The Tightrope Men

Author: Desmond Bagley
Publisher: William Collins & Sons
Published: 1973
Pictured: Fontana Paperback edition 1981

I have come to Desmond Bagley late in life. But I am trying to make up for it. I read High Citadel a few years ago, and truly enjoyed it. Since then, whenever I have seen a Bagley book in a second hand book shop I have picked it up and added it to my ever metastising ‘to be read’ pile.

And once again Mr. Bagley doesn’t let me down. The Tightrope Men by Desmond Bagley has one of the best openings I have read in quite a while. Bagley is an author who knows how to hook a reader from the first page. This story concerns Giles Dennison from Hampstead who wakes up in a strange room. That may not be too unusual, as Dennison has a reputation as an alcoholic. But in this instance, he has woken up in a hotel room in Oslo, and what’s more, his face has been surgically altered. Dennison’s first reaction is to panic – which is pretty logical. I can tell you, I’d freak-out if I didn’t recognise the face in the mirror.

However he calms down a bit once he locates a scar on his leg, a scar he has had from childhood. Finding this small piece of his history – or maybe identity is a better word – allows Dennison to accept that he is not going mad, and maybe something sinister is going on.

I am not suggesting that the opening to The Tightrope Men is groundbreakingly original. In some ways it echoes the film 36 Hours (starring James Garner), which is based on the story Beware of the Dog by Roald Dahl. In the film, Garner plays Major Pike, a US soldier who is privvy to the details of the imminent D-Day invasion in Normandy. The Germans kidnap and drug Pike; then surgically alter him to look a few years older; and blur his vision with eyes drops. As Pike comes to, he is told it is 1950, and the war has been over for six years – and he is suffering from amnesia. This, of course is all a ruse to get him to reveal the details of the D-Day invasion.

Another variation, that will be familiar to regular visitors to this site, is the television series The Prisoner, where Patrick MacGoohan, after resigning from an un-named intelligence agency, wakes up in The Village. The idea of identity (and the loss there of) is explored even further, in episodes like The Schizoid Man and especially Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling, where the mind of Number Six was transferred into another body.

So The Tightrope Men follows a well-worn path, however what it has going for it, is Bagley’s flair for telling a story, and as I said at the top, this book hooked me from the opening pages.

Here’s a brief overview of the plot. Giles Dennison awakens to find he has been transformed into Harry Meyrick. Meyrick is a scientist / inventor / engineer, and a successful one at that, with multiple military contracts to his credit. It appears that the ‘real’ Meyrick was involved in an British operation to retrieve some scientific documents buried in Russia. I wont bore you with the plot contrivances at this time, but let’s just say these documents have the power to change modern warfare, and make nuclear missiles virtually obsolete.

Now Dennison is Meyrick. Why? Why Dennison? Well that’s the mystery that plays out over the length of the novel, and I wont spoil that here. After an attempt on Dennison’s life (as Meyrick) in the Spiralen Tunnel (a great little passage, by the way), he makes contact with the British authorities seeking help. He is introduced old spy master named Carey, and his offsider Macready. Naturally these men were involved in the operation with the ‘real’ Meyrick.

Dennison tells the story of how he woke up in Oslo with his face altered and his identity stolen. Initially Carey doesn’t believe him, thinking that Meyrick is pulling some stunt, or has been brainwashed. But events soon convince Carey of the truth, and he recruits the raw and unskilled Dennison to assist in the operation to retrieve the papers. Dennison reluctantly agrees to continue playing the role of Meyrick. However, things get rather complicated when Meyrick’s estranged daughter, Lyn arrives on the scene. Will she be able to tell that Dennison is not really her father?

The weakest part of the story is the political, ‘spying is a dirty business’ aspect. Not that it is bad, but Bagley’s strength is not dissertations on the rights and wrongs carried out by faceless men in the halls of power. His strength is rousing action and adventure.

As an example, this story comes alive when Dennison and his protectors attempt to escape a cadre of Czech gunmen on a punt, across a fog covered marsh. Added to the excitement, Bagley gives our heroes and old fashioned punt gun, which is a cross between a shotgun and a cannon, to defend themselves. It’s a very evocative passage of writing.

I have not read enough of Bagley’s work to suggest that this is one of his stronger or weaker works. I thought that overall High Citadel was better than The Tightrope Men, but this book is still thoroughly entertaining, and as I said at the top, has a fantastic opening. I guess the problem with having a great beginning, is that it is hard to keep the level on intensity up over the full length of a novel, and The Tightrope Men slows down a bit in the middle section. But Bagley does what he does best for the last third, and provides a tight action packed adventure.

All in all, this is pretty good, and I am looking forward to reading more Desmond Bagley.

