Desmond Bagley Essay - Critical Essays


Desmond Bagley’s early novels offer the kind of suspense that is created when a workingman fights against the odds. The first two published, The Golden Keel (1963) and High Citadel (1965), offer pure adventure, and most of the villains are purely bad.

The thoughts of Bagley’s characters are portrayed through a first-person narrative or are implied through a third-person point of view. Despite the ordinariness of their voices, Bagley’s characters can be found exploring existential questions in the mode of John le Carré’s writing. Bagley’s protagonists search for their identities, having lost wives, brothers, memories, names, jobs, or faces (by plastic surgery).

Bagley customarily began writing with the first chapter and “a group of people in an interesting situation and environment.” He knew “roughly” how he wanted the book to end. Then, “the characters and environment interact (I regard the place as another character in the book) and the plot grows organically like a tree.” The result is that Bagley’s main characters, such as Jaggard in The Enemy, undergo an experience that parallels life and adds to the reader’s store of experience accordingly.

The Golden Keel

The Golden Keel takes place in an environment with which the author is familiar (South Africa), and it has a main character, Peter Halloran, who bears a resemblance to the author, having worked in an aircraft factory during World War II, emigrated to South Africa with no ready job or capital, and spent time with boats. Bagley’s characters are in some ways rough, and they are ready to risk an adventure. Halloran, for example, has just lost his wife. He has strong survival instincts, but he now has less to lose. The language of this book is sometimes awkwardly plain—at the beginning, for example, and during romantic scenes. Bagley is a good storyteller, however, and the fun and excitement of the book prevail. It is a story of man against the sea as well as of man against man.

High Citadel

The setting of High Citadel includes snow-covered mountains complete with avalanches and blizzards. The major character, O’ Hara, an alcoholic pilot about to lose his last job, has a reason for his character flaws: He was tortured as a Korean War prisoner. His ordeal in the story is brought on by the actions of South American communist terrorists, and it allows him to purge himself of the effects of his war experience. This book, while concentrating on O’Hara, is narrated in the third person so that Bagley can enter the minds of other characters fighting the terrorists. The narrator moves back and forth across a mountain pass, between characters, so that the readers may view the battle lines of the high citadel. Discovering whether the stranded victims of the plane crash will survive an attack makes an exciting reading experience.

These and the other amateur-sleuth adventure books also contain fascinating specialized information about such things as geology, archaeology, rain forests, and mountain climbing. Bagley said that he researched extensively throughout his career as a novelist. He acquired information about avalanches for The Snow Tiger (1974), for example, during a period of twelve years, in remote places such as the Antarctic and the South Pole and by talking to snow and ice scientists. He said that he took photographs but no notes, that he had a retentive memory, “a mind like flypaper.”

The Spoilers

Even in the early books, however, Bagley goes beyond interesting facts and mere suspense to touch on concerns with political intrigue. In The Spoilers (1969), the characters are amateur agents rather than amateur sleuths. The assembled team is made up of the protagonist, who is a doctor, and one idealist, one con man, two mercenaries, one torpedo specialist, and one fast-talking journalist. Their mission is to make an assault on the drug trade in the Middle East and includes a strange and secret underground bombing in Iran.

In his later novels, Bagley continued to deliver intense stories of one person’s mind, creating sophisticated plots using a storehouse of tricks and motifs, such as handlers and operatives, special techniques for following a subject, and ghastly, customized ammunition—all available to the authentic spy. Bagley did not, apparently, consider himself a writer in a certain genre of fiction. He claimed to be mystified by his reputation as a writer of crime and suspense: “My books are not specifically about crime although some people think they are.” He admitted to fitting under the umbrella of suspense. “Yet,” he went on to say, “all novels must have suspense or they are nothing.”

Landslide and The Freedom Trap

Bagley {I}Trap{/I} should also be remembered for his interest in the question of identity. This can be seen as early as Landslide (1967). The...

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