Saturday, January 1, 2011

007 In Depth: Sax Appeal

The 2006 James Bond film Casino Royale has its share of influences. Most obviously, the opening scene is reminiscent of Dr No, in which a seated Bond coolly shoots Professor Dent from the shadows. This scene was also shot in such a way as to evoke Cold War-era spy films such as The IPCRESS File and The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. Later in the film Bond runs through the streets of Venice, and there’s a deliberate reference to Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now as he catches sight of Vesper’s red coat. Many have pointed out that the film’s tougher, more realistic action scenes seem to have been stylistically inspired by the Jason Bourne films. And finally, the decision to ‘reboot’ the series showing Bond as a newly minted Double O agent was probably helped along by the enormous commercial success of Batman Begins, which showed the origins of that character with a darker edge following films many had felt veered too close to fantasy.

This sounds like a lot of influences when listed, but for film-makers and film-goers alike they are easily absorbed. In my last post, Agents of Influence, I discussed Inception, a film some critics felt had been influenced by Alain Resnais’ Last Year At Marienbad, but which director Christopher Nolan claims not to have seen beforehand. But would it surprise us to learn that Nolan had seen The Matrix, The Godfather, Star Wars, Apocalypse Now, Psycho, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Strangers On A Train, The English Patient, The Third Man and dozens of other films, and that they might in some ways have been an influence on his work? Of course not. And one could no doubt add many more films to the list, for Nolan or any other film director working today.

In that post, I also discussed a scene in the film of From Russia With Love in which James Bond is chased across barren countryside by a low-flying helicopter. Terence Young, the director of From Russia With Love, has confirmed that this was inspired by the scene in North by Northwest in which Cary Grant’s character Roger Thornhill is attacked by a crop-duster. This would have been clear even if Young had not confirmed it, despite the scene in From Russia With Love featuring a helicopter rather than a crop-duster, because the two scenes share several precise and unusual elements. It would be easy to cite scenes in thrillers in which a character is shot at by villains while running away from them: that’s a very basic similarity. It would be much harder to cite scenes in which a man is being persistently shot at by an aircraft that swoops down on him while he runs across a barren landscape. And all such scenes would, I suspect, have been filmed after North by Northwest, and be directly or indirectly inspired by it. There’s no line in the sand about this sort of thing, but sometimes – as in this case – common sense tells us when something is directly influenced by something else. 

The influence of North By Northwest on this scene in From Russia With Love is fairly unimportant when we’re sitting back and watching the film – but it’s crucial if we want to assess the importance of the scene in modern cinema. If a critic were to claim that this scene was the most inventive and suspenseful action scene ever to have been filmed, omitting any reference to the Hitchcock film that inspired it, they would be completely mischaracterizing its place in the genre. 

When Ian Fleming sat down to write the first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, in January 1952, he was familiar with many thrillers that had come before. He had been reading thrillers since he was a young boy, and in articles, interviews and the novels themselves showed that he had a wide knowledge of the genre, as well as a passion for and deep understanding of it. Literary criticism of Fleming’s work has tended to focus on a very narrow band of inspirations, but the reality, I think, is that he was influenced by dozens of other writers, not just three or four.

And just as Terence Young and others were sometimes directly influenced by thrillers that had gone before, so was Fleming. Dr No, published in 1957, features perhaps the best known example: the titular character is widely recognized as emulating Sax Rohmer’s villain Dr Fu-Manchu. There’s no proof of this but, as I discussed in Bloods Line, Fleming named Rohmer as an influence on his work several times, and both characters are Oriental masterminds with grand plans to shift the balance of power in the world. Physically, they are also described in similar terms:
‘“Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present, with all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government – which, however, already has denied all knowledge of his existence. Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man.”’1
And from Dr No:
‘Bond’s first impression was of thinness and erectness and height. Doctor No was at least six inches taller than Bond, but the straight immovable poise of his body made him seem still taller. The head also was elongated and tapered from a round, completely bald skull down to a sharp chin so that the impression was of a reversed raindrop, or rather oildrop, for the skin was of a deep almost translucent yellow. 
It was impossible to tell Doctor No’s age: as far as Bond could see, there were no lines on the face. It was odd to see a forehead as smooth as the top of the polished skull. Even the cavernous indrawn cheeks below the prominent cheekbones looked as smooth as fine ivory. There was something Dali-esque about the eyebrows, which were fine and black, and sharply upswept as if they had been painted on as makeup for a conjurer. Below them, slanting jet black eyes stared out of the skull. They were without eyelashes. They looked like the mouths of two small revolvers, direct and unblinking and totally devoid of expression. The thin fine nose ended very close above a wide compressed wound of a mouth which, despite its almost permanent sketch of a smile, showed only cruelty and authority.’2 

