Speaking of Desmond Bagley: An Interview with author Caro Ramsay

Speaking of Desmond Bagley: The Bagley Brief interviews author Caro Ramsay. Images © Caro Ramsay; © Bengt-Ove Tideman.

Today sees the individual re-issue in paperback and eBook format of the third batch of Desmond Bagley’s novels: The Tightrope Men; The Snow Tiger; The Enemy; and Flyawaywith release in unabridged audio book format, narrated by Paul Tyreman, to follow soon.

Speaking of Desmond Bagley: An Interview with author Caro Ramsay. Image © Caro Ramsay.

To celebrate the third batch of re-issues, The Bagley Brief was fortunate to have an opportunity to interview the Scottish author of crime fiction Caro Ramsay, who once commented that the books of Desmond Bagley had made a huge impact on her, taking Caro to places in her head that she thought she would never see.

For nine months Caro was hospitalised following a severe back injury. Bedridden and unable to walk she started writing, a quarter of a million words in fact, which made up the content for her first two books, police procedurals featuring her characters Detective Inspector Colin Anderson and Detective Sergeant Freddie Costello. Caro’s first novel Absolution was published in 2007 and was shortlisted the following year for the Crime Writers’ Association New Blood Dagger award. Her second, Singing to the Dead was long listed for the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year award, 2010. Her next two novels, Dark Water and The Blood of Crows were both published to critical acclaim. The eighth book in the Anderson and Costello series, Standing Still, was published earlier this year and sold out in hardback within a month.

Caro Ramsay Editions Collage © Penguin Books Ltd.

Caro has a diploma in forensic medical science, a course of study undertaken to ensure accuracy of detail in her crime novels, an attention to detail Bagley himself would have admired. She has edited The Killer Cookbook to raise money for the ‘Million for a Morgue’ campaign and the book was shortlisted in the charity, fund raising category of the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards 2012. For her effort Caro has had an embalming tank named after her and in between all that she still works as an osteopath and acupuncturist.

The Bagley Brief: In 2011 you took part in the ‘Forgotten authors’ panel of the International Crime Fiction Convention ‘Crimefest’ and chose both Desmond Bagley and Duncan Kyle as your favourite ‘forgotten’ authors. You mentioned they were natural choices for you because you had grown up with their books, Bagley’s novels in particular having a great impact on you.

How did you first come across Bagley’s novels, were they recommended by anyone or did you discover them yourself and what impact did Bagley’s writing have upon you during your formative years?

Caro Ramsay: I can recall exactly when the first Desmond Bagley novel came into my hands. I was at second year in school and one of my brainy friends was handing a book back to the school library. The librarian was busy so as Caryn put the book down, I picked it up and started reading it. I remember walking home, still reading it. I was 13. The book was Wyatt’s Hurricane. And then we did The Freedom Trap for a reader in third year English. Somebody else had nicked all the copies of Hamlet.

I read all the school had, I read all the town library had then I had to wait for Desmond to write some more.   

Growing up, in a cold corner of Glasgow, Desmond Bagley transported me all over the world and, apart from ‘The Story,’ his work does still resonate with me country by country. As he said, the location was a character in his books.

Desmond Bagley's Wyatt's Hurricane and The Freedom Trap - © HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.

When I met my other half, he said his name was Alan. Alan Stewart.  Enough said really.

TBB: With detailed locational research Bagley’s books have often been described as reading like travelogues, I wonder if any of his books have inspired you to travel to any of the locations in his novels?

CR: Well when we go somewhere, I find myself quoting Bagley. In British Columbia, in Scotland, in Iceland…. I am clocking them up! I blog with writers from round the world on Murder Is Everywhere and we have talked ‘Bagley’ and how well he recreated our homeland in his books. (Yrsa [Sigurðardóttir] from Iceland, Michael Stanely from South Africa etc). 

TBB: If you were to re-read one of Bagley’s novels, which one would you pick up first. Do you have a favourite novel or plot?

CR: I read Flyaway again recently. For the panel mentioned above I read The Enemy. When driving recently on the North Coast 500 (a road right round the top of Scotland) we saw Gruinard lying in the distance, looking a little grey and threatening. And I thought of the words Bagley quoted. ‘We have met the enemy and he is us.’

Desmond Bagley's Flyaway and The Enemy - © HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.

