Thursday, May 6, 2010

How I write a thriller

Timothy Hallinan, author of the Poke Rafferty series, has an excellent blog, in which he often looks at the process of writing. A couple of months ago he sent out a request for submissions from novelists on how they planned their books: did they plot rigidly in advance, or did they wing it, or a mix of the two, and if so what mix? He has called the series ‘Plotting vs Pantsing’ and it has so far featured some very thought-provoking essays from, among others, Rachel Brady, Stephen Jay Schwarz, Bill Crider, Rebecca Cantrell and Jamie Freveletti. I also contributed a short essay, and you can read it at Tim’s blog here, or below, where I’ve reproduced it.

Get there

I’ve written two novels and am now writing my third, and each time it’s been different, but generally speaking I’m a ‘pantser’, ie I write by the seat of my pants. I usually write a synopsis that takes me through each chapter, but I don’t go into too much detail and it changes a lot as I go along. Writing the novel is my outline. I wrote my first book in a more linear way, and got into problems as a result. Now I start by writing tons of notes, ideas, fragments of scenes, snatches of dialogue, and when I’ve built up a large body of words, 40,000 or so, the structure starts to solidify.

At this point I tend to lose a lot of material as I realize that some scenes weren’t as exciting plot developments as I thought they would be, or simply don’t fit with other developments that I prefer. That can be frustrating, but I console myself with the thought that if I had prepared a very detailed plot outline in advance I’d have made the same or similar mistakes, but with heavier consequences: I usually cut material that is still only partially formed, so it’s less of a sacrifice. One of the reasons I don’t write very detailed outlines is because I’m worried I’ll change my mind later. Something might seem perfect right now but in three months I might wake up in the middle of the night with the realization that it’s completely wrong. Or perhaps not even wrong: perhaps I’ll just be bored of the idea by then.

I want to write the kind of books I like to read, and they involve suspense. I’m writing a trilogy in the first person, and my character is a secret agent in trouble: so to a certain extent I also have to be in trouble. I like twists, but I find they’re often most effective if, like my narrator, I don’t see them coming. I want to know my protagonist, inside and out, but then to throw him into impossible situations and see how he gets out of them. I find plotting out too much in advance can suck the spontaneity and intensity from my writing, and I value both of those features above most others.

That said, I usually have a few plot points or scenes I want to include going in. With my first novel, Free Agent, I knew before I started writing that it would be set in the Biafran War and told from the perspective of a double agent. I also knew roughly how it began and ended, and had an idea of what kind of novel I wanted it to be. I nearly wrote ‘clear idea’, but it wasn’t really clear. It was strong. Just as you can wake with a very vague or even no memory of the dream you just had, but nevertheless have a very powerful sense of the mood of it, I had known in my gut what I wanted to write. I can articulate it now as, roughly, something that had the following elements and tones:

Spy thriller
Set in the late 60s
Cold War tensions to the fore
In Africa – feel the heat and the culture
Suspenseful action scenes that can match Bourne and Bond
But also character studies that are more like Greene or le Carré
So no silly gadgets or explosions
Dark, gritty and bleak
Conflicted and trapped first-person narrator
Laconic humour laced in
Real Cold War and espionage history integrated and revealed
Real history of this forgotten civil war
Unusual love story/obsession

Along with a few specific plot and character ideas and sense-memories from my childhood in Nigeria, I carried most of the above with me the whole time I wrote Free Agent – without ever writing them down as I just have. But when my drafts were nowhere near reaching the above, my instincts pushed me to make it happen. I felt that as long as I kept writing I would be able to fill in all the gaps and make the impression I had of the novel a reality.

With my second and third books, I wrote down a lot more about what kind of novels I wanted them to be before I started writing. But I still wanted to keep something of the feel I was looking for unarticulated, held back in my subconscious. With the second, Free Country, my thoughts about setting changed early on, which entailed a lot more research. But in each case I’ve had clear ideas about the beginning and end, some strong impressions of the tone of the books, of the mood of my protagonist and what’s at stake for him and those around him.

My methodology changed somewhat between writing my first and second novels: it became less structured. I wrote Free Agent in the evenings and weekends, handing in new chapters to a writing group as I went along. I wrote my second as a full-time author in a year. I was naturally worried that it wouldn’t be as good as my first, which took me seven years to write (albeit with a full-time job and no external deadline). So I attacked the second in a very different way: I thought a lot and researched a lot, then worked out a very rough synopsis and started writing, 1,000 words a day, throwing anything and everything down. It helped that I felt I had succeeded in my goals with Free Agent. Not only had it been accepted by a publisher, who had then shown faith in me by buying the next two books in the trilogy, but I felt that I had written the book I had wanted to. So I had a lot more faith in myself that I would get where I wanted, eventually. This helped when I became blocked or encountered problems.

Not having a very detailed outline means you will encounter problems, but I don’t think you can necessarily work your way out of them with outlines. At least, I don’t think I can. I think in drafting a novel it may be that there comes a point where structure, character and plot are almost irrelevant, or rather that they are no longer concrete or tangible to the writer. You can prepare very carefully and research and plot everything out, but at some point your instinct comes into play. For want of a better word, you feel the book. You realise what it needs, what it’s missing, and you set to work giving it that. You’re not really thinking about why a certain idea or scene or even line will make sense. You just feel that it will. Sometimes I can be blocked for weeks, and wish I had been more organized at the outset and had done a ‘proper’ outline of the book, scene by scene. But then I can make enormous strides in minutes, changing the book with very radical decisions that months earlier I would have been terrified of making, but which now, somehow, I know will work. This isn’t something you can put on index cards. It’s about living the book, with all its problems and setbacks. Index cards and detailed outlining work fantastically well for some writers, but they’re not for me, and there’s no shame in it. All writers are working around a group of ideas until they manage to craft a piece they are proud of and prepared to send out into the world – it doesn’t really matter how we get there, as long as we do.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Commando Bond

Spy novelist Jeremy Duns takes an in-depth look at 007's ties to special forces

'MI6 looks for maladjusted young men who'd give little thought to sacrificing others to protect Queen and country. You know – former SAS types with easy smiles and expensive watches…'

So says Vesper Lynd to James Bond in the 2006 film Casino Royale. Although it doesn’t get as much mileage in the finished film as it did in the press before its release, Casino Royale took a daring approach to the Bond mythos, presenting an ‘origin story’ for the character. Bond is a newly appointed member of MI6’s Double O Section – the film opens with him earning his stripes by cold-bloodedly murdering a traitor – and it would appear from his reaction to Vesper’s comment that she has hit home and that he is in fact a 'former SAS type'. This was confirmed by the film's official website, which provided a chronology of Bond's pre-MI6 career, including a military dossier detailing his time at Britannia Royal Naval College, his intelligence role on HMS Exeter and special forces training at Plymouth and Brize Norton. The site even claimed Bond had been part of an invented outfit called '030 Special Forces Unit'.

Special forces have developed a particular image in popular culture in recent years. Britain's SAS is probably the world’s best known special forces outfit, having featured in dozens of films, books and magazine articles, many of them generated by the worldwide media interest surrounding the storming of the Iranian Embassy in London in 1980 after terrorists took hostages inside, which was screened live on British television (pictured).

Members of the SAS have a popular image as gung-ho operators who shoot first and ask questions later: not really the type to create their own cocktails (or sport easy smiles). The use of tough SAS types in fiction has also become something of a cliché, with a whole genre being formed in the wake of Andy McNab's 1993 memoir of an SAS operation in Iraq, Bravo Two Zero. It's not quite James Bond territory. Or...?

In an article in Time published on November 10 2002, shortly before the release of Die Another Day, Lee Tamahori, the director of that film, made the following remark about the direction he felt the character had been taken in the previous few films:
‘“I was worried that he was turning into an SAS man, machine-gunning everyone,” says Tamahori. “I've been trying to make him more of an Ian Fleming Bond.”’
This is a misapprehension. While copious use of a machine gun is not a hallmark of Ian Fleming’s novels, the idea that James Bond might be an SAS man is not out of keeping with them. In fact, Fleming included several clues that point to James Bond having just such a type of background.