Several shared precise and unusual elements – and common sense – have led to many critics noting the similarities between Dr No and Dr Fu-Manchu. Fleming first came across Rohmer’s character at his prep school, Durnford’s, where he and the other boys were read stories by the headmaster’s wife every Sunday evening. According to Fleming biographer Andrew Lycett, the favourites among the boys were The Prisoner Of Zenda by Anthony Hope, Moonfleet by J. Meade Falkner and, ‘towards the end of Ian’s time, Bulldog Drummond’. Of these, Fleming ‘preferred the populist works of Sax Rohmer, who opened up a more fantastic world with his “yellow devil” villain Dr Fu Manchu.’3 Literary tastes at English boarding schools move at a slow pace, it seems, as I was also read Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond and Moonfleet at prep school in the 1980s, while The Prisoner of Zenda and similar 19th-century adventure stories were staples of the library at my public school.
The influence of juvenile fiction on Fleming is rarely discussed, even though the two writers who are most often cited as his major inspirations, Sapper and John Buchan, were first read by him at school, and mainly appeal to schoolboys. James Bond, of course, also appeals to a good many teenage boys. Fleming acknowledged the influence, though, mentioning his schoolboy reading in several interviews. He also acknowledged it privately: in April 1953, when Somerset Maugham wrote him a letter praising Casino Royale, Fleming replied thanking him profusely for ‘the kind things you say about these leaves from a Cosh-boys own paper’.4 This was an ironic – and telling – reference to The Boy’s Own Paper, a monthly publication that had been launched in the 19th century to provide thrilling adventures for teenage boys, and which was still going strong at the time. A ‘cosh-boy’ was a slang term for a delinquent teenager. 

Fleming was being falsely modest, but he was also making an interesting point: his debut novel was much more violent and adult in themes than Boy’s Own stories, but it nevertheless recognizably related to that tradition. In 1950, The Times reported on a small experiment.5 For seven years, one Martin Parr studied the reading habits of 150 boys who attended a club in Shoreditch, aged between 14 and 18 and drawn from grammar schools, central schools and senior schools. This was a very small sample, but I think it’s nevertheless revealing about the climate leading up to the publication of Casino Royale. Some of the more popular authors included Jules Verne, John Buchan, Baroness Orczy, Robert Louis Stevenson, GW Henty, Rider Haggard, Erskine Childers, Dorothy Sayers, Mark Twain and Sidney Horler. But the most popular were Arthur Conan Doyle, Richmal Crompton, Sapper, Peter Cheyney, WE Johns and, ‘the king of books’, Leslie Charteris’ The Saint series.

Some of these writers’ creations have endured: Sherlock Holmes, Biggles, The Saint, Huckleberry Finn and Lord Peter Wimsey are all seen as iconic characters of popular fiction, even if the books are not as widely read as they once were. Others rest in the drawer marked ‘forgotten favourites’, and among these I would include Bulldog Drummond, Raffles, Just William and Allan Quatermain – adventures featuring these characters are read by few today, but their names are still widely recognized, as is their influence. Some of the others, such as Sidney Horler’s Tiger Standish, have all but vanished from the popular lexicon.

Fu-Manchu is, I think, a forgotten favourite. Many are familiar with the character today, but few have read Sax Rohmer’s novels. But we know Fleming did, and that they were among his favourites as a boy. Rohmer was born Arthur Ward, and worked as a civil servant and songwriter before becoming a novelist. The Rohmer pseudonym and the character Fu-Manchu both made their first appearance in The Story-Teller in October 1912, in a story called The Zayat Kiss. This was the first installment of The Mystery of Dr Fu-Manchu, as it was called when published in book form on June 26 1913. There had been similar villains before: Guy Boothby’s Dr Nikola, for example, and the criminal masterminds of the penny dreadfuls such as Count Ivor Carlac, one of Sexton Blake’s deadliest foes – indeed, the critic Julian Symons later dismissed Rohmer’s novels as ‘penny dreadfuls in hard covers’.6

But there was nevertheless something about Rohmer’s ruthless Oriental villain that captured readers’ imaginations, and Fu-Manchu would go on to feature in dozens of stories, films and radio shows. Imitators sprung up very quickly. On June 28 1913, just two days after the first Fu-Manchu adventure was published in book form, The Union Jack began a new Sexton Blake series, The Brotherhood of the Yellow Beetle, in which the detective battled a Chinese mastermind called Prince Wu Ling. Sexton Blake had himself originated in a similarly opportunistic manner: on December 6 1893, Arthur Conan Doyle’s story The Final Problem was published in The Strand, and concluded with Sherlock Holmes appearing to die after disappearing over the Reichenbach Falls with Professor Moriarty. On December 13, The Halfpenny Marvel published The Missing Millionaire, the cover of which showed two men fighting each other as they fell over a waterfall, with the subtitle ‘The Story of a Daring Detective’. This was the first story to feature Sexton Blake. In The Brotherhood of the Yellow Beetle, Wu Ling sends Blake and others poisonous yellow beetles to cause them harm, just as Fu-Manchu sends Sir Denis Nayland Smith and others centipedes.

