Sunday, 25 June 2017

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and spy fiction of the 1950s, '60s and '70s

I've thoroughly enjoyed reading Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Harper Collins, 2017), Mike Ripley's examination of the golden age of British thrillers. It's a period that began, the author contends, with Ian Fleming's Casino Royale, published in 1953, and ended in the late 1970s with tough heroics of Jack Higgins' novels and the methodical thrillers of Frederick Forsyth. In between, there were Fleming wannabes, the realistic spy thrillers of Len Deighton and John le Carré, and a whole host of bestselling books by authors who remain hugely popular still, such as Alistair MacLean, or are now long out of print and largely forgotten.


The identification of this period as a golden age is contentious – others would argue that that period belonged to the likes of John Buchan, Sapper, Peter Cheyney, and E Phillips Oppenheim – but there's no denying that the twenty year period saw an explosion of British thriller writers (many influenced by Ian Fleming or more generally the success of James Bond) who would dominate the thriller market across the world.

For me, the book gave me a sense of nostalgia. Not that I read any of these books at the time. Being born in the 1970s, I was too young, but some of the books that Mike Ripley mentions were on the bookshelves at home, among them Eric Ambler's The Levanter, John le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (or was it Smiley's People?), and When Eight Bells Toil by Alistair MacLean. Such thrillers seeped into my consciousness at an early age.

Later, I began collecting thrillers, mainly published in the mid/late 1960s, that attempted to fill the void left by Ian Fleming, their heroes often being described on the back cover as the new James Bond or even better than James Bond (as if that were possible). Many of these are discussed by Mike Ripley too, such as DIECAST by John Michael Brett, Sergeant Death by James Mayo, and Where the Spies Are by James Leasor.

 
Some of Bond's many rivals
Since reading Mike Ripley's book, I've been inspired to catch up on the many thrillers that I've missed. I decided, fairly randomly, to begin with a novel by Desmond Bagley, the author of some sixteen adventures and spy novels which invariably featured rugged locations, even more rugged heroes, and Land Rovers. Bagley wrote between 1963 and 1983, the book I chose, Running Blind, being published in 1970.



Running Blind is a Cold War thriller than falls somewhere between the realistic environment of George Smiley and the more fantastic world of James Bond. In the novel, former British agent Alan Stewart makes a routine visit to Iceland, where his girlfriend lives, but is met by another agent, who persuades him to deliver a package. When an attempt is made on his life, he realises he's been set up, forcing him to go on the run across Iceland's volcanic terrain, pursued by Russian, British, and American agents.  

It's an exciting read, and while it's rather different to the James Bond books (except, maybe, John Gardner's Nobody Lives for Ever), the influence of Ian Fleming, or indeed the James Bond films, is not far away. There's a moment when Alan Stewart enters the room of Slade, a British agent whom Stewart suspects of having gone over to the Russians. Stewart looks out for a trick of the trade – hairs dabbed with saliva and stuck across the doors of the wardrobe that would be dislodged if the doors were opened.

A device of a similar nature is described in Casino Royale. When James Bond returns to his hotel room at Royale-les-Eaux, he inspects the hairs lodged in the drawer of the writing desk to make sure the drawer hadn't been opened. It's possible, though, that Desmond Bagley had been thinking of the film version of Dr No, in which Bond dabs a hair with saliva and sticks it across the doors of his wardrobe.

 
James Bond takes precautions
At another point, when Stewart confronts Slade, Slade tells him that he's 'been reading too much Fleming'. Then, as Stewart turns out the contents of Slade's wallet, he observes wryly that he found no plans for the latest guided missile or laser death ray that a master spy might have been expected to carry. A nod perhaps, at least with regard to the laser, to the film of Goldfinger

I expect that Running Blind will be the first of many thrillers from the 'golden age' that I'll discover and rediscover thanks to Mike Ripley's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and along the way be reminded (as if I needed reminding) of the enormous influence that Ian Fleming's work has had on thriller and spy fiction. As Mike Ripley notes, Casino Royale wasn't so much the spy novel that ended all spy novels, but the novel that launched many more.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

More on the 'Bond is what every man would like to be...' phrase

When Raymond Mortimer described James Bond as 'what every man would like to be, and what every woman would like to have between her sheets', little did he know that the phrase would have a life of its own.

I've written previously about the phrase, for instance how it's been incorrectly attributed to Raymond Chandler, and noting some of the variations that have since arisen. Recently, I've spotted more uses and variations of the phrase, though not in connection with James Bond.