The Special Air Service did not always have the popular reputation it has today. The group was founded by David Stirling (left) in 1941 to undertake acts of sabotage behind enemy lines. The son of a Scottish general, Stirling began a degree in architecture at Trinity College, Cambridge, but his studies were curtailed by his fondness for the local nightlife. He was eventually read out a list of 23 offences and asked to choose the three for which he wished to be sent down. He then decided to become the first man to climb Everest and enlisted in the Supplementary Reserves of the Scots Guards – he trained in the Swiss Alps and the Rockies. When war broke out he was 24, and was sent to the Guards Depot in Pirbright:
'Pirbright was a mere hour from the attractions of London. During one lecture, possibly after a night at White's Club or the gaming tables, Stirling fell asleep. He probably fell asleep in many, but on this occasion he was woken by the lecturer, asking him to repeat what had just been said. Stirling repeated it verbatim.'1
After this, Stirling volunteered for an expeditionary force setting off to fight a winter campaign in Finland – ski training was in Chamonix – before joining the commando group Layforce, after which he founded the SAS.

It is difficult to imagine a more 'James Bondish' background than this, but Stirling is one of the few leading commandos from World War Two not to have been claimed as a model for 007. Fleming was certainly inspired by the real-life experience of such men, however, as he made clear in an interview with Playboy published after his death:
'I think [Bond is] slightly more true to the type of modern hero, to the commandos of the last War, and so on, and to some of the secret-service men I've met, than to any of the rather cardboardy heroes of the ancient thrillers.'2
Fleming knew several heroic commandos and secret-service men who had served in the war. Perhaps the best known among them is Patrick Leigh Fermor, who worked for the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in Crete, where he led the party that kidnapped General Kreipe in 1944. That mission was immortalised in W Stanley Moss' book Ill Met By Moonlight, published in 1950, which was made into a film in 1957, with Dirk Bogarde playing Leigh Fermor.

In an afterword for the 2001 edition of Moss' book, Leigh Fermor wrote about the operation for the first time. He modestly refuted the 'Baroness Orczy - John Buchan - Dornford Yates' status that the episode has gained over the years, but at the same time revealed that during a prolonged stay in Cairo with SOE colleagues, the villa they had stayed in had been filled with gelignite disguised as goat's droppings, magnetised trouser buttons that turned into compasses and gossamer-thin maps stitched into the lining of clothing. Many of these items were created by a Major Jasper Maskelyne, who Leigh Fermor recognised as a stage magician he had seen perform in London as a child 3.

After the war, Leigh Fermor took up writing, drafting some of his first book, The Traveller's Tree, during a stay at Goldeneye in 1948. He loved Fleming's Jamaican retreat and commented in his book that it could become a model for new houses in the tropics 4. The two men became friends, and Fleming repaid Fermor’s plug for Goldeneye by quoting a long passage on voodoo from The Traveller's Tree in Live and Let Die.

Another of Fleming's friends mentioned in his novels was David Niven, whose manners Kissy Suzuki so admires that she names her cormorant after him. Niven also served as a commando of sorts in World War Two: while serving with 'Phantom', the regiment responsible for ferreting out information in forward areas and radioing it back to GHQ, he worked on joint operations with the SAS, whose command it came under from 1944 5.

Another friend, Antony Terry, was captured during Operation CHARIOT, the daring commando raid on the harbour installations at Saint-Nazaire in 1942, and was awarded the Military Cross for it 6. After the war, he worked for Fleming's Mercury News, as well as continuing his contacts with MI6, and in 1960, he guided Fleming around Berlin, helping him with much of the research for the short story The Living Daylights 7.

Closer to home, Ian Fleming's brother Peter was also engaged in commando work during the war. In 1940, he and 'Mad Mike' Calvert – who later found fame with the SAS – prepared for a guerrilla defence of Britain in the event of a German invasion. Later that year, Peter Fleming led a reconnaissance party into the Norwegian port of Namsos and the following year he formed and took a small commando team to Greece (the latter mission under the auspices of SOE). Neither expedition was a great success: Peter was reported to have been killed in Norway and an obituary even ran in The Daily Sketch, causing his family great distress until he arrived, alive and well, in Scotland. It may be that this episode later gave Ian the idea for Bond's false obituary in You Only Live Twice: it can be useful for a secret agent to have the world believe him dead.

In Greece, the Yak Mission, as Peter's group was nicknamed, wrecked the path of advancing German paratroops – Peter even booby-trapped a bridge by fitting a London double-decker bus with flame-throwers on it – before it was attacked from the air near the island of Milos. A 400-ton yacht that had been commandeered by the Navy burst into flames and sank, and Peter was again very lucky to come out alive 8.

Playing Red Indians

Peter Fleming was also a celebrated travel writer and journalist. His novel The Sixth Column, published in 1951, was a gentle send-up of the thrillers he had enjoyed growing up, and was dedicated to Ian, also an aficionado of the genre. One of the main characters is a former commando called Archie Strume, who has great success with a thriller based on his war-time experiences called Hackforth of The Commandos. Colonel Hackforth is always saying things like:
'Tell the Minister of Defence to have a midget submarine alongside the Harwich customs jetty not later than last light on Tuesday. It's important.’9
The Sixth Column may have been a spur for Ian Fleming to knuckle down and write his own thriller, which he had been promising to do since the war: he started writing Casino Royale just a few months after the publication of his brother’s book. Archie Strume and Colonel Hackforth were partially based on the author Dennis Wheatley – who Peter had become friends with during the war – and his secret agent character Gregory Sallust, but the references to wartime commando adventures involving midget submarines may have been for Ian’s eyes only.

In 1942, Ian Fleming set up what he liked to call his ‘Red Indians’. No. 30 Assault Unit was a small roving commando outfit made up of men from the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force. Its task was to go in after the first wave of Allied attacks and scavenge for technical intelligence: codes, weapons, equipment, maps and documents left behind by the Germans. The commanding officers were Dunstan Curtis, who had played a leading role in the Saint Nazaire raid, and the Antarctic explorer Quentin Riley 10.

One of 30 AU’s most enterprising officers was Lieutenant-Commander Patrick Dalzel-Job RNVR, who led missions in France, Belgium and Germany in the latter stages of the war. Dalzel-Job had an unusual background: after the death of his father in the Somme, he spent his formative years in Switzerland, where he learned to cross-country ski and speak French fluently. While still in his twenties, he built his own schooner and sailed to Norway with his middle-aged mother and a Norwegian schoolgirl as his crew.

This experience stood him in good stead when the war came. In April 1940, when Peter Fleming was in Namsos, Dalzel-Job was in Narvik, where he countermanded orders not to evacuate civilians. Later on, he worked behind the scenes developing the Royal Navy’s midget submarines, used in the attack on the Tirpitz, and finally went behind enemy lines with 30 AU, where among other things, he accepted the formal surrender of the city of Bremen and captured the Nazis’ own midget submarines.

Dalzel-Job did not care overly for his boss back in London, finding Ian Fleming cold, austere and egotistical, although he appreciated his ‘amusing and pungent’ minutes on operational intelligence reports 11. Dalzel-Job’s ‘Nelson touch’ even brought him into conflict with Fleming at the end of the war, when he sent a signal to the British Flag Officer in Oslo as though it were from the Admiralty, sending himself on a fairly pointless mission to Norway so he could find the schoolgirl he had sailed with before the war. Fleming was furious at not being consulted, and gave Dalzel-Job an earful about it, but off he went, found the girl, and married her.

Another member of 30 AU who saw action in France was Tony Hugill. Also a lieutenant-commander in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve , he was awarded the Croix de Guerre for his part in D-Day and won the Distinguished Service Cross for taking the surrender of 280 troops under a Luftwaffe officer at a radio station near Brest. From 1945-6, he led the Forward Interrogation Unit in Hamburg, Germany.

