Saturday, August 16, 2008

Desmond Bagley

Desmond Bagley was one of the first thriller writers I discovered. I found his terrific novel Flyaway in a paperback exchange as a teenager and devoured it in only a few sittings. I can still remember reading it on a warm August afternoon on the back porch of our house; a gentle breeze in the air and the quiet thrum of classical music in the background. I was in the African desert right along with the protagonist, and I absolutely loved it. I spent the next several years hunting—pre-Internet era—down copies of his other thrillers and while I didn’t find them all, I found enough to know that his work was one of the standards by which all other thrillers of his generation should be judged.

Desmond Bagley was born in England in 1923 and spent nearly twenty years of his adult life in southern Africa—the better part of it in South Africa where he worked as a journalist and wrote his first novel The Golden Keel. He wrote sixteen novels, each made appearances on best-seller lists around the world, before his death in 1983. His work was well received from the 1960s to well into the 1980s. Then he disappeared.

I only saw the final two of his sixteen novels on the shelves of new bookstores and one—Night of Error—was on the discount rack of Walden Books for a dime. (I also found Joe L. Hensley’s Robak’s Fire, and two The Destroyer novels that day. It was a good day for bargain hunting.) Bagley’s work was wildly popular in its day, but as I write this he is mostly remembered—if he is remembered at all—as a minor writer of the old style thriller: The older and more literate stuff that was written without any bells and whistles. The prose was straight forward and simple without the edge of over-dramatic and outlandish plotlines that have made many modern thrillers nearly unreadable.

The thriller genre was dominated, in the 1960s and 1970s, by the work of Alistair MacLean, and Bagley’s work was very much influenced by it and is favorably comparable with the best of what Alistair MacLean produced. In fact MacLean blurbed Desmond Bagley’s 1975 The Snow Tiger—“I’ve read all of Bagley’s novels. I think he is better than me.” That is a sentiment I don’t necessarily agree with, at least not so far as MacLean’s early work is concerned, but much of what Desmond Bagley wrote was pretty damn good.

The Desmond Bagley protagonist tended towards the solitary and ordinary—they were rarely involved with a government or other large organization, but they were always tough, resourceful and capable. In The Golden Keel Peter Halloran teams up with two other men to find a treasure that was found and hidden at the end of World War Two in Italy. Halloran is the ideal Bagley hero for the simple reason that he is an ordinary man who rises to face an impossibly difficult, terrifying and life-threatening situation; a situation the hero solidly planted himself through his own actions.

The plotlines are uniquely 1970s—the lone adventurer finding a maze of death, deception and betrayal in exotic locations with beautiful women who often turn dangerous. The kind of plots that when done well, as most of Bagley’s work was, launch the reader on an adventure that is larger than life and exhilarating escapist fiction. Flyaway is an example of Bagley’s tremendous plotting—Max Stafford owns a corporate security company and on a whim decides to look into the disappearance of an accountant who works for a client firm. The adventure takes him to the Sahara and across the southern part of Africa in a race to find the accountant before a dark and sinister group get to Max, or the man he is looking for.

The prose is unhurried and simple. Bagley did use clipped and short sentences to build tension, but for the most part he builds tension and suspense with plot, setting, and character. An example of his simple style and unrushed prose in a scene that builds suspense is the following paragraph from High Citadel where the protagonist—O’Hara—is being forced to land his passenger liner on a too-short high altitude runway in the Andes Mountains.

“O’Hara looked at the black hole staring at him like an evil eye. He could see the rifling inside the muzzle and it looked as big as a howitzer. In spite of the cold, he was sweating and could feel rivulets of perspiration running down his back. He turned away from Grivas and studied the strip again. ‘Why are you doing this?’ he asked.”

Desmond Bagley’s stories are similar in both tone and storyline, but he used different methods to tell it. A sampling of his work will show the use of both first person and third person perspective. A few of his better first person narratives are Landslide, Running Blind and Bahama Crisis. High Citadel, The Spoilers, and The Tightrope Men are all in third person, and each of them is successful. He did have a habit of starting novels with the protagonist in bed sleeping past the alarm, but a few repeats are expected and forgivable.

The work of Desmond Bagley is worth discovering. It was influenced heavily by the success of Alistair MacLean and a line can easily be drawn from it to the thriller writers of the 1980s and 1990s; specifically the early work of Tom Clancy (Patriot Games, especially), Greg Dinallo, J.C. Pollock, and even the early work of David Morrell. Its roots are firmly planted in the traditional of Geoffery Household and it is comparable to many contemporary writers of Bagley, including Jack Higgins, Hammond Innes, and Gavin Lyall.

Desmond Bagley's published novels are: The Golden Keel (1962), High Citadel (1965), Wyatt's Hurricane (1966), Landslide (1967), The Vivero Letter (1968), The Spoilers (1969), Running Blind (1970), The Freedom Trap (1971), The Tightrope Men (1973), The Snow Tiger (1975), The Enemy (1977), Flyaway (1978), Bahama Crisis (1980), Windfall, (1982), Night of Error (1984), Juggernaut (1985).

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