Rohmer is one of the few writers Fleming named as an influence on his work. Another is Henry ‘Sapper’ McNeile, whose Hugh BulldogDrummond novels he had also been read at Durnford’s. Drummond, a tough former soldier looking for adventures in peacetime, battled several villains, but the first and most impressive of them was Carl Peterson, a suave master of disguise assisted by a mysterious woman called Irma, who sometimes posed as his daughter but who seemed more like his mistress. Fleming’s master-villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld was also assisted by a woman called Irma. Even had Fleming not acknowledged Sapper as an influence, this is too unusual a name for a character with such a position plausibly to be anything other than a direct reference to Sapper’s novels.

Sapper has won out in the field of literary criticism and is today the most frequently cited influence on Fleming’s work. John Buchan comes a close second, followed perhaps by Dornford Yates, with Rohmer trailing a distant fourth, usually only mentioned in passing and in reference to Dr No. Sapper is often stated as a major influence on Fleming without much explanation given as to how he was, and I think this has become something of a conditioned response. Kingsley Amis and OF Snelling both discussed him as a major influence so, runs the logic, he must have been. He certainly was an influence, but I think over time the extent of it has been exaggerated, and that Fleming was influenced much more directly and pervasively by several other writers, among them Rohmer. In fact, I suspect that several of the elements in Sapper’s work that Amis and others felt had influenced Fleming can be traced to Rohmer. Here’s a passage from The Mystery of Dr Fu-Manchu, Rohmer’s first novel, published in book form in 1913:
‘I stifled a cry that rose to my lips; for, with a shrill whistling sound, a small shape came bounding into the dimly lit vault, then shot upward. A marmoset landed on the shoulder of Dr. Fu-Manchu and peered grotesquely into the dreadful yellow face. The Doctor raised his bony hand and fondled the little creature, crooning to it.
“One of my pets, Mr. Smith,” he said, suddenly opening his eyes fully so that they blazed like green lamps. “I have others, equally useful. My scorpions – have you met my scorpions? No? My pythons and hamadryads? Then there are my fungi and my tiny allies, the bacilli. I have a collection in my laboratory quite unique. Have you ever visited Molokai, the leper island, Doctor? No? But Mr. Nayland Smith will be familiar with the asylum at Rangoon! And we must not forget my black spiders, with their diamond eyes – my spiders, that sit in the dark and watch – then leap!”’7
Later in the novel, Fu-Manchu shows off his poisonous mushrooms:
‘“This is my observation window, Dr. Petrie, and you are about to enjoy an unique opportunity of studying fungology. I have already drawn your attention to the anaesthetic properties of the lycoperdon, or common puff-ball. You may have recognized the fumes? The chamber into which you rashly precipitated yourselves was charged with them. By a process of my own I have greatly enhanced the value of the puff-ball in this respect. Your friend, Mr. Weymouth, proved the most obstinate subject; but he succumbed in fifteen seconds.”
“Logan! Help! HELP! This way, man!”
Something very like fear sounded in Weymouth's voice now. Indeed, the situation was so uncanny that it almost seemed unreal. A group of men had entered the farthermost cellars, led by one who bore an electric pocket-lamp. The hard, white ray danced from bloated gray fungi to others of nightmare shape, of dazzling, venomous brilliance. The mocking, lecture-room voice continued:
“Note the snowy growth upon the roof, Doctor. Do not be deceived by its size. It is a giant variety of my own culture and is of the order empusa. You, in England, are familiar with the death of the common house-fly – which is found attached to the window-pane by a coating of white mold. I have developed the spores of this mold and have produced a giant species. Observe the interesting effect of the strong light upon my orange and blue amanita fungus!”
Hard beside me I heard Nayland Smith groan, Weymouth had become suddenly silent. For my own part, I could have shrieked in pure horror. FOR I KNEW WHAT WAS COMING. I realized in one agonized instant the significance of the dim lantern, of the careful progress through the subterranean fungi grove, of the care with which Fu-Manchu and his servant had avoided touching any of the growths. I knew, now, that Dr. Fu-Manchu was the greatest fungologist the world had ever known; was a poisoner to whom the Borgias were as children – and I knew that the detectives blindly were walking into a valley of death.
Then it began – the unnatural scene – the saturnalia of murder.
Like so many bombs the brilliantly colored caps of the huge toadstool-like things alluded to by the Chinaman exploded, as the white ray sought them out in the darkness which alone preserved their existence. A brownish cloud – I could not determine whether liquid or powdery – arose in the cellar.
I tried to close my eyes – or to turn them away from the reeling forms of the men who were trapped in that poison-hole. It was useless:
I must look.
The bearer of the lamp had dropped it, but the dim, eerily illuminated gloom endured scarce a second. A bright light sprang up – doubtless at the touch of the fiendish being who now resumed speech:
“Observe the symptoms of delirium, Doctor!” Out there, beyond the glass door, the unhappy victims were laughing – tearing their garments from their bodies – leaping – waving their arms – were become MANIACS!
“We will now release the ripe spores of giant empusa,” continued the wicked voice. “The air of the second cellar being super-charged with oxygen, they immediately germinate. Ah! it is a triumph! That process is the scientific triumph of my life!”
Like powdered snow the white spores fell from the roof, frosting the writhing shapes of the already poisoned men. Before my horrified gaze, THE FUNGUS GREW; it spread from the head to the feet of those it touched; it enveloped them as in glittering shrouds...
“They die like flies!” screamed Fu-Manchu, with a sudden febrile excitement; and I felt assured of something I had long suspected: that that magnificent, perverted brain was the brain of a homicidal maniac – though Smith would never accept the theory.
“It is my fly-trap!” shrieked the Chinaman. “And I am the god of destruction!”’8
It’s not hard to see the influence on Ian Fleming here: a megalomaniacal super-villain wields great knowledge in a sadistic and elaborate fashion, and the scene is described in vivid, baroque and frightening prose. There are no passages in the works of John Buchan, Dornford Yates or Leslie Charteris remotely like this. There are passages somewhat like this in Sapper – because Rohmer was one of Sapper’s chief influences.