After the war, Hugill went into the sugar industry, managing Tate and Lyle's West Indian operations between 1954 and 1966. In Fleming's last novel, The Man With The Golden Gun, Bond is vouched for by local sugar executive Tony Hugill, who, we learn in Chapter 4, was in Naval Intelligence during the war: 'sort of Commando job'. Bond's cover name for this mission, Mark Hazard, may have been inspired by the title of Hugill's war memoirs, The Hazard Mesh, published in 1946, but if so Fleming either hadn't read the book or was in a generous mood, because Hugill's depiction of him (although he is not named) is not flattering:
'One of the Admiralty pundits signalled us that he was about to honour us with a visit. We none of us liked him much. He was one of those very superior professorial type R.N.V.R.s who got their claws into Their Lordships early in the war and have kept them in ever since. As our proprietary deity he felt himself entitled to demand offerings of Camembert and libations of captured cognac of the better sort (But my dear feller this stuff's undrinkable!) from time to time. He also interfered with us on a higher level.'12
In contrast to the popular perception of commandos today, the British commandos Fleming knew from the war were often, beneath their tough exteriors, cultured men of great sensitivity: Patrick Leigh-Fermor and Peter Fleming were both acclaimed travel writers, Tony Hugill’s memoirs are filled with poetry and Patrick Dalzel-Job’s autobiography is, at root, a love story.

Fleming never saw action in the field himself, although he may have liked to have done. John Pearson recounted in his biography that Fleming liked to tell people, Gatsby-ishly, that he had once killed a man, but that the story seemed to change with each telling 13, and some of his other claims of prowess have been similarly questioned.

This sense of inconsistency extended to James Bond. In his fiction, Fleming made use of those real-life episodes he found most fascinating and exciting; ensuring that all of his novels' re-imagined tidbits meshed together was of secondary concern. For example, Fleming fans the world over know that James Bond killed twice in cold blood to obtain his licence to kill – nobody cares to dwell on the irritatingly inconvenient sentence in Chapter 19 of From Russia, With Love in which Fleming baldly states:
'Bond had never killed in cold blood.'
The two killings described in Casino Royale are both examples of operations usually undertaken by special forces: assassinations. Governments and conventional intelligence services cannot be seen to sanction extra-judicial murder, so such jobs inevitably fall to less accountable units. As Bond's second kill, in Stockholm, involved a Norwegian 'who was doubling against us for the Germans', it appears that both these missions took place during the war. According to MRD Foot’s official history of the SOE, Stockholm had been the initial base for that organisation’s activity in Scandinavia 14, so perhaps Fleming had heard of a similar operation through intelligence contacts and embellished it 15.

Bond's first 'wet job', in New York's Rockefeller Center, was inspired by Fleming's visit to the British Security Co-ordination's offices in the same building in June 1941; he accompanied BSC officers as they burgled a Japanese cipher clerk's office on the floor below theirs 16. The clerk was unharmed, but SOE, whose affairs in the Western hemisphere were controlled by the BSC in New York 17, did have an assassination capability. This was officially abandoned at the end of the war, but many SOE officers joined MI6, so the expertise may have remained in place 18. During the war, SOE operatives were commonly referred to as ‘terrorists’ by the Nazis; MRD Foot, who was a member of SAS during the war, recalls being captured and over-hearing one of his interrogators saying: ‘If he is a terrorist he is shot at once’ 19.

After the war, the SAS evolved into more of a counter-insurgency regiment; the 1969 Army Training manual stated that its tasks included 'the ambush and harassment of insurgents, the infiltration of sabotage, assassination and demolition parties into insurgent-held areas, border surveillance liaison with, and organisation of friendly guerrilla forces operating against the common enemy' 20. The SAS executed some of these responsibilities in the Mau-Mau rebellion in Kenya during the 1950s and in Aden in 1967 21. More recently, it has seen action in Aghanistan, Northern Ireland, Gibraltar and, latterly, Iraq.

Despite the above rather lurid description, members of the SAS have not always approved of assassination. When I asked former SAS sergeant Jacques Goffinet in 2005 if he had been tempted to assassinate Joachim von Ribbentrop when he discovered him in hiding in a flat in Hamburg in June 1945, he replied simply: 'That would have made me as bad as them.'22

James Bond is often concerned with the same dilemma: outside of the episodes mentioned in Casino Royale, he makes for a rather shaky assassin. In the short story Octopussy, he travels to Jamaica on a private war crimes investigation. His target is Dexter Smythe, who as a member of the Miscellaneous Objectives Bureau – a (fictional) wartime commando outfit formed by the Secret Service and Combined Operations – had murdered one of his early mentors. But while Bond had no qualms about murdering double agents or cipher clerks, this time he does not draw his weapon, leaving Smythe the options of suicide or disgrace.

In The Living Daylights, Bond's mission is strategically defensive – to stop another assassination – but here he also has reservations, and deliberately muffs the assignment because of the 'sharp pang of longing' he feels for his female target – a sackable offence, as he admits himself at the end of the story. In For Your Eyes Only, Bond undertakes the mission to assassinate Von Hammerstein as retribution for the murder of M's friends: an 'eye for an eye' job. In the event, however, the deed is done by the friends' daughter, although Bond kills another of the villains and comforts the girl afterwards. In The Man With The Golden Gun, Bond is a little less circumspect, eventually shooting Scaramanga five times.

The use of weapons

James Bond is neither straightforward assassin nor pure commando in Ian Fleming's novels: most of the time he works as a counter-espionage agent, sent by M to head off an emerging threat, rather than initiating offensive action against the enemy. Nevertheless, Fleming incorporated many details of war-time commandos into his novels: apart from the references to old colleagues and friends who had been involved in special forces, Q Branch's weapons and gadgets parallel the work done by similar departments in SOE and elsewhere. Bond's self-reliance and stamina are reminiscent of the commando ethic, as is his basic fitness regimen described in Chapter 11 of From Russia, With Love. His habit of taking Benzedrine was also common practice among commandos during the war, when remaining alert for long periods was often necessary.

Bond is also a martial arts aficionado – we know from M's obituary in You Only Live Twice that he founded the first judo class in a British public school. In Chapter 10 of the same novel, Tiger Tanaka tells Bond he will show him one of his service's secret ninja academies in the mountains, and Bond replies that MI6 also has a commando training school for unarmed combat attached to its headquarters. This is an example of Fleming carrying details across his books successfully, because in Chapter 8 of Moonraker Bond is happy to have his Unarmed Combat class with 'that dam' Commando chap' cancelled for a meeting with M. He is clearly a good student, though, because in the first chapter of Goldfinger we find him nursing the hand that has killed a Mexican with a 'Parry Defence against Underhand Thrust out of the book' and a hand-edge blow to the Adam's Apple that had been 'the standby of the Commandos'. A little later, in Chapter 5, we learn that Bond is writing Stay Alive!, a 'handbook of all methods of unarmed combat'.

But Bond also uses weapons, of course. In Chapter 18 of Live and Let Die, he tries to kill an octopus using a commando dagger 'of the type devised by Wilkinson's during the war'. This would be the Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife (pictured), issued to the SAS and other special forces outfits and eventually adopted as the Commando Association's emblem. It is still made by Wilkinson's, still in use by British special forces 23 and is currently the shoulder-flash of the Royal Marine Commandos 24.

The idea that this character has had some sort of experience with special forces is not implausible – but what form might that have taken? In his book The James Bond Dossier, Kingsley Amis wondered what a Commander from Naval Intelligence had been doing in the Ardennes sector in 1944 25 (which Bond recollects in Chapter Nine of Dr No). This may simply have been an oversight on Fleming's part, like the 'cold blood' boo-boo in From Russia, With Love, but it may also have been deliberate. In his obituary in You Only Live Twice, M tells us that Bond joined the Special Branch of the RNVR in 1941. Between that date and 1944, Peter Fleming undertook missions for both MI R and SOE; army intelligence officer Antony Terry was captured in a naval commando raid; RAF men took part in 30 AU's amphibious landings with Royal Naval Commandos; and Patrick Leigh Fermor and SOE colleagues arranged for guides to help Special Boat Service (SBS) officers across the mountains of Crete 26.

