An intriguing mystery solved: Desmond Bagley and K. Allen Saddler – author and playwright.

From the archives of Harper Collins came an intriguing find recently; a letter written by Bagley to his publisher Robert Knittel. The letter, written whilst resident at his home Hay Hill in Totnes, Devon, is dated 23rd March 1970 and concerned issues relating to the publication of his novel Running Blind. Within the letter were these two interesting paragraphs:

It is rarely and with reluctance that I seek to push any other novelist’s wares – not out of a feeling that it would increase the competition but because I don’t come across worthwhile stuff very often. But I’ve come across a man – who is now a friend – who is writing good stuff. He has three published books behind him – two with Elek and one with Michael Joseph – but he is looking for a more reliable publisher who can, maybe, see his potential.

At the moment he is Crime Club material but I think he has the stuff in him to go on the general list and, if developed, you could have another Lionel Davidson on your hands. I have asked him to send me a draft copy of his latest book and if I think it good enough I will pass it on to Collins for consideration. I told him that, in all fairness, I could not recommend a book I had not read, but his last one was a crackerjack which, unfortunately, did not get the promotional treatment it deserved. Of course, that is purely my own opinion. [1]

The identity of the author “writing good stuff” that Bagley recommended was not mentioned in the correspondence and was hitherto unknown. It was Lecia Foston, Joan Bagley’s sister, who was able to solve the mystery following an enquiry made by Nigel Alefounder, who runs the main Desmond Bagley website.

The author concerned was in fact Ronald Charles William Richards, born in London on 15th April 1923, who wrote under the pseudonym of K. Allen Saddler and later just Allen Saddler.

Author Allen Saddler pictured at home in Totnes Devon

Leaving school at the age of 14 Saddler educated himself at the public library and by watching plays and variety shows. Following Military Service he worked in the printing industry, but was determined to write. His first three novels are the books that Bagley refers to in his letter: The Great Brain Robbery published in 1965 by Elek Books; Gilt Edge again published by Elek Books in 1966; and Talking Turkey published by Michael Joseph in 1968.

The protagonist of these novels is Dave Stevens, an un-heroic, ill-natured pessimistic Private Investigator based in London who is well practiced in the art of the crushing retort. Written in first-person narrative, with occasional meta-fictional references directly addressing the reader, the novels are wryly humorous and manage to translate the hard-boiled wise-cracking narration of the American private-eye stories successfully into the English idiom. Reading the novels it is easy to see why they appealed to Bagley’s sense of humour and Saddler certainly appears to have a similar view to Bagley on the business of international espionage. By coincidence one of the main characters in The Great Brain Robbery, ‘Slade’, has the same name as the antagonist in Bagley’s novel Running Blind.

The Great Brain Robbery, dedicated to Saddler’s wife Doris, is described by Elek Books as “A fast-moving, hilarious and inventive thriller involving such unlikely combinations as the intricacies of S.T.D., a blonde in a boat, the adventures of a band of prospectors in central Africa, higher mathematics and a final word on how to unfreeze a frozen fish factory” (2) (I should perhaps clarify that in this case S.T.D. refers to telephone Subscriber Trunk Dialling). Reproduced below is the publishers cover copy introducing the novel:

K Allen Saddler - The Great Brain RobberyDave Stevens, Private Investigator, seems to have all the trappings of a big operator – except the bank balance. Forced by his impecunious circumstances to take on yet another routine divorce case involving the usual hotel bedroom, he is shaken to find his visit anticipated – by a murderer.

Used to the soft life, Stevens finds it difficult to summon all his reflexes into a firing position to cope with the change from divorce to espionage. In any case he doesn’t feel at all honoured by his elevation to higher strategy, as he regards the professional espionage business as “exceedingly posthumous”.

Unfortunately, once caught up in a web of international intrigue it is extremely difficult to find the exit. Dave soon finds himself threatened by several professionals, including the C.I.D. As the frightening position closes in Dave’s well-developed sense of self-preservation exerts itself.

He pursues his client, the vague clock-fancying scientist Sir Gil, through the Surrey countryside, the wilds of Hampstead, and finally on the Norfolk Broads to a fish deep-freezing plant. [2]

Dave Stevens returns in Gilt Edge, which is dedicated to Saddler’s son Sam:

K Allen Saddler - Gilt EdgeThe second Dave Stevens adventure finds Stevens grappling with a species of modern monster known as a business tycoon. In most of the fraught moments Stevens is in the unlikely company of Ronald Groom, a music teacher and a man so accident-prone that insurance men experience a traumatic feeling in the safety clause if he passes within a three-mile radius.

It all starts when Stevens is engaged to salvage the honour and reputation of Johnny Prince, a man entirely without honour and a reputation for being proud of the fact. The quite simple exercise is complicated when Stevens is found in possession of forged notes. The complication causes the re-appearance of Detective Inspector Finch, the original flat-footed ferret.

