About Bagley



Desmond Bagley

The English author Desmond Bagley, known to his friends as Simon, was born on 29th October 1923 in Kendal, Cumbria, and died on 12th April 1983 in a Southampton hospital at the age of 59. At the time of his death he was reputed to be one of the highest paid writers of fiction novels in the world. Remarkable considering he lacked in formal education, left school at the age of fourteen having failed to pass any exams, suffered a life-long speech impediment and was nearly forty years old when his first novel, The Golden Keel, was published.

In his obituary, which appeared in The Times on 14th April 1983, he was described as a ‘craftsmanlike thriller novelist’. Bagley was skilled in the art of thriller writing; he travelled extensively and displayed a detailed knowledge of the geographical locations used for the settings in his novels combined with a thorough knowledge of cultural traditions, natural phenomena and technological details. [1]

Bagley moved to Blackpool in 1936 and a short while later started his working life as an apprentice in a printing establishment, a position sometimes referred to as a ‘printers devil’. Unhappy with working in the printing industry he took a job working in a factory producing plastic electrical fittings. At the outbreak, and for the duration of,  World War II he worked as an engineer in the aircraft industry where he helped to manufacture Spitfire components. Following the war Bagley decided to leave England and travelled overland to South Africa stopping in various locations en route for several months at a time. He arrived in Durban, South Africa in 1951 after crossing the Sahara, contracting malaria in Kampala and traversing Kenya.

Bagley undertook a number of jobs, mainly clerical, which included employment in a gold mine in the Orange Free State and an asbestos mine in Rhodesia. He also worked as a nightclub photographer before he decided to earn a living from writing. In 1951 he worked for the South African Broadcasting Corporation writing scripts for radio programmes on scientific subjects before starting a career as a freelance journalist, writing mainly on technical and scientific matters. He was Editor of the in-house magazine for Masonite in 1953 and between 1958 and 1962 he served as film critic for both the Rand Daily Mail and the Johannesburg Film Society also writing book, theatre, concert and record reviews. In addition to contributing to the Rand Daily Mail he also wrote features for other Johannesburg newspapers including the Star and the Sunday Times.

In Johannesburg he met his wife Joan Magaret Brown, the manageress of a bookstore, marrying her on 2nd September 1960. In 1963, after writing commercial film scenarios for Filmlets, a Johannesburg subsidiary of 20th Century Fox, he wrote and published his first novel, The Golden Keel. Joan was very much involved in Bagley’s work, travelling with him and helping with his research as well as critiquing his work. Following a brief residence in Italy during 1964 the couple moved back to England, initially living in Bishopsteignton, Devon before settling further south in Totnes, remaining there for a decade. By 1976, the couple had relocated to a home in St. Andrew, Guernsey in the Channel Islands.

Outside of his writing Bagley’s interests included recreational computers, mathematics, music, photography, science fiction, military history and war gaming.

Following his death Joan Bagley re-edited, together with Collins, and oversaw the posthumous publication of Night of Error (Collins, 1984) also finishing the incomplete manuscript ‘The Road’, published as Juggernaut (Collins, 1985).

The first draft of Night of Error had been completed by Bagley in 1963, the manuscript needed revision and a second draft was completed in 1966. Both the publishers and Bagley were not fully happy with the result and it was put aside for revision at a later date. That revision never happened until Joan finally got to grips with the novel in August of 1983, which was only four months after her husband’s death.

Juggernaut, which had a working title of ‘The Road’, had been started by Bagley back in 1970, after Running Blind. The story ground to a halt just twenty pages, a chapter, from the end. Bagley could find ‘no exit-line’ for the novel and felt that the best thing would be to put the manuscript away and revisit it in a year or two. Other projects took precedence and Bagley never finished it. It was again Joan, in 1984, who got to grips with the novel after her husband’s death and  after re-reading the unfinished work with Bagley’s editor, they both felt that it was an exciting story needing only a minimum of revision which would lead up to a new ending. Joan finished the novel, which was published by Collins in 1985. Joan Bagley had been an integral part of her husband’s work from the very first novel until the last, and preserved her husband’s legacy until her own death in 1999.

The image of Bagley shown on this page is from the Desmond Bagley collection at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University USA. Credited only with the copyright name of Bengt-Ove Tideman and no other details, information [2,3] confirms it was taken in Strängnäs, Sweden in May 1972 when Bagley visited a close personal friend; Iwan Hedman aka Iwan Morelius. Morelius (1931- 2012), a Captain in the Swedish Army, founded the Swedish crime fiction publication DAST-magazine in 1967 and had started to correspond with Bagley in 1969. Bagley visited Morelius in Strängnäs on a number of occasions firstly in May and June of 1972, where he conducted a book signing at the local bookshop and also visited a publishing house in Stockholm. Bagley visited again in February of 1975 spending this latter visit conducting research for his novel The Enemy, in which Morelius was to feature as a character. The pistol Bagley is shown holding is Morelius’s own weapon, a Husqvarna M/40 9x19mm parabellum pistol, a copy of the Finnish Lahti L-35 designed by Aimo Lahti. Morelius smuggled Bagley onto the P10 (Södermanlands Regiment) military training ground, which also featured in the novel The Enemy [4,5]. The Husqvarna M/40 pistol itself had been mentioned in one of Bagley’s earlier novels The Tightrope Men.

Bagley wasn’t the only visitor to be shown this courtesy, previously in August 1970 Morelius had taken Geofrrey Boothroyd, the British firearms expert and advisor to Ian Fleming to the P10 training ground where Boothroyd fired the Husqvarna M/40 and a Kulsprutepistol M/45 also belonging to Morelius. Boothroyd was featured in the sixth James Bond novel Dr No as the service armourer ‘Major Boothroyd’. [5]

A similar image of Bagley also holding a submachine gun, most likely the same one as Boothroyd fired is also archived in the Desmond Bagley Collection in Boston [6]. There is further information available [7,8] which confirms that this image of Bagley holding the pistol was indeed taken in May 1972 at the dining room table in Morelius’ home in Strängnäs, Sweden by a photographer who worked for a local newspaper.

Read an article about Bagley’s thoughts on writing action fiction


Image © Bengt-Ove Tideman – From the Desmond Bagley Collection, Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

1. The Times (1983). ‘Obituary Mr Desmond Bagley’ (14th April 1983 p. 16).

2. Duns, J. (2015). pers. comm 4th Jan, 2015.

3. Alefounder, N. (2015). pers. comm 4th Jan, 2015.

4. Ansvarig (2012). DAST Magazine ‘Strängnäs på deckarkartan’ [online]. URL [Accessed Dec. 21st 2014]

5. Ansvarig (2012). DAST Magazine ‘Det började med Bond – en osannolik historia’ [online]. URL [Accessed Dec. 21st 2014]

6. Johnson, J.C., Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Boston, U.S.A. (2014) pers. comm 19th Dec, 2014.

7. Ripley, M. (No date). SHOTS Crime and Thriller ezine ‘Fondly Remembered’ [online]. URL [Accessed Dec. 21st 2014]

8. Alefounder, N. (2016). pers. comm 27th Nov, 2016.