World War Two was a time of irregular warfare, and resourceful young men barging into offices in Whitehall demanding to mount their own raids against the Nazis were surprisingly common. Dozens of small commando units were formed, changed names or were subsumed into larger groups during the war, and as a result some enterprising men had extremely varied resumes by the cessation of hostilities. Churchill also set up Combined Operations under Lord Mountbatten, which ensured that commando groups worked together (like Dexter Smythe's outfit in Octopussy). For Operation FRANKTON, for example, a raid on Bordeaux Harbour in December 1942, the Royal Marine Boom Patrol's Detachment used limpet mines that had been developed by SOE 27 – or 'those things our saboteurs used against ships in the war', as Bond describes them in Chapter 15 of Live and Let Die (later in the book he attaches a limpet mine to the hull of the Secatur). FRANKTON was masterminded by Herbert ‘Blondie’ Hasler, who went on to play a leading role in the founding of the Special Boat Service (SBS), a sister service to the SAS. The operation was the subject of the 1955 film The Cockleshell Heroes, produced by Cubby Broccoli and co-written by Richard Maibaum.

Against this background, it is not so unlikely for someone in the Special Branch of the RNVR to have heard machine-gun fire in the Ardennes. Unless Fleming meant for Bond to have been an infantry soldier at the Battle of the Bulge – which seems even more unlikely for someone in the RNVR – by far the most likely way for him to have been in the area would have been on a special forces mission. SOE's Operation CITRONELLE, which sought out maquis in the Ardennes in April 1944, for example: he could have been a member of one of the famous Jedburgh teams, all of which contained one Brit, one American and one Frenchman – early training for working with Felix Leiter and René Mathis, perhaps! SOE produced more than its fair share of successes during the war: one of its best-known agents was the Polish-born countess Krystyna Skarbek, best known as Christine Granville. 28

However, the most plausible explanation would be that Bond was seconded to the SAS: it drew and still draws men from all armed forces (the 'Air' in its name was used to fit in with an earlier deception operation), and undertook several missions in the Ardennes during 1944 29. Fleming may have heard about one of these operations from David Niven or another friend who had worked with the regiment, and stored it away as being a suitable field of operation for Bond during the war. 30 AU also undertook reconnaissance work in Belgium at around this time.

Post-Fleming, 007’s special forces ties have often been emphasized: John Gardner – who served in the Royal Marines’ 42 Commando during the war – had Bond train with the SAS and the SBS in his novels 30, and the relationship has been even more overt onscreen: the closing scenes of many of the films, for example, are spectacular commando-like raids on villains' lairs. HALO jumps, bungee jumps, parachute landings and shooting while skiing are all areas of special forces expertise. Casino Royale continues the series' habitual nods to special forces work: as well as Vesper's appraisal, Bond holds up an embassy single-handedly and engages in plenty of hand-to-hand combat – he seems to have paid attention in his classes with that dam' Commando.

In his introduction to the 2005 edition of Jane’s Specal Forces Recognition Guide, Lieutenant-Colonel Ewen Southby-Tailyour, a veteran of four commando outfits, wrote that the dividing line between forces – military, police, special and elite, intelligence-gathering or other – is often blurred, especially in the military, and pointed to the then- (and still-) current geo-political climate as a catalyst for the increasing use of special forces’ unconventional methods:
‘It might now be argued that with the general proliferation of worldwide terrorism all military forces and most police forces should be trained for unconventional operations: certainly there should be considerably more awareness of, and training for, asymmetric warfare.’31
The Bond novels and films have never purported to be plausible portrayals of clandestine work: they are fantastic adventures with one toe in the real world. James Bond is an amalgamation and elaboration of the most exciting bits of espionage and commando lore, filtered through the prodigious imagination of his creator. He is not, therefore, an out and out commando. But as a back story for the character, 'former SAS type' is not out of place: it is entirely fitting with his heritage.

I would like to thank MRD Foot and Lieutenant-Colonel Ewen Southby-Tailyour for their help and advice with this article.


1. p4 The Originals: The Secret History of The Birth of the SAS In Their Own Words by Gordon Stevens, Ebury Press, 2005.
2. The Playboy Interview: Ian Fleming by Ken Purdy, Playboy, December 1964.
3. pp193 and 205-206 Ill Met By Moonlight by W Stanley Moss, The Folio Society, 2001: afterword by Leigh Fermor.
4. p327 The Traveller’s Tree by Patrick Leigh Fermor, Penguin, 1984.
5. p139 The SAS: The Official History by Philip Warner, Sphere Books, 1983; and obituary of Captain Charles Moore, The Daily Telegraph, 13th May 2004.
6. p ix The Greatest Raid Of All by CE Lucas-Phillips, Little, Brown, 1960.
7. p371 Ian Fleming by Andrew Lycett, Phoenix, 1996.
8. pp221-227 and 239-255, Peter Fleming: A Biography by Duff Hart Davis, Oxford University Press, 1987.
9. p23, The Sixth Column by Peter Fleming, Tandem, 1967.
10. p134, The Life of Ian Fleming by John Pearson, Companion Book Club, 1966.
11. p115 Arctic Snow to Dust of Normandy: The Extraordinary Wartime Exploits of a Naval Special Agent by Patrick Dalzel-Job, Pen & Sword, 2005.
12. p60 The Hazard Mesh by JAC Hugill, Hurst & Blackett, 1946.
13. p210 Pearson.
14. p208 SOE: 1940-1946 by MRD Foot, BBC, 1984.
15. As well as his colleagues in Naval Intelligence, Fleming crossed paths with many people involved in clandestine work during the war. For example, on November 10 1942 he had dinner at the home of the thriller-writer Dennis Wheatley, who was then involved in devising deception operations with the Joint Planning Staff of the War Cabinet. Fleming was accompanied by Joan Bright, an assistant to General Ismay, Churchill’s Chief of Staff; the two other guests were Roland Vintras, also of the JPS and later a Director of Air Intelligence, and Colin Gubbins, later head of SOE. One can imagine that such dining partners may have given the future thriller-writer many ideas. Phil Baker (Wheatley biographer), personal communication. For more on this, and Wheatley's influence on Fleming's work, see my article The Secret Origins of James Bond.
16. p124 Pearson.
17. p42 Foot.
18. pp 611-612 MI6: Inside the Covert World of Her Majesty's Secret Intelligence Service by Stephen Dorril, Touchstone, 2000.
19. p57 Foot. James Bond is also described as a terrorist, of course, in his MGB file in Chapter Six of From Russia, With Love. Incidentally, Foot feels that Fleming was one of the few non-SOE officers in Britain’s wartime intelligence organisations to appreciate SOE’s worth (personal communication, November 17 2007).
20. British Army Land Operations Manual, volume 3, counter-revolutionary operations. Cited in British Intelligence and Covert Action by Jonathan Bloch and Pat Fitzgerald (London 1982), p42.
21. The SAS, their early days in Ireland and the Wilson Plot by Alexander Platow (Seán Mac Mathúna), first published in Lobster 18 (1989).
22. See Whisper Who Dares by Jeremy Duns, June 16 2005, The Bulletin, Brussels; reprinted in 5 SAS' Veterans' News, Issue 70, 2005, and at this site here.
23. p389 Jane's Special Forces Recognition Guide by Ewen Southby-Tailyour, Collins, 2005.
24. p47 British Commandos 1940-1946 by Tim Moreman, Osprey, 2006.
25. p17 The James Bond Dossier by Kingsley Amis, Signet, 1966.
26. p194 Leigh Fermor afterword, Moss.
27. p36 Cockleshell Heroes by CE Lucas-Phillips, Pan, 1974.
28. Granville has been repeatedly claimed to have been Fleming’s model for Vesper Lynd following a post-war affair with the author. The source for this appears to be p151 17F: The Life of Ian Fleming by Donald McCormick, Peter Owen, London, 1993. McCormick was a hoaxer, notably on matters related to Jack the Ripper, and I believe that he fabricated the evidence for this plausible-sounding assumption. Regardless, there seem very few similarities between Granville and Vesper Lynd other than their both being beautiful female agents with dark hair.
29. Ewen Southby-Tailyour does not agree with me on this point, being adamant that Fleming’s Bond would have been more likely to have been SBS than SAS. He points to Bond’s naval background and the fact that every member of the SBS was trained in skiing, parachuting, mountaineering and combat (underwater) swimming – but very few members of the SAS undertook training in all of these (personal communication). However, the SAS often collaborated and exchanged personnel with naval units during the war, and the SBS never undertook any operations in the Ardennes.
30. p15, Icebreaker by John Gardner, Berkley, 1983; and p28 Scorpius by John Gardner, Charter, 1990.
31. pp6-7 Introduction, Jane's Special Forces Recognition Guide.

