Sunday, March 28, 2010

Pulp fiction

In the French-speaking world, one of the best loved and longest-lasting fictional heroes is Bob Morane. If you imagine Indiana Jones, Biggles, James Bond and Buck Rogers rolled into one, you'll have a fair idea of the character. Here's an interview I conducted in October 2006 with his creator. It was originally published in The Bulletin magazine.

A hero of our time

Henri Vernès’ novels have sold some 40 million copies around the world. As he publishes his 200th book, he tells Jeremy Duns what keeps him writing

Charles Dewisme’s living room is a mess. 'I don’t have enough space!' says the 88-year-old, who has lived in the same Brussels apartment for the last 25 years. In that time, he has accumulated oil paintings, Japanese lacquered wardrobes, swords from the Middle Ages, wayang puppets, antique cigarette lighters and much more besides. But Dewisme is not just any octogenarian Brussels resident with a storage problem. Under the pseudonym Henri Vernès he has sold around 40 million books, making him one of the world’s best-selling writers, and Belgium’s second most successful novelist of all time, after Georges Simenon.

And while most people his age would be happy to manage a trip to the supermarket and back unaided, the man seated on the sofa opposite me is still working: he has just published the 200th novel in a series he began in 1953.

Charles-Henri-Jean Dewisme was born in Ath in 1918, but his family moved to Tournai when he was a few weeks old. As a boy, he loved reading, lapping up everything from Ivanhoe to American detective stories. After a six-month trip to China at 18, he returned to Belgium, shortly after which war broke out. Working for the Resistance in Brussels, his job was to feed information back to British intelligence in London. 'When you told Brits you were in military intelligence they always laughed,' he says, throwing his head back in an impression of a chinless army officer type. 'They had a strange sense of humour. During the war, the BBC ran the same joke on the wireless almost every day: "What do you see when you see the sea?" Answer: "I see the sea!" They laughed at that every day for four years!'

After the war, Dewisme put his experience in espionage to good use. Following a short-lived marriage to a diamond-cutter’s daughter, he plunged into a new career as a reporter, working for the American agency Overseas News and freelancing for several French newspapers. He then published three literary novels, although none were best-sellers (and are now very hard to find), as well as short adventure stories for weekly magazines under various pen names. In 1952, the Belgian publishing firm Marabout invited him to create a hero for the company’s new division, aimed at the youth market.

And so one of the great characters of popular fiction was born: Bob Morane. A Frenchman who served in Britain’s RAF during the war (later changed to the French air force), Morane is forever 33 years old, with short dark hair and steely grey eyes. A part-time journalist, he travels the world with his loyal sidekick, a massive red-haired Scot called Bill Ballantine, foiling villainous plots and saving damsels in distress.

Dewisme chose the name Henri Vernès as his pseudonym, but says he was not especially inspired by Jules Verne in doing so. His hero’s antecedents were Allan Quartermain, Biggles and Tintin, but the books were also innovative: in the 1958 novel Les Géants de la taïga (The Giants of the Taiga), for example, Morane battled prehistoric creatures that had been cloned by humans, predating Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park by nearly four decades (although the book’s monsters are mammoths, rather than dinosaurs).
From the start, the series was an enormous success, with Dewisme writing a new novel every two months or less. Morane and Ballantine travelled all over the world, and before the 1950s were out Dewisme had brought in science-fiction elements, including time-travel and other dimensions. In 1959, he introduced his best known villain, Monsieur Ming, the Yellow Shadow, a more physically menacing version of the Oriental mastermind stereotype popularised by Sax Rohmer. 'My inspiration wasn’t [Rohmer’s] Fu Manchu,' says Dewisme, 'but the cover of a French translation of a 1920s novel, The Black Magician by RTM Scott. That picture led me somewhere else entirely.'

In 1983, Dewisme created a new series under the pseudonym Jacques Colombo: Don featured a CIA agent with Mafia roots and was a radical departure, as it entered the realm of erotica. 'I had written for youngsters for so many years that I needed to work off a lot of tension,' Dewisme laughs. He wrote 11 of the books, before returning to Morane with renewed gusto.

Since the '50s, comic book adaptations of each Morane novel had appeared a few years after initial publication, and they were later joined by radio shows, a TV series and a computer game; the character was even the subject of a hit song by French band Indochine.