In the course of his investigation Stevens is diverted – in every sense – by Rosa Scarlett, a slightly faded film star who is determined to keep her overblown torso between the detective and any clues to the solution of his problems. But Stevens, as dogged as ever, finally tracks down his quarry, and, in the heartbreaking finale, becomes involved with very hot currency to the tune of a million and a quarter pounds. [3]

Talking Turkey is clearly the novel that, in Bagley’s opinion, was a “crackerjack”. Published this time by Michael Joseph it was to be Dave Stevens’ final adventure:

K Allen Saddler - Talking TurkeyTalking Turkey is Dave Stevens’ third shattering adventure, and he turns his evil eye on foreign parts. He proceeds, unwillingly, from his London base to a wild goose chase around wildest Istanbul, finishing up in a highly inflammatory situation in a small Turkish village.

Stevens is alternately puzzled and highly alarmed by the antics of his companion on the trip. Underhill, the quirky Secret Service man, stretches Stevens’ personal security system to its fullest extent. He is threatened, in several languages (some almost unprintable), by a variety of bizarre characters who are determined to bring him to an unpeaceful end. Fortunately Stevens still lives to back away another day, and will continue to record his nerve-wracking adventures in his own pungent prose.

Nothing is sacred. The beautiful city of Istanbul, the dignified British Secret Service, the aura of the rich tycoon, even the mystery of the underworld, all fall victim to Mr Saddler’s lively pen and sense of situation. The result is superbly funny. [4]

Saddler was a great lover of progressive jazz and his son, Sam Richards, had taken an early interest in jazz and popular music, fed partly by his father’s record collection. Twice in 1967 and 1968 Sam was awarded full bursaries to study composition with the French avant gardist Michel Decoust at the Dartington Summer School of Music in Devon. Sam transferred from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London to Dartington College of Arts in 1968 and his father fell in love with nearby Totnes during visits to his son. [5,6]

In 1970 Saddler moved to Totnes, Devon to concentrate on becoming a full time writer, and by March 1970 he and Bagley had clearly become friends, Bagley unusually writing to his own publisher in an attempt to promote Saddler’s work. It cannot currently be established if Saddler sent Bagley a draft copy of his next novel or, if indeed he did, if Bagley forwarded it to Collins. In fact Saddler’s next novel Betty was published by Sphere Books four years later in 1974.

In the previous year, 1973, Saddler, described as a free-lance journalist and feature writer [7], had become the West Country theatre reviewer and critic for both The Guardian and Plays and Players magazine. The same year saw the first two of his many Radio Plays for the BBC broadcast; The Penstone Commune and Willie Banks and the Technological Revolution, which were followed in 1974 by Who Needs Money? and The Road.

In 1975 Saddler wrote a cover and feature article for The Sunday Times reviewing an exhibition by the Plymouth based artist Beryl Cook OBE. Saddler was the first journalist to bring attention to Beryl Cook, who the following year had her first London exhibition at the Portal Gallery. It was a sell out and the start of an exceptional relationship with the Portal Gallery, where she exhibited continuously for 32 years. [8]

During the 1970’s and 80’s Saddler continued to write both stage and radio plays. His stage play of 1977 All Basic Comforts depicting a group of welfare benefit cheats, was staged by the north Devon Orchard Theatre Company. His radio plays for the BBC during this period included: Willie Banks and the Administrative Machine 1977; Penstone Revisited 1977; Ahead of the Game 1978; Archie’s Watergate 1979; Revolution at the Palace 1979; The Giveaway 1979; The Price Strike 1981; Daddy Good 1982; Old and Blue 1982; Undesirable Alien 1982; Arson in Berlin 1983; The Day War Breaks Out 1984; Working the System 1984; Up against the Wall 1985; Man of the People 1986; I Should Say So (a series of comedy monologues, starring Michael Williams as legendary 1940’s radio star and all-round pessimist Robb Wilton), 1986-88; Spring 1987; and Second Chance 1988.

Saddler also reviewed drama for The Independent, The Stage and many theatre publications. He also wrote features for The Guardian, The Independent, The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Times, The Observer, Time Out, The Big Issue, The Oldie and many others. In 1986 his 1974 novel Betty was to be adapted for television as a £22 million six-part series. The British model, actress and singer Lesley Lawson (more popularly known as ‘Twiggy’) was cast in the title role, though the project was dropped through contractual complications. [9]

