Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Paperback writers

This is an article from 2002 that I never managed to get published anywhere, despite it featuring original interviews with Martin Cruz Smith, John Gardner, Donald Hamilton and William Boyd. The first three I essentially just called up after tracking down their numbers, while I interviewed Boyd in person as part of my day job while he was promoting Any Human Heart. Several years later, he remembered me when I asked if he'd like to read my debut novel, and gave me an extremely generous endorsement for it.

I pitched this article to newspapers and magazines in the UK and US, but for a journalist with little track record it wasn't quite juicy enough. I still think it would have made a good feature for GQ or Esquire, though, if they'd taken the chance. On the plus side, I managed to talk to some of my favourite writers about their work, and learned a lot about thrillers in the process. There's a version of this at my official site, but I've added some images to present it afresh. Few of the film projects mentioned in the article panned out, and sadly John Gardner and Donald Hamilton are no longer with us, but this is a chance to read rare interviews with both of them, and journey back to the world of vintage spy paperbacks. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it.

Beyond Bond

With Modesty Blaise and Matt Helm both due to return to the silver screen, Jeremy Duns talks to some forgotten thriller writers coming in from the cold

Bond is back. Although the 50th anniversary of 007's first appearance, in Ian Fleming's Casino Royale, is actually next year, Penguin has nipped in early and has already reissued all the Bond novels in classy new covers to celebrate. A wise move, perhaps, considering the hype about to engulf us all: 2002 is also the 40th anniversary of the first Bond film, Dr No, and to help hammer that home, the 20th film in the series, Die Another Day (due out on November 22), promises to include several nods to classic Bond moments - including Halle Berry ascending from the ocean in a bikini, à la Honey Ryder. We're in for a Fleming fest.

But while 007 and his creator seem destined to hog the limelight in coming months, some old foes are lurking in the shadows, gathering strength to do battle with the tuxedoed super-spy once again.

Bond, James Bond is now such a dominant cultural figure that it’s easy to forget that Fleming fashioned him after adventure heroes such as The Scarlet Pimpernel, Bulldog Drummond and The Saint. But following the success of the first few films in the early Sixties, Bond began attracting imitators of his own: TV series such as The Man from U.N.C.L.E and Mission: Impossible, Hollywood films such as Our Man Flint, and a slew of gaudy paperbacks promising slick, sexy and sadistic secret agents.

Most of the 'Bond clones' have rightly been forgotten. But for every Man from O.R.G.Y. there was a Harry Palmer. Behind some of the scantily clad sirens on these now dusty covers lurk believable characters, gripping plots and dazzling prose. And there's an uncommon thrill to reading a twist on a familiar theme. John Braine's character Xavier Flynn, for example, featured in two novels in the Seventies: he works for a counter-espionage organisation that takes its codenames from CS Lewis' Narnia novels, drinks bison vodka and is a devout Catholic. William Garner wrote three books featuring an agent called Michael Jagger, who picks up society girls in the street and owns a Francis Bacon painting; strangely, nobody comments on his name. For those bored with the 'shaken, not stirred' formula, there are dozens of new iconographies to explore.

One writer who managed to mine similar territory to Fleming but created a substantial following of his own is Peter O’Donnell. A script-writer for newspaper comic strips – among them the Daily Express’ adaptation of Goldfinger – O'Donnell was asked in 1962 to come up with a new spy series. He remembered an incident when he had been stationed with the British Army in the Caucasus Mountains during the war: a 12-year-old girl had boldly walked into the camp looking for food. The girl inspired the character of Modesty Blaise, an orphan from Hungary who had grown up to head a global criminal organisation called The Network, before packing it all in to carry out hair-raising missions for the British government.

The strip appeared in the Evening Standard the following year – and has been there ever since. In 1966, it was made into a dreadful film starring Monica Vitti, Terence Stamp and Dirk Bogarde. Now, Hollywood is trying again: Miramax has already finished shooting My Name Is Modesty. It's directed by Scott Spiegel, but 'presented' by Quentin Tarantino, who has long harboured the wish to see the character return to the silver screen. It follows the Modesty's early years as a refugee and criminal, seemingly with the aim of introducing a series. Unknown British actress Alexandra Staden plays the lead.

O’Donnell isn’t in favour of the prequel idea, and says he won’t comment publicly on the film. But, in the meantime, his 13 novels featuring the character – arguably the best drawn female in the genre – are available at your nearest second-hand book emporium, and are well worth seeking out.

Modesty Blaise isn’t the only former Bond rival to be resurrected. Even MGM – the makers of the Bond films – are getting in on the act. In the mid-Nineties, they bought the rights to Elleston Trevor’s series about Quiller, a bitten-eared Cold War alley-cat of a British agent. It was reported that they planned to release a Quiller between each of Bond’s excursions, but so far nothing has materialised.

