High Citadel

Written by Desmond Bagley
First published by William Collins & Co. 1965

While not a spy story per-se, High Citadel is a rip-roaring adventure tale. When I go scouring through second hand book shops looking for old spy thrillers, I inevitably see the same authors on the shelves. Many of them I have never read, which is to my shame and detriment. One such author is Desmond Bagley.

For years I have had a copy of The Freedom Trap. I only picked it up because it was turned into the film, The MacIntosh Man with Paul Newman, but like so many books, I just haven’t gotten around to reading it and it has since been left languishing at the bottom of a cupboard somewhere.

Recently though, around the corner from where I live, the local Lions Club were having a charity sale with mountains of books. I went along and picked up a bag full on novels for a few measly coins. Among them was Desmond Bagley’s High Citadel, which I only picked up on the strength of the cover art.

Later that day, as I often do, I flicked through the first few pages from each of my new acquisitions to see how they fared. High Citadel grabbed me immediately and what started out as flicking through a few pages turned into reading the whole book.

Tim O’Hara is pretty much washed up as a pilot. During the Korean War he was shot down and captured and tortured by the North Koreans. No much of a man remains, except a drunk who can fly a plane. Now he ekes out a living, flying for a second rate airline service in the Andes.

One night he is called in to make a special flight. It seem that one of the major airlines has had mechanical problems with one of their planes en route and have been forced to land. O’Hara is ordered to ferry some of the passengers from that flight onto their final destination, Santillana, over the mountains.

During O’Hara’s flight, the co-pilot, Grivas, tries to hi-jack the plane, and at gunpoint, orders O’Hara to land the plane on a tiny air-strip at high altitude. This landing strip had been built to service a mine in the mountains, but the mine has since closed down and the air-strip is overgrown and neglected. O’Hara protests that the plane is too large to land safely, but this is of no concern to the Grivas. O’Hara attempts the landing and the plane is torn apart as it is bounced along the landing strip. Several of the passengers are killed including the hi-jacker.

Now stranded high in the Andes, wher it is cold and the air is thin, O’Hara must lead a rag-tag band of survivors to safety. But this isn’t as easy as it seems. It appears that one of the passengers, Snr. Aguillar is the ex-President of the country of Cordillera and is about to be re-instated to rule the country. But communist forces do not want Aguillar re-instated and have sent a small army of soldiers up the mountain to kill him.

But O’Hara and his Motley Crew have an ounce of luck. The road up the mountain crosses over a canyon – and the bridge that crosses that canyon has been damaged in a storm. The soldiers cannot cross until the bridge is rebuilt. In the meantime O’Hara, with the aid of Armstrong, one of the passengers who is fanatical about ancient warfare, devise some crude weapons, including primitive crossbows and a trebuchet (catapault) to keep the soldiers from crossing over.

High Citadel is a great physical adventure, and the sections where Rohde, Forrester, and Peabody attempt to cross the treacherous icy peaks is well written and gripping.

Admittedly, the story is far-fetched, but the characters – although stereotypical – are so well drawn that the plot contrivances matter very little. This is old fashioned ‘Boys Own Adventure’ stuff and thoroughly entertaining it is too. As an antidote to the coldness of the modern high-tech thriller, I highly recommend High Citadel. Bagley weaves his tale so well, that these are characters that you will enjoy spending time and sharing the adventure with, and actually care about the outcome.

The blurb from The Book Club dust jacket reads:

The setting of High Citadel is the towering peaks of the Andes. A non-scheduled passenger plane is hi-jacked in mid-air and forced down among the forbidding mountains.

The surviving passengers, stranded at 16,000 feet, embark on a perilous descent – only to find themselves trapped by a formidably armed Communist force whose prey is one particular passenger, the ex-president of Cordillera, and his lovely niece. But it soon becomes clear that the ambushers are intent on wiping out all the other survivors as well: “dead men tell no tales.”

As the trapped men and women grimly realise the odds at stake, two intensely exciting stories unfold. On the lower slopes, a desperate delaying action is fought with ingeniously contrived weapons. At the same time, three of the men set out to brave the higher regions of the rock and glacier in a gruelling race for help. The climax, as unexpected as it is hair-raising, brings a wonderful at at times deeply moving adventure – thriller to a worthy close.

This is a good one!

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