Sapper’s first novel, Bulldog Drummond, was published in August 1920, and was swiftly followed by several more in the series. Sapper’s greatest villain, Carl Peterson, was directly inspired by Fu-Manchu. Not his physical appearance, which is never fully established and which constantly changes, along with his identity: we never even learn his true name. But although Peterson is not a bald Oriental mastermind, his plots and the methods he uses against Drummond and his friends are unmistakably those of Fu-Manchu. In The Si-Fan Mysteries, published in 1917, Fu-Manchu tries to kill Nayland Smith and Petrie by sending them a ‘Flower of Silence’, a Burmese specimen whose blooms contain a hollow thorn that releases poison, tying the tongue of victims before killing them. Smith and Petrie then visit their friend Sir Lionel Barton at his home, where they encounter more peculiarities:
‘In turn, Graywater Park had been a fortress, a monastery, and a manor-house. Now, in the extensive crypt below the former chapel, in an atmosphere artificially raised to a suitably stuffy temperature, were housed the strange pets brought by our eccentric host from distant lands. In one cage was an African lioness, a beautiful and powerful beast, docile as a cat. Housed under other arches were two surly hyenas, goats from the White Nile, and an antelope of Kordofan. In a stable opening upon the garden were a pair of beautiful desert gazelles, and near to them, two cranes and a marabout. The leopards, whose howling now disturbed the night, were in a large, cell-like cage immediately below the spot where of old the chapel altar had stood.’9
They discover that Barton has been drugged by Fu-Manchu, and escape with his servant Kennedy through a passageway beneath the park:
‘Now my sight was restored to me, and looking back along the passage, I saw, clinging to an irregularity in the moldy wall, the most gigantic scorpion I had ever set eyes upon! It was fully as large as my open hand.
Kennedy and Nayland Smith were stealthily retracing their steps, the former keeping the light directed upon the hideous insect, which now began running about with that horrible, febrile activity characteristic of the species. Suddenly came a sharp, staccato report... Sir Lionel had scored a hit with his Browning pistol.
In waves of sound, the report went booming along the passage. The lamp, as I have said, was turned in order to shine back upon us, rendering the tunnel ahead a mere black mouth – a veritable inferno, held by inhuman guards. Into that black cavern I stared, gloomily fascinated by the onward rolling sound storm; into that blackness I looked… to feel my scalp tingle horrifically, to know the crowning horror of the horrible journey.
The blackness was spangled with watching, diamond eyes! – with tiny insect eyes that moved; upon the floor, upon the walls, upon the ceiling! A choking cry rose to my lips.
“Smith! Barton! for God’s sake, look! The place is alive with scorpions!”
Around we all came, panic plucking at our hearts, around swept the beam of the big lamp; and there, retreating before the light, went a veritable army of venomous creatures! I counted no fewer than three of the giant red centipedes whose poisonous touch, called “the zayat kiss,” is certain death; several species of scorpion were represented; and some kind of bloated, unwieldy spider, so gross of body that its short, hairy legs could scarce support it, crawled, hideous, almost at my feet.
What other monstrosities of the insect kingdom were included in that obscene host I know not; my skin tingled from head to feet; I experienced a sensation as if a million venomous things already clung to me unclean things bred in the malarial jungles of Burma, in the corpse-tainted mud of China’s rivers, in the fever spots of that darkest East from which Fu-Manchu recruited his shadow army.’10
There are many scenes like this in Rohmer’s work, and they are echoed in Dr No, where James Bond has to go through No’s ‘killing ground’, and discovers a cage filled with scuttling animals:
‘What was it? Bond listened to the pounding of his heart. Snakes? Scorpions? Centipedes?’11
They turn out to be giant tarantulas. Rohmer’s influence can also be seen in You Only Live Twice, which features a Garden of Deathfilled with toxic plants, snakes, scorpions and spiders, and poisonous fish in its ponds.