To date, the books have been translated into 16 languages, including Thai, Turkish and Icelandic. In the US, the character was renamed ‘Moran’, became an American and had blond hair on the jackets, but the series never sold in huge numbers either there or in Britain. 'The English-speaking world is a very tough market,' says Dewisme. 'It’s quite easy to translate a book from English into French, but much harder to do it the other way round. There are also two very different markets within the English-speaking world. Oscar Wilde once said that the only difference between America and Britain was their language!'

In the French-speaking world, Morane is still going strong, with millions of avid fans. 'Most of my readers are adults these days,' says Dewisme. 'They’ve grown up with the character.' The Brussels-based Club Bob Morane is in healthy shape, producing a quarterly magazine as well as holding regular dinners, which Dewisme sometimes attends. A separate fan club in Canada also has a regular publication, and there are dozens of websites devoted to the minutiae of the series.

This weekend, Dewisme will be granted a citizen’s medal of honour by Brussels' Saint-Gilles commune, and will also be the special guest at the annual Comics Festival, both of which will take place in the commune’s town hall. At the same time, the 200th Morane adventure, Les Secrets de l’ombre jaune, will be launched, in which our intrepid hero travels to Tibet to fight his old nemesis once more (first taking the Thalys to Brussels so he can look up some secret documents in the Cinquantenaire museum). Les Murailles d’Ananké, the latest to get the comic book treatment, has also just been published, with a new illustrator, Frank Leclercq.

Has he thought about retiring? He shakes his head. 'What for? This way, I get to meet new people: readers, people like yourself. It’s an interesting life, and far more appealing than being a shrivelled up old man. I intend to write until I can’t any longer.' I mention that Georges Simenon, although a genre writer, is today seen as one of the 20th century’s greatest novelists. 'They’ll be saying the same thing about me once I’m gone,' he says, quick as a flash. Who’d dare bet against him?

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Pick up this Penguin

Last week I linked to the artwork for the forthcoming US paperback of Free Agent from Penguin. Eagle-eyed reader 'Liam Devlin' spotted that the gun in that image was a modern Beretta, rather than the Cold War-era Tokarev featured in the novel (and on the UK hardback). This is something that was changed in the final version, but I couldn't figure out a way to get my PDF of it on here. Never mind - I found it over at the funky blog Book Covers Anonymous. You may spot a couple of other tiny things that have been changed from the previous version. The design is by the London-based designer Jonathan Gray, who works under the name Gray318, and has designed many fantastic book jackets. Here's what he came up with for mine - what do you think? I couldn't be more pleased, but perhaps I'm biased! Click the image to enlarge it.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Fencing with death

Here's another article from my time as a journalist in Belgium, about an incident from the Second World War, which I first saw discussed by Richard Cohen in his excellent book By The Sword. I did some more research into it, and this article was published in January 2005 in the Brussels-based magazine The Bulletin.

Point of honour

In the midst of World War Two, an Olympic fencing champion faced down one of the Third Reich’s most notorious figures in a bizarre duel of wits, as Jeremy Duns reports

Of all the stories of heroism in World War Two, one of the strangest is that of Paul Anspach, the fencing champion who defied the Third Reich on a matter of principle.

Anspach was born in Brussels on April 1, 1882, of good stock: his uncle had been mayor of the city and his grandfather governor of the national bank. Paul, who qualified as a lawyer, was a keen footballer and tennis player until he discovered the sport that would dominate his life: fencing. After becoming national champion, the 26-year-old travelled to London for the 1908 Olympics, where his team won bronze. But it was at the Stockholm Games in 1912 that he secured his place in fencing history, winning gold medals in both the individual and team epée events.

Some fencing nations had not taken part in the Stockholm Games, because they applied slightly differing rules. Anspach (pictured below, third from left, with team-mates at a later Olympics) realised that for the sport to progress, it needed its own governing body: the fact that he was the best epée fencer in the world and spoke fluent French, German and English helped him make contacts across the continent, and in 1914 he became Secretary General of the newly-formed International Fencing Federation (FIE). Five years later, he and the Marquis de Chasseloup-Laubat set down the rules of the sport – their document remains the basis for all competitive fencing today.

Anspach competed in a further two Olympics, winning silvers in both, before deciding to concentrate on his law career and the administrative side of the sport. He rented a house in Brussels’ Rue de la Victoire and moved in with his second wife and their six children. In 1939, he was elected president of the FIE for a second time: his tenure was due to run until the end of 1940, but the war suspended the organisation’s operations.

