One reason for reading this kind of novel -- the kind loosely called action-adventure -- is its Big Moments. Since "Windfall" takes place mostly in Africa, its big moments tend to have an African flavor -- the episode in which one of the bad guys gets chomped in half by a hippopotamus, for example, or the shootout with a couple of marauders in Tanzanian uniforms who are about to kill a hostage kidnaped on safari. Or a ride in a hot-air balloon over some spectacular scenery in Kenya, with volcanic outcroppings sending up fumes and wild beasts cavorting colorfully under the airborne vehicle: "The zebra herds wheeled as the balloon shadow passed, and the giraffes galloped off in a rocking-horse canter. But none of the animals moved far away; as soon as the balloon drifted by they resumed their grazing and browsing placidly."
The giraffes and the smoke coming out of the ground have nothing to do with the plot of the book, which deals with an intricate, long-range plot by South Africa to make trouble for its many enemies on the continent. It involves the death of a mysterious, reclusive multimillionaire, the search for heirs to his fortune, a curious foundation in Kenya that seems to be dedicated to agricultural research but has some elaborate security arrangements and a few places on its premises that outsiders never visit.
"Windfall" takes the reader into the rather depressing life of Ben Hardin, CIA-agent-turned-private-investigator, who is plunged once again, whether he likes it or not, into international intrigue. There are hippies who die mysteriously in a California commune and some mysterious Africans who must be much more than the simple safari guides they at first seem to be. Besides the Big Moments, designed to attract the attention of visually minded film producers, this sort of book needs a complicated plot, questions left unanswered until very near the end and colorful, mysterious characters. "Windfall" certainly has all of the above, and for a good part of its slightly excessive length it has the kind of narrative interest that keeps a reader going. Above all else, though, it has a mind-boggling two-sentence statement on its dust-jacket: "I've read all Bagley's novels. I think he's better than I am." The statement is signed by Alistair MacLean.
With all of the above, why does this reviewer find "Windfall" singularly unexciting? The reason lies, perhaps, in the fact that it is such a precise fulfillment of a recipe that has been used successfully for a long time -- by MacLean, for example, whose most recent novel is set in Latin America, with some Big Moments on a boat running crazily through the rapids of an untamed river rather than a balloon sailing silently over rough African terrain. MacLean may be right about Bagley being better -- at least marginally -- but in an age that has learned to turn out this kind of novel at a rate of several per week, all meeting standard specifications, the comparison seems relatively meaningless, like a study of the relative nutritional value of Twinkies vs. Kit-Kats. Either will satisfy, temporarily, a certain kind of consumer craving, not much better and not much worse than dozens of other competing products. And their success or failure has much more to do with marketing and formulas and addictions carefully nurtured in the consumer than with imagination or good writing.
It is possible to take the basic formula and make of it something that has a more enduring value; John le Carre' has done so any number of times. It is also possible to face squarely the fact that it is simply entertainment and make it a superior form of entertainment, as has been done by Ian Fleming and Trevanian, among others. And it is possible simply to take the standard recipe and cook it up with standard ingredients, as has been done by Desmond Bagley. "Windfall" will not disappoint those who are looking for a literary Twinkie, only those who hunger for a real book about real people.