The Debrief recommends

I've been doing this blog for a few weeks now, so I thought I would step back for a moment. One thing I want to do here is to develop a body of articles, essays, pieces, posts, snippets – words – that look at several aspects of spying and spy fiction. I think the espionage genre is looked down on in some literary quarters, but deserves serious research and critical consideration.

This has been done in theses, journals and books, of course, but I feel that increasingly the arena for it will be online, or in digital form. One of my inspirations for this blog is an excellent site by a British academic, John Fraser, which contains Thrillers. This is effectively a hyperlinked book on the genre, and it's somewhere you can get lost for hours, and learn a lot. Some of the pieces perhaps suffer a little from academic-speak, but on the whole I think what shines through is Professor Fraser's deep knowledge and passion for the genre, his gentle wit, and his great insight. If you're a fan of Donald Hamilton and haven't been there yet, you really are in for a treat. But whoever your favourite thriller authors are, I think you'll find a lot to enjoy here, a lot to think about, and perhaps some new authors to discover.

Along slightly similar lines is Bradley On Film, 'the cinematic musings of Matthew Bradley'. While not strictly espionage- or thriller-related, this blog offers some fascinating insights into cinema history from a widely published author on popular culture, and an expert on the work of Richard Matheson (I Am Legend). Mr Bradley also had a long career in publishing, and was a friend and 'shadow publicist' for Elleston Trevor, alias Adam Hall. If you're a Quiller fan, you really must read his pieces on Mr Trevor. Start here.

Finally, I highly recommend a brand new blog, Markham's. Subtitled 'A Few Notes On The Thriller Genre', this is the brainchild of 'Q.R. Markham', the alias of Quentin Rowan, an American journalist, poet, critic and book-lover who has been published in The Paris Review and elsewhere. Mr Rowan is already offering some very astute insights into spy fiction, with the promise of more to come. There's a lot of food for thought in this deceptively simple and elegant looking blog.

Mr Rowan is also a novelist, having just completed a spy thriller set in the late Sixties (which shows excellent taste), which is currently seeking publication. Here is its compelling synopsis: 'Spy Safari follows Jonathan Chase, a man ensnared by an insidious line of work – espionage – that threatens to take over all aspects of his life. Chase has survived the undercover killing grounds of the Cold War and imprisonment in Manchuria. But now, in 1968, throughout Europe, U.S. agents are being kidnapped and brain-drained by a mysterious organization known only as Zero Directorate – and what begins for Chase as a global manhunt swiftly turns into something far closer to home.' I am already salivating at the prospect of reading it.

There are many other excellent spy fiction-related blogs out there, some of which you will find linked to in the right-hand column, but these are my top three tips for today. Tell them The Debrief sent you!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Dark matter

My debut novel, Free Agent, was released in paperback in the UK by Simon & Schuster on April 29. You can buy it at all the usual places – please do! The novel is set in 1969, and follows British agent Paul Dark as he tries to discover the truth about his past and avoid being killed in the process. It is mainly set in England and Nigeria. I'll post in more detail about my research for it at a later date, but for now here's a visual hodge-podge of some of the books, magazines, pamphlets and images that I found useful when writing the novel. As usual, click on the images to enlarge them.

Monday, May 3, 2010


Described by Ian Fleming as the Soviet Union’s most powerful and feared organisation, James Bond's recurring enemy was also real. Spy novelist Jeremy Duns hunts down the truth behind SMERSH, and looks at how Fleming created his own version of it


The word just sounds sinister. It instantly conjures up an image of the Soviet Union, the Cold War and, of course, James Bond.

Many presume that the organisation was invented by Ian Fleming, but SMERSH really existed – albeit in a somewhat different form than that described in his novels. Fleming never revealed precisely where he learned about SMERSH, although according to John Pearson's biography, he first came across it in ‘a magazine article soon after the war, and he embroidered on what little information he had about the organization and introduced it melodramatically into Casino Royale.’

Pearson noted that experts on Soviet affairs were quick to point out that ‘SMERSH was really a body which worked very largely with the Red Army during the war, rounding up German spies and saboteurs and Russian traitors, that it was a mistake to think that it had operated outside the borders of the U.S.S.R., that it was never a counter-intelligence unit in the sense that it worked against enemy secret services, and that in any case it had changed its name at the end of the war. Fleming, who always knew a good thing when he met one, took no notice and continued to base himself on his outdated conception of SMERSH.’

The magazine article Fleming read was probably a review or excerpt of SMERSH by Nicola Sinevirsky. Published in English in 1950, this was the first book to name the organisation. Sinevirsky was a pseudonym for Mikhail Mondich, a Ruthenian member of an anti-communist group called the National Alliance of Russian Solidarists, or NTS. He claimed to have infiltrated SMERSH and worked undercover in the organization for seven months before escaping to West Germany where, in 1948, the NTS newspaper Possev published his diary.

The 1950 English translation published by Henry Holt & Company (first edition pictured) was an edited version of Mondich's diary that had been put together by two American journalist brothers, Kermit and Milt Hill. The book was published in the United States at the height of McCarthyism and fears of Communism (pictured below is Red Channels, a 1950 pamphlet-style publication that claimed to document Communist influence in American radio and television). As a result, the emphasis was very much on the propaganda benefits of a first-hand account of Soviet brutality. The back cover hailed the book as being 'of vital significance to an America that is already engaged in a political struggle against Bolshevik aggression', while the flyleaf proclaimed:

'This book reveals for the first time the intimate details of Stalin's secret weapon – SMERSH. What is it? What does it mean? It means "Death to Spies" and is a contraction of the Russian words, Smert Shpionam… It is the new supersecret counter-espionage elite whose creed is "Let thousands of innocents die lest one guilty go free!" Its weapons are terror and fear and unbelievable brutality. It is the absolute of depravity, degeneration, and the power-corruption which is Russia today…'

It's not hard to see why this would have appealed to Ian Fleming – for an aspiring thriller-writer, a 'new supersecret counter-espionage elite' must have been like manna from heaven. As an experienced journalist, Fleming was constantly scouring the world around him for tidbits of information he could process and transform into gold. In his article How to Write a Thriller, published in Books and Bookmen in May 1963, he revealed a little of his methodology:
'You must know thrilling things before you can write about them. Imagination alone isn't enough, but stories you hear from friends or read in the papers can be built up by a fertile imagination and a certain amount of research and documentation into incidents that will also ring true in fiction.'
When Fleming started writing Casino Royale in early 1952, Mondich's book was the only account of SMERSH's activities to have been published anywhere in the world. However, he may also have had his own sources for information on the organisation: as the assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence during World War Two, he was well-placed to hear of counter-intelligence activities. Fleming also established 30 Assault Unit, an intelligence-gathering commando group that followed the Allied troops into Germany, Austria and elsewhere searching for documents and equipment left behind by the Nazis late in the war. SMERSH were active in the same area at the same time, hunting down suspected traitors to the Soviet Union – members of the National Alliance of Russian Solidarists, for instance, as well as Latvian and Ukrainian nationalists who had joined the Waffen SS and the Nazis' mobile killing squads. SMERSH screened over five million people during this time, including Soviet prisoners of war – many were transported to the gulags and died.

