Friday, 27 October 2017

'Like something out of James Bond'

We often read stories in the papers or online in which aspects of the story have been likened to ‘something out of James Bond’. Take a recent case of a cigarette scam in Yorkshire, which was reported in various newspapers. The police uncovered a hidden room full of contraband goods, which the police described as a ‘James Bond-style room’. Reports about new technology rarely fail to mention James Bond. A new submersible vehicle designed by Aston Martin, for example, was inevitable dubbed, in another recent article, ‘James Bond-worthy’. References such as these have been made for decades, even before the Bond film series was launched, and sometimes in the most unlikely publications.
 

Farm and Country magazine is far removed from the world of James Bond, but a column ('Leaning on the gate') by farmer Peter Fraser in the edition published 27th April 1960 managed to include a reference to Fleming’s creation. The column offered Fraser’s view of farming in the spring, and described how two of his Jersey cows had died mysteriously. There was talk of magnesium deficiency, a drop in temperature and poor quality grass, but no one had really got to the bottom of it. ‘We need a new detective to solve this mystery,’ Fraser wrote. ‘Some new James Bond – we had better ring up Ian Fleming.’
 

An article by Lord Kilbracken ('Topsy and the treasure') that appeared in The Tatler on 27th September 1961 not only mentions Ian Fleming, but is about a subject that might have appealed to him. In the piece, Lord Kilbracken revealed an interest in the circumstances surrounding a fabled hoard of objects known as Rommel's Treasure. The treasure is said to have comprised priceless objects stolen by the German army in North Africa in World War Two and subsequently dumped in the sea off Bastia in Corsica. Lord Kilbracken had learnt of an underwater search for the treasure by 'a shadowy figure straight out of Ian Fleming', a Mr Helle. I agree - the story is well into Live and Let Die or 'Octopussy' territory.
 
Headline from the Aberdeen Evening Express, 29 July 1965
 

A more conventional story that alluded to James Bond appeared in the Aberdeen Evening Express in July 1965. The piece reported the trial of three people, 'including an attractive bus conductress', who had been charged with possessing Indian hemp. The legal representative of one of the accused is reported as saying: 'The whole story reads more like a James Bond thriller than a court case.'
 

These items reveal that, even before the film series, James Bond had become synonymous with intrigue and mystery and was sufficiently embedded into the cultural environment to be evoked in unrelated contexts. The piece in the Aberdeen Evening Express is particularly telling, as it suggests that the novels remained an important cultural touchstone after 1962, when Dr No was released, and that it took a few years before the film series overtook the novels in cultural significance.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Fleming's France

If you were to name the spiritual home of James Bond, you might say London, Jamaica, or possibly Scotland. What about France? The country certainly has a good claim. Two of Bond's adventures – Casino Royale and 'From a View to a Kill' - are set entirely in the country (save for a brief return to London for M's briefing), and Bond passes through France in two others, Goldfinger and On Her Majesty's Secret Service. What's more, Bond knows a thing or two about French food and wine, especially Champagne, has good command of the language, even down to the vernacular, and, as a youth, lost his virginity in Paris.


The connections between James Bond and France, as well as between the country and Ian Fleming, are explored in La France de Fleming: James Bond, une passion fran├žaise (2017, Le Temps Editeur), a new book by French academic and Bond aficionado, Pierre-Oliver Lombarteix. The author reminds us that Fleming's relationship with France began very early. Many of the books Fleming is likely to have read in his childhood – by Oppenheim, Le Queux or Buchan – are set in France. His mother, Eve, had French ancestry, his grandmother, Kate, adopted a French girl, Sybil Mayor, and tragically, his father died in northern France during the First World War.
 

While rarely seeing action himself during the Second World War, Ian Fleming directed operations that were based in France, and he witnessed the Allied raid of German positions in Dieppe. After the war, Fleming frequently visited France, and, on the eve of the publication of Casino Royale, drove to Marseille to meet one of his heroes, the underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau.
 

It is little wonder, then, that the Bond novels would become imbued with the essence of Fleming’s experiences of France. His visit to Marseille alone would leave its mark on two novels, Live and Let Die and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and the books would include many more elements of France. Some of Fleming’s heroines have French origins. Solitaire’s real name is Simone Latrelle, Vivienne Michel is French-Canadian, and Tracy – La Comtesse Teresa di Vincenzo – is the daughter of a French crime lord. As for the villains, Mr Big is half French and Le Chiffre is French by culture, if not birth. Several chapters title are in French or incorporate French terms, and there are many occurrences of French in the text besides gastronomic references. As Lombarteix suggests in his study, French is the second language of the Bond books.
 

La France de Fleming is an interesting and insightful read. It explains why the French continue to have a love affair with the novels (and films) of James Bond, and reminds us that Bond is a global character, a fictional hero for everyone. Lombarteix’s book also reminds us that there exists some excellent Bond scholarship that is not in English, which provides a different and exciting perspective on the Bond phenomenon. An essential addition to the literary Bond fan’s library.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Ian Fleming and William Le Queux - some literary connections

William Le Queux, the prolific late 19th and early 20th century author of novels of espionage, international intrigue and mystery, has often been cited as an influence on Ian Fleming's writing. Reading just some of his many books, it's easy to see why.
 

