British author Desmond Bagley was a respected practitioner of the “high adventure” sub-genre of thriller fiction along with fellow British writers Alistair MacLean, Jack Higgins, and Duncan Kyle. To Bagley’s credit, it’s hard to get a straight answer when you ask knowledgeable readers which of his many books is his masterpiece, but his second novel, 1965’s “High Citadel,” is often recommended by those in-the-know.
“High Citadel” stars a heroic Irish pilot named Tim O’Hara, a Korean War veteran who has crawled into a bottle and lives a subsistence existence flying for a dodgy, cut-rate airlines near the Andes mountain range in South America. When a luxury 727 filled with international passengers makes an emergency landing at O’Hara’s home airfield, a business opportunity knocks for O’Hara’s boss who wants him to fly the respectable passengers over the range to their desired destination.
While flying the overloaded and non-pressurized aircraft over the mountains, one of the people on board hijacks the flight by gunpoint and forces O’Hara to make a dangerous landing on an abandoned airstrip high in the mountains near a defunct mining camp. Bagley provides some white-knuckle aviation writing as this scene unfolds. The crash landing is harrowing, and O’Hara’s role as hero becomes fully formed.
After the terrifying landing destroys the rickety plane, we get to meet the international cast of survivors that includes a sexy Latina babe and her enigmatic uncle, a loudmouth American drunk, a British professor of medieval history, an elderly spinster, and a brainy physicist. As the motive for the hijacking becomes clear, we learn that not all the passengers are who they claim to be. Despite their differences, it’s necessary to band together to survive as a team.
The man vs. nature story becomes a man vs. Army tale as the plane survivors encounter hostile forces in the mountain wilderness and are forced to fight for survival with improvised weaponry. Bagley sure knew how to keep the plot moving, and “High Citadel” is a fat-free story filled with action, intrigue, and heroism in a freezing mountain terrain.
Some of my favorite scenes of the book involved the “council of war” meetings in which the survivors must decide whether - and how - to combat the hostile attackers. This a challenging review to write since I’m going to great lengths to not spoil any of the plot developments that are foolishly disclosed on the various iterations of the book cover descriptions and art. If you can go into this one cold, you’re in for several treats.
Reading this 53 year-old paperback, I was constantly reminded of the 1984 film, “Red Dawn” in which a bunch of outgunned and outmanned American high school kids repel a Soviet invasion in their town. “High Citadel” plays with the same idea in a timeless story showing that heart, bravery and ingenuity can triumph against any enemy. You’ll love this one. Highly recommended.
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