Desmond Bagley (29 October 1923 – 12 April 1983) was an English journalist and novelist principally known for a series of bestselling thrillers. Along with fellow British writers such as Hammond Innes and Alistair MacLean, Bagley set the basic conventions for the genre: a tough, resourceful, but essentially ordinary hero pitted against villains determined to sow destruction and chaos to advance their agenda.
Bagley was born in Kendal, Cumbria (then Westmorland), England, the son of John and Hannah Bagley. His family moved to the resort town of Blackpool in the summer of 1935, when Bagley was twelve. Leaving school not long after the relocation, Bagley worked as a printer's assistant and factory worker, and during the Second World War in the aircraft industry. Bagley suffered from a speech impediment (stuttering) all of his life, which initially exempted him from military conscription.
Bagley left England in 1947 for Africa and worked his way overland, crossing the Sahara Desert and briefly settling in Kampala, Uganda, where he contracted malaria. By 1951, he had settled in South Africa, working in the gold mining and asbestos industries in Durban, Natal, before becoming a freelance writer for local newspapers and magazines. Also during this period, he met local bookstore director Joan Margaret Brown, whom he married in 1960.
In an afterword to his novel Windfall, Bagley describes how as a freelancer for the Johannesburg "Sunday Times" he witnessed the 1960 assassination attempt against South African PM Hendrik Verwoerd.
When not travelling to research the exotic backgrounds for his novels, Bagley enjoyed sailing, loved classical music, films and military history, and played war games.
Bagley and his wife left South Africa for England in 1964, where they lived in Bishopsteignton, Devon. They were settled in Totnes, Devon, from 1966 to 1976, and then lived in Guernsey in the Channel Islands from 1976 to 1983. After his death in 1983, Joan continued living there until her death in 1999.
Bagley's first published short story appeared in the English magazine Argosy in 1957, and his first novel, The Golden Keel in 1963. In the interval, he was a film critic for The Rand Daily Mail in Johannesburg from 1958 to 1962.
The success of The Golden Keel led Bagley to turn full-time to novel writing by the mid-1960s. He published a total of 16 thrillers, all craftsman-like and almost all best-sellers. Typically of British thriller writers of the era, he rarely used recurring characters whose adventures unfolded over multiple books. Exceptions include Max Stafford (a security consultant featured in Flyaway and Windfall), Slade (a spy who appeared in Running Blind and The Freedom Trap), and Metcalfe (the smuggler/mercenary in The Golden Keel and The Spoilers). His work yielded five relatively unremarkable film adaptations: The Freedom Trap (1971), released in 1973 as The Mackintosh Man by Warner Brothers, directed by John Huston and starring Paul Newman and Dominique Sanda; Running Blind, adapted for television by the BBC in 1979; Landslide, made for television in 1992; The Vivero Letter, filmed in 1998; and The Enemy, starring Roger Moore in 2001.
In several novels Bagley used the first-person narrative. One reviewer wrote, "As long as meticulous craftsmanship and honest entertainment are valued, and as long as action, authenticity, and expertise still make up the strong framework of the good adventure/thriller, Desmond Bagley's books will surely be read."
Bagley also published short stories. His last two novels, Night of Error and Juggernaut, were published posthumously after completion by his wife. His works have been translated into over 20 languages.
In 2017, an unpublished first-draft manuscript entitled Because Salton Died was discovered among his papers at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center in Boston, Massachusetts. A complete final draft was subsequently prepared by writer Michael Davies, retitled Domino Island, and was published by HarperCollins on 9 May 2019.