On May 27, 1940, Belgium surrendered to the Nazis. In the preceding days, several Germans had been murdered near Brussels, and the occupiers rounded up suspects, including Anspach, who was a military prosecutor. He was imprisoned for a week, and cleared of any involvement in the murders. However, his position as head of the FIE was noted and included in the report sent to Nazi Party headquarters in Berlin.

The report reached Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich. Head of the Sicherheitsdienst, the internal security section of the SS, Heydrich was widely considered Hitler’s likely successor. He had won the Iron Cross for 60 flying missions, and was a brilliant swimmer, sailor, tennis-player, equestrian and concert-level violinist.

His greatest passion, however, was fencing. With its carefully controlled violence, elegant costumes and rigid code of honour, the sport appealed to many Nazis and fascists: Benito Mussolini and Oswald Mosley were also fanatical about it. Heydrich (pictured, top, at an SS fencing meet in 1939) was an outstanding saber fencer – but not quite good enough to make the German Olympic team, despite several attempts. When he realised he would not succeed at the highest level as an athlete, he turned his attention to the governing of the sport. As war raged across Europe, Heydrich was spending much of his time finagling to become president of the German Fencing Association. When he read the report on Anspach, he saw the chance to grab a greater prize – and made his first move. He sent the Gestapo back to Rue de la Victoire.

The only person in the house was the nanny, Edith Neufeld: Anspach’s wife, Marguerite, was visiting her mother in Aachen and the children were at school. Neufeld was a 22-year-old half-Jewish German who had fled Berlin for Brussels in 1937. "There were three or four of them," she says. "They were in plain clothes, but I recognised them from when they had arrested Monsieur Anspach the week before. Gestapo. They said they needed everything in the house to do with fencing. What could I do? They went into his study and took everything. Then they left."

As president of the FIE, Anspach was keeper of all the organisation’s records, archives and diplomas. The entire collection was now transported to Berlin. On hearing of the theft, Anspach, still in prison, immediately wrote a letter to Hans von Tschammer und Osten, the Reich’s sports minister, to demand that the files be returned. Von Tschammer und Osten sent a reassuring reply – but nothing happened.

In December, Heydrich achieved his ambition and became head of the German Fencing Association. This prompted his next move, which was to send the Gestapo back to Anspach, requesting that he come to Berlin. "His friends warned him not to accept any cigarettes Heydrich offered him," says Neufeld. "In case they were poisoned."

Anspach arrived in the German capital in the first week of February, 1941. He took a hamper to Neufeld’s mother, who still lived in the city, and she drove him to the Kaiserhof, a luxury hotel that the Nazis were using as a base.

Anspach and Heydrich’s meeting lasted several hours. The German argued that Berlin was a better home for the federation’s documents, as the city was the communications centre of Europe, and pointed out that Anspach’s tenure as president of the FIE should theoretically have expired two months previously. The Belgian replied that the federation’s activities were in suspension because of the war, and that he would remain the leader until it was over, after which a new leader could be appointed. Heydrich parried by suggesting that Anspach do the decent thing and hand over the reins to him.

Not many people would dare say no to the Obergruppenführer’s ‘invitation’, but Anspach did just that, and for good measure reiterated that the organisation’s archives should be returned to him. Although Heydrich was one of the most powerful men in the Third Reich and could easily have had Anspach either imprisoned or executed, he agreed to let the Belgian return to Brussels, on the condition that he was accompanied by two SS officers. Why Heydrich did this is a mystery, but perhaps he was saving harsher measures as a last resort: if he could ‘honourably’ take over the fencing world, so much the better.

On February 17, one of the SS officers turned up at Anspach’s house in Brussels, armed with a letter stating that he would relinquish his presidency of the FIE to Heydrich, and asking him to sign it. Anspach asked the SS officer for 24 hours to consider his reply. The next day, he wrote an extraordinary letter that is now in the Fencing Museum in Brussels. "As I am mandated by thirty-seven national fencing federations," Anspach wrote, "nothing can permit me to abdicate my powers to one affiliate."

Heydrich immediately counter-attacked, inviting the head of the Italian federation, Giulio Basletta, to Berlin. At a gala dinner on March 6, 1941, Heydrich told Basletta he thought it was time they took over the running of the FIE. In a letter written to FIE members after the war, Basletta claimed that he tried to counter Heydrich’s proposal, but that his German had been too weak.