Like Fu-Manchu, Sapper’s Carl Peterson also has a fondness for deadly animals, as Bulldog Drummond discovers:
‘He felt his way along the hall, and at length his hand touched the curtain – only to drop it again at once. From close behind him had come a sharp, angry hiss...
He stepped back a pace and stood rigid, staring at the spot from which the sound had seemed to come – but he could see nothing. Then he leaned forward and once more moved the curtain. Instantly it came again, sharper and angrier than before.
Hugh passed a hand over his forehead and found it damp. Germans he knew, and things on two legs, but what was this that hissed so viciously in the darkness? At length he determined to risk it, and drew from his pocket a tiny electric torch. Holding it well away from his body, he switched on the light. In the centre of the beam, swaying gracefully to and fro, was a snake. For a moment he watched it fascinated as it spat at the light angrily; he saw the flat hood where the vicious head was set on the upright body; then he switched off the torch and retreated rather faster than he had come.
‘A convivial household,’ he muttered to himself through lips that were a little dry. ‘A hooded cobra is an unpleasing pet.’’12
Peterson doesn’t have a pet marmoset, but like Fu-Manchu he keeps a primate: a gorilla (with which Drummond grapples).

Many of Rohmer’s stories featured attempts on people’s lives in locked rooms. The heroes, usually Nayland Smith and an associate, investigate, only to find they are targeted in the same way. In The Quest of The Sacred Slipper, a novel that doesn’t feature Fu-Manchu, the narrator is attacked with a blowpipe:
‘What looked like a reed was slowly inserted through the opening between door and doorpost! It was brought gradually around… until it pointed directly toward me!
I seemed to put forth a mighty mental effort, shaking off the icy hand of fear which held me inactive in my chair. A saving instinct warned me – and I ducked my head.
Something whirred past me and struck the wall behind.
Revolver in hand, I leapt across the room, dashed the door open, and fired blindly – again – and again – and again – down the passage.
And in the brief gleams I saw it!
I cannot call it man, but I saw the thing which, I doubt not, had killed poor Deeping with the crescent-knife and had propelled a poison-dart at me.
It was a tiny dwarf! Neither within nor without a freak exhibition had I seen so small a human being! A kind of supernatural dread gripped me by the throat at sight of it. As it turned with animal activity and bounded into my bathroom, I caught a three-quarter view of the creature's swollen, incredible headwhich was nearly as large as that of a normal man!
Never while my mind serves me can I forget that yellow, grinning face and those canine fangs – the tigerish, blazing eyes – set in the great, misshapen head upon the tiny, agile body.
Wildly, I fired again. I hurled myself forward and dashed into the room…’ 13
This novel was serialized in the magazine Short Stories between November 1913 and June 1914, and was published in book form in 1919. A very similar scene occurs in Bulldog Drummond, in which the hero is ambushed in his room at the Ritz:
‘The light flashed out, darting round the room. Ping! Something hit the sleeve of his pyjamas, but still he could see nothing. The bed, with the clothes thrown back; the washstand; the chair with his trousers and shirt everything was as it had been when he turned in. And then he heard a second sound distinct and clear. It came from high up, near the ceiling, and the beam caught the big cupboard and travelled up. It reached the top, and rested there, fixed and steady. Framed in the middle of it, peering over the edge, was a little hairless, brown face, holding what looked like a tube in its mouth. Hugh had one glimpse of a dark, skinny hand putting something in the tube, and then he switched off the torch and ducked, just as another fly pinged over his head and hit the wall behind…
He listened for a moment, but no movement came from above; then, half facing the wall, he put one leg against it. There was one quick, tremendous heave; a crash which sounded deafening; then silence. And once again he switched on his torch... Lying on the floor by the window was one of the smallest men he had ever seen. He was a native of sorts, and Hugh turned him over with his foot. He was quite unconscious, and the bump on his head, where it had hit the floor, was rapidly swelling to the size of a large orange. In his hand he still clutched the little tube…’14
Fu-Manchu usually favours dacoits – Burmese assassins – to do his dirty work, having them place insects, spiders or poison in the rooms of his enemies:
‘Every nerve in my body seemed to be strung tensely. I was icy cold, expectant, and prepared for whatever horror was upon us.
The shadow became stationary. The dacoit was studying the interior of the room.
Then it suddenly lengthened, and, craning my head to the left, I saw a lithe, black-clad form, surmounted by a Yellow face, sketchy in the moonlight, pressed against the window-panes!
One thin, brown hand appeared over the edge of the lowered sash, which it grasped and then another. The man made absolutely no sound whatever. The second hand disappeared and reappeared. It held a small, square box. There was a very faint CLICK.
The dacoit swung himself below the window with the agility of an ape, as, with a dull, muffled thud, SOMETHING dropped upon the carpet!
“Stand still, for your life!” came Smith’s voice, high-pitched.
A beam of white leaped out across the room and played full upon the coffee-table in the center.
Prepared as I was for something horrible, I know that I paled at sight of the thing that was running round the edge of the envelope.
It was an insect, full six inches long, and of a vivid, venomous, red color! It had something of the appearance of a great ant, with its long, quivering antennae and its febrile, horrible vitality; but it was proportionately longer of body and smaller of head, and had numberless rapidly moving legs. In short, it was a giant centipede, apparently of the scolopendra group, but of a form quite new to me.
These things I realized in one breathless instant; in the next – Smith had dashed the thing’s poisonous life out with one straight, true blow of the golf club!
I leaped to the window and threw it widely open, feeling a silk thread brush my hand as I did so. A black shape was dropping, with incredible agility from branch to branch of the ivy, and, without once offering a mark for a revolver-shot, it merged into the shadows beneath the trees of the garden. As I turned and switched on the light Nayland Smith dropped limply into a chair, leaning his head upon his hands. Even that grim courage had been tried sorely.’15
In Sapper’s The Final Round, published 14 years after this passage, Bulldog Drummond receives an equally unpleasant gift from Peterson:
‘With the paper-knife he prised open the lid, and even he gave a startled exclamation when he saw what was inside. Personally it filled me with a feeling of nausea, and I saw Toby Sinclair clutch the table.
It was a spider of sorts, but such a spider as I have never dreamed of in my wildest nightmares. Its body was the size of a hen’s egg; its six legs the size of a crab’s. And it was covered with coarse black hair. Even in death it looked the manifestation of all evil, with its great protruding eyes and short sharp jaws, and with a shudder I turned away.’16
Peterson has also sent a female of the species, which Drummond bashes with a poker. Both these scenes may have been in Fleming’s mind for the scene in Dr No in which Bond wakes to find a centipede crawling over him:
‘What had woken him up? Bond moved softly, preparing to slip out of bed. Bond stopped moving. He stopped as dead as a live man can. Something had stirred on his right ankle. Now it was moving up the inside of his shin. Bond could feel the hairs on his leg being parted. It was an insect of some sort. A very big one. It was long, five or six inches – as long as his hand. He could feel dozens of tiny feet lightly touching his skin. What was it? Then Bond heard something he had never heard before – the sound of the hair on his head rasping up on the pillow. Bond analysed the noise. It couldn’t be! It simply couldn’t! Yes, his hair was standing on end. Bond could even feel the cool air reaching his scalp between the hairs. How extraordinary! How very extraordinary! He had always thought it was a figure of speech. But why? Why was it happening to him? The thing on his leg moved. Suddenly Bond realized that he was afraid, terrified. His instincts, even before they had communicated with his brain, had told his body that he had a centipede on him…’17
This scene, which is too long to quote here, is a virtuoso piece of writing from Fleming, with his powers of description at full throttle. He takes this rather stale convention and prolongs the visceral reaction for much longer than Rohmer or Sapper. Their prose is vivid, occasionally even chilling, but this is a rare example of suspense in Fleming, with time almost seeming to slow down, and his eye zooming in on every hair of the centipede’s legs as it traverses across Bond’s body. In the film adaptation, ironically, the centipede became a spider, the latter being thought more visually impressive. 

