Desmond Bagley is one of the unsung heroes of the British thriller-writing scene, too often overlooked by the genre he became master of for over two decades. Though there were other writers who started earlier or had longer careers, it is sad that when asked a lot of people today have not heard of him. The popularity he achieved during his heyday should not be overlooked or forgotten.
Bagley was a year younger than Alistair MacLean, which made them contemporaries, and they were both aiming at the same audience with their Big Action Adventures. Certainly the pair were at the vanguard of their field although MacLean’s career started earlier and he had more titles to his name because of it. Bagley was almost forty before he took up writing full-time having walked a different career path. MacLean’s career started earlier, closer to the end of World War 2 and his output contained more military adventure because of it, but he eventually responded to the changing times and varied his themes. Bagley only wrote one story with a wartime background and even that was actually set in the 60’s with an initial flashback. He’d been a journalist and had a more varied and wide-ranging background to dip into.
It can’t be denied that MacLean, when on-song, was a tremendous storyteller, and his use of first-person viewpoints on a par with Bagley’s. On a technical level both authors researched their facts and figures and wondrous gadgets impeccably. During the seventies, when the term ‘best-seller’ was still a compliment rather than a marketing trope, all the Big Action Adventure writers were busy trying to come up with that unique plot, that unusual angle which made their story an instant hit with their audience. This was at the time when disaster movies were flourishing – Towering Inferno for example. No longer could you just have a neatly formed adventure with a gripping climax, you had to have despair and destruction on a grand scale. Or perhaps you had to stray into that grey area where science-fiction overlapped criminal adventure; witness the escalating surreality the Bond movies to get the feel for how things were shaping up.
MacLean had more success at the movies because in a world which could still remember World War 2, there was ongoing demand for heroic stories of how the Allies outwitted the Axis oppressors. Bigger and more ambitious military adventures were the norm, but this couldn’t go on for ever, eventually people would want to forget and move on, they would need something new, fresh, more exciting and relevant to the changing world. For a while though the film industry continued to make a great living rehashing old war stories in their freely gung-ho fashion.
When it comes to disasters the author was an early master. Wyatt’s Hurricane took on a truly massive scenario and around it wove a story of civil-war into which the young hero steps and attempts to warn people of the imminent danger. In true disaster style no one wants to take any notice to start with. Landslide is another story of impending doom, though not on quite the same level. For me this is the title where the Desmond Bagley signature makes it’s first stylistically important imprint. Not only do we have a first-person story, we also have a highly technical phenomenon, a loner hero who’s not quite what he seems, a set of good-guy allies being bullied by small-town baddies, some expensive whisky, a touch of romance and a Landrover! A formula that was to be repeated with great success in later years and one that defines the Bagley style. Yes, the previous three stories had similar elements but for me, what he was about was basically defined here.
(Incidentally Landslide was written in just thirty days after all the work of research had been completed. It was actually named on the train taking the finished manuscript to the publisher! That such a well-crafted story should have had such a precipitous arrival and be an instant success, goes to show that in the real world perhaps it is the raw energy that must have gone into the writing that shows through on the page.)
Where Bagley and MacLean win out over a lot of more modern authors is in their lack of a jaundiced, cruel and cynical viewpoint, so much the fashion these days. True, individual characters may have displayed the trait at times, and the themes such as drug smuggling, genetic engineering or terrorism sound heavy, but the stories are about mixing characters and resolving problems in surroundings that whisk us away from the hum-drum. It’s easy to mock anything you care to mention, but an informed opinion supported by facts is preferable any-day and will always stand the test of time. As the old saying puts it: “Quality never goes out of style.” In these stories the good-guys generally win the day and the bad-guys get their comeuppance. This at least gives some comfort in a world where in reality this rarely happens.
(Bagley’s The Enemy, it might be argued, was an exception to my sweeping statement, but the underlying intention is still the same).
Desmond Bagley did what every writer ought to do, he saw the world, worked in it, studied it, made his own unique way in it and then took up full-time writing. His first novel was published just as he was approaching middle-age, and the life experience shows. The Golden Keel starts with a pace and a level of detail that continued unabated until the very end with Juggernaut. It was as if there had been no learning curve at all. This is the test of a true master, like the golfer who makes a birdie seem effortless and a matter of course, or the musician who coaxes a depth of feeling and expression out of an otherwise inanimate object. As far as the public was concerned he hit the ground running, though the work that went on behind the scenes to make everything seem so effortless was considerable. Wryly, the author was later to comment that if he’d known in the beginning what took him years of writing to learn, his early stories might have turned out even better! A tantalising prospect indeed as all stand on their own merit as terrific adventures.
