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Desmond Bagley (1923-1983)


A British thriller writer, who gained world fame in the 1960s and published 16 popular adventure novels. On his rough, several years long trip from England to South Africa, Desmond Bagley gathered a colourful life experience that was highly useful later, when he started his career as a writer.

I threw discretion to the winds. "There's over £1,500,000 in gold alone – and there's probably an equal amount in cut gem-stones. The gold alone means £300,000 for a fifth share and that's £6,000 each for your friends. If you count the jewels you can double those figures." Her eyes widened as she mentally computed this into lire. It was an astronomical calculation and took some time.
"So much," she whispered.

(from The Golden Keel, 1963)

Desmond Bagley was born in Kendal, Westmoreland (now, Cumbria), in England's Lake District. His father, John Bagley, was a miner. After his health began to fail, the family moved to Blackpool. Bagley attended a variety of schools is Bolton and Blackpool, showing talents especially in mathematics. At the age of 14 Bagley left school and began his working life as a printer's devil, and changed then to a factory, where he made plastic electrical fittings. Between the years 1940 to 1946, he worked in the aircraft industry, making parts for warplanes. At an early age, Bagley had begun to stammer and he was not called for military service during the war. In 1947 Bagley began his long journey to South Africa by road. He crossed the Sahara, got work in Kampala in Uganda, contracted malaria, and worked his way down Africa, taking various jobs in asbestos and gold mines. While in Natal, Bagley developed his interest in journalism.

In the 1950s Bagley lived in South Africa. There he became a freelance journalist, working for the Broadcasting Company in Durban (1951-52), and writing film critiques for Rand Daily Mail in Johannesburg (1958-62). In 1960-61 he was a writer for Filmlets Ltd. In 1960 Bagley married Joan Magaret Brown, who ran a flourishing bookshop. They spent some months in the 1960s in Italy, sightseeing. Before moving to Guernsey, they lived in Devon from 1965 to 1976.

Bagley wrote his books on a typewriter using one finger and later had a Xerox dedicated word processor. Bagley's wife Joan became his invaluable research assistance and the first reader of his manuscripts. Bagley's first book, The Golden Keel (1963), became an immediate success. The novel was based supposedly on a true story, which Bagley heard in a bar in Johannesburg. During World War II Mussolini's vast personal treasures were moved from north in a German S.S. convoy. As the convoy neared the Ligurian coast, it vanished. An old soldier, named Walker, told Bagley that he really knew where Mussolini's missing gold was, and even suggested the idea of taking a yacht to the Mediterranean, and melting the gold down to make a golden keel. Around this coup Bagley spun a tale, where a successful Cape Town boat-builder designs an ocean-going yacht, sails to the Mediterranean, and with his companion attempts to get the treasure out of Italy.

Like Hammond Innes, Alistair MacLean, and Geoffrey Jenkins, Bagley created fast moving stories with rich local colour, ranging from the jungles of South America to the interior of Iceland. The settings were international, and Bagley also offered detailed information for the readers from a variety of subjects, such as genetic engineering in The Enemy (1977), the behaviour of hurricanes in Wyatt's Hurricane (1966), earth tremors in Landslide (1967), the Finnish way of life in The Tightrope Men (1973), and avalanches in The Snow Tiger  (1975), set in New Zealand. In the frame of an adventure story, Flyaway (1978) gives more information of peoples, customs, traditions, and nature of the Sahara desert than an ordinary travel guide. With his attention to environmental issues Bagley was ahead of his time.

Bagley was always very popular in the Scandinavian countries, especially in Finland and Norway, where his readers share the author's love for the outdoor life. The protagonist of The Tighrope Men, Giles Denison, wakes up in a hotel in Oslo, and sees a strange face in the mirror. His name is Harold Feltham Meyrick, he has a Patek Philippe watch, and an English passport. The MacGuffin of the story is a book full of mathematical symbols, buried near the Finnish border, on the Russian side. Bagley also touches such diverse subjects as the Finnish national epic Kalevala, the temperature of sauna, and paper-making machines.

Several of Bagley's books have been adapted to the screen. His spy thriller The Freedom Trap (1971) was filmed in 1973 under the title The Mackintosh Man, starring Paul Newman, James Mason, and Dominique Sanda. In the story a freelance agent is hired to catch a Communist spy. Sanda is a jewel thief or a member of the British Secret Service, or both. Walter Hill wrote the screenplay. The director, John Huston considered the film a failure. He was offered a good sum of money to direct it, but he was from the beginning plagued by the screenplay's weaknesses. "The worst part was that the story lacked an ending. All the time we were filming we were casting about frantically for an effective way to bring the picture to a close. Finally, during the very last week of shooting, an idea came to us. It was far and away the best thing in the movie, and I suspect that if we had been able to start shooting with it in the mind, The Mackintosh Man would have been a really good film. But we weren't. As it is, I know hardly anyone who has ever heard of it." (John Huston in An Open Book, 1980)

In several novels Bagley used first-person narrative, a suggestive method which draws the reader into the best lookout spot of the events. Reginal Hill stated in his article in Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers (1985), that "as long as meticulous craftsmanship and honest entertainment are valued, and as long as action, authenticity, and expertise still make up the strong framework of the good adventure/thriller, Desmond Bagley's books will surely be read." Bagley's career spanned two decades. His influence can be seen in the works of such highly acclaimed thriller writers as Ken Follet and Duncan Kyle, who published their first novels in the 1970s. From the younger generation writers, the Guernsey-based John Templeton Smith had personal contact with Bagley – he was Smith's mentor in the late 1970s.

