The Tightrope Men

Author: Desmond Bagley
Publisher: William Collins & Sons
Published: 1973
Pictured: Fontana Paperback edition 1981

I have come to Desmond Bagley late in life. But I am trying to make up for it. I read High Citadel a few years ago, and truly enjoyed it. Since then, whenever I have seen a Bagley book in a second hand book shop I have picked it up and added it to my ever metastising ‘to be read’ pile.

And once again Mr. Bagley doesn’t let me down. The Tightrope Men by Desmond Bagley has one of the best openings I have read in quite a while. Bagley is an author who knows how to hook a reader from the first page. This story concerns Giles Dennison from Hampstead who wakes up in a strange room. That may not be too unusual, as Dennison has a reputation as an alcoholic. But in this instance, he has woken up in a hotel room in Oslo, and what’s more, his face has been surgically altered. Dennison’s first reaction is to panic – which is pretty logical. I can tell you, I’d freak-out if I didn’t recognise the face in the mirror.

However he calms down a bit once he locates a scar on his leg, a scar he has had from childhood. Finding this small piece of his history – or maybe identity is a better word – allows Dennison to accept that he is not going mad, and maybe something sinister is going on.

I am not suggesting that the opening to The Tightrope Men is groundbreakingly original. In some ways it echoes the film 36 Hours (starring James Garner), which is based on the story Beware of the Dog by Roald Dahl. In the film, Garner plays Major Pike, a US soldier who is privvy to the details of the imminent D-Day invasion in Normandy. The Germans kidnap and drug Pike; then surgically alter him to look a few years older; and blur his vision with eyes drops. As Pike comes to, he is told it is 1950, and the war has been over for six years – and he is suffering from amnesia. This, of course is all a ruse to get him to reveal the details of the D-Day invasion.

Another variation, that will be familiar to regular visitors to this site, is the television series The Prisoner, where Patrick MacGoohan, after resigning from an un-named intelligence agency, wakes up in The Village. The idea of identity (and the loss there of) is explored even further, in episodes like The Schizoid Man and especially Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling, where the mind of Number Six was transferred into another body.

So The Tightrope Men follows a well-worn path, however what it has going for it, is Bagley’s flair for telling a story, and as I said at the top, this book hooked me from the opening pages.

Here’s a brief overview of the plot. Giles Dennison awakens to find he has been transformed into Harry Meyrick. Meyrick is a scientist / inventor / engineer, and a successful one at that, with multiple military contracts to his credit. It appears that the ‘real’ Meyrick was involved in an British operation to retrieve some scientific documents buried in Russia. I wont bore you with the plot contrivances at this time, but let’s just say these documents have the power to change modern warfare, and make nuclear missiles virtually obsolete.

Now Dennison is Meyrick. Why? Why Dennison? Well that’s the mystery that plays out over the length of the novel, and I wont spoil that here. After an attempt on Dennison’s life (as Meyrick) in the Spiralen Tunnel (a great little passage, by the way), he makes contact with the British authorities seeking help. He is introduced old spy master named Carey, and his offsider Macready. Naturally these men were involved in the operation with the ‘real’ Meyrick.

Dennison tells the story of how he woke up in Oslo with his face altered and his identity stolen. Initially Carey doesn’t believe him, thinking that Meyrick is pulling some stunt, or has been brainwashed. But events soon convince Carey of the truth, and he recruits the raw and unskilled Dennison to assist in the operation to retrieve the papers. Dennison reluctantly agrees to continue playing the role of Meyrick. However, things get rather complicated when Meyrick’s estranged daughter, Lyn arrives on the scene. Will she be able to tell that Dennison is not really her father?

The weakest part of the story is the political, ‘spying is a dirty business’ aspect. Not that it is bad, but Bagley’s strength is not dissertations on the rights and wrongs carried out by faceless men in the halls of power. His strength is rousing action and adventure.

As an example, this story comes alive when Dennison and his protectors attempt to escape a cadre of Czech gunmen on a punt, across a fog covered marsh. Added to the excitement, Bagley gives our heroes and old fashioned punt gun, which is a cross between a shotgun and a cannon, to defend themselves. It’s a very evocative passage of writing.

I have not read enough of Bagley’s work to suggest that this is one of his stronger or weaker works. I thought that overall High Citadel was better than The Tightrope Men, but this book is still thoroughly entertaining, and as I said at the top, has a fantastic opening. I guess the problem with having a great beginning, is that it is hard to keep the level on intensity up over the full length of a novel, and The Tightrope Men slows down a bit in the middle section. But Bagley does what he does best for the last third, and provides a tight action packed adventure.

All in all, this is pretty good, and I am looking forward to reading more Desmond Bagley.

7 Comments Posted in Books and Comics
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  1. The Tightrope Men is middling Bagley (who is one of my favorite writers), stronger than his last few novels (Much like Alistair MacLean, Bagley ran out of steam toward the end), but not op to the level of The Golden Keel or The Vivero Letter. But even a weak Bagley novel is a gem compared to most of the tripe being published today.

  2. Thanks Paul. I have The Golden Keel in my TBR pile. I’ll give it a shot.

  3. I love Bagley for his details. I live in Oslo and the way he describes the city shows that he even knows the city well or was there when he wrote the parts of the book.

  4. The B.B.C. did a very good adaptation of Bagley’s ‘Running Blind’ back in the ’70’s.

    You might also enjoy ‘The Freedom Trap’ which is superior to the movie it inspired – John Huston’s ‘The Mackintosh Man’.

  5. Thanks Zokko. I forgot all about The Freedom Trap.

    I did a very quick search on Running Blind (you piqued my curiosity), and Wikipedia suggests that the video is changing hands for US$1000. However I will keep looking and see if I can find something more within my meagre budget 😉

  6. Running Blind is available for download at

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