Heydrich then wrote to Anspach. "I agree with Giulio Basletta," he wrote, "that during the war it is I and he who will protect the FIE’s interests. The question of the next presidency can be resolved after the war."

But once again, Anspach refused to give up his post, and cleverly used Heydrich’s argument against him, pointing out that as he did not have any of the official documents of the federation, he was hardly in a position to hand over the reins. Heydrich did not reply, perhaps because he had more pressing matters to attend to: a month later, Hermann Goering authorised him to make preparations for the implementation of the ‘final solution to the Jewish question’. Heydrich was responsible for everything from the mobile death squads to the transport of Jews to the camps. Ten months later, his car was ambushed by Czech agents in Prague, and he was assassinated.

After the war, Anspach bought the house in Rue de la Victoire, divorced Marguerite and married Edith Neufeld. She was 35 years younger than him, "but it never felt like that," she says. "We grew close as a result of what happened during the war. It’s true that he could be sharp, but he never was with me. He was only ever kind."

Anspach tried to recover the federation’s archives, but the building they were housed in had been burned to the ground during the war. He was re-elected president of the FIE, a post he held until 1948, and the organisation awarded him its highest honour, the Challenge Chevalier Feyerick, for ‘defending the interest and prestige of the FIE during the war’. A servant stole his gold medal for the team epée, but the individual gold, his other Olympic medals and all his certificates are intact. Later on, Anspach became an Olympic referee, and at the age of 90 attended the 1972 Munich Olympics. He died, five months short of his 100th birthday, in 1981.

"He rarely spoke about what happened between himself and Heydrich," says Pierre Raes, curator of Brussels’ fencing museum. "I think because he found it tragic that someone in the higher echelons of the fencing world was so dishonourable."

"It’s very difficult to outlive him by so many years," says Edith Anspach, who inherited the house in Rue de la Victoire and is now 87 years old. "But he was an extraordinary man, and I have some magnificent memories."

Paul Anspach was an extraordinary man: in the most surreal but frightening contest of his life, he held his head high – and did his sport proud.

With thanks to Edith Anspach and Pierre Raes.

The forgotten master of British spy fiction

Spy fiction can be divided, very roughly, into two camps: Field and Desk. James Bond is a field agent - we follow his adventures, not M's. John le Carré's novels, on the other hand, tend to focus on the people back at headquarters – George Smiley is a senior man at the Circus (he later becomes head of it, for a time). Broadly speaking, I think Field tends to win out on the sales front, whereas Desk gets more critical acclaim.

I enjoy both genres, but sometimes find myself wishing that the Field book I'm reading were as deft at characterization and prose style as it is at the suspense and atmosphere. Similarly, I often find myself reading a Desk book and desperately hoping that something will happen. It's all beautifully drawn, but is everyone going to be searching their filing cabinets for that manila folder forever?

In my own work, I’ve tried to have my cake and eat it: Paul Dark is a Desk man sent unwillingly back into the Field. In this I was partly influenced by the British spy novelist Joseph Hone, who combines the best of both camps in a way that leaves me breathless – and sick with envy. I interviewed Hone for my unpublished article on spy writers back in 2002, but decided not to include him in the finished piece, partly because it was already rather long, and partly because his work didn’t quite fit with the other writers I’d interviewed for it. But as I think he was one of the great spy novelists of the last century, I’m going to return to him now.

After speaking to Hone (his number was in the book and he picked up – sometimes you get lucky), he sent me a very charming and touching letter, and enclosed copies of many of his reviews. That probably sounds a little vain of him, but it’s not if you've read his novels. While it was reassuring to see that others had also highly valued his work, I found the reviews rather depressing reading. When I see a quote from a newspaper on the back of a novel, I'm conscious that it may have been taken wildly out of context. ‘Better than Deighton’ may, for example, have originally been part of the sentence ‘Better than Deighton at describing the intricacies of Nicaraguan bee-keeping customs Mr Fortescue undoubtedly is; as to the nature of espionage, he hasn't the foggiest.’ A jacket that trumpets ‘One for le Carré lovers… real suspense’ may have been culled from a review in the local paper that read: ‘One for le Carré lovers in search of a stop-gap only – despite occasional glimmers of real suspense, No Checkpoints for Charlie is dull as ditchwater, with a protagonist so irritating I kept wishing he would use his blasted cyanide capsule and put us all out of our misery.’ (My publishers would never do this, by the way.) But here were perceptive and laudatory reviews of Hone's work from Time, Newsweek, The Times Literary Supplement, The Washington Post, Kirkus and many more, comparing him favourably with Ambler, le Carré, Deighton and Greene. And yet, sadly, he is pretty much completely forgotten today, a footnote in British spy fiction. He deserves to be much better known.

