Literary reviews

In 1970 Eric Major, from Collins publicity department, sent a review copy of Running Blind to the broadcaster, journalist and writer Magnús Magnússon, who at that time was working for BBC Scotland. On 4th September 1970 Magnús wrote to Eric Major praising Bagley’s novel indicating that he was reviewing the novel for the October issue of Scotland magazine. Eric Major wrote a letter to Bagley on 10th September enclosing a copy of Magnús Magnússon’s letter. The letters, from the archives of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, are shown below:

BBC and Collins Publishers memos © & Courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.

Magnús Magnússon KBE (Hon) – Magnús on the Bookshelf

Magnús, although born in Iceland lived nearly all of his life in Scotland, growing up in Edinburgh, where his father served as Iceland’s consul-general in Scotland. Born in Reykjavík in 1929 Magnús should, under the Icelandic patronymic naming convention, have been named Magnús Sigursteinsson as his father’s name was Sigursteinn Magnússon, however his family adopted British naming conventions using instead the surname of his father.

Magnús Magnússon © Magnús Hjörleifsson /

Magnús, was educated at Edinburgh Academy and Jesus College, Oxford, before joining the Scottish Daily Express as a reporter. He rose to become the paper’s assistant editor and in 1961 moved on to become an assistant editor of The Scotsman where, assisted by Gus MacDonald and David Kemp, he investigated political and social issues. In 1964 he joined the BBC as a presenter on the Tonight programme before moving on in 1972 to host the long-running quiz show Mastermind for 25 years. Known for his Mastermind catchphrase “I’ve started so I’ll finish”, Magnús fronted many other programmes, mainly associated with his interest in history, archaeology and the environment. He was awarded a knighthood in 1989, which had to remain an honorary title as he had retained his Icelandic nationality. Magnús served as chancellor of Glasgow Caledonian University from 2002 until his death in January 2007. [1,2]

The review Magnús was referring to in the letter addressed to Eric Major, featured in a column titled ‘Magnus on the Bookshelf’ in the October 1970 issue of Scotland, a business magazine published by the Scottish Council for Development and Industry. In this review Magnús admits that he had not been a reader of thrillers ‘since the heady days of one’s youth’ [3], and was ‘tempted to emerge from this self-imposed abstention’ by Running Blind as it was set in Iceland.

Now, Iceland is not the sort of place that springs most readily to mind when you contemplate spies who come in from the cold and various other aspects of counter-espionage and general skullduggery. Iceland just isn’t like that; It hasn’t got an army, navy, or an air-force, it is studiously neutral apart from being an honorary member of NATO, and it’s much too civilised to bother with nonsense like MI5 and Secret Services. So why pick on Iceland for a setting for a spy-story? [3]

Bagley and his novels had previously been unknown to Magnús and he assumed that Bagley must have used Iceland as the setting for his novel as he ‘must have known the country and rather liked it’. He praised Bagley as having written a ‘rattling good yarn’ using the dramatic and peculiar landscape of Iceland to immense effect.

What I am impressed by, I’ll confess, is the remarkable fidelity with which he conjures up a picture of Iceland. Normally – I’m sure you all feel this yourselves – you’re appalled when a popular writer (or popular television programme, for that matter) tackles a subject you fancy you know something about; it’s all wrong, usually, isn’t it? Well, here’s one who’s really done his background research, and uses it with discretion and conviction; the way I’ve always thought Hammond Innes does. [3]

Magnús was a prolific writer, covering a large range of subjects including Scotland: The Story of a Nation; Fakers, Forgers and Phoneys: Famous Scams and Scamps; Lindisfarne; Iceland Saga; The Vikings; Treasures of Scotland; The Nature of Scotland; Keeping Your Words: An Anthology of Quotations; I’ve Started So I’ll Finish, the story of Mastermind; and The Family Quiz Book. One of his more quirky books was The Clacken of the Edinburgh Academy, a history of his old school on whose board of directors he also served. He also co-authored numerous biographies and books on Scottish and Icelandic history [4]. All in all an impressive review from a man who broke down the barriers of academia and entertainment with an enigmatic smile.

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Images of correspondence © & Courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.

Image of Magnús Magnússon © Magnús Hjörleifsson /

1. BBC News (2007). Obituary: Magnus Magnusson – 7th January 2007 [online]. URL [Accessed Aug. 20th 2015]

2. Scottish Review (2015). Magnus Magnusson (1929 – 2007) [online]. URL [Accessed Aug. 20th 2015]

3. Magnusson, M. (1970). Magnus Magnusson – Magnus on the Bookshelf – Scotland Magazine – Scottish Council for Development and Industry – October 1970 p.81

4. The Scotsman (2007). ‘Magnus Magnusson KBE (Hon) Broadcaster and historian’ [online]. URL [Accessed Aug. 20th 2015].