But even with Fleming’s war work, it seems highly unlikely that he would have had the level of detailed knowledge about SMERSH's structure that is depicted in Mondich's book – especially as a study of it reveals that Fleming seems to have drawn his material in Casino Royale directly from it.

Mondich omitted the fact that SMERSH was no longer operating under that name by 1950 – it was disbanded and all its duties handed over to the Main Administration of Counter-Intelligence (GUKR) of the MGB in 1946 – presumably because any mention of this would have greatly lessened his book's impact. Casino Royale also features a still-active SMERSH, albeit with the proviso that it has been reduced in size. Mondich provided the basic background material on the organization, but Fleming made sure he adapted it to make it more thrilling.

In Chapter 6 of his book, Mondich gave a complete rundown of the organization’s structure:
‘SMERSH counter-intelligence, I learned, was divided into five departments.’
When it came to writing MI6's dossier on SMERSH in Casino Royale, Fleming followed these pages very closely:
‘The organization itself was thoroughly purged after the war and is now believed to consist of only a few hundred operatives of very high quality divided into five sections.’
According to Mondich, the First Department was attached directly to the front, where it monitored political trends inside the Red Army. Fleming rendered this as:
‘Department I: In charge of counter intelligence among Soviet organizations at home and abroad.’
This is both broader and vaguer in scope. Perhaps the idea of a super-secret elite working in ordinary uniforms as informers at the front didn’t seem as thrilling.

Fleming adapted the other departments' roles into similarly concise and exciting prose. The Second Department, according to Mondich, was Operations, which was responsible for seeking out ‘organised enemies of the system'. Anyone suspected of committing a crime against the Soviet Union ‘must die’. Fleming neatly summarised this as:
'Department II: Operations, including executions.'
Mondich claimed the Third Department was Administrative, but that he knew little about it, that the Fourth was the Investigation Department, and that the Fifth was the Prosecuting Department. Confusingly, he then mentioned two further departments, the Personnel Department and the Finance Department, which makes seven, not five. Fleming got round this by adding Finance to Department Three and Personnel to Department Four:
‘Department III: Administration and Finance.

Department IV: Investigations and legal work. Personnel.

Department V: Prosecutions: the section which passes final judgement on all victims.’
Mondich also claimed that SMERSH's headquarters were in Moscow. Perhaps this seemed too predictable, because Fleming placed them in Leningrad instead, with a sub-station in Moscow (although he would change this in From Russia, With Love). He also attributed Trotsky's assassination to the organisation, even though it took place a year before it was formed (a mistake many subsequent writers have repeated). And instead of being 'Stalin's secret weapon', Fleming wrote that it was 'believed to come under the personal direction of Beria'. (Fleming would refer back to this in Live and Let Die because – in events that would seem almost too fantastic for a James Bond novel – Beria was arrested at the push of a secret button at a meeting of the Praesidium in June 1953, and executed, possibly on suspicion of being a British agent, shortly after.)

One thing Fleming did not alter from Mondich’s book was its trumpeted information about the meaning of the organization's name:
'SMERSH is a conjunction of two Russian words: 'Smyert Shpionam', meaning roughly: "Death to Spies".'
As John Pearson noted, Ian Fleming knew a good thing when he met one.

Going rogue

Fleming's use of SMERSH in Casino Royale was a master-stroke: right at the start of the Cold War, he stole a march on the legions of thriller-writers who would follow him, almost all of whom would use branches of the MVD or the KGB as the enemy. By settling on a little-known Soviet intelligence group instead, Fleming invested his work with an aura of originality and inside knowledge that would 'ring true in fiction'. At the same time, he put his own stamp on the genre – nobody else could use SMERSH after him without seeming unoriginal.

Fleming also cleverly – and unusually for a thriller-writer of his era – ignored the crude propagandistic elements of his source material. In Chapter Nine of Casino Royale, we learn that in order to join the prestigious Double O Section of the British Secret Service James Bond assassinated two men, one of whom was a double agent. The elimination of treachery, then, is something that MI6's Double O Section has in common with SMERSH'S Department II, which seeks out 'organised enemies of the system' and kills them. (Coincidentally, the Russian phrase Osobyye Otdeli, meaning 'Special Departments', which was used for the group of organizations that preceded SMERSH in the Cheka, was commonly abbreviated to 'OO'.)

But Fleming didn't stop there: although Bond casually tells Vesper Lynd over caviar and hot toast that he has killed in cold blood, after he is tortured by the villain, Le Chiffre, he reappraises the situation, admitting to Mathis that the Norwegian traitor he killed 'just didn't die very quickly', and agonising over 'the nature of evil', as the chapter title puts it:
'Take our friend Le Chiffre. It's easy enough to say he's an evil man, at least it's simple enough for me because he did evil things to me. If he was here now, I wouldn't hesitate to kill him, but out of personal revenge and not, I'm afraid, for some high moral reason or for the sake of my country.'
Bond's anxieties here – and the confusion of hero and villain and patriotism and personal motive – may have been influenced by Geoffrey Household's classic 1939 thriller Rogue Male, in which the narrator, trapped in an underground burrow, is forced to face the fact that he is not morally superior to his tormentor, a tall, fair-haired Nazi officer who has taken on the cover role of an English gentleman, 'Major Quive-Smith', and repeatedly calls him 'my dear fellow'. In the first chapter of Rogue Male, the narrator tries to assassinate Hitler, but the shot misses due to a sudden change in the wind: later, as he is questioned by ‘Quive-Smith’ on his motivation for the assassination attempt, we learn that it was not out of a sense of patriotism or some high moral reason, but the fact that the Germans had shot his lover:
'I declared war upon the men who could commit such sacrilege, and above all upon the man who has given them their creed. How ridiculous that one person should declare war upon a nation! That was another reason I hid from myself what I was doing. My war was a futile cause to me, to be smiled at sympathetically just as I used to smile at her enthusiasms. Yet in fact my war is anything but futile. Its cost in lives and human suffering is low. Seek out and destroy the main body of the enemy – and I should have destroyed it but for a change of wind.'
This theme is echoed in the final chapter of Casino Royale, in which James Bond vows to go after the men who engineered the death of his lover, Vesper Lynd:
'SMERSH was the spur. Be faithful, spy well, or you die. Inevitably and without question, you will be hunted down and killed.
It was the same with the whole Russian machine. Fear was the impulse. For them it was always safer to advance than retreat. Advance against the enemy and the bullet might miss you. Retreat, evade, betray, and the bullet would never miss.
But now he would attack the arm that held the whip and the gun. The business of espionage could be left to the white-collar boys. They could spy, and catch the spies. He would go after the threat behind the spies, the threat that made them spy.'
Such nuanced delineations are rare in espionage thrillers written so soon after World War Two, and the popular perception of Fleming as a gung-ho patriot often fails to address these moments in Casino Royale. This is partly of Fleming's own doing, though, because in his second novel, Live And Let Die, he discarded the hard-earned lessons Bond had learned in the first book. And just as the scar on Bond's hand is erased, so too is the research of the first novel: SMERSH did not employ foreign gangsters. In Live And Let Die, Fleming moved his depiction of the organization from broadly reflecting the role it played in reality – the hunter of enemies of the Soviet state – to a more amorphous, if still gloriously sinister-sounding, 'red menace'.

The very whisper of death

SMERSH is only tangential to the plot of Live And Let Die, but for its next appearance in a Bond novel it took centre-stage. In From Russia, With Love, Fleming brought all his skills to bear to create perhaps the most famous depiction of a villainous organisation in fiction. Fleming now used the Russian word 'Otdely' instead of Department, and heading up Otdely II – memorably described by Tatania Romanova as 'the very whisper of death' – he introduced the fearsome Rosa Klebb (pictured as played by Lotte Lenya in the 1963 film adaptation).

