Thursday, December 9, 2010

007 In Depth: Bloods Line

In a fascinating article on Raymond Chandler in The London Magazine in December 1959, Ian Fleming wrote that he felt that Chandler, who had died a few months earlier, would have been pleased at the obituary he had received in The Times:
‘I wish I had been the author so that I could have repaid him for the wonderful tribute he had written out of the kindness of his heart for me and my publishers. How pleased he and his publishers would have been with the final sentence in The Times: “His name will certainly go down among the dozen or so mystery writers who were also innovators and stylists; who, working the common vein of crime fiction, mined the gold of literature.”’1
Fleming returned to this theme in his article How To Write A Thriller four years later:
‘I also feel that, while thrillers may not be Literature with a capital L, it is possible to write what I can best describe as “thrillers designed to be read as literature”,whose practitioners have included such as Edgar Allan Poe, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Eric Ambler and Graham Greene. I see nothing shameful in aiming as high as these writers.’2
But despite creating one of the most iconic characters of the 20th century, Fleming has not joined the ranks of those widely regarded as having written ‘thrillers designed to be read as literature’. I say ‘despite’, but perhaps ‘because’ is more accurate. The unprecedented and sustained international popularity of the James Bond films has, I think, triggered in some critics an aversion to taking Fleming’s work seriously, partly through a desire to tear down success –Tall Poppy Syndrome – and partly through laziness.

In 2002, I interviewed the American thriller-writer Donald Hamilton, creator of the character Matt Helm. He told me how film producers had originally intended to make faithful adaptations of his novels, but when Dean Martin expressed an interest Hamilton was asked if he were willing to sacrifice fidelity to his work for a lot more money. Hamilton said that he felt he had already put in the work in the novels, and so chose long-term financial security. Perhaps that was the right choice for him, and hindsight is 20/20, but the result has been that the public’s image of Matt Helm today is of a character from a few half-forgotten spy spoofs from the Sixties, while Hamilton’s stark and taut thrillers, which in my view deserve to be seen as classics of the genre, have been all but completely forgotten.

The differences between Fleming’s novels and the Bond films are not as great as between Donald Hamilton’s books and the films of them, but I think there has been a somewhat similar result: the cinematic James Bond has come to dominate perceptions of both the character and of Fleming’s work. It has been commonplace for decades for writers to disparage the Bond novels while making reference to elements that only appear in the films. As I will explore in a later post, I think some influential critics have also deliberately sought to sabotage Fleming’s literary reputation – and succeeded.

As well as eclipsing Fleming’s novels, the Bond films have dominated the thriller since the 1960s, to the extent that critics appear to have suffered collective amnesia about the state of the genre prior to James Bond’s arrival on the scene. As I discussed in my last posts in this series, Conventional Thinking and A Carton of Old Hatstand Crackers, a handful of writers have been erroneously identified as Fleming’s key influences, with little evidence given in support, and their names repeated in dozens of articles, essays, documentaries and books about James Bond over the years. The context of the thriller before the publication of Casino Royale in 1953 has largely been glossed over, and as a result the current critical consensus on Fleming’s position within the genre is, in my view, badly flawed.

