Invisible Ink, No 144: Desmond Bagley

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The Independent Culture

This son of a Lancashire miner, born in 1923, grew up in a theatrical boarding house in Blackpool and started work at 14, servicing one-arm bandits along the Golden Mile. Prone to a debilitating stammer (later brought under control by a hypnotist), Desmond Bagley moved to South Africa to escape his difficult family and began writing radio scripts on science subjects.

He sold his first short story to Argosy magazine – yes, it was once possible to sell short stories to magazines – and produced his first blockbuster, The Golden Keel, in 1962. This tale of derring-do is based around the search for Benito Mussolini's missing gold, a subject of popular rumour that was still cropping up in conversation at the time of publication.

Spurred by his success, the unassuming Bagley embarked upon a life of high adventure, in print at least, and became the Michael Crichton of the Seventies. His novels had richly exotic settings and situations: a plane crashing in the Andes, a hurricane veering off-course, corruption over a new hydro-electric dam, a search for Mayan gold in the jungles of Central America, drug-trafficking, Cold War spies, jailbreaks, hidden technological treasure, an avalanche, power struggles in corrupt states.

Bagley hit upon a winning combination of craftsmanship, authenticity, and excitement, and nearly all of his 16 thrillers were bestsellers. Although he often wrote in the first person, he rarely used the same leading character twice. Four of his books eventually became films, but it seems surprising that more weren't picked up by studios. The most successful of these was The Mackintosh Man, starring Paul Newman. The adventure novel largely fell from fashion during Bagley's lifetime, and perhaps he was born slightly too late to make more of a mark, but his thrillers still have an impact.

Currently the fiction market has skewed to a predominantly female readership, and Bagley's straightforward action-adventures were strongly male in appeal. In Juggernaut a corporate troubleshooter for a multinational has to supervise the transportation of a 300-ton transformer for a new power station in an unstable former British colony, and must deal with collapsing roads, warring army factions, and untrustworthy crew members as his journey takes on mythical proportions.

For once, though, this column has a happy ending. In 2009 Bagley's novels were bundled up in pairs and returned to print by Harper Collins, and there's plenty for a new generation of men – and women – to enjoy.