Stratford writer brings to life a lost Bagley thriller novel

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Stratford author Mike Davies at home with his new book Domino Island. Photo: Mark Williamson A28/5/19/1974

HOT on the heels of bringing new life to Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, a multi-talented Stratford writer is back in the limelight for his work on a very different kind of literary adventure.

Earlier this year, Michael Davies’s Tess got its first full production at the RSC’s Other Place – as one half of the creative team behind it, he wrote the lyrics for this sung-through musical.

While work continues to build on that promising debut, one might have expected another staple of the English Literature exam syllabus to be on the radar.

But while it’s never-say-never on that score, he has switched genres to help bring to light a lost novel from one of the big-name authors of the 1960s and 70s.

Walk into somewhere like The Works and you’ll see the thriller novel is thriving with authors galore and plenty of titles from each contender.

But look beyond the current wave and certain names stand out as the masters of the art, among them Desmond Bagley.

In what seems like a pedestrian rate in comparison with today, he only saw 16 of his lovingly-crafted adventure thrillers published in his lifetime, but this month a 17th, Domino Island, hit the shelves, discovered some 45 years after it was written – with huge fan Mr Davies having picked up the role of curator to prepare it for publication.

He told the Herald how his early introduction to the author ultimately led to the honour of working on the new release: “I first started reading Bagley when I was a teenager. I’ve got two older brothers who introduced me to him. I loved it from the opening sentence of Running Blind and read all of his books. He was the top thriller writer of the 60s and 70s, so I lapped them up.

“He died in 1983 so the supply got cut off, but I would go back from time to time and re-read various ones.

“In 1999 I got the idea of doing a biography because nobody had done one and I got in touch with his widow.

“I knew her name was Joan and found a Joan Bagley on the internet with an email address attached so I emailed and said, ‘By any chance you don’t happen to be Desmond’s widow?’ She wrote back this lovely e-mail and said she was – and how nice to find someone who is still interested in his work.”

They then emailed for six months until her death, during which time she shared a great deal that could have gone towards a biography.

But she had also said all the archives of his papers had gone to a memorial library in Boston, Massachusetts, because a far-far-sighted curator over there had contacted him very early in his career in 1965 and asked him if he would donate all his papers to the museum on his death – and he had agreed.

Joan’s sister Lecia got in touch to tell Mr Davies of Joan’s death and they have continued the contact, with Lecia and her husband Peter visiting Stratford on a number of occasions.

In the meantime Mr Davies had got in touch with Mr Bagley’s publisher at HarperCollins, David Brawn, about a biography, but though the books have never been out of print, he didn’t think there would be a market for a biography.

Down but not out, Mr Davies again stayed in touch: “About a year ago, David Brawn came along to a Tess showcase in London and chatted afterwards. He asked, ‘How do you fancy reading an unpublished Desmond Bagley manuscript?’ So of course I said, yes that would be fascinating!”

Mr Brawn had been trying to persuade the trustees of Mr Bagley’s estate to publish something from the archive and Domino Island been discovered in 2017 when a researcher had gone to Boston.

After an initial review, things moved quickly and Mr Davies soon found himself preparing that original first draft for publication.

“There was this typewritten manuscript, on it are his notations and his then publisher’s notations about how he would see it being reworked for the next draft plus correspondence where Bagley was clear he wasn’t happy with the ending. So I had a good roadmap of what I thought he would do with it.”

And now, after an intense period of activity, the first new Desmond Bagley novel in 35 years is out, still set in 1972, but with Mr Davies having reworked certain parts to bring it all together, ready to be enjoyed by his fans and maybe also bringing in a new audience.

Mr Davies does not get any royalties from it, but is clearly chuffed to have been able to be involved and tells more of the process in his curator’s note at the front of the book, which he goes onto dedicate to his wife, Tricia.

He’s felt the pressure but has been encouraged by the response so far: “My hope is – and I think from what the people who have read it so far have said – that you can’t see the join.

“There have been some lovely quotes from the likes of Lee Child so that’s very exciting. We now just need people to buy it – and the timing’s perfect for Father’s Day.”

Domino Island, by Desmond Bagley, is out now, published by HarperCollins.