Fleming drew on the work of both Sapper and Rohmer in Thunderball, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and You Only Live Twice. The master-villain of those three novels, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, is directly inspired by both Carl Peterson and Dr Fu-Manchu. Like Peterson, he changes identity and appearance, transforming himself into the Comte de Bleuville and Dr Shatterhand (Peterson poses as the ‘Comte de Guy’ and many others). Like Peterson, he is a highly organized criminal trying to alter world events primarily for profit; and like Peterson he makes use of biological warfare to do it, among other schemes. These are specific similarities, but they were not all that unusual in thrillers before Fleming. The combination of them is more telling, and coupled with Blofeld having a female accomplice called Irma this confirms Sapper as a direct source. I suspect Fleming called her that to make the inspiration more obvious, and perhaps to pay tribute to Sapper. 

But like Fu-Manchu, Blofeld heads a secret organization that intends to bring down the world: the Si-Fan in Rohmer, S.P.E.C.T.R.E. in Fleming. In Rohmer’s 1936 novel President Fu Manchu, it is suggested in passing that Japan’s real-life Society of the Black Dragon is associated with the Si-Fan. In You Only Live Twice, Blofeld has surrounded himself with former members of the same society. In The Devil Doctor, published in 1916, Fu-Manchu traps Nayland Smith and his friend Dr Petrie, and speechifies about seppuku and other Japanese traditions:
The weapon near your hand, continued the Chinaman, imperturbably, is a product of the civilization of our near neighbors, the Japanese, a race to whose courage I prostrate myself in meekness. It is the sword of a samurai, Dr. Petrie. It is of very great age, and was, until an unfortunate misunderstanding with myself led to the extinction of the family, a treasured possession of a noble Japanese house...18
Fu-Manchu places Nayland Smith in a wire cage called the ‘Six Gates of Joyful Wisdom’ and lets starving rats loose inside it. He then offers Petrie the samurai sword with which to kill his friend before the rats gnaw him to death. Petrie swipes at Nayland Smith with the sword, nearly decapitating him, but the two are rescued at the last moment by Fu-Manchu’s female assistant Karamaneh, who has switched sides, something she did regularly. In You Only Live Twice, Blofeld makes several speeches that echo Fu-Manchu’s in this novel, and also uses a samurai sword:
‘‘The account I have to settle with you is a personal one. Have you ever heard the Japanese expression “kirisute gomen”?’
Bond groaned. ‘Spare me the Lafcadio Hearn, Blofeld!’
‘It dates from the time of the samurai. It means literally “killing and going away”. If a low person hindered the samurai’s passage along the road or failed to show him proper respect, the samurai was within his rights to lop off the man’s head. I regard myself as a latter-day samurai. My fine sword has not yet been blooded. Yours will be an admirable head to cut its teeth on.’’19
Bond manages to best Blofeld in the sword fight, in a chapter titled Blood and Thunder, which was a phrase often used to describe boys adventure stories and similar tales from the late 19th century onwards. Reading such speeches in isolation, its hard to tell if it’s Blofeld speaking, or Dr No – or Fu-Manchu. The ‘mocking, lecture-room voice’ and megalomaniacal rhetoric of Fleming’s villains has its origins in Rohmer’s work.

Although Fleming first encountered Rohmer as a boy, it seems he may have kept up with the series as an adult. One bizarre similarity comes in the story Green Devil Mask, which was serialized in the Canadian publication Star Weekly in January and February 1952. In it, Nayland Smith stops a plot by Fu-Manchu and his daughter to turn the gold bullion in Fort Knox into a worthless base metal using a new type of X-ray. This may simply be an uncanny coincidence because in Goldfinger, published in 1959, the titular villain merely wants to rob Fort Knox of its gold. But when it came to making the film of the novel a few years later, the scriptwriters felt that this didn’t work, and changed the plot so that Goldfinger plans to irradiate the gold in Fort Knox, rendering it worthless for decades.

A novel that seems very likely to have influenced Ian Fleming directly is The Island of Fu Manchu, which was published in 1941. Fu Manchu has set up a sisal mine in Haiti using cheap labour, having frightened the locals by the fraudulent use of voodoo. The mine is a diversion: inside a hollowed-out volcano, Fu Manchu operates a secret base in which he keeps experimental underwater craft that will help tip the balance of world power. He captures Denis Nayland Smith and Bart Kerrigan, and threatens to throw them in a massive swamp, which contains Burmese soldier spiders.

This sounds like a James Bond adventure taken to the extreme. In Live And Let Die, Mr Big – described by Antony Boucher in his review of the novel for The New York Times as ‘a sort of blackface Fu Manchu’20 – uses voodoo to frighten locals in Jamaica into submission. Dr No features a guano mine on Crab Key, and No uses cheap local labour to build his base. A base in a hollowed-out volcano was used by Blofeld in the film of You Only Live Twice, but not in Fleming’s novel, where Blofeld operated from a castle. Rohmer not only provided elements that Fleming built on to create what we now recognize as his style: in many ways, Fleming toned down those elements, and despite Rohmer’s lack of convincing characterization and archaic prose style, his work often seems more in line with the popular perception of James Bond stories than Fleming’s own novels.

A significant difference between Fleming and Rohmer is their protagonists: James Bond is a very different character from the anodyne Denis Nayland Smith and his assorted accomplices. The Bentley-driving Bulldog Drummond is more similar to Bond, although I think there were several closer models. But Fleming’s villains their conspiracies, strategies, ways of working, manner of speaking and treating others as well as the locations and overall tone of his novels, all owe a lot to Rohmer’s work. Rohmer was a very prolific author, and it would take much more space to do justice to this topic, but I hope this article has at least gone some way to showing that he was a major source of inspiration for Ian Fleming – and often a very direct one.


