The period from the 1950s to the 1970s was a golden age of British thriller writing. There was of course Ian Fleming but most of the British thriller writers of this era followed a rather different formula from that of the Bond novels, with heroes who were rather unglamorous and rather ordinary although usually tough professionals. The best-known and most successful of these writers was Alistair MacLean. Other notable writers of this school were Gavin Lyall and Desmond Bagley. It is Bagley with whom we are concerned here, and more specifically his seventh novel, Running Blind, published in 1970.
Running Blind opens with the hero Alan Stewart on a lonely road in Iceland with a rather embarrassing corpse. The corpse is embarrassing because Stewart was the one responsible for killing him. It started as a routine job. Stewart was acting as a courier. All he had to do was to deliver a parcel to a man in Iceland. A routine job for an agent of MI6, except that Stewart is no longer an MI6 agent. He has been persuaded to come out of retirement so to speak to do this one job. Persuaded is perhaps the wrong word. Coerced would be more accurate. And Stewart is not precisely retired - he left MI6 under something of a cloud after a difference of opinion with his superior, Slade. It is Slade who has forced him into doing the courier job. Stewart already hated Slade and now he hates him even more.
Stewart is not happy at all. His instincts tell him that everything about this job is wrong. It doesn’t add up. It started to go awry right from the start. It seems like it’s not getting any better. He has three major concerns. He fears that his Icelandic girlfriend Elin might get caught up in whatever it is that is going on. He fears that Slade has set him up. And he fears that Kennikin may be in Iceland. Kennikin is a Soviet spy with whom he has crossed swords in the past and Kennikin has a number of very good reasons for wanting to kill Alan Stewart. Kennikin would of course kill him if he were ordered to do so, but he might well kill him even without such orders.
Stewart has some vague suspicions as to what might be going on and these suspicions do not make him feel better. Not one little bit better.
It soon becomes apparent that quite a number of people are after Alan Stewart and none of them wish him well. He has no idea what is in the package he was supposed to deliver or whether there is anything in it at all. The package is a classic example of what Alfred Hitchcock called a McGuffin - it doesn’t really matter what it is, all that matters is that everyone wants it and they’re prepared to kill to get it. Although Stewart starts to suspect that there’s much more to this than the package and meanwhile he’s being chased all over Iceland and he has to stay alive long enough to discover the answers to a whole series of questions.
As I said in the beginning this is a novel very much in the Alistair MacLean mould although personally I don’t think Bagley can quite match MacLean’s skills in devious plotting and misdirection. He reveals just a little too much information too early on and the plot twists are not always quite clever enough.
On the other hand there’s certainly plenty of action and the pacing can’t be faulted.
Bagley makes extremely skillful use of the Icelandic setting - not just Iceland’s peculiar and even bizarre geographical features but also the oddities of Iceland’s culture and somewhat uneasy political situation during the Cold War. He can’t equal MacLean’s superb gift for atmosphere - MacLean would have made us feel the cold in our very bones - but he does a decent enough job of making us feel that we are a strange and potentially hostile landscape.
Alan Stewart is an interesting hero, an obsessive man who does not realise just how obsessive he is and never seriously considers the possibility that he may be entirely wrong. He’s not an unsympathetic hero but he is at times disturbingly ruthless while at the same time he is always convinced that he is justified in his actions. Given that espionage is a very dangerous game his attitude is perhaps not entirely unreasonable.
Bagley also takes some delight in exploding some of the myths propagated by action movies. In this novel there is no point in taking cover inside a house or behind a car when faced with a man armed with a high-powered rifle since the bullets from such a gun go straight through walls and car doors.
On the whole this is a very competent spy thriller. I’d rate it as being not quite in the same class as Gavin Lyall’s The Most Dangerous Game or the best of Alistair Maclean but it still offers fine entertainment.