The Tightrope Men

Role of Honour

Author: John Gardner
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Published: 1984

Recently I have been re-reading some of John Gardner’s James Bond novels, and although they have been rather flawed, I have still enjoyed them. That is till now. As a teenager, I remember enjoying Role of Honour, but upon this reading I found it to be extremely convoluted, and the writing style varied from chapter to chapter – only returning to what I would call Gardner’s natural fluent writing style for the climax – which, by that time the damage had been done.

Let’s analyse the mess. Firstly, the basic plot premise is that James Bond has left the secret service under somewhat of a cloud. Of course this is a ruse to draw out some foreign agents who have been recruiting former spies. This story base, is not too dissimilar to that of The Spy Who Came in From The Cold, where Alex Leamas posed as washed up and drunken ex-spy. So while it being derivative, it is still a solid foundation for a spy story, however, Gardner then implements his first layer of plot convolution, and that is to make James Bond a high-level computer programmer. Yeah, yeah!

And this is believed. Bond is introduced to computer mastermind named Jay Autem-Holly, who offers him a position. Now this may be a minor spoiler, but we are talking about a book that has been published for over twenty-five years, so forgive me, but Autem-Holly has been hired by SPECTRE to use his computer skills to implement their latest scheme. And furthermore, SPECTRE is aware that Autem-Holly has employed Bond, and yet they do not object. Surely SPECTRE would have a file on Bond, as he is responsible for the death of the last two leaders of the SPECTRE organisation, and be fully aware that Bond is not a computer programmer.

Okay, the thing is SPECTRE know who Bond is, and need him for another purpose, but that is really a moot point, because even if Bond had left the service under a cloud, he would not willingly work for the organisation that killed his wife. The fact that he does willing work for SPECTRE should have alerted Holly and SPECTRE’s hierachy that he had not in fact left the service, but it was a ruse to discover their plan. It’s a contrived double edged sword. Damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t. But that is just clumsy plotting.

In the book there is also a strange passage in the middle where Bond is spirited off to a SPECTRE training camp, called Erehwon, which I am sure you realise is ‘nowhere’ backwards. Actually, I like to think that this training camp is on SPECTRE Island which featured in the film From Russia With Love. I have often thought about SPECTRE Island and wondered if it was ever closed down. In the films, it’s a plot point that is never resolved, and as such I believe it is still operating to this day, training terrorists and other nefarious villains. But I digress. Now, at Erehwon, Bond is put through a training routine, and suddenly the story gets rather violent. What I mean is, more violent than the usual Bond adventure – and in particular the three preceding Bond novels written by John Gardner.

This is just a theory, with no basis beyond the fact that I have been reading a few Mack Bolan novels from the mid 1980s recently – that I believe there was a deliberate attempt to toughen up the Bond stories to compete with the burgeoning popularity of the Bolan stories. Remember, Mack Bolan and The Executioner series were rebooted in 1981, which also happens to be the same year that Gardner’s Licence Renewed hit the book stands. By the mid 1980’s, Mack Bolan had grown to the point where spin off series such as Phoenix Force and Able Team were being launched. Maybe the Bond publishers, or possibly even Gardner himself, saw Bolan and his expanding action adventure universe as a threat, and as such decided to up the ante, by bringing a harder visceral style to the action passages in the Bond stories. I must admit, I’ll be curious to read the action passages in the next Bond novel Nobody Lives Forever and see how they stack up. Maybe this burst of violence was just a brief blip on the radar, or maybe it was the beginning of a conscious move to toughen up Bond.

Role of Honour is definitely not the Bond book to chose to read as an introduction to the work of John Gardner. Admittedly, half way through, the story starts to pull itself together (with many of the plot elements from the first half jettisoned), but most readers wont have the patience to get that far into the story. And even then, a decent second half does not compensate for a poorly plotted and patchily written beginning. This was quite a disappointment. As I have mentioned in previous posts, I have fond memories of Gardner’s Bond continuation novels, enjoying almost all of them when i read them as a teenager. The one I didn’t like was Win, Lose or Die – It’ll be curious to see how it stacks up today?

Gary Dobbs at the excellent The Tainted Archive, in his review of Role of Honour has some quotes from John Gardner, where he suggests that it was his weakest book (to that point), and much of this had to do with rewrites to avoid similar scenes in the film Never Say Never Again. Also, it is suggested that Gardner was burnt out after the first three novels, and was scheduled to take a break, but book sales were strong, and Gardner never got his break. Reading the story, this almost makes sense, the book reads very tired at the start, and as I alluded to earlier, many of the hi-tech computer plot points are jettisoned in the second half of the story.

Here’s hoping that Nobody Lives Forever sees a return to form for Gardner.

Role of Honour