Thursday, February 10, 2011

From Sweden With Love

Spy novelist Jeremy Duns meets Iwan Morelius: friend, ally and accomplice to many of the world’s greatest thriller-writers

‘I was marched smartly across the dark, snow-covered parade ground and shown into an office where a man dressed in civilian clothes awaited me. He wasn’t a civilian, though, because he said, “I am Captain Morelius.” He had watchful grey eyes and a gun in a holster under his jacket. “You will come with me.”’
If you’re a fan of thrillers, this passage from Desmond Bagley’s 1977 best-seller The Enemy may contain a familiar, perhaps even comforting, element: the name Morelius. Over the years, characters with that name have appeared in thrillers by several writers. In Raymond Benson’s 2000 James Bond novel Doubleshot, for example, Dr Iwan Morelius is the plastic surgeon who operates on a mercenary to create a doppelganger of 007, while in Walter Wager’s 1982 thriller Designated Hitter, Colonel Iwan Morelius is a target for assassination.

But few people know of the real Iwan Morelius. A deeply tanned ex-soldier with a white beard, he looks fit and lively for a man in his seventies as we sit in the Stockholm sunshine discussing his remarkable place in the history of the thriller. For as well as his cameos, Morelius – also known as Iwan Hedman-Morelius or just Iwan Hedman – has been a friend, supporter and researcher for several renowned thriller-writers, and has known many more. I first noticed him mentioned in the Author’s Note of Colin Forbes’ The Stockholm Syndicate, and after coming across him a few more times decided to do some research. I eventually traced him to Spain, where he retired in the 1980s after a long career in the Swedish army, and we struck up a friendship over our shared love of vintage thrillers.

When I was at school in England in the 1980s, there was a healthy samizdat trade in creased paperbacks by the likes of Alistair Maclean, Frederick Forsyth, Jack Higgins and Dennis Wheatley. The latter provided the most illicit thrills. He is best known now, if at all, for his occult thrillers, but he also wrote epic swashbucklers and spy stories: they were racy, violent, fun books, with cliff-hangers at every turn, and they kept me awake many a night. Morelius had a similar experience. ‘I read my first Dennis Wheatley novel when I was eleven,’ he says. ‘That sort of book was forbidden to youngsters like me – there was sex in them. But for that reason they were quite interesting for a boy to read!’

In his twenties, Morelius joined the army, and started to collect Wheatley’s work. He discovered that Wheatley had written several books that had not yet been translated into Swedish, and in 1961 wrote to the author – ‘in bad English’ – and received a reply and a signed book. The two corresponded intermittently for years, and became friendly, eventually meeting. ‘Later on he called me Iwan. But at the beginning it was always Sergeant-Major. He was quite old-fashioned.’

Morelius didn’t just read Wheatley, though. He devoured works by Leon Uris, Ian Fleming, Donald Hamilton and others. He also wrote to them, and in many cases received replies. In 1968, he set up the magazine Detective Agent Science fiction Thriller, known as DAST, which opened more doors. His magazine promoted the work of dozens of British and American thriller-writers in Sweden, and Morelius soon found himself invited to conferences and other events, and became friends with several thriller-writers. Subscribers to DAST were given a special card and number: Leslie Charteris, creator of The Saint, had number 005, while Wheatley had 008 – 007 went to a friend at Bonnier’s, the Swedish publisher of Ian Fleming’s novels.

Morelius’ closest bond in the thriller world was probably with Desmond Bagley – known as Simon to friends – and he and his first wife frequently holidayed with the Bagleys. As well as their friendship, Bagley appreciated Morelius’ expertise on firearms, and consulted him on that and other subjects. The Tightrope Men, published in 1973, was set in Norway and Finland, and a key scene involved the failure of a Husqvarna Model 40 to fire at a crucial moment: Morelius had shown Bagley a peculiarity with the pistol’s barrel that meant if it were not forced back the trigger wouldn’t pull. The Enemy, published in 1977, was partly set in Sweden, and as well as featuring Morelius as a minor character was dedicated to Iwan and the other ‘DASTards’.

Morelius also struck up a friendship with Geoffrey Boothroyd, a Scottish gun expert who had written to Ian Fleming to tell him that the Beretta pistol 007 used in the early novels was ‘a ladies’ gun’, and advised him to change it to a Walther PPK. Fleming did, and immortalized Boothroyd as MI6’s armourer, Major Boothroyd of Q  Branch (the films changed the character to ‘Q’). Morelius has some splendid photos of Geoffrey Boothroyd both in Sweden and Scotland.

Morelius never met Ian Fleming, but he wrote and had bound and printed 007 – Secret Agent, a lavish reference work that only had four copies. One went to Hugh Hefner at Playboy, and Morelius shows me Hefner’s enthusiastic letter thanking him for it. But Ian Fleming is just about the only thriller-writer Morelius has not known or interviewed, and over the years he amassed an enormous collection of signed first editions, many of which he has since sold, as well as a photograph album that is both a private scrapbook and a behind-the-scenes archive of 20th century thriller-writers. Alistair Maclean, Leslie Charteris, Patricia Highsmith, Donald Hamilton, Helen MacInnes, James Leasor, Jon Cleary... he met them all. There’s a wonderful snap of Duncan Kyle, Ellery Queen and Desmond Bagley laughing together – all have similar owlish glasses and beards (they were often mistaken for each other) and the result is almost like a thriller version of the Marx Brothers. Here he is with Jack Higgins at his home in Jersey, and there’s John Gardner at an event at the Grand Hotel in Stockholm in 1981, where he demonstrated the gadgets on a specially designed Saab. Many give a sense of the community of thriller-writers that has developed at conferences and similar events over the last few decades, such as a photo of Desmond Bagley holding court to Jack Higgins, with Morelius looking on.  

Morelius later went into the publishing business himself, being commissioned by Swedish publisher Lindqvists in the ’70s to hand-pick his own line of books, which were sold as ‘Hedman Thrillers’. I suspect that it is, above all, his taste that has stood him in good stead as much as his passion and expertise for the genre, and talking to him, one quickly realizes that this is why so many writers were drawn to him. If you’ve sold millions of books, it can become hard to find anyone willing to give you honest feedback. But Morelius is the archetypal Swedish straight-talker. When Dennis Wheatley dedicated his novel The Ravishing of Lady Mary Ware to Morelius, he told his idol he was honoured, but also that he felt the novel had too much exposition, and pointed out several errors.

Even in retirement, Morelius keeps busy, editing the online thriller journal Läst & hört i Hängmattan  (‘Read and heard in the hammock’) with his wife Margareta in Spain. A stickler for detailed research, Morelius helped Desmond Bagley, Colin Forbes and several other writers create some landmark novels in the genre. If you find yourself reading a British thriller set in Scandinavia, he probably played a part somewhere behind the scenes, securing contacts, scouting locations, and digging out the type of local classified information that only true insiders can. When it came to my own debut thriller, Free Agent, as soon as I had a finished draft I sent it to Iwan for his view. His reply came a few agonizing days later, and was short but to the point: ‘Excellent. But there’s too much talking, and not enough action.’ I didn’t like to admit it but he was right, and I went back and rewrote several scenes as a result. I’m proud to have continued that thriller tradition.

1 comment:

  1. Intreasting Man and great story. Free Agent has been read by the best. =)