Fleming's interest in SMERSH had been reignited by the case of the Russian cipher expert Vladimir Petrov, who had defected to Australia in 1954. Writing about the case in his Sunday Times column Atticus, Fleming brought in his knowledge of Beria's 'messengers of death' and also mentioned a mysterious 'Madame Rybkin', who he thought might be the most powerful woman in espionage.

Colonel Zoya Rybkina (right), alias 'Madam Yartseva', was the head of the NKVD's German section throughout World War Two. She discovered the Nazis' plan to attack the Soviet Union in June 1941 and told Stalin about it five days before the invasion – he didn't believe her.

Under the name Zoya Voskresenskaya, Rybkina became famous in the Soviet Union after the war as a children's writer, penning a series of stories following the adventures of Lenin as a boy; two of her books were made into successful films. Fleming also seems to have been inspired by a description given to him of Emma Wolff, a hideous NKVD agent based in Vienna, adding some of her physical attributes to Klebb.

One final inspiration for Klebb may have been Major Tamara Nicolayeva Ivanova, one of Russian intelligence's 'few female high officials' and 'an over-worked nervous spinster', according to Soviet Spy Net by E.H. Cookridge. Cookridge was a pseudonym for former British agent Edward Spiro, and this book, published in Britain in 1955, was a highly coloured account of the activities of Russian intelligence agencies around the world. It only mentions SMERSH once, on the first page of its introduction, on which Spiro states that the organization no longer exists (in this, at least, he was right). But despite this, Fleming used it as a source to build up his imaginary version of the organization, as well as for many of his other ideas.

Major Ivanova is also only mentioned once in the book, but Spiro claimed she was an instructor of Nikolai Khokhlov, the Soviet agent who defected to the Americans in Germany in 1954, claiming to have been sent to assassinate the chairman of the NTS in Frankfurt.

Khokhlov is mentioned several times in From Russia, With Love, and is central to Fleming's construction of the book. In Chapter Three, the entirely fictional General Grubozaboyschikov tells the real Serov "We don't want another Khokhlov affair", while in Chapter 26, Bond is told that his current predicament will 'knock spots' off the Khokhlov case.

Spiro claimed that Khokhlov was a member of the MVD's 'Otydel for Terror and Diversion', and gave a graphic account of this division's activities, most of which has never appeared in any creditable non-fiction work about Soviet intelligence. Chapter Eight of the book is dedicated to training, and reveals the general syllabus taught to MVD agents between 1948 and 1953, including the principles of Marxism, the history of other systems of government, ‘the Problems of Negroes and other Colonial Peoples’, codes and ciphers, and physical training:
'Lt. Colonel Nicolai Godlovsky, director of the Cheka small arms section, is the Soviet rifle marksmanship champion… The training for the budding “executioners” is carried out in a barrack-like building on the corner of Metrostroveskaya Sreet and Turnaninsky Pereulok in Moscow. The director of this training establishment is Colonel of the M.V.D., Arkady Foyotev. The syllabus includes rifle and pistol shooting, driving (motor-cars and motor-cycles), judo, boxing, photography and elementary courses in radio technique. This course is only for beginners. Graduates of the “Section for Terror and Diversion” are trained at special establishment at Kuchino, a large country house outside Moscow, where they are prepared for their “special tasks”, and for which the syllabus includes the use of special weapons and poisons.'
Fleming used this chapter as the basis for Donovan 'Red' Grant's training, attributing the MVD’s methods to his imaginary version of a still-active SMERSH:
'The next year was spent, with only two other foreign students among several hundred Russians, at the School for Terror and Diversion at Kuchino, outside Moscow. Here Grant went triumphantly through courses in judo, boxing, athletics, photography and radio under the general supervision of the famous Colonel Arkady Fotoyev, father of the modern Soviet spy, and completed his small-arms instruction at the hands of Lieutenant-Colonel Nikolai Godlovsky, the Soviet Rifle Champion.'
Quite apart from switching all this to SMERSH, Fleming adapted Spiro's text in such a way that even if it had been true, it could no longer be. Spiro listed judo, boxing and so on as being taught to beginners, with only graduates moving on to Kuchino. Perhaps because the details of the beginners’ course were more compelling and more concrete than the much vaguer description of the graduate course, Fleming listed the beginners’ activities as being taught at the graduates’ school. In doing so, he got all the authentic-sounding material in – all the activities taught, the names of both instructors, the menacing name of the school and the place-name – even though it meant contradicting his source.

Fleming’s aim was not to describe the inner workings of Soviet espionage accurately, but convincingly. He was writing novels, not non-fiction, and he used artistic licence as and when he saw fit. The details he used sound authoritative, and lure us into believing we are in the hands of a true espionage insider.

Fleming also built cleverly on the true circumstances. Khokhlov was a genuine agent, but he had defected before completing his assassination mission. In Red Grant, Fleming created a rather less squeamish opponent for Bond:
'SMERSH has made one or two mistakes lately. That Khokhlov business for one. Remember the explosive cigarette case and all that? Gave it to the wrong man. Should have given it to me. I wouldn't have gone over to the Yanks.'
Khokhlov did not work for SMERSH, of course, but when he defected he brought with him an array of weapons, including a cigarette case that fired dum-dum bullets through the tips and an electrically fired miniature revolver that could be hidden in the palm of a hand: it was a propaganda coup the Americans fully exploited, showing off both the would-be assassin and his paraphernalia at a packed press conference at the American High Commission in Bonn on April 22, 1954.

Spiro commented on the case as follows:
'It was said that if a popular writer of thrillers had invented a tale of disguised secret agents carrying such weapons to kill their victim in the centre of a European city, even ardent readers would say the story was incredible. But, in fact, these things have been done, and done successfully, by Cheka agents before.'
Such a sentiment must have been almost a provocation to Ian Fleming! Not only did he give Red Grant an even more fanciful weapon, hidden inside a copy of War and Peace, he took Spiro's line and ran with it. In How to Write a Thriller, he wrote that his plots were ‘fantastic, while being based upon truth’:
'They go wildly beyond the probable but not beyond the possible. Every now and then there will be a story in the newspapers that lifts a corner of the veil from Secret Service work. A tunnel from West to East Berlin so that our Secret Service can tap the Russian telephone system: the Russian spy Khokhlov with his cigarette case that fired dum-dum bullets; "The Man Who Never Was" – the corpse with the false invasion plans that we left for the Gestapo to find. This is all true Secret Service history that is yet in the higher realm of fantasy, and James Bond's ventures into this realm are perfectly legitimate.'
The idea of using a tunnel to listen in on the Russians also made its way into From Russia, With Love, incidentally, albeit on a much smaller scale than the technical feat that was Operation GOLD: Darko Kerim and James Bond eavesdrop on a Soviet meeting with a submarine periscope while standing in Istanbul’s sewers. Kerim mentions that Q Branch are trying to find a way to wire the periscope for sound.

Fleming’s insistence that his work was 'based upon truth' and ‘not beyond the possible’ is nevertheless intriguing. Firstly, Spiro's book was not the truth, and Fleming, an experienced journalist, must have suspected that. Even if he took it all to be true, Spiro only mentioned SMERSH once in his book, where he said it no longer exists. Fleming either didn't read Spiro's introduction or disregarded it, feeling that the defunct SMERSH sounded more exciting than the real MVD - and as he had already used it in Casino Royale, it was his organization, in a way.

A more ingenious example of the way Fleming used research is evident from Grant's cover identity, Captain Norman Nash. Grant posing as an English gentleman and repeatedly calling Bond 'old man' appears to be a further reference to Rogue Male and 'Major Quive-Smith'. Fleming took his surname from the glossary of terms in Spiro's book:
'“Nash”: “Ours”, Cheka description for a sympathiser or potential informant.'
Fleming has Tania tell Bond this, presaging the revelation that 'Nash' is not all he seems:
''What did you say his name is?'

'Nash. Norman Nash.'

She spelled it out. 'N.A.S.H.? Like that?'