Bagley also published short stories. When not travelling in search of the background for his novel, Bagley spent his time sailing with his wife and motor-boating. He loved classical music and films, military history and played war games. Bagley's friends included the mystery novelist and composer Robert Bruce Montgomery, who wrote under the pseudonym Edmund Crispin. One evening in the early 1970s Montgomery telephoned, whether he could come and watch with them a particular thiller for which he had composed the score. "I've never sat through a movie with the composer sitting next to me and it was an odd experience," recalled Joan Bagley. "We saw the entire film in its musical context, accompanied by a running commentary." (In Bruce Montgomery/Edmund Crispin: A Life in Music and Books by David Whittle, 2007.) Bagley's last books, Night of Error (1983), in which an oceanographer investigates the death of his brother, and Juggernaut (1984), were published posthumously and completed by his wife Joan Magaret. Juggernaut was set in Nyala, an imaginary African country. Neil Mannix, the protagonist, tries to move a giant transformer, on a low-bed trailer, across the country. The Juggernaut is nearly 80 meters long and has 96 wheels. When the civil war breaks out, the transportation project is doomed – which can be read as a comment on the results of development co-operation activities.

Bagley died on the 12'th of April, 1983 in Southampton. After a stroke he had been flown to Southampton for treatment; he died eight days later. Bagley's works have been translated into some 20 languages.

For further reading: St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers, ed. by Jay P.Pederson (1996); 'A Word with Desmond Bagley' by Deryck Harvey, in Armchair Detective 7, (Aug. 1974) - Works by John Templeton Smith (has also published under the name John Smith): Skytrap, Patterson's Volunteers, Rolling Thunder, and The Fifth Freedom. White Lie, published in 1999, was the first part of a trilogy, which continued in The Saigon Express and Then a Soldier.

Selected bibliography:

  • 'My Old Man's Trumpet,' 1957 (in Argosy)
  • The Golden Keel, 1963 (Hi-jacking of Mussolini's gold)
    - Kultainen köli (suom. Panu Pekkanen, 1965)
  • High Citadel, 1965 (High in the Andes a plane is hi-jacked and forced down)
    - Andien vangit (suom. Panu Pekkanen, 1966)
  • Wyatt's Hurricane, 1966 (A weather expert battles against odds when a hurricane threatens a Caribbean island)
    - Hurrikaani (suom. Matti Wilen, 1967)
  • Landslide, 1967 (Set in the remote lumber country of British Columbia, where a powerful corporation is building a dam)
    - Maanvyöry (suom. Panu Pekkanen, 1967)
    - film: Landslide, 1992, dir. by Jean-Claude Lord, starring Anthony Edwards, Tom Burlinson, Melody Anderson
  • The Vivero Letter, 1968 (A killer-hunt in the rain forests of Yucatan)
    - Vivero (suom. Seppo Loponen, 1970)
    - film: The Vivero Letter, 1999, dir. by H. Gordon Boos, screenplay by Denne Bart Petitclerc and Arthur Sellers, starring Robert Patrick, Chiara Caselli, Fred Ward
  • The Spoilers, 1969 (An expedition to the Middle East in pursuit of big-time drug pedlars becomes enmeshed in a web of political intrigue)
    - Tehtävä kuudelle (suom. Matti Kannosto, 1971)
  • Running Blind 1970 (Spy-chasing in Iceland)
    - Islannin peli (suom. Matti Kannosto, 1972)
    - TV series: Running Blind, 1979, dir. by William Brayne, starring Stuart Wilson, Ragnheiður Steindórsdóttir, George Sewell
  • The Freedom Trap, 1971 (US title: The MacKintosh Man, 1973)
    - Loukku (suom. Matti Kannosto, 1973)
    - film: The MacKintosh Man, 1973, dir. by John Huston, screenplay by Walter Hill, starring Paul Newman, James Mason, Dominique Sanda, music by Maurice Jarre. "Only Mackintosh can save them now – and Mackintosh is dead!"
  • The Tightrope Men, 1973 (Giles Denison has lost his memory, and is caught in the web of international intrigues in Finland)
    - Suomalainen nuorallatanssi (suom. Simo Mäenpää ja Rauno Velling, 1973)
  • The Snow Tiger, 1975 (An enquiry after a disastrous avalanche New Zealand reveals that the disaster was not so 'natural' after all)
    - Lumi vyöryy (suom. Panu Pekkanen, 1975)
  • 'A Matter of Mouths,' 1976 (in Winter's Crimes 8, ed. by Hilary Watson)
  • The Enemy, 1977
    - Vihollinen (suom. Erkki Hakala, 1977)
    - film: The Enemy, 2000, dir. by Tom Kinninmont, screenplay by John Penney, starring Luke Perry, Olivia d'Abo, Roger Moore, Horst Buchholz, Tom Conti
  • 'The Circumstances Surrounding the Crime,' 1978 (in I, Witness: True Personal Encounters with Crime by Members of the Mystery Writers of America)
  • Flyaway, 1978
    - ... ja hiekka peittää jäljet (suom. Aulis Rantanen, 1978)
  • Bahama Crisis, 1980
    - Bahaman hauta (tr. Aulis Rantanen, 1981)
  • Windfall, 1982 (adventure set in the Kenyan savannah) - Safari (suom. Erkki Hakala, 1982)
  • Night of Error, 1983
    - Erehdysten yö (suom. Aulis Rantanen, 1984)
  • Juggernaut  1984
    - Surmanajo (suom. Pentti Isomursu, 1985)

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