Hone’s main protagonist – ‘a man with almost no heroic qualities’, as he describes himself – is Peter Marlow, an MI6 desk man turned field agent. He is repeatedly being taken out of his grubby office in the Mid-East Section in Holborn and dragged into the line of fire. The plots come thick and fast, and feature ingenious twists, action, mayhem, chases, Esperanto smiles and high-octane affairs – all the great spy stuff you'd want. But it's all wrapped up in prose so elegant, and characterization so subtle and pervasive, that you put the books down feeling you've just read a great work of literature.

Marlow himself is a wonderful character, and I think deserves to be as well known as Smiley. He’s the constant outsider, peering in at others' lives, meddling where he shouldn't, and usually being set up by everyone around him. He's a kind and intelligent man, and terribly misused, but he’s also a cynic – he sees betrayal as inevitable, and tries to prepare for it.

We first meet him in The Private Sector (1971), as an English teacher in Cairo who is gradually drawn into a spy ring. It’s one of those ‘innocents in too deep’ stories, but the evocation of both Egypt and the shifting loyalties of the protagonists is dazzling. Hone alternates between third and first persons, which he makes look like the easiest thing in the world. Set in the run-up to the Six Day War, it is superficially about Soviet moles, but the subtext is about how we can never know anyone else. That’s a poor description of it, though, so here’s LJ Davis writing about it in The Washington Post in July 1972 instead:
‘There are moments in this book – indeed, whole chapters – where one is haunted by the eerie feeling that Joseph Hone is really Graham Greene, with faint quarterings of Lawrence Durrell and Thomas Pynchon. His tone is nearly perfect – quiet, morbidly ironic, beautifully controlled and sustained, moodily introspective, occasionally humorous and more often bitter, with a persistent undertone of unspeakable sadness and irrecoverable loss.’
The May 8 1972 issue of Newsweek featured a full-page review of the book, calling it the best spy novel since Deighton’s Funeral In Berlin:
‘Joseph Hone knows what counts in this kind of fiction: ambiguity, romantic weariness, morality suspended, a precise sense of place, and a hall-of-mirrors effect in which double and triple agents are each caught in a plot more twisted than he can comprehend yet each imagines a plot more twisted yet. The fun is in watching everyone second-guess everyone else.’
The review concluded:
‘Hone answers to all the criteria of good spy fiction; his story is not only good but reinforced by his dalliance. He remembers, as some ambitious but less skilful writers forget, that a good spy story subordinates everything – characters, atmosphere and all – to the necessities of plot. A good spy novel is quite different from a good novel about spies – Conrad's Secret Agent, for instance, or le Carré's Looking Glass War – in which plot is sacrificed for the sake of character and atmosphere.’
In the second novel in the series, The Sixth Directorate (1975), Marlow has become just a little wiser. MI5 has caught a chap called George Graham red-handed as a Soviet sleeper, and locked him away. But they need to know more. Marlow looks enough like Graham that he is sent on a mission to impersonate him. The book is partly set in New York. Here’s Marlow describing his arrival there:
‘The city had climbed up in front of us long before, when we'd passed under the Verrazzano bridge eight miles out; the towers, points, all the steps and cliffs of Manhattan growing up on the horizon, poking gradually into the sun, like an ultimate geography lesson – some final, arrogant proof in steel and concrete that the world was round.

From a distance the city was a very expensive educational game, a toy not like other toys. And one had seen those towers so often in so many images – in polychrome and black and white, moving or with music – that all of us standing on the forward deck that morning had the expression of picture dealers scrutinising a proffered masterpiece, leaving a polite interval before crying 'Fake!'

These preconceptions were a pity since, from a distance, in the sharp light over a gently slapping metal-blue sea, the place looked better than any of its pictures, like the one advertisement layout that had escaped all the exaggerated attentions of the years, come free of Madison Avenue, the press, all the published myths and horrors of the city.

Sharp winds had rubbed the skyline clean, light glittered on the edges of the buildings and all I saw was a place where I was unknown, where unknown people bore ceaselessly up and down those cavernous alleys, between bars and restaurants and offices, all busy with an intent that had nothing to do with me.