The girl's eyes were puzzled. 'I suppose you know what that means in Russian. Nash means "ours". In our Services, a man is nash when he is one of "our" men. He is svoi when he is one of "theirs" – when he belongs to the enemy. And this man calls himself Nash. That is not pleasant.'''
Tatiana Romanova does not appear to have any direct historical counterpart, but much of her background is also taken from Spiro's book; it contains a chapter on the Central Index, where Tania works, which we are told mostly employs women. This is also where Fleming found the information about the Russians' files, zapiski, the Russian for 'top secret', and many other details. But while most thriller-writers research to make their fiction as realistic as possible, Fleming was concerned if it was interesting first, and plausible second. He also used his research material as a jumping-off point for ideas. As well as providing a lot of authoritative-sounding jargon, Spiro's book seems to have triggered plot ideas. In a passage about the use of mercenary spies, Spiro wrote:
'The conflict of the hot and cold war ideologies since 1939 has resulted in the eclipse of the professional "free lance" spy, beloved of the pre-war thriller writers – the Mata Haris and the glamorous blondes of the Orient Express.'
There were indeed many thrillers predating the 1950s that featured beautiful female agents and the most famous train in the world – but perhaps this was the trigger for Fleming to write his own variation of the form.

A few lines later, Spiro discussed the exploits of the Switz Gang, a syndicate of spies who trapped leading French officials into revealing defence secrets, which they then sold to both the Nazis and the Soviets:
'It was as romantic as any thriller lover could desire. A few blonde hairs adhering to a roll of camera film, which fell into the hands of the Deuxième Bureau, was the clue that led counter-espionage agents, with the help of Scotland Yard, to Mrs. Marjorie Switz.'
As well as the echoes of the photo blackmail plot in From Russia, With Love, the Switz Gang also appears similar to the mercenary terrorist syndicate S.P.E.C.T.R.E. introduced in Thunderball.

A higher realm of fantasy

Fleming cheekily prefaced From Russia, With Love with a note insisting on the accuracy of the information about SMERSH contained within the novel. Apart from sheer bravado – the organization had been disbanded over a decade earlier – this may have been because he was helped with his research by the Russian rocket scientist Grigori Tokaev, who had defected to Britain in 1947. Tokaev – who later took the name Tokaty – was the only Soviet official to defect to Britain between 1945 and 1963. But while he had some knowledge of Russia's intelligence structure, he had never been a member of SMERSH; he also spent much of his time in Britain assisting the Information Research Department, a secret group within the Foreign Office that created anti-Communist propaganda.

Fleming was happy to chop and change information as it suited him. The truth was a starting point, and it was always more important that it sounded like it could be true than whether it was. And a little note at the start would be enough to convince most people that it was the truth, and that they had been given an insider's glimpse into the espionage world. As we can see, that was hardly the case. Far from being an accurate description of the workings of SMERSH, the 'most secret department of the Soviet government', as Fleming claimed in his Author's Note, From Russia, With Love in fact gives an exciting but rather inaccurate representation of the workings of another Soviet organization entirely, the MVD, based on a publicly available account that itself was dubious, even before he attributed its methods to the long-defunct SMERSH.

Regardless of historical accuracy, From Russia, With Love established SMERSH as spy fiction's greatest villains to date. Considering the wealth of projects that exploited the success of Bond in the '60s, it seems surprising that there weren't more books about SMERSH during this period. One reason, of course, was the difficulty in getting hold of first-hand information.

One book claiming to offer this is Nights Are Longest There: SMERSH From The Inside by A.I. Romanov, which was published in English in 1972. ‘Romanov’ – a fitting pseudonym – writes that he was recruited into Department I during the war, meaning that we get lots of insight into life on the front-lines, as well as a thorough history of the organisation. It's a world away from Fleming: Romanov spent most of his time questioning people about garrisons and troop movements in hutments, occasionally being dragged out to a forest with his comrades to witness an execution. And where Mikhail Mondich verged on the hysterical, Romanov takes understatement to excess:
'In Poland... I witnessed the execution of one of our officers, who had raped a young Polish girl in her parents' home. The order of sentence in this case was widely publicised, both to our forces and the local population. Later, in Budapest, I was present when a group of leaders of the Hungarian pro-fascist party 'Crossed Arrows' was hanged. All these scenes left me with an impression that can in no way be described as pleasant.'


Ian Fleming only used SMERSH once again: Auric Goldfinger is its treasurer. But here, as in Live And Let Die, this was more a convenient prop to explain Bond's interest in the mission than anything else. And in his next novel, Thunderball, Fleming finally did away with SMERSH altogether, replacing it with the wholly fictional SPECTRE. In an interview given to Playboy shortly before his death, Fleming gave his reasons:
'I closed down SMERSH, although I was devoted to the good old apparat, because, first of all, Khrushchev did in fact disband SMERSH himself, although its operations are still carried out by a subsection of the K.G.B., the Russian secret service. But in that book – I think it was Thunderball that I was writing at the time of the proposed summit meeting – I thought well, it's no good going on if we're going to make friends with the Russians. I know them, I like them personally, as anyone would, as anyone would like the Chinese if he knew them. I thought, I don't want to go on ragging them like this. So I invented SPECTRE as an international crime organisation which contained elements of SMERSH and the Gestapo and the Mafia – the cosy old Cosa Nostra – which, of course, is a much more elastic fictional device than SMERSH, which was no fictional device, but the real thing.'
The makers of the Bond films felt the same, preferring to use the elastic SPECTRE than the real-life SMERSH. But the idea that a 'subsection of the KGB' might still be carrying out SMERSH's duties (which, in fact, it had been before Fleming started writing about it) found favour with John Gardner when he came to write his James Bond novels. In Icebreaker, SMERSH was transformed into 'Department V'. This was a real subsection of the KGB, although it was in fact descended from the Special Administration of Special Tasks, a sabotage and assassination division during World War Two often confused with SMERSH, rather than from SMERSH itself. However, as with Fleming, historical accuracy was not the name of the game, and Gardner took his readers back to Fleming's original fascination with this strange, sinister Soviet group:
'"SMERSH has what I understand is called, in criminal parlance, a hit list. That list includes a number of names – people who are wanted, not dead but alive. Can you imagine whose name is number one on the chart, James Bond?"'
If such hit lists seem 'beyond the possible', one only has to consider the fate of Nikolai Khokhlov, whose case so inspired Fleming when writing From Russia, With Love. That novel ends with James Bond being poisoned by a kick from Rosa Klebb. Five months after it was published, in September 1957, Khokhlov himself was poisoned with the metal thallium, which had been inserted into a cup of coffee. He eventually recovered, but not before he had gone bald, blood had seeped through his pores and his entire body had become disfigured with black-and-blue swellings. The obvious similarities to the cases of both Viktor Yushchenko and Alexander Litvinenko suggest that Ian Fleming's conception of the Russian secret services may not have been so wide of the mark after all.

Select Bibliography

Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB (Basic Books, 1999)
Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, The Mitrokhin Archive II: The KGB and the World (Allen Lane, 2005)
John Barron, KGB: The Secret Work of Soviet Secret Agents (Bantam, 1974)
Henry Chancellor, James Bond: The Man and His World (John Murray, 2005)
E.H. Cookridge, Soviet Spy Net (Frederick Muller, 1955)
The works of Ian Fleming
John Gardner, Icebreaker (Berkley, 1983)
Geoffrey Household, Rogue Male (Penguin, 1985)
Andrew Lycett, Ian Fleming (Phoenix, 2002)
Ben Macintyre, For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming and James Bond (Bloomsbury, 2008)
John Pearson, The Life of Ian Fleming (The Companion Book Club, 1966)
Ken Purdy, The Playboy Interview: Ian Fleming (in Playboy, December 1964)
AI Romanov, Nights Are Longest There: Smersh from the Inside (Hutchinson, 1972)
Ronald Seth, The Executioners: The Story of SMERSH (Cassell, 1967)
Nicola Sinevirsky, SMERSH (Henry Holt & Co, 1950)