But perhaps the most surprising cold warrior to be slated for a comeback is Matt Helm. In February, Dreamworks announced that they have optioned Donald Hamilton’s 27 Helm thrillers, and that Gary Luketic (Legally Blonde) has already signed on to direct the first film.

Helm previously hit the silver screen in the Sixties, in four Bond spoofs starring Dean Martin. That carousing lush bore no relation to the Helm of the books, who was a ruthless government assassin. Hamilton himself is a little kinder on Dino: 'Well, he was not the guy I would have picked,' he says from his home in Gotland, off the coast of Sweden. 'He was never going to be as tough as I would have liked the character, but I think he did a pretty good job considering the baggage he came with.' Had he been given the choice, however, he says he would have picked Richard Boone for the role.

After writing several pulps and Westerns, Hamilton wrote his first Helm novel, Death of a Citizen, in 1960. 'I didn't know any killers or secret agents or anything. I was just looking to write about a good, violent character,' he says. At the start of the novel, Helm is a married photographer living in Santa Fe, but he is soon drawn back into a world he thought he had left behind in the war. The transformation from family man to killer is chilling, and it contains some of the greatest hardboiled prose outside Hammett and Chandler.

Although the character has often been called 'the American Bond', there are few similarities - Helm is a lanky, laconic Swedish-American who wouldn't know what to do with a tux - and Fleming was not yet very popular in the US in 1960. Still, Hamilton admits to being a Fleming admirer. And, like Bond's creator, he has never been popular with feminists. 'A lady came up to me at a party once and screamed that she detested my monstrous, misogynistic character Matt Helm,' he chuckles. What did you reply? "'That's too damn bad.'"

Now 86, Hamilton is increasingly frail, and losing his memory; our conversation is peppered with long pauses. Last year, he completed his 28th Helm adventure, The Dominators, which is set on the East Coast of the US and has Helm trying to stop a plot to assassinate the President. He says it will probably be his last novel, although he plans to write some short stories when he feels up to it.

Although over 20 million Helm books are estimated to have been published around the world, Hamilton's publisher, Ballantine, has declined to take up The Dominators, saying that there's no longer a market for this genre. Hamilton probably made more money from Martin's films than he ever did from his books, but he may have irreparably damaged his legacy in doing so. One can only hope that Dreamworks manage to produce a film worthy of his talent, and that the stain of being a Bond knockoff is finally removed from his character.

Another novelist stigmatised as being a 'mere thriller writer' is John Gardner, who holds a peculiar position in the genre: having penned a series of Bond parodies in the Sixties, he was approached by Glidrose, Ian Fleming's literary estate, in 1979 and asked if he would turn gamekeeper and continue the series proper.

After Fleming's death in 1964, Kingsley Amis had written one Bond novel, Colonel Sun, under the pen name Robert Markham. Now Glidrose were looking for someone to bring 007 to a new readership. 'We didn't want another Amis,' says Peter Janson-Smith, Fleming's former literary agent and Glidrose board member at the time. 'We reasoned that someone that famous wouldn't want to take on another writer's character for any length of time.'

Gardner, who had written numerous spy thrillers and a continuation of the Sherlock Holmes stories, fitted the bill. Still, he was reluctant. 'I didn’t fancy the idea at all,' he admits. 'But when I told my agent – Glidrose had approached me separately – he said "You know you could do it. And if you don’t, someone else will." Then I started thinking about accepting.'

When he did, he decided not to watch any more of the films, so as not to be distracted. He published Licence Renewed in 1981, and went on to write another 13 original Bond novels. But despite maintaining solid sales over the years, Gardner was much maligned by many Fleming aficionados, 'mainly for not being Ian Fleming', he says. Older fans blanched at a Bond who cried at funerals and visited EuroDisney, and Amis lambasted Gardner in the press for letting the agent smoke, drink and gamble less.

Does he regret having taken the job? 'In a way I do, yes. Bond is a formula, and I was intrigued by the idea of taking that on but, ultimately, it was a no-win situation from the start.'

Ironically, some of Gardner's earlier novels are more like Fleming than his Bond efforts (perhaps because they were written in the Sixties). His eight novels featuring Boysie Oakes, an assassin for the British government who is so squeamish that he sub-contracts his 'liquidations' out, are enormous fun. The first was made into a film in 1965, complete with Shirley Bassey title number. 'Boysie was a piss-take of Bond,' he says. 'But he was mine. Bond was never mine, and he always felt unreal to me. Nobody, however brave, is never afraid. So I tried to put a little of Boysie into him.'

In 1995, Gardner was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer. 'I didn't think I had much time,' he says. Without telling Glidrose how ill he was, he resigned from the job. Or, as Janson-Smith puts it: 'We mutually decided he was running out of steam.'