Rooting through a pile of books in a charity shop, I came across a booklet that promoted the publication of Flashman on the March (2005), the final volume of the Flashman Papers, which chart the scandalous adventures of the notorious Victorian soldier, bully and cad (brilliantly written by Octopussy scribe George MacDonald Fraser). The booklet contains a short story, synopses of the novels, and appreciations by famous fans, including politicians Boris Johnson and John Major, and author Bernard Cornwell.

On the back of the booklet are the words, 'Women want him. Men secretly want to be him. Harry Flashman just wants to get away with it.'



I had already noticed, saying as much in a tweet in 2012, that a form of the phrase had been used to describe another fictional protagonist, Lee Child's Jack Reacher. The back cover of the 2011 book Without Fail includes the words: 'Men want to be him. Women want to be with him.'

The latest (full-length) Jack Reacher novel, Night School, now in paperback, offers yet another, more contemporary, variant of Raymond Mortimer's phrase. The praise lavished on Lee Child's books, printed inside the front cover, includes this from journalist Lucy Mangan: 'I am very much in love with Jack Reacher – as a man and a role model. If I can't shag him, I want to be him.'



These examples demonstrate that the phrase – the what-every-man-would-like-to-be meme –  continues to have currency in popular culture. Its success derives in part from its original association with James Bond, but also its adaptability, whether that be in its structure (many versions exist), application (its use isn't confined to Bond) and fitness in changing cultural environments (for example with regard to language and social norms).

Thursday, 8 June 2017

James Bond references in The Simpsons, Family Guy and American Dad

The animated shows Family Guy, American Dad and The Simpsons are well known for their pop-culture references, typically those relating to TV, films and music. The James Bond films have not been forgotten, and have provided the inspiration for episode plots, as well as for incidental gags.

For example, 'You Only Move Twice', an episode of The Simpsons, is a complete Bond parody, featuring a James Bond character that resembles Sean Connery and allusions to the films of Goldfinger and You Only Live Twice (and possibly the book of You Only Live Twice – Lisa finds that she is allergic to all the plants in the grounds of the community of Cypress Creek, owned by the evil Globex Corporation, a nod, perhaps, to Blofeld's Garden of Death). The episode even includes a Bondian song that could have been sung by Shirley Bassey.

In other episodes, the Bond references have been more incidental. I've always thought the Bond-related joke in the 'Bart Carny' episode - after Cooder and his son Spud, both carnival folk, ingratiate themselves into the Simpson's home, Cooder puts on Homer's clothes, and Spud says, 'Wow, Dad. You look like James Bond' - to be rather clever.

Given that its main character, Stan, is a CIA agent, it's inevitable that American Dad should have its own Bond parody. 'Tearjerker' features Stan as the James Bond character, Francine as a Bond girl called Sexpun T'Come, Steve as the Q character, here named 'S', and Roger as the eponymous villain. There is a sequel called 'For Black Eyes Only'.

There are plenty of Bond references to be found in Family Guy too. In the episode 'Mr and Mrs Stewie', Stewie meets Penelope, who shares his own psychopathic tendencies. When Stewie refuses to kill Brian for her, Penelope decides to do it herself, but is prevented from doing so by Stewie. They have a fight on the top of a train, when Penelope uses her Rosa Klebb-style shoes with blades in the toes. It's interesting to note that Penelope is voiced by Cate Blanchett, who also appears as Soviet agent Irina Spalko in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Cate Blanchett has stated in interviews that her portrayal was inspired by Lotte Lenya's portrayal of Rosa Klebb in From Russia With Love.

I'm not intending to list all the Bond references found in these shows – there are websites dedicated to the shows that do that – but it is probably fair to say that most of the references draw on the older films and classic moments – Sean Connery, From Russia With Love, Goldfinger and so on. However, two allusions to Bond in American Dad and Family Guy show that the more recent films, Casino Royale in particular, are also making an impact on the scriptwriters.

We can see as much in 'Phantom of the Telethon', an episode of American Dad in which Stan hosts a telethon to raise money for the CIA torture programme. At one point, we see a blooper reel of comedy moments in the torture chamber. In one of these moments, a man holding a rope with a ball at the end stands by a naked man tied to a seat-less chair, which is obviously a nod to the torture scene in Casino Royale. (If I remember aright, the blooper occurs when the torturer accidentally hits himself with the rope.)