1, 7, 8, 15. All quotes from The Insidious Dr Fu-Manchu (the American title) by Sax Rohmer:
2. p127, Dr No by Ian Fleming, Pan, 1965.
3. p10, Ian Fleming by Andrew Lycett, Phoenix, 1996.
4. pp239-240, The Life of Ian Fleming by John Pearson, Companion Book Club, 1966.
5. What Boys Read, The Times, February 15, 1950.
6. p210, Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel by Julian Symons, Viking, 1985.
9. p176 The Hand of Fu-Manchu (American title) by Sax Rohmer, Borgo Press, Wildside Press edition, 2001.
10. pp209-210 The Hand of Fu-Manchu.
11, p158, Dr No.
12 pp67,68 Bulldog Drummond by Sapper, House of Stratus, 2001.
13. pp20-21, The Quest of The Sacred Slipper by Sax Rohmer, Borgo Press, 2002.
14. p168 Bulldog Drummond.
16. pp60-61 The Final Round by Sapper, House of Stratus, 2009.
17. pp55-58, Dr No.
18. p192 The Devil Doctor by Sax Rohmer, BiblioBazaar, 2007.
19. pp170-171, You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming, Pan, 1966.
20. Criminals At Large by Anthony Boucher, The New York Times, April 10, 1955.

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


  1. What a great way to ring in the New Year! Were Fleming scholarship more firmly established, essential reading like this would be printed in an academic journal.

    You make an extremely convincing case for Rohmer being a greater influence (especially on Fleming's sensationalistic side)than Sapper. I have a Fu Manchu omnibus on my shelf but have never gotten around to reading it, which makes me doubly grateful for your work (and also whets my appetite for discovering Rohmer's craziness firsthand). You also make an excellent implication that the Bond films inadvertently ended up echoing the wildest aspects of Rohmer more than Fleming, who toned down the most outlandish elements.(Return of the repressed!)

    I wonder if Fantomas had any influence on Sapper and company. Like Carl Peterson, Fantomas is a diabolical master of disguise who commits grand crimes, and he's also assisted by a mysterious woman, Lady Beltham.

    I think part of what makes Fleming's centipede scene especially good is that Fleming was keenly attuned to bodily sensations--it's why his torture scenes still upset people with their immediacy. I dislike relying too much on an author's personal life to explain his work, but Fleming's love for sadomasochism seems reflective of his attention to the body.

  2. Thank you very much for that, IA. Always a pleasure to hear your take on things. Great point on Fleming's strength at describing physical sensation. I think the 'killing ground' and Garden of Death scenes in Dr No and You Only Live Twice are both superb variations of Rohmer-esque set-ups that work primarily because they feel so physically real. Rohmer's books are somewhat repetitive and the characterization is minimal, but I think you might find them a lot of fun - and yes, they are often like over the top versions of Fleming.

    I hadn't considered Fantomas as an influence on these writers, but I think both Rohmer and Sapper would have been very familiar with Conan Doyle and the penny dreadfuls, and I think this sort of master-criminal and super-villain probably sprung up in several countries in the 19th century at around the same time. There's quite a few French criminal masterminds in the British penny dreadfuls of that time, sometimes assisted by beautiful women. Fu-Manchu isn't all that different from several other villains that had come before him, but somehow his being Oriental opened things up, as Rohmer tapped into a whole new vein that hadn't been all that explored, and which readers, Fleming included, found fascinating: the world of opium houses and fan-tan games and so on. (Fleming says in Thrilling Cities he was disappointed at watching fan-tan played in Macao after having read about it in Rohmer's books as a youth and thinking it 'must be the most sinful game on the face of the earth'). But I think is is certainly possible Fantomas was an influence - I find it amazing just how densely populated the thriller genre was already in the 19th century, and how quickly ideas spread, as in the example I give above of Wu Ling appearing within a few days of the first Fu-Manchu hardcover.

  3. Happy New Year Jeremy. Another great piece.

    Funnily enough, I have been trying to do my own little exploration of 'the hollowed out volcano' and recently looked at two books 'Simon Black in Peril' (1951) and 'Throne of Satan' AKA: Black Napoleon (1967) which both had villains lairs housed in hollowed out volcanoes. But you have trumped me, with 'The Island of Fu Manchu' which was written 10 years earlier (and may not be the first example of the volcano lair).

    It is funny to think that a trope, so associated with James Bond (from the filmic YOLT) had its origins so much earlier - and in fact, as you point out - never featured in Fleming's novel.


  4. Hi David, thanks very much for the comment, and a happy new year to you, too!

    I have a few of James Dark's novels (surprise!), but have never heard of Ivan Southall. Fascinating stuff. I suppose one thing I'm trying to do with this series is try to reset some of the parameters. The Bond films have been so successful that they've obliterated a lot of thriller history, and it's come to be accepted that things like hollowed-out volcanoes, speechifying megalomaniacal villains, secret mercenary organizations and a lot of other conventions originated with Bond, whereas some of them are much older. Your examples also show how easy it is to misindentify influence. I'm sure someone could have written convincing newspaper articles about Throne of Satan or Simon Black In Peril claiming they directly inspired the Bond films. And perhaps they did. Or perhaps Sax Rohmer did... Or perhaps the production team of You Only Live Twice simply spotted a volcano when they flew to Japan and had the idea independently. We don't know, but what we do know is that the idea of a villain having a lair in a hollowed-out volcano is not a thriller convention that originated with that film. Independently of each other, we've spotted three prior uses of it.