In this and the next few posts I’ll look at some of the writers Ian Fleming himself felt had influenced him. When asked who these were in October 1963, he mentioned four by name:
‘Two splendid American writers, the great masters of the modern thriller, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. I was influenced by these writers, by their extremely good style and the breadth and ingeniousness of their stories. I suppose, if I were to examine the problem in depth, I’d go back to my childhood and find some roots of interest in E. Phillips Oppenheim and Sax Rohmer. Perhaps they played an important part.’3
The previous year, in an interview with his editor William Plomer, Fleming gave a very similar answer to the question, and named the same four writers:
‘I think principally two American writers, the two great masters of the modern thriller, namely Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. I was very struck by those writers, as I know everybody else is. And particularly by their extremely good style and the verisimilitude of their stories. I should say those two Americans probably influenced me more than any other. But of course in one’s childhood one used to read the Phillips Oppenheim, Sax Rohmer, and bloods of those days and I suppose they all have played their little part too.’4
‘Bloods’ were the penny bloods, which were called ‘penny awfuls’ and ‘penny dreadfuls’ by their critics. They emerged in Britain in the 1830s, and featured lurid retellings of classic tales of highwaymen and famous criminals, as well as new stories about similar topics. They sold for a penny, and they sold in their millions. In 1879, they were joined by the Boys’ Own Paper, and a rash of similar publications aimed at children and adolescents followed. In 1893, Arthur Harmsworth created The Halfpenny Marvel as a morally upstanding alternative to the bloods. This and other Harmsworth publications, such as The Union Jack and Pluck, were rapidly nicknamed ‘ha’penny dreadfullers’, and soon became indistinguishable from the papers they had been intended to displace.

As well as gothic and gruesome stories, penny bloods featured a lot of crime fiction. Edgar Allan Poe’s detective C. Auguste Dupin had first appeared in 1841, and was a major influence on Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, who debuted in 1887. Inspired by the ‘dime novel’ in the United States, as the 20th century began penny bloods increasingly featured intrepid heroes uncovering wide-ranging plots by dastardly foreigners. The heroes were often detectives, policemen, secret agents or amateur adventurers, and sometimes these roles were blurred.

The “prince of the penny dreadfuls” was the detective Sexton Blake. Created by Henry Blyth and first appearing in The Halfpenny Marvel in 1893, Blake went on to be featured in stories in The Union Jack, The Penny Popular, Penny Pictorial, The Boys’ Friend, Detective Weekly, The Thriller, Knock-Out, and even had his own magazine, The Sexton Blake Library. Blake is one of the most successful and long-running fictional characters in the English language, with more than 3,000 stories about him having been written by over 200 authors.

Although Blake was initially rather a different character from Sherlock Holmes, he soon began to resemble him, including living in Baker Street. But the Blake stories usually placed much more emphasis on physical derring-do than Conan Doyle’s. While Professor Moriarty, ‘the Napoleon of Crime’, was one of fiction’s earliest super-villains, Blake – along with his boy assistant Tinker – took on dozens of such characters. These included Dr Ferraro, who threatens to blow up London if he is not paid a million pounds, Dr Satira, who lords it over a tribe of missing links and is assisted by a dwarf, and Monsieur Zenith, a ‘crimson-eyed’ albino who always wore immaculate evening dress.

In The Jungle Boy, published in 1905, Blake and Scotland Yard’s Inspector Dart travel to India, where they are captured by the smoothly sinister Nawab Pershad Jung:
‘Sexton Blake was a brave man, and his courage did not desert him. But well he knew that he had walked into a death-trap, and that no mercy would be shown. His suspicions had been correct, after all.

“You treacherous cur!” he said fiercely to the Nawab. “You must be mad, to commit such an outrage! Are you blind to the inevitable consequences? I defy you to harm us! You have our friends at Dindigal to reckon with, and the political agent at your court! An army will be sent to destroy you!”

“I am not afraid,” scoffed Pershad Jung. “Why should I fear? The political agent is far away at Madras, and I am as much lord here as was my father before the Great Mutiny. As for your friends, they may learn that you left Narpur for the south, but if they seek farther, they will believe that you perished in the jungle fire. My people are devoted to me, and not a man, woman, or child in Talnagore will ever admit that they have seen you. The servants of Carnac sahib, to whom you spoke yesterday, do not belong to Kossa, and cannot be trusted; but they will be disposed of in a manner that will cause no suspicion when their master returns.”

“You mean to murder them?” cried Sexton Blake. “And what of ourselves?”

“You shall die to-morrow morning, sahibs,” the Nawab calmly told them, “when my jungle pets are hungry for their breakfast.”’5
The pets, of course, turn out to be tigers, kept in an underground chamber of Pershad Jung’s palace.