The first-person perspective was a common technique used by Desmond Bagley; it made the stories more intimate, drawing the reader in. Like MacLean’s Ice Station Zebra where the narrator is not all that he seems, and Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd where Poirot is viewed from an unusual perspective, the secret is not giving the game away at the beginning. Read Landslide and observe as the narrator struggles to come to terms with the loss of memory he has suffered – worse still the conclusions he draws. Read The Tightrope Men and look out upon an unfamiliar world through the eyes of a man who doesn’t know who or what he has become. Make no mistake, this is an art, and one few writers master successfully. However the third-person viewpoint is not totally ignored and is still used to great effect in stories such as The Snow Tiger and High Citadel where the characters are numerous, and where the copious detail and split plot lines require a more complex overview than a single viewpoint could give.
Bagley was always keen to show us the ins and outs of technology, of natural phenomena, of geography; but the detail was never dry and dusty. It was dynamic, exciting and enlightening. The research that went into the novels was exhaustive – I have only been able to find one single possible mistake, and I keep re-reading just in case it is me who has misunderstood.
In the 1981 book “Best Sellers: Popular Fiction of the 70′s” it was revealed the amount of preparatory work that went into The Snow Tiger, and an example given of the author taking out a long subscription to a Vancouver newspaper to get a feel for a similar place, but it was also unfairly hinted that the books were written to a formula using a small computer to shuffle text around. This surely is too simplistic a view, perhaps made at a time when such technological leaps forward were not yet fully understood or trusted by the trade. Large-scenario stories don’t usually rely on over-convoluted and intricate plots because the result would be to overwhelm the reader, to distract from the main subject matter, the focus of interest. At the other extreme a limited, small scale story relies more on an intricate plot and subtle character moves to create the necessary tension required to keep the reader’s attention. That is where a story’s particular entertainment value lies. Bagley’s novels always had a big theme, whether or not many people were involved. In Wyatt’s Hurricane, which had people in abundance and an awesome scenario, you have to draw a line under how much detail you want or need to impart. By confusing a reader you loose the flow of the story and the energy you’ve built up. It is true that in the late 70′s a few word-processors were available, but anyone who has used one for any length of time would soon realise how relatively simple they were, little better than a good electronic typewriter. Most writers use a common framework for their stories, a template, they can’t help that no matter what tool they use to put their ideas down on paper, it is their ‘style’, the thing that draws us back to them over and over again. Musicians do it too and so do artists.
In the short story ‘A Matter Of Months’ published in 1976, Bagley wrote a completely different kind of story, what you might call a ‘Whodunit?’ It bears no resemblance to his full-length novels and is an exercise in showing that if he had wanted to the author could have written in this style and still been able to keep his audience enthralled. The only decisive clue you have as to whether or not the protagonist did commit the crime is in the title. On first reading I have to say I found the story baffling, but I was not deterred. I cleared my mind of preconceptions and tried again, re-reading to refresh my memory of all the carefully plotted and positioned facts. They are there, believe me! An important hint is on the very first page and I’d missed it. I wasn’t used to expecting a whodunit from this author. The more I read the more I realised how well written it had actually been. I had been guilty of expecting a style I had become used to, and not crediting the author with a wider dexterity.
Sadly there are no more Bagley stories to be had. The published tally runs to sixteen novels and two short stories, along with five films to underline the international popularity of the books. This is a splendid output for any author. Publishers rarely put out more than one novel a year from even the most well-established of their writers. That the publishers knew exactly what the public wanted is shown by the fact that the last two novels were published posthumously – Juggernaut and Night Of Error – both finished by the author’s wife who had lived alongside him, travelled with him and read the daily drafts for years. Some have tried to imply this was simply cashing-in on his previous fame but that would be to miss the point entirely. A loyal readership around the world had been built up by hard work and dedication over a more than two decades. That the publishers were supplying a demand rather than trying to create one afresh is shown by the number of reprints some of the paperback editions have run to. The latest Running Blind I have here is the 27th impression. You only reprint when booksellers tell you they have a market that needs to be filled. Night of Error had actually been the second novel written but never made it to publication until it was realised what a mistake it would be to withhold it. The final story, Juggernaut was almost complete when the author died and was an adventure set in a part of the world very dear to him, serving as a fitting finale to the series.
Authors can be an enigmatic breed. No matter how they appear on casual acquaintance it is on the pages of a book that you really get an insight into how their mind works, the keenness of their intellect and their underlying humanity. A speech impediment such as Bagley’s would make it hard for a lot of people to hold their attention patiently on the person stuttering in front of them, never mind take the time to understand how and what they were thinking. Perhaps a sad indictment of our media-rich, polished and shiny, in-your-face society. Only someone close on a daily basis would know what the person intended. Joan Bagley, herself no mean writer, was the perfect choice to complete what could reasonably be completed of the work left over. The last two novels were a fine end to the series.
There were many other plots and ‘works in progress’ at the time of the author’s death, but these were deemed too incomplete to be able to be finished in a way he might have wanted and this was a key consideration for the publication of the last two novels.