Domino Island by Desmond Bagley

They don’t write them like that anymore

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When rich businessman David Salton dies, it looks like the Western and Continental Insurance company are in for a big hit – he was insured for half a million pounds. Although the inquest found he had died of natural causes, the circumstances of his death were a little odd, so before they agree to pay out the company sends their best investigator to take a look. Bill Kemp had a career in military intelligence before he went into the insurance industry, and when the investigation becomes the catalyst for all sorts of shenanigans on the Caribbean island of Campanilla he’ll need all of his skills just to survive…

(It occurs to me on writing that blurb that I don’t know why the book is called Domino Island, since the island is called Campanilla – maybe I missed the explanation! Anyway, it doesn’t really matter.)

Desmond Bagley was a hugely popular British thriller writer back in the ‘60s-‘80s, and the fact that most of his books are still readily available suggests he’s still got a pretty solid fan base nearly forty years after his death. So when this previously unpublished novel was found in his archives in 2017, more or less complete and with his own notes of the changes he intended to make, the idea of publishing it would have been irresistible. Michael Davies, a lifelong Bagley fan, took on the task of tidying it up and this is the result – and an excellent result it is, too! My inner cynic feared that Bagley or his publishers must have felt it wasn’t good enough to be published, but the editor of this volume explains that in fact it was well on the way to publication when Bagley withdrew it because he’d signed a deal that required him to produce a different novel tied into a movie he had scripted, and he didn’t want the two publications to clash. I don’t know why he never returned to this one, though.

The fictional island of Campanilla was part of the British Empire, but has recently gained independence and is now operating partly as a tourist destination and partly as an offshore tax haven, where the wealthy are extremely wealthy and the poor find it extremely difficult to survive because of the inflated prices and property values that wealthy people bring along with them. So there’s political tension between the governing party who see their job as keeping life sweet for the rich, and the opposition, divided between a moderately left party and an extreme left-wing, veering towards communism. David Salton was the leader of the soft-left party, so Kemp wonders if his political opponents may have had something to do with his death.

But there are other possibilities too. It transpires that Salton may have been a good man in the world of politics, but he was a philanderer in his spare time, keeping his mistress in a luxury flat while his wife lived in their secluded home in a different part of the island. Then there’s Negrini – owner of a local casino and reputed to have ties to the US Mafia. Salton has promised that if he gets into power he’ll crack down on the gambling industry. The status of the island as a tax haven means that there’s lots of financial skulduggery bubbling beneath the surface, so there are plenty of other people with a vested interest in making sure that a politician who intends to tackle corruption shouldn’t get into power.

All these various people and factions don’t want Kemp investigating and stirring around in the murky dealings of the island, and soon he finds that he’s in personal danger at the same time as political tensions on the island are reaching boiling point. It all comes to a climax in a traditional thriller ending, with goodies pitted against baddies, corpses aplenty and an entirely unexpected (by me) but satisfying solution to the mystery of Salton’s death.

The writing is very good, and not nearly as dated in attitudes to women as thrillers of this era usually are. It’s years since I read any Bagley and I can’t remember if his females were always treated this well or whether perhaps part of Davies’ tidying-up was to make the tone more acceptable to modern readers. Whatever, the women are pretty good characters, and one of them is even kinda kickass, which I found unexpectedly refreshing. They’ve certainly not been modernised to the extent of not feeling true to the time, however.

Desmond Bagley

There are parts where I felt it could have been tighter and a bit faster paced, and maybe Bagley’s final edit would have seen to this, but it never drags. Kemp, who tells the story in the first person, is a likeable and believable protagonist – he’s resourceful but not a superhero. He soon teams up with the forces of law and order in the person of Superintendent Hanna of the island police, another likeable character, and they work well together. The story is both interesting and well told, and although the island is fictional, it feels entirely authentic both politically and culturally. I enjoyed this one very much, and now want to go back and investigate some of his other books – it is sadly true to say that they don’t write them like that anymore, and they really should…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins.