By the time Gardner had recovered, his wife had died of liver cancer, and a new Bond writer had been appointed: Raymond Benson, a computer-game designer and Fleming fanatic (his sixth novel, The Man With The Red Tattoo, was published earlier this year, and he is soon to 'novelize' Die Another Day). Gardner, elated to be alive, nevertheless felt bitterly disappointed with Glidrose. 'I was appalled that they chose an American,' he says, in an odd echo of Amis' scorn towards him.

Now in his mid-70s, Gardner lives in Basingstoke and continues to write every day. He is working on The Streets of Town, the second in a series about a female detective-sergeant in World War Two London (the first, Bottled Spider, has just been released in paperback). I ask him what has inspired him to write all these decades. 'Hunger, mainly,' he replies. 'And the desire to live extremely well.'

The survival instinct is strong in writers. Martin Cruz Smith, bestselling author of Gorky Park among many others, began his career dashing off thrillers under pseudonyms. Between 1972 and 1973, he wrote three Nick Carter adventures to feed his family: The Devil's Dozen, Code Name: Werewolf and The Inca Death Squad.

Carter was one of the most published characters in fiction – a detective in dime novels since the 19th century, he had been given a swift makeover in the Bond-fuelled spy fever of the early Sixties. By the Seventies, the gung-ho American agent for AXE was battling Russians, Arabs and Orientals around the world and bedding beautiful women along the way in what seemed like a new adventure every week. 'There isn’t a writer in America today who hasn't written a Nick Carter novel,' Cruz Smith notes wryly when I ask him how he got involved. 'Anyone who has been desperate enough has succumbed.'

Cruz Smith wrote each in six days flat, using locations he already knew well. 'I tried reading one recently, and couldn't make any sense of it at all,' he says. Despite his dismissiveness, all three show glimpses of the writer he would become. There are some particularly delicious descriptions: 'The odds of survival were slimmer than a scorpion's waist', for example. 'They're the closest to noir I ever came,' Cruz Smith says. He also admits to having a soft spot for The Devil's Dozen, in which Carter figures out a way of smuggling opium undetected. I won't give the method away - but it is pleasingly ingenious.
After Carter, an editor told Cruz Smith that he was looking for someone to write a new paperback series. 'I wasn't interested in another Nick Carter kind of thing, so I proposed my own series,' says Cruz Smith. 'I thought it was a fairly entertaining idea, and so did the editor - but we were about the only ones.' The Inquisitor, an assassin working for the Vatican, featured in six books, and they're all great fun. Particularly good is The Midas Coffin, in which our hero joins forces with a former British agent called James Carlin to steal 14 million dollars of gold. 'What those books taught me was pace,' says Cruz Smith. 'Then you need to learn how to step away from the pace.'

Cruz Smith's new novel, December 6, set on the eve of the attack on Pearl Harbour, is released in the UK this week, but he's already set his mind to the next, which will be the fifth in his Arkady Renko series. All he will reveal for now is that Renko returns to Russia, 'because that's pretty much all I know myself right now. I've got a few ideas, but those can change dramatically as I start to research the book.'
Cruz Smith has left his Cold War capers behind him, but a few so-called 'literary' writers are turning to just such stories for inspiration. In his 1997 novel Death Will Have Your Eyes, acclaimed American poet, crime writer and biographer James Sallis turned in a riff on the spy genre. 'I'd long been a fan of Donald Hamilton and Philip Atlee,' he says, 'And the novel began as a homage to them.' Sallis decided to take various clichés of the genre – the spy drawn unwillingly back into service, rendezvous with glamorous women and counteragents – and 'like a jazz musician working off a pop tune, see what might be in there.' The resulting novel is a winding road trip that becomes an elegy for the Cold War.

William Boyd – whose latest novel, Any Human Heart, has Ian Fleming as a minor character – is also considering writing an espionage novel. 'I think it’ll be in the Fifties – that’s period now. Spy thrillers probably need to be set before the Wall came down to deliver the full weight of the genre,' he says. 'I do feel like the Cold War has impinged on my life: I vividly remember being a terrified ten-year-old during the Cuban missile crisis.' He doesn’t have much time for the internet conspiracies of Clancy et al: 'I think technology has killed the spy story, in a way. When everyone's got a cell phone, you lose some of the tension. A Western doesn’t work if they’re driving jalopies around. They've got to be on horses with guns around their waists.'

As many established novelists hit middle age, could a new wave of Cold War spy thrillers emerge? If so, don’t be diverted by the continuing flurry over Fleming – you might miss out.


  1. This is fantastic, Jeremy! Thanks for sharing. I'm glad you've set up a spot like this for your extra projects. I'll dive in more thoroughly and add additional comments.

    -Jason (Spy Vibe)

  2. Thanks, Jason - glad you enjoyed it. Yes, please dig in!

  3. Good article, Jeremy! I gave both the article and your new blog a blurb on my own blog here:


  4. Thanks very much, Paul - much appreciated! Hope you enjoy some of the other stuff I'll be putting up here.