 
The Casino Royale moment from American Dad
Coincidentally (although maybe not, considering that Seth MacFarlane is responsible for both shows), the torture scene is also referenced in Family Guy. In 'The Peter Principal', Peter is appointed principal of James Woods High, and begins meting out punishments to the bullies. The punishments get progressively more severe, and at one point Peter places a seat-less chair in the school hall and swings a knotted rope.

 
The Casino Royale moment from Family Guy
Animated shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy play an important role in keeping the classic elements and traits or memes of the Bond films, such as Rosa Klebb's shoes, current in popular culture. Each subsequent film creates new memes, and a sign of how successful they are in the cultural environment (that is, their longevity and the extent to which they are replicated and disseminated) is that they're referenced in shows like Family Guy. On that basis, Casino Royale is well on the way to being every bit as classic as Goldfinger and From Russia With Love.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Fiction mirrors fiction - James Bond and Eric Ambler's The Mask of Dimitrios


One of the numerous volumes on James Bond's bookshelf (there are more than you think) is Eric Ambler's The Mask of Dimitrios. Bond reads the novel, published in 1939, on the plane en route to Istanbul in From Russia, with Love (1957).

The novel concerns a writer of detective mysteries called Charles Latimer. In Istanbul, he's introduced to Colonel Haki, the head of the secret police, who, interested in Latimer's profession, tells him about a real murder. A man called Dimitrios, by all accounts a nasty piece of work, has washed up dead, having been stabbed. As far as Haki is concerned, the case is closed, but out of professional curiosity, Latimer begins to look into the life of this criminal. Following a trail from Turkey to Greece, Bulgaria, and Paris, he discovers that the truth about Dimitrios isn't so clear cut, as events take a sinister and dangerous turn.
 

What Bond thought of the book is unrecorded, but he may have returned to the book from time to time and wondered whether there were certain echoes of the book in his own adventures. 

For instance, according to the records of the Greek authorities, Dimitrios is 182 centimetres tall. Bond may have raised an eyebrow at that – Bond himself is only one centimetre taller, as mentioned in From Russia, with Love, and indeed, we subsequently find out that Dimitrios is a little taller still.

Then there's the description of the nature of spy work. At one point of the novel, Latimer meets a polish spy named Grodek, who Latimer discovers recruited Dimitrios as an agent. In a subsequent letter recounting his meeting, Latimer wonders whether 'governments of adult men and women behave like children playing Red Indians'. The phrase would have been familiar to Bond. In Casino Royale, Le Chiffre, while torturing Bond with a carpet beater, tells Bond that 'the game of Red Indians is over, quite over', and later Bond admits to himself that he 'had been playing Red Indians through the years.' It's unlikely that Ian Fleming, perhaps having read The Mask of Dimitrios before he wrote Casino Royale, borrowed the phrase from Ambler, as, during the Second World War, he called his commando unit, 30AU, his Red Indians, but the coincidence is interesting all the same.

In another part of the book, Latimer discovers that Dimitrios was also a drug pedlar, and learns about the drug trade from a former associate of Dimitrios, a Mr Peters. Latimer finds out, for instance, that drugs are smuggled into Europe from Istanbul on the Orient Express, with the help of a bribed sleeping car attendant. Bond, of course, travels on the Orient Express in From Russia, with Love, but the train is mentioned again in the short story 'Risico', which is about the drugs trade. Fleming describes how opium is smuggled onto the train in Istanbul and hidden in false upholstery in the carriages, with the help of bribed train cleaners. As he set off to Rome to tackle Colombo, and then Kristatos, Bond must have been pleased about having had something of a grounding in drug smuggling from Eric Ambler.

What about the nature of good and evil? James Bond wrestles with this question as he recuperates from injuries sustained by the carpet beater in Casino Royale. Bond tells Mathis that 'in order to tell the difference between good and evil, we have manufactured two images representing the extremes – and we call them God and the Devil'. Latimer also reflects on the nature of good and evil, and considers that traditional concepts are not sufficient: 'It was useless trying to explain [Dimitrios] in terms of good and evil. They were no more than baroque abstractions. Good business and bad business were the elements of the new theology.' 

It's hard to say whether Ian Fleming had The Mask of Dimitrios in mind as he wrote Casino Royale and 'Risico', or that the book was especially influential in the writing of From Russia, with Love, but as Bond finds himself in the same murky environments as Eric Ambler's hero, it's unsurprising that there would be there be some aspects in common between Ambler's and Fleming's work.