Running Blind by Desmond Bagley

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Review by Annabel

I’m delighted that the vogue for republishing the best thrillers from the 1960s onwards as exemplified by the books of Lionel Davidson (see here and here!) has turned to another star from the past – Desmond Bagley.

In our household, I grew up on a diet of action thriller writers in the 1970s. Alastair Maclean and Hammond Innes first, then joined by Desmond Bagley – we devoured them all.

Bagley wrote 16 novels between the 1960s and early 1980s, he died in 1983. Now, Harper Collins are bringing Bagley’s books back into print. Half a dozen are already available with another bunch coming in July and August.

Running Blind was first published in 1970 and it has aged well. It begins with a murder – committed in self-defence I should add:

To be encumbered with a corpse is to be in a difficult position, especially when the corpse is without benefit of death certificate. True, any doctor, even one just hatched from medical school, would have been able to diagnose the cause of death. The man had died of heart failure or what the medical boys pompously call cardiac arrest.

Alan Stewart has collected a package at Keflavik airport in Iceland from a man called Slade. He is to take it to Akureyri. Slade tells him to take the long route to Reykjavik. Stewart obeys his instructions and meeting a stranger with a broken-down car, stops to help. This is a bad move of course, and Stewart is forced to skewer him with his sgian dubh, the short, slim Scottish ceremonial blade he always carries.

Right from the start, Stewart wonders whether he was set up. By Slade? Surely not. Someone appears to want that package. Could it be the Russians?  Is Stewart’s nemesis, the Russian Kennikin back in the game too?  What is in that package?

Alan Stewart is an ex-spook; ex because he allowed another British agent to die in an operation some years ago. But the service still has a hold on him, given that he has been coming to Iceland for years on fishing trips, he is a natural choice to be coerced into performing this little mission.

After disposing of the corpse, Stewart goes to his apartment to plan his next move. There, he is also reunited with his Icelandic Girl Friday, Elin. Things start to go wrong as soon as he sets foot outside again – a good thing the quartet who jump him don’t get the real package which is taped under Elin and Stewart’s Landrover.

But, it means that Stewart and Elin – being a spirited outdoorsy Icelander she’s not going to stay behind – are running for their lives in a game of bluff, double-bluff and triple bluff. It appears they can’t trust anyone, and the body count is mounting. They go off into the wild volcanic countryside:

God has not yet finished making Iceland.

That’s a great quote, isn’t it? Bagley is particularly good at describing the bleak and rocky landscape of the almost treeless Icelandic wilderness, bringing some nice touches from the Icelandic sagas and legends into the text too.

Elin and Stewart are at home in this setting which gives them an advantage over their pursuers – who appear to include Brits and Americans as well as Kennikin’s Russian mob. The layers of subterfuge and intrigue are labyrinthine, but it’s the chase and the action that make this novel so enjoyable. Iceland itself has perhaps the starring role though and Bagley visited for research in 1969, and the 1979 BBC Scotland mini-series was also filmed on location.

I’d forgotten everything about this novel apart from it being set in Iceland. Since a lot of the action takes place in wild places, it’s scarcely dated – today, satellite phones would replace the radio set, but otherwise little else would have changed. I was glad that Bagley let Elin stay with Stewart – she more than proves the equal of action-hero Stewart on many occasions.

Once again, I found Running Blind to be a complete page-turner and I’m looking forward to re-reading some more of Bagley’s exciting thrillers.

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Annabel is one of the Shiny Editors and grew up on great thrillers.

Desmond Bagley, Running Wild (Collins, 2017) paperback, 272 pages.

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