Monday, 9 September 2019

High Citadel

Fontana (1990)
Author: Desmond Bagley
First Published: 1965
Pages: 255

After being disappointed with Alistair MacLean's Bear Island, I was slightly reticent to jump immediately into a book in a similar thriller vein by his contemporary, Desmond Bagley. However, it seemed that from everything I read in Facebook groups, comments about Bagley were all positive with examples such as, "never read a bad one" or "always enjoyed his books". I had nothing to worry about surely?

In fact, Desmond Bagley's first novel, The Golden Keel, published in 1963, was the the first book I ever read on an ereader. It was probably free! I remember enjoying it, but the memory is clouded; the experience of reading an eBook for the first time and the wonder of how this new type of device would effect my reading in the future overwhelms any detail of the novel. Bagley died in 1983, roughly twenty years before electronic paper was incorporated first into the Sony Librie. I wonder what he would have thought of ereaders? He took an interest in computer programming during his lifetime, and was an early adopter of personal computing to aid his work as a writer, perhaps he would have embraced it?


Desmond Bagley was born in 1923 in the English village of Kendal, Cumbria. From a relatively young age he developed a stammer, something which would effect his ability to get ahead in a number of careers and lead him to take journeys in life that would later benefit his writing of thrillers. During the Second World War Bagley's stammer prevented him from serving. Instead he worked in factories making parts for Spitfires and machine-gun turrets. Soon after the War he decided to leave England set off on an epic journey that would make a great story in itself.

Companion Book Club (1965)
Ending up in South Africa, Bagley began a career in freelance journalism, writing for the Johannesburg Star amongst others. By the late 1950’s Bagley had started to experiment with short stories and poetry, which did not result in any great success. In January 1957, he got his first short story published in the magazine Argosy. In 1961 his mother passed away leaving an inheritance, which became the impetus for him sit down and begin what would become his first published novel The Golden Keel (Bagley typed with a single finger on his left hand apparently - he must have gotten very good at it!).

High Citadel followed the success of The Golden Keel, published in hardback in England in 1965. By this time, Bagley was making a name for himself as a serious alternative to the Alistair MacLean crown of king of the thriller writers so providing a follow up must have been quite a pressure to bear for an author in his forties.

The plot of High Citadel is quite simple at its heart. A Dakota carrying a small group of passengers crashes in the Andes. However, Bagley enlivens his idea with a story that revolves around one of the passengers. Senor Montes and his niece are really Senor Aguillar and Benedetta. Aguillar is the former President of Cordillera. He is attempting to enter his former country in order to kick start a revolution. His South American Airways plane was deliberately sabotaged so that he would have to be diverted over to the small business airline flown by washed out pilot Tim O'Hara. O'Hara and co-pilot Grivas are tasked with taking thier mish-mash of passengers across the dangerous mountains in their ancient plane.

O'Hara is forced to take a detour by his flying partner at gun point and then crash land the plane. Waiting for them in the forests below are the enemies of the former President, the communist guerrillas who have infiltrated the current regime and the supporting army of the standing head of state who wants Aguillar dead. Luckily for O'Hara, the crew consists of an interesting band of people. Ex-American Air force pilot Forrester, handy local man Rohde, academics Armstrong and Willis, businessman Peabody and well travelled elderly couple the Coulthards, along with feisty headmistress Miss Ponsky.

Fontana (1980)
The survivors of the crash find themselves up against great odds. Stranded in the Andes, with no chance of help in the near future, they are forced to fight against a group of enemies intent on their murder. With the help of O'Hara and local man Rohde, they begin the desperate defence of their position. Bagley weaves a super story - the academics, initially thought useless to provide any sort of fight against the guerrillas come up with ingenious devices that can be used, a crossbow and a trebuchet. Characters come to the fore - and some do not live up to the task.

One of the most enjoyable sequences in the book for me is one that  covers an expedition made by three of the characters to cross the mountains in order to reach civilisation and bring rescue to their comrades. This involves the extremes of habitats, snow, ice, high altitude, climbing and crossing glaciers under terrible conditions. It was fantastically described and pulled me into the scenes every time.

Bagley had that uncanny ability to be able to write in a way that seems to describe his characters and situations without any effort. You never feel like you are reading a description of a person or a place, everything is part of the ongoing narrative and seamlessly moves from scene-setting to dialogue to inner monologue and back again with amazing ease. I am always amazed by how certain writers can do this, and Bagley had it in spades.

eBook cover
There is plenty of action and adventure in High Citadel, although the violence is not gratuitous, it is certainly vicious. Bagley describes his action without any emphasis, so the effect can be quite startling. Characters die, some in heroic ways, others quite matter of factly, and he never lingers over them, keeping the plot moving fast. There is a half hearted attempt at romance, but thankfully Bagley doesn't let it develop too much to distract from the main story.

The book was written in the sixties, and it does show in places. Some of the female characters are written in a way that is perhaps is a little stereotypical to today's tastes. Also, the ending of the book does have a slightly far-fetched scenario that unfolds, but in the context of what has happened before I was willing to go with the ride because it had been so damned entertaining.

High Citadel was a massively satisfying read for me. The whole book raced along at a fairly fast pace. Where there were places to take a breather they felt perfectly timed, and never too long. Some of the enemy characters were underdeveloped, but perhaps Bagley felt that it was necessary in order to keep them at arms length - as they were in the story. A superb thriller by a brilliant writer. Cannot recommend highly enough.

All of Desmond Bagley's novels are available in eBook. I'd say they are a steal at an average of £3 each and should be on any serious thriller collectors 'shelf'.

PS: A 'newly discovered' Bagley book, Domino Island was published in eBook format in May 2019. I will get around to reviewing it at some point.