TBB: When considering the plot of a novel Bagley once said:

In discussions with fellow writers the general opinion is that my method would drive them mad. I write no synopsis. If I do my unconscious mind thinks I have written the novel and loses interest. I begin with the first chapter; a group of people in an interesting situation and environment. I have 300 blank sheets of paper to fill. I know roughly how I want the book to end, say north-west. The characters and environment interact (I regard the place as another character in the book) and the plot grows organically like a tree. The book may end in the south-east but it has got there naturally, not constricted by a pre-planned synopsis, which straightjacket could constrain a puppet to act out of character. [1]

I wonder what you think about Bagley’s method of writing and am interested to know how you deal with plot and characterisation in your own novels?

CR: Yes I do that!  It drives my editor mad. But I think they are starting to trust me in that I have no idea what I am doing. If I send them a synopsis, the book I end up with is entirely different anyway, so what’s the point? (My editor isn’t going to read this is she?)

TBB: Has Bagley in any way inspired the way you write or research your own novels?

CR: I think he  just inspired me to write. And the language of his writing is very accessible. It’s not smart, it’s not clever, it’s just very engaging and excels in communication of the story. And I inspire to be like that.

TBB: Bagley dealt with the physical aspect of writing in a structured fashion, working alone in his study:

Half past nine until 11, then I have some tea. Half past 11 until one, then I have lunch. Two until four, then I have some tea. Half past four until six, when I have a drink. [2]

What is a day’s writing like for you?

CR: (Caro snorts with laughter) I wish. I am not one of those writers who has a day job they tolerate until they can make a living from writing. I love my day job. It’s what I went to uni for all those years to do, so I am still there. I treat loads of cops and forensic people and they let me pick their brains. And I see every human story in my room every single day. Last week I was talking to a man whose daughter is in Thailand on her gap year. She had been swimming in a warm lake  and one of their party, a local lad, just disappeared, presumed drowned. The dad I was treating is a member of the emergency services and we started discussing the difference of drowning in cold water and warm water. As I was asking about his daughter and how upset she must be, that little chip of ice in my heart was saying ‘Oh, so he went swimming and disappeared? And they didn’t find the body?’ and thinking that maybe he had reasons to disappear. 

Sometimes I think I need help.

But anyway I am a Martini writer – Any time. Any place. Anywhere. I have been known to balance the laptop on the back of the dog.

TBB: In January 1976 Bagley wrote that during interviews journalists had never asked him why he writes. He answered this himself by saying:

I write to please myself. There is no greater satisfaction than to take a pile of virgin paper and watch a story gradually take shape. My method of writing is idiosyncratic; other writers have commented that it would send them stark mad. [3]

Why do you write Caro?

CR: If I didn’t write I would be a serial killer. Or do I just like telling the tale. I am in the Bagley camp of trying to tell a good story well. I have no interest in changing your life or putting the world to rights. There are enough folk around who think they can do that. I want to entertain on a long boring flight.

TBB: A final thought about Bagley and his stories as 2017 sees the individual re-issue of all of his novels.

CR: You know, getting a wee bit BBC 2 about it all, his novels do chart many things as they span such a time frame. Especially, the advancement of the stronger gender (that’s women by the way). The Golden Keel starts off the story of an old woman who hangs her handbag on the choke of the car as she thinks that’s what the pull button is for. By the time we get to The Enemy, women are educated, professional and give as good as they get. I recall  the narration saying something like; The face of, Helen Of Troy might have launched a thousand ships but nobody was going to take a rowing boat out for Penny Ashton (I paraphrased there!) but then he said that the Jaggard character  finds her very ‘agreeable’ when she narrows her eyes when something is said at the dinner table that she disagreed with. 

Oh, and as an end point, the daughter of Duncan Kyle wrote to me after hearing about that Crimefest Panel and said her dad would have been really chuffed to be remembered. And really, really chuffed to be remembered in such company as Mr Bagley.

My thanks to Caro for taking the time to share some thoughts on Desmond Bagley.

For those readers not yet familiar with the work of Caro Ramsay you can find out more about her at www.penguin.co.uk, her own website www.caroramsay.com or visit Murder Is Everywhere to read her blog posts.


Images: © Caro Ramsay; © Penguin Books Ltd; Desmond Bagley © Bengt-Ove Tideman; & © HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.

1. ‘Unprocessed Idea to Processed Word’ in ‘How I Write my Books’ Whodunit? A guide to Suspense & Spy Fiction edited by Keating, H.R.F.  (London: Windward, 1982 / New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., 1982), pp. 87 – 89.

2. ‘A word with Desmond Bagley’ by Deryck Harvey The Armchair Detective (Minnesota: Allen J. Hubin, 1974), Volume 7, No. 4, August 1974 pp. 258 – 260.

3. ‘Bagley Interviews Bagley’ (From the Desmond Bagley Collection, Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University: January 1976.)