Blake also battled criminal syndicates. In The Yellow Tiger, published in 1915 in the first issue of The Sexton Blake Library, Blake is employed by the Secret Service after the Munitons Minister is kidnapped from a golf course in Devon by Prince Wu Ling, an Oriental criminal mastermind working for Germany. Blake discovers that Wu Ling, head of The Brotherhood of The Yellow Beetle, is in league with the Council of Eleven, an organisation run entirely for profit and who were earlier foes of Blake. In The Yellow Tiger, Blake flies a Moth monoplane he has designed and built himself, and which he calls The Grey Panther. In the 1920s, Blake would drive a bullet-proof Rolls Royce Silver Ghost with the same nickname.

In March 1939, a new comic book appeared, Knock-Out, and Blake featured in it from the first issue. The first strip, Sexton Blake and The Hooded Stranger, saw him working on behalf of the British Secret Service to disrupt a plot by the eponymous villain to arm a dictator’s air force with a new super bomber. The dictator, General Bomgas, operates from a massive tank that travels underwater and from a secret island called, well, The Secret Island, which is home to a huge armaments base hidden inside a crater.

Having defeated The Hooded Stranger and General Bomgas, Blake was put on a more formal footing with the intelligence services, who were by now engaged in a real war against a real dictator. Blake’s next adventure in Knock-Out, beginning in December 1939, was titled Sexton Blake on Secret Service, and dealt with stolen submarines, secret Nazi weapons and the machinations of ‘Germany’s master spy’ The Penguin.

After the war, Blake continued his adventures in Knock-Out, chasing down villains by jumping out of aeroplanes or steering them off the road in sports cars. As the Knock-Out series progressed, it featured a larger dose of science fiction and supernatural elements, with several ‘lost city’ stories harking back to the 19th-century adventures of Jules Verne and Rider Haggard. Blake’s appearance also changed: in The Hooded Stranger, he had the long face, receding hairline and aquiline nose familiar to illustrations from the Halfpenny Marvel, but as a secret agent Blake was much more conventionally handsome.

In 1952, the year before the publication of the first Bond novel, Blake featured in a Knock-Out strip titled Sexton Blake and The City of Doom, in which he and Tinker travel to a city hidden within a remote mountain in Asia, where they suspect brilliant scientists have been kidnapped by a crazed villain called Vogel. Eavesdropping on a discussion in Vogel’s conference room, Blake discovers he is using the scientists as slave labour to create atomic weapons, with which he will issue an ultimatum to the world. Vogel unmasks Blake (he was posing as a scientist) and straps him to a machine in his laboratory that will turn him into his slave along with the others. ‘It will be useful to have your clever brain at my command, Blake!’ he says.

Ian Fleming may not have read this particular story, but he had probably read many like it, and elements similar to it can be found in Moonraker, Dr No and Goldfinger. There is no evidence that Fleming read any Sexton Blake stories, but considering his reference to penny dreadfuls influencing his work it seems hard to imagine he hadn’t come across the prince of them. The Blake stories were often highly derivative of other writers, some of whom were, I think, more of a direct influence on Fleming. But even before John Buchan, Sapper or Dornford Yates had become best-selling authors, many of the conventions that can be seen in the James Bond novels were being played out every week to an audience of millions in stories about Sexton Blake and others, in the ‘bloods of those days’.

1. Raymond Chandler by Ian Fleming, The London Magazine, December 1959.
2. How to Write a Thriller by Ian Fleming, p59 Show, August 1962.
3. Counterpoint by Roy Newquist, Rand McNally, 1964.
4. ‘The Writer Speaks’, Ian Fleming and William Plomer, 1962, courtesy the Archives and Special Collections, Durham University Library. For more information about this interview, see my earlier post in this series, William Plomer Interviews Ian Fleming, 1962.
5. The Jungle Boy, Union Jack, Volume 4 Issue 85, May 27 1905, Amalgamated Press.

This is part of 007 In Depth, a series of articles on Ian Fleming and James Bond.

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