Take Mademoiselle of Monte Carlo, for instance. In this crime story, published in 1921, we are introduced to protagonist Hugh Henfrey in the gaming rooms of the casino at Monte Carlo. He's observing the eponymous Mademoiselle, a woman who regularly occupies the roulette tables and enjoys a great deal of success. Henfrey suspects that the Mademoiselle knows something about the mysterious death of his father, and confronts her at her grand house at the end of a day's gambling. Before the Mademoiselle can reveal anything, however, she is shot by an unknown assassin. The police naturally suspect Henfrey, who manages to escape their clutches with the help of a master criminal, a Robin Hood figure known as the Sparrow who has his own reasons for intervening.


The story begins in the French Riviera, but the location shifts rapidly, taking in Paris, Italy, Spain and England as Henfrey tries to stay one step ahead of the law while attempting to solve the mystery of his father's death and the Mademoiselle's (attempted) murder. It's difficult not to think of Casino Royale during the Monte Carlo scenes (the weapon used by the would-be assassin, incidentally, is a rifle disguised as a walking stick; Le Chiffre's henchman who threatens Bond which such a weapon at the baccarat table must have read the book), and generally the tale is set in a world with which James Bond would be very familiar.
 

It's not just Ian Fleming who may have been inspired by Le Queux. One curious trait of the Sparrow is that he has a deformed hand, which he hides in a black glove. I couldn't help thinking of Julius Gorner and his deformed hand (occasionally hidden in a white glove) in Sebastian Faulks' Devil May Care.
 

Let's take another book - The Stretton Street Affair (1922). In this mystery, another Hugh, this time Hugh Garfield, is invited into the London house of a wealthy businessman, statesman and philanthropist, Oswald De Gex, and persuaded to sign a death certificate on behalf of De Gex's 'niece', who had apparently suffered a heart attack. Garfield does so and then takes a drink brought to him. He falls unconscious, and a month later comes to his senses in a French asylum, having no memory of how he got there. The mystery deepens when, in Italy, he sees the young woman for whom he signed the death certificate very much alive. What's more, De Gex denies all knowledge of having met Garfield and even having a niece.


It's an intriguing story, and contains a trope that has seen expression in other work, including the Bond books and films and beyond: a deference towards the rich and powerful that alone deflects suspicion away from them. Garfield naturally suspects De Gex of foul play and behind some devious international plot, but no one - neither his friends or the police - believes him. How can De Gex, a great and famous man and friend to Europe's politicians, be involved in any criminal plot? It's inconceivable.
 

We see it in John Buchan’s Richard Hannay adventure, The Three Hostages (1924), and this deference also allows Moonraker's Sir Hugo Drax (Hugo, Hugh - is there a link?) to develop his nefarious scheme. Even James Bond is taken in ('He felt a glow of admiration and almost of reverence for this man and his majestic achievement'). In the film version, the Minister of Defence quickly apologises to Drax when he, M and Bond enter Drax's lab to find nothing there. And in A View To A Kill, the Minister of Defence (again!) dismisses the idea that Max Zorin is up to no good ('Max Zorin? Impossible. He's a leading French industrialist').
 

There was something else that I noticed. In a recent post, I discussed the origin of the 'Bond - James Bond' form of introduction, highlighting that it was a standard formula in earlier 20th century thrillers and no doubt also books of other genres. William Le Queux's books underline the point: '“I haven't the pleasure of your name.” “Garfield - Hugh Garfield,” I said. “Mine is De Gex - Oswald De Gex,” he said.
 

One final observation: William Le Queux was a contemporary of E Phillips Oppenheim (considered to be another influence on Fleming’s writing). Both wrote similar sorts of novels, set in similar sorts of places, featuring similar sorts of characters. One of Oppenheim’s characters is called Mr Grex (who appears in the novel Mr Grex of Monte Carlo (1915)), which is obviously very close to De Gex. Take the authors’ names off the covers, and I expect to modern readers the novels would be indistinguishable. The point is that it’s difficult to be specific about influences on Ian Fleming. We can recognise elements of early 20th century fiction in Fleming’s work, but these were common tropes or memes in the sort of fiction that Ian Fleming would have read in his youth.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Another variant of the 'Bond is what every man would like to be...' meme

It was Global James Bond Day yesterday, which marks the release of the first James Bond film, Dr No in 1962. I thought I’d search through the British Newspaper Archive for contemporaneous reviews of the film. One of those I found, published in The Tatler on 17th October that year, was quite interesting for more than one reason.
 
From The Tatler, 17th October 1962
The review is positive, though the reviewer, Elspeth Grant, viewed the film as a comedy. 


She begins:
‘Mr Ian Fleming’s Dr No is billed as “The First James Bond Film!” – and I don’t mind how many more the producers, Messrs Harry Saltzman and Albert R Broccoli, have up their sleeves, providing they are as much fun as this one, which Mr Terence Young has directed with skill.’

The review ends:
 

‘Mr Bond has so many perils to brave – it’s no wonder he feels it necessary to fortify himself with a stiff vodka martini at frequent intervals: by the end of this killing picture, you’ll probably want one yourself – if you can stop giggling long enough to drink it.’

Also included in the review is a sentence that has a ring of familiarity.
 

‘Every male will instantly identify himself with this devastating he-man, and no doubt many a swooning female will wish she had half the luck of the Misses Eunice Gayson, Lois Maxwell, Zena Marshall and the ravishing Ursula Andress.’

If not exactly a variant of Raymond Mortimer’s phrase, that James Bond is 'what every man would like to be, and what every woman would like to have between her sheets', Elspeth Grant’s line certainly conveys the same idea.