As a writer of children’s books Saddler’s works include The King and Queen series, published by Oxford University Press between 1982 -83. Illustrated by Joseph Wright the popular books titled: The Archery Contest; The King Gets Fit; The King and the Invisible Dwarf; The Fishing Competition; The King at Christmas; and The Queen’s Painting. The series was taken up by the BBC children’s television series Play School (9). Other children’s books by Saddler included: The Clockwork Monster, Hodder & Stoughton, 1981; Mr. Whizz, Blackie & Son, 1982; Smudger’s Seaside Spectacular, Blackie & Son, 1986; The Relay Race, Methuen, 1986; Jerry and the Monsters, Methuen, 1986; Smudger’s Saturday Special, Blackie & Son, 1988; and Jerry and the Inventions, Methuen, 1988. [10]

In 1994 Saddler wrote the stage play Better Dead, a political comedy about a Russian emigre, which was produced at the Exeter and Devon Arts Centre by Western Union. [9]

As an octogenarian Saddler published his acclaimed ‘Blitz Trilogy a portrait of London life during the war: Bless ‘Em All 2007; The Long and the Short 2008; and a couple of months before his death And the Tall 2011. The trilogy titles were taken from the World War I song written in 1917 by Fred Godfrey, the pen name of the Welsh songwriter Llewellyn Williams. [11]

On Sunday 7th September 2008 the Totnes festival held a free event ‘An Evening with Allen Saddler’ celebrating the works of the local author, playwright and critic. Saddler died on 2nd December 2011 aged 88yrs, and on 19th August 2012 at The Royal Seven Stars Hotel in Totnes a tribute took place in his honour, with music from The Totnes Jazz Collective, as part of the 2012 Totnes Festival. His son, Sam Richards, still lives in Totnes and continues to compose and perform as a piano improviser and local jazz musician, his website can be found here [5]. Of the origin of his father’s pseudonym Sam recalls:

His pseudonym came about when we were still living in London. I always understood that it was because he didn’t want “everyone” (employers and family) to know he was writing and being published. I remember him, my Mum and myself sitting in our front room in a semi-detached house near Pitshanger Lane, Ealing, with a phone book. Allen Saddler seemed suitably snappy. The initial K was his way of parodying H. Ryder Haggard. [12]

(H. Ryder Haggard, b.22nd June 1856, d.14th May 1925, was an English writer of adventure novels set in exotic locations, predominantly Africa, and was a pioneer of the lost-world literary genre.)

Bagley certainly recognised talent when he recommended Saddler to his own publishers, in an act which, in his own words, was rare. Later in his life, whilst living in Guernsey, in another altruistic action Bagley was to offer guidance to the thriller author John Templeton Smith. [13]

The literary legacy Saddler leaves behind is truly impressive, Saddler’s novels are worth searching out, for his wry humour is a joy to read. To finish in Saddler’s own words:

I am a working writer, willing to tackle anything between masterpieces and matchbox labels.

I am indebted to Dawn Sinclair, archivist from Harper Collins Publishers, for providing me with a copy of Bagley’s letter within which this gem was found. Also to Sam Richards for his personal recollections, to Nigel Alefounder who initiated my enquiry, and of course to Lecia Foston, Joan Bagley’s sister, who kindly identified the author as K. Allen Saddler.


Notes

Allen Saddler at home in Totnes, Devon © Jim Wileman / Alamy
Book covers Images: © Elek Books Ltd. & Michael Joseph Ltd.

1. Bagley, D. (1970). Personal letter to publisher dated 23rd March 1970 © and courtesy HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.

2. Elek Books Ltd (1965). Publishers cover copy for ‘The Great Brain Robbery’ © Elek Books Ltd.

3. Elek Books Ltd (1966). Publishers cover copy for ‘Gilt Edge’ © Elek Books Ltd.

4. Michael Joseph Ltd (1968). Publishers cover copy for ‘Talking Turkey’ © Michael Joseph Ltd.

5. Richards, S. (2016). Sam Richards Improviser, Composer, Writer – Biography [online]. URL [Accessed 11th April 2016]

6. Independent (2012). Obituaries – Lives Remembered: Allen Saddler 12th January 2012 [online]. URL [Accessed 11th April 2016]

7. Sphere Books Ltd (1974). Publishers author biography – ‘Betty’ © Sphere Books Ltd.

8. The Official Beryl Cook Website (2016). About Beryl Cook [online]. URL [Accessed 11th April 2016]

9. The Stage (2012). 25th January 2012 – Allen Saddler [online]. URL [Accessed 11th April 2016]

10. Lenona (2008). Happy 85th, Allen Saddler! Derkeiler Newsgroup 15th April 2008 [online]. URL [Accessed 11th April 2016]

11. Fred Godfrey Songs (2016). ‘Bless ‘Em All’ [online]. URL [Accessed 11th April 2016]

12. Richards, S. (2016). pers. comm 13th April 2016.

13. Alefounder, N. (2016). Desmond Bagley Website – ‘John Templeton Smith’ [online]. URL [Accessed 11th April 2016]