – it’s practically as safe as an anaesthetic used in an operating theatre; all that happens is a brief spell of unconsciousness followed by a headache not worse than a good hangover.
Unconsciousness is achieved by imparting a sharp acceleration to the skull bone so that it collides with the contents – the brain. This results in varying degrees of brain damage ranging from slight concussion to death, and there is always lasting damage, however slight. The blow must be quite heavy and, since men vary, a blow that will make one man merely dizzy will kill another. The trouble is that until you’ve administered the blow you don’t know what you’ve done.

In 1979, the BBC made a three-part series of Running Blind, filmed in Iceland, with Stuart Wilson turning in a fine hard-bitten performance as Alan Stewart. This was later released on video, but the process of trimming down nearly three hours of story to fit a single two-hour VHS cassette excised so many plot elements that the final result can best be described as “intermittently baffling”. This is the release that’s available on YouTube, albeit with horrible colour balance, blown contrast and the wrong aspect ratio.

Just after the one-hour mark you can see how the Tungnaá cable bridge actually worked:

The Snow Tiger (1975) falls into the small group of Bagley novels that feature natural disasters, alongside Wyatt’s Hurricane (1966) and Landslide (1967). The “snow tiger” of the title is an avalanche—the phrase refers to a quotation attributed to Mathias Zdarsky, a ski pioneer and early avalanche investigator:

Snow is not a wolf in sheep’s clothing – it is a tiger in lamb’s clothing.

The story centres on the small New Zealand town of Hukahoronui, high in the Southern Alps. After a brief prologue, the narrative begins with the opening of the proceedings of the Commission of Inquiry into the Disaster at Hukahoronui—an avalanche has wiped out the town, killing fifty-four people. Evidence is taken chronologically, and as each witness testifies we have a flashback to events preceding the avalanche.

There’s the familiar furniture of a disaster movie—there’s the man with “history” in the town who returns after a long absence and is poorly received, who then teams up with the out-of-town expert who knows what’s going to happen, but who struggles against a combination of local vested interests and incompetence. Bagley pulls off the trick of ramping up the tension in what is effectively a court-room drama, while simultaneously stacking up a sense of impending doom in the flashback scenes. We learn a lot about snow avalanches, and about techniques of avalanche rescue.

When the avalanche comes, the narrative splits to follow the fates of multiple characters, some of whom die, some of whom survive, and some of whom are trapped. Then the rescue teams arrive, and we find out who among the trapped is going to survive.

Finally, we’re back at the Commission of Enquiry, where new evidence is produced and blame is apportioned.

By Bagley’s standards it’s unusual—the absence of a tough and resourceful first-person narrator, the narrative delivered in multiple scenes and flashbacks—and I remember it was not particularly well-received in some circles simply because it didn’t conform to the “standard Bagley formula”. But it’s a taut piece of writing which manages to keep a lot of balls in the air successfully.

Domino Island (2019) is another unusual one, for Bagley—it’s a whodunnit, paced more slowly than his usual thrillers. In an afterword, Bagley researcher Philip Eastwood tells how the novel had been accepted by Bagley’s UK publisher, Collins, in 1972, but was then withdrawn by Bagley himself. Eastwood speculates that the withdrawal might have been because Warner Bros were just about to start filming Bagley’s previous novel, The Freedom Trap (1971), and Bagley was under pressure to produce something in his usual thriller style which could be published to coincide with the film release. That may be true, but it’s odd that Bagley never again submitted the novel to his publisher, leaving it to languish among his files.

The story’s first-person narrator is Bill Kemp, an ex-military freelance investigator who is sent by an insurance company to look into the mysterious death of a wealthy politician on the (fictitious) island of Campanilla, a British colony.

‘A man called David Salton has died.’
That didn’t surprise me. People are always dying and you hear of the fact more often in an insurance office than in most other places. I sat down.
‘How much is he into you for?’
‘Half a million of personal insurance.’

Salton’s death unleashes a cascade of events on Campanilla (hence the “domino” reference in the title), and the investigation soon gets Kemp embroiled with local politics, the operation of tax havens and casinos on the island, mysterious phone calls, and attempts on his life. Kemp combines a world-weary knowledge of human frailties with a stern personal morality and a tendency to respond to tricky situations with a wisecrack. I was strongly reminded of John D. MacDonald’s character Travis McGee, than which there can be no higher compliment.

Then, in the final quarter of the book, the pace changes—the whodunnit is solved, and suddenly we’re back in an action novel again, with a hostage-taking, a hijack, and a military operation.

It was good fun to re-read examples from the established Bagley canon, and a treat to read the new novel for the first time.

Running Blind remains my favourite, because of its flawless pacing and convoluted plot, and also because it’s set in a country I’ve come to know and love in the decades since Bagley introduced me to it. As a debut novel, The Golden Keel is a little more clunky, but brimming over with ideas and well-thought-out action. The Snow Tiger is slower-moving, but intricately constructed; and Domino Island is something of a novelty, being a strong departure from Bagley’s usual style. All are, of course, to some extent dated—access to the internet, a computer or a mobile phone would in many cases allow the hero to sort things out considerably faster. The female characters are often the victims of the standard blithe sexism of the decades they inhabit, but in Bagley’s hands they generally refuse to conform to the stereotypes of the day, most strikingly so in Domino Island.

All of Bagley’s novels are available as e-books from Collins, either as individual volumes or combined into “2 in 1” editions. As an introduction to his work I can’t do better than recommend Running Blind.

* The quotation comes from Trevor’s wife Chaille, in her biography Bury Him Among Kings (2012).
Bagley became a freelance journalist and advertising scriptwriter, but seems to have had a long-term interest in sailing. Writer: An Enquiry Into A Novelist reveals that the first draft of The Golden Keel included an initial chapter detailing Halloran’s early travels, which very much parallel Bagley’s own. This was rejected by the publisher in favour of a rather faster start to the action, but there’s still enough detail left in the published version to highlight the way in which Bagley mined his own background for Halloran’s.
The story was inspired by the real-life mystery surrounding the disappearance of the Dongo Treasure. Bagley had presumably been aware of the “Gold of Dongo” trial that took place in Padua in 1957.
§ A close reading of the text reveals that Stewart’s route crosses the Ódáðahraun on the F88 to Askja, then follows the F190 and Gæsavatnaleið south and west to link with the main F26 track in the Sprengisandur. I knew you’d be wondering.

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