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Desmond Bagley

Over the last few years I have been revisiting one of the authors I have most enjoyed, an author with whom I first really developed my love of reading; an author who has an ability like no other author I know, to transport the reader to a far-away location and allow him or her to picture themselves there – to live the story. Also an author where every book you read teaches you something - about world culture, science, nature…

Desmond Bagley first became famous in the 1960’s when he wrote the first of his novels. He was never a prolific author only publishing 16 adventure stories. In those stories he drew heavily on his exciting and colourful life.

Bagley was born in Kendal, Westmoreland in England's Lake District. He spent his childhood in Blackpool and attended a variety of schools is Bolton and Blackpool. At the age of 14 Bagley left school and began his working life as a printer's devil, and changed then to a factory making plastic electrical fittings. Between the years 1940 to 1946 he worked in the aircraft industry.

Bagley was born in Kendal, Westmoreland in England's Lake District. He spent his childhood in Blackpool and attended a variety of schools is Bolton and Blackpool. At the age of 14 Bagley left school and began his working life as a printer's devil, and changed then to a factory making plastic electrical fittings. Between the years 1940 to 1946 he worked in the aircraft industry.

In 1947 Bagley’s adventure started as he set out on his long journey to South Africa by road. He crossed the Sahara, got work in Kampala Uganda, contracted malaria and worked his way down Africa, taking various jobs in asbestos and gold mines. Many of these locations will be familiar to readers – locations used to great effect in his books.

While in Natal Bagley developed his interest in journalism. In the 1950s Bagley lived in South Africa, where he became a freelance journalist, working for the Broadcasting Company in Durban (1951-52), and writing film critiques for Randy Daily Mail in Johannesburg (1958-62). In 1960-61 he was a writer for Filmlets Ltd. In 1960 Bagley married Joan Margaret Brown. In the 1960s they lived in Italy and moved then in 1967 to Guernsey.

Bagley's first book, THE GOLDEN KEEL, appeared in 1963, and become an immediate success. The book – apparently based on a true story Bagley had heard in a bar in Johannesburg – is based in South Africa and Italy and tells the story of Mussolini’s treasure.

Bagley’s success continued as he went on to create fast moving stories, rich in local colour and culture with locations ranging from Iceland to the jungles of South America. 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. One of the features of Bagley’s novels I particularly like is his use of first-person narrative; it draws the reader into the story and puts you into the best possible vantage point as events unfold. 

Bagley even found some success on the screen. The 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 government agent is sent to prison to contact a criminal gang who are helping rich prisoners to break-out. Sadly, the director, John Huston considered the film a failure and it never met with great reviews.

His last book, JUGGERNAUT, was published posthumously in 1984 and partly completed by his wife Joan Margaret. Bagley died on April 12, 1983 in Southampton. His career spanned two decades and was to influence many writers. His works have been translated into some 20 languages.

Collecting... Prices of Bagley’s books have been steadily rising. I have been collecting his first editions for about two years and although I quickly picked up his later works, his earlier novels are becoming scare and more expensive. You can expect to pay up to £50 for a first edition of THE GOLDEN KEEL and £15 - £20 for is other early works such as HIGH CITADEL.

Not sure where to start? My recommendation would be FLYAWAY. Published in 1978, it tells the story of a young man who sets out to find his father who vanished during an air race over the Sahara Dessert. Eventually the plane is found, but nowhere near the original route of the air race. Then follows a fast paced adventure across the Sahara – a battle between those who want the truth and those who want to bury it. Addictive reading… enjoy!

 

* Prices quoted as at 2002. 

Contributed by Steve Goddard.

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