Thursday, November 17, 2016

Desmond Bagley’s The Vivero Letter

The Vivero Letter was the fifth of Desmond Bagley’s thrillers. It was published in 1968. This is only the second Bagley thriller I’ve read but I’m already noticing certain characteristic touches, some negative but mostly positive ones.

This is one of those thrillers in which a very ordinary man finds himself caught up very unwillingly in very extraordinary events.

Jemmy Wheale has heard himself labeled as a grey little man and he’s inclined to agree  with the description. He’s an accountant in his early thirties but in many ways he’s already setting into comfortable middle age. Jemmy Wheale is not a man who has adventures.

Everything changes when his brother is murdered. His brother had been running Hay Tree Farm in Devon, a property that has been in the Wheale family for centuries. It appears that he was murdered for the sake of an old brass serving tray. The tray is a family heirloom but apart from its sentimental value it is worth very little. Or so it had always been assumed. It now appears that the tray may be worth a great deal of money but more importantly it is the key to a mystery that could be worth millions.

The 16th century Spanish tray has connections to the Spanish Armada and to a lost Mayan city. It will lead Wheale to Mexico but others will be led there as well. Among those led to Mexico are three Americans - a millionaire archaeologist, an embittered younger colleague and a big-time gangster. A battered parchment that speaks of a golden sign provides a clue, but a very cryptic one.

Jemmy Wheale now has an adventure on his hands and he discovers that adventures can be very dangerous undertakings, especially for grey little men. But grey little men can be surprisingly tenacious when they need to be.

Bagley manages to make his hero convincingly ordinary but without being dull, and as a hero he performs better than one might have expected. Bagley also provides a suitably menacing main villain.

Bagley is a thriller writer very much in the Alistair MacLean mould although he is not quite as good as MacLean at his best. MacLean’s plotting is more devious and provides more unexpected twists. Bagley’s plotting is fairly straightforward and the surprise plot twists are not always quite as surprising as they should be. Bagley does however have a fine appreciation of the importance of pacing and he has a gift for impressive action set-pieces. 

Another major resemblance between the work of MacLean and Bagley is in the settings. In Running Blind Bagley made superb use of Iceland as a setting. In The Vivero Letter he chooses a setting that is just as harsh and unforgiving - the jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico - and he shows just as much skill in getting the most out of the setting. As with MacLean’s best novels you get a sense that the hero’s biggest struggle is with the hostile landscape itself.

Bagley believed in thoroughly researching his novels and as you might expect he gives the reader a lot of infodumps. This can be a dangerous practice - it can slow down the storytelling and it can become tedious. One of the most impressive things about Bagley’s writing is his ability to deliver the necessary infodumps quickly and economically without interrupting the flow of the story. And the infodumps are genuinely interesting - in The Vivero Letter we learn about medieval Chinese progress in the science of optics, scuba diving, fencing, scientific farming, the history of the Mayan civilisation and about cenotes (sinkholes formed in limestone caps common in the Yucatan Peninsula). 

If there is one thing that distinguishes the action sequences in a Desmond Bagley novel from the work of most other thriller writers it is his brutally realistic treatment of gunfights. In a Bagley novel you don’t take shelter in a wooden building during a firefight because a wooden structure offers zero protection from gunfire. You either find hard cover or you die.

The Vivero Letter offers high-octane excitement, plenty of atmosphere and a memorable setting. Recommended.


  1. Another excellent run-through of this novel. I'm happy to see reviews of these adventure thrillers.

    I hope you will get to some of those works that I haven't read, so as to get recommendations for the future. :)

    1. Christian, I'm having great fun at the moment with these postwar British thrillers. And I have several more in my To Be Read pile.

      I'm still amazed that the great thriller writers of that era get so little attention nowadays.

  2. A great review, and definitely encouragement for me to try Bagley. I have Running Blind so I will start there.