Thursday 16 May 2019

Review: Desmond Bagley's 'missing' novel, Domino Island

Twenty-first century cover, seventies story
[Note - this review will be spoiler free, as the book has only just been released (16 May)]

An almost complete, undiscovered thriller novel by an acknowledge "master of the genre", hidden away for decades and discovered by chance.

How often does that happen in the literary world. Rarely, I imagine. But it's the case with Domino Island - newly published by Harper Collins - and for fans of Desmond Bagley, it's largely speaking been worth the wait.

First, a bit about the provenance of the book. It's discovery is down to Bagley know-it-all (literally) Phil Eastwood - operator of the Bagley Brief, now the pre-eminent source for all things Bagley online. Researching his new biography of Bagley, he discovered the manuscript among a pile of Bagley's papers in Massachussets.

Writer Michael Davies acts as 'curator' for this novel, which I'm guessing means that he filled in any minor gaps, edited it, and polished the text - this was, after all, not a final text of a novel, but one which contained hand-written annotations by the author and his editor.

So, about the novel. Bagley was one of the seventies' great thriller writers and this is very much in the 'classic' thriller mould. All the parts are there: exotic location; money and glamour; jets; casinos; transatlantic travel; bent cops and straight cops; a kidnapping; plots; intrigue and murder.

The protagonist is an ex-army insurance investigator, Bill Kemp. Now, this insurance investigator (not, however, a claims adjuster, that would have been really dull) is sent to a Caribbean island Campanilla (which I think is fictional), a former British colony only recently independent, to settle a life insurance claim for the mysteriously deceased David Salton, whose body is discovered in a yacht, floating out at sea.

Now if that's not a classic opening mis-en-scene for a thriller novel, then I don't know what is. The pacing of the narrative - in the first person of Kemp - is reasonably fast-paced, but in actual fact there's not a great deal of 'thrills' in this novel. Rather, it's about nuance, exposition and the tensions and problems created by secrets, jealousies, rivalries and ... that old favourite ... money!

The dialogue is on the whole pretty snappy throughout (Bagley, like Deighton, seems to have spent a lot of time crafting believable dialogue, even where it's used for scene shifting or exposition) and as a reader, nothing in what any of the characters say really jars or snags, even though this novel is, what, forty plus years old.

Indeed, for a twenty-first century thriller, what's rather refreshing is how even though the context is dated, the story is not, and it makes for a rather interesting juxtaposition with modern, post-MeToo, thriller environment.

So, for instance, everyone smokes. There's a casual and understated but very seventies attitude towards women (of which there are few in the novel - the deceased's wife, Jill, and his secret lover, Leotta); both these characters are reasonably well drawn and give as good as they get.

There is no internet, no mobile phones. So, when Kemp is speaking with the local police chief or arranging to visit Mrs Salton on her lagoon home, all the calls are made on landlines (remember those, kids?) and information is spread by rumour and quiet chats in casinos and clubs, rather than snapchat. And for that, it's rather refreshing, because Bagley has to rely on character, dialogue and plotting to move the story along, without relying on technology to whip-pan the story along.

It's also refreshingly British. There are still the undertones of Empire in between the lines of the text and a distinct hierarch on the island - Brits; Americans; Italians; Natives - that probably means at some point soon, Bagley will be denounced as a 'dead white male author' and banished for good by the Twitterati.

True, it does come across as a result as being a little in a time warp, but this isn't too problematic because the sparkiness of the writing and the intricacies of the plot (there are lots of characters) give the reader plenty to mull over.

It ends, like all good thrillers should, with shooting and a big explosion! It's a relatively light read (300 pages). It wasn't sufficiently thrilling to make this a one or two-session page turner - it dragged a bit in parts, perhaps reflecting that Bagley's editor still had some work to do - but nevertheless it was an easy and generally enjoyable read which should very much please existing Bagley fans.

Bagley was not only a contemporary of Len Deighton, but also a friend (it was on Bagley's recommendation that Deighton purchased his house in Guernsey) and he knew 'Simon' - as Bagley preferred to be called - very well. He commented, when I recently asked him about Bagley:
"Yes the Bagleys [Desmond and wife Joan] were both generous and delightful friends. They both loved Guernsey and were ambassadors for its delights. He was a very conscientious researcher and would go to the ends of the eearth to make sure his settings and plots were authentic in every way. After they both died, some enterprising real estate man named the refurbished premises Bagley Hall and put up a sign to that effect. Desmond would have laughed to see it for he was a very unpretentious man."

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