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.

3 comments:

  1. Edward
    Very interesting article about the early founders of the spy genre. With a genre new entrants are almost inevitably derived from their predecessors. Have you read David Salter's article on Artistic Licence Renewed, "JB: Last of the Clubland Heroes?". The dialog following it was really quite energetic on how Fleming was influenced. I'd value your views too.
    Best regards
    Raki

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    1. Hi Raki, thanks for your comment. Much appreciated. Glad you liked the article. I agree - the Bond novels developed out of what came before. You could pick an Oppenheim, Buchan, Le Queux and others almost at random and find common elements between them and Bond. But the Bond books are very different too, for which we can thank American detective fiction, WW2, and the fact that Fleming was a much better writer. Fleming himself questioned the relevance of characters like Bulldog Drummond. Yes, I have read David Salter's article. Very interesting. Undoubtedly another influence. It would be interesting to read post 1953/1962 Saint novels. Were they in turn influenced by Bond?
      Edward

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