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30 thoughts on “Domino Island by Desmond Bagley

  1. Oh, this does sound excellent, FictionFan. How interesting, too, that it’s one of those ‘previously unpublished’ stories. Those are always intriguing to me for some reason. You make an interesting point about the way some thriller writers of that era treated women, and it’s good to know that’s not a huge issue here – refreshing! And of course, that island setting sounds like a great backdrop for it all. Although, if I had a wife and a mistress, I don’t know if I’d want them both on the same island… 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Unpublished stories can go either way but when they’re good, like this one, it’s a puzzle to know why they got stuck away in a drawer! Yes, I’ll be interested to revisit some of his older books to see if his women were always treated well or if they’ve been modernised a bit for this one. Haha, I felt he was taking a risk with the wife and mistress too – it wasn’t a very big island! 😉

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  2. Sounds interesting. There are some of his among my parents’ books though I haven’t read him yet. Must give him a try. I know my mom was rereading Flyaway recently, may be I’ll try that one.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good to know your mom thinks they’re good enough to re-read! I remember enjoying a couple of his books way back when they’d have been new releases, (which is a bit worrying 😉 ), but had kinda forgotten about him. Must look for more!

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  3. Domino Island because every revelation has a knock-on effect, perhaps? Or because it’s a game has to win to survive? Or possibly because somebody has to be top dog and dominate? As a period thriller this certainly sounds enjoyable!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve not heard of this author. I tend to prefer thrillers in film form, but since I’ve all but given up watching films, maybe I need to add more to my reading list! Glad this one was good for you. 😀

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  5. I’ve never read any of Bagley’s books, but this one sounds intriguing. I’m glad the writing doesn’t persist in those out-dated attitudes toward women, too. Sure, different eras manifest their own mores, but some things must have been tedious. Happy upcoming weekend!

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  6. I’ve never read any Bagley either, and my TBR is probably too full at the moment, but I may keep this mind mind for a future time, at least it seemed to be well developed although it was never published.

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    • It’s so odd that it was never published – he must have been particularly prolific if he could just shove a book in a drawer and forget about it! There seem to be quite a few of his books on Audible though I’m not sure about the narrator from the sample. Might try one…

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  7. Nice that they did this book justice after the author’s death! It has a very contemporary cover, I was sort of surprised to hear they didn’t try to make it look more vintage, although I suppose they want it to appeal to modern day readers as much as possible.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I think that’s what’s often missing in modern thrillers. They tend to want to harrow the reader or make points, or just rely on the inevitable twist ending, whereas these older thrillers are usually adventure stories with a proper hero! Hope you enjoy it… 😀

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  8. Very interesting that they found this unpublished book and cleaned it up and published it. I remembered that I had read something about this author recently. It was an article at ShotsMag Ezine about Bagley’s unpublished memoirs being available for free download soon.

    I honestly cannot remember if I read any of these when I was younger, but I have a relatively recent paperback edition which combines Running Blind and Freedom Trap, both written in the early 1970s. I will have to read Running Blind and see how I like it.

    I loved your comment about “Getting worried about how many people remember their mum or dad reading these…”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hahaha, yes, I could feel myself ageing with each comment! It’s like history – one of my younger blog buddies was telling me recently she’s going to be studying British history from the 1970s and I nearly fell off my chair – that’s not history! It’s my teens!! 😉

      I wonder if his memoirs will be interesting – I don’t know much about his real life. I can’t remember which ones I read back in the day but there were several of his books on the shelves – not because of my dad, I hasten to add, but my older sister who was a big fan of this type of thriller and got me into them too. I’ll be interested to see how Running Blind stands up to the passage of time. I’ll have to try to fit in some of his older books too.

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  9. Thanks so much for this lovely, thoughtful review – and allow me to encourage you and all your followers to go back to the rest of the Bagley oeuvre. It’s all still available from HarperCollins (in fact, never been out of print) largely thanks to the dedication of estates publisher David Brawn, who has been the main reason for the flame still burning! I hope you’ll find that, even at the time, Bagley was a cut above your average thriller writer. In fact, Alistair MacLean openly acknowledged Bagley as ‘the best’.

    Oh, and as for the title (for which I humbly claim the credit), it is indeed explained – Chapter 10, page 234…

    Michael Davies

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for popping in and commenting, and for your kind words! I’m definitely keen to read more of Bagley’s books now so was very pleased to discover they’re easily available. I did read a couple back in the Dark Ages when the world and I were young, but this was my first re-visit in decades and it reminded me of just how enjoyable proper thrillers with an adventure story and a hero can be. I’m pretty sure I read one or two Alistair MacLeans back in the day too – another I might have to re-investigate!

      Haha, I thought it would probably have been explained somewhere – clearly my note-taking skills failed me… 😉

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