The city stood up like a rich menu I could afford at last after a long denial.’
Marlow has come to Manhattan because Graham had a mistress there years ago, and he has studied her letters to learn all about her. But when the MI6 liaison in the city introduces Marlow to his wife, we realize that she was Graham’s lover. Ouch. Before long, Marlow finds himself entangled with her, as well as fending off the advances of a beautiful African princess who works for the United Nations. Yes, only in spy novels, but Hone somehow manages to make the whole thing seem real:
‘'Having coffee with a spy.' She said it in a deep, funny voice. 'Do you carry a revolver?'

'No, as a matter of fact. No guns, no golden Dunhills, no dark glasses.'

'No vodka martinis either – very dry, stirred and not shaken. Or is it the other way round?'

I felt the skin on my face move awkwardly, creases rising inexplicably over my cheeks. Then I realised I was smiling.

'Yes, I drink. Sometimes. Bottles of light ale, though. I'm a spy from one of those seedier thrillers, I'm afraid.'

'Let's have a drink then.'


'God, no. Upstairs.'

I looked at her blankly.

'Women are out too, are they? Not even "sometimes"? What a very dull book you are.’

'I disappoint you.'

'Not yet.'

She stood up and tightened her belt a notch. She was already pretty thin.’
It’s not that seedy a thriller, of course. Here’s Anatole Broyard’s verdict on it from The New York Times of March 2, 1984:
‘Joseph Hone's Sixth Directorate, which was published in 1975, is one of the best suspense novels of the last ten years. It has elegance, wit, sympathy, irony, surprise, action, a rueful love affair and a melancholy Decline of the West mood. Only the crimes in its pages separate the book from what is known as serious novels.’
The book also came with a cover quote from the American spy novelist Charles McCarry, who Hone is similar to in some ways. McCarry was forgotten for years, before being rediscovered in the last decade by a new generation of readers. Hone told me that Tony Richardson, the director of Look Back In Anger and The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, had intended to film The Sixth Directorate, taking an option on it and commissioning a script, but it didn’t go ahead as result of Joseph Andrews performing poorly at the box office. That’s a real shame, as it could have made a terrific film, and introduced Hone to a wider audience.

After The Sixth Directorate, Hone wrote a standalone spy thriller, The Paris Trap (1977), although its narrator, Harry Tyson, is in much the same vein as Marlow. The plot sounds preposterous when précised, and doesn’t do it justice, but I’ll give it a go. A film, Hero, is being shot in Paris, starring Julie Christie, Jean-Paul Belmondo and (the fictional) Jim Hackett. The plot of the film: a group of Palestinian terrorists have taken Christie’s husband, a minister in the French government, hostage. Belmondo plays a cop reluctantly working alongside British agent Summers, who is played by Hackett.

The screenplay for Hero is based on the long-running TV series of the same name, which in turn was based on a novel by John Major (really). Major was a pseudonym of Harry Tyson, who now works for British Intelligence (in the same section as Marlow, with the same boss). Former spy writer Tyson and film star Hackett are old friends, but now Tyson is having an affair with Hackett’s estranged wife – and Hackett secretly seeing Tyson’s.

In the meantime, a Palestinian terrorist cell, known only as The Group, takes Tyson, his daughter, and Hackett’s wife hostage. Their demands? Unusual, to say the least. They want a rewrite of the Hero script by Tyson, restoring the original grittiness of Summers’ character (he was a kind of Harry Palmer, but has become more like Bond), and a more sympathetic depiction of the Palestinian cause. The leader of The Group’s operation turns out to be a middle-class British radical: think a younger Vanessa Redgrave to the power of ten.

If you can’t imagine how on earth any of this could make a believable (or coherent) thriller, here’s the opening paragraph, which is typical of the tone throughout:
‘Nothing should ever surprise us. The warnings were all there in the past, ignored or disbelieved, and so all the more devastating when they at last take effect – as a marriage will suddenly explode for the lack of something years before, some mild ghost not laid in bed then, which rises up one fine day and takes a brutal shape from the years of waiting.’
Hone’s next novel, The Flowers of the Forest (1980), brought Marlow back. The book was published in the US as The Oxford Gambit, a move that did not impress the critic of The New York Times Book Review:
‘The title was changed here, I suppose, to identify it more clearly as a complicated thriller and tap the wide market for such books. Pity. It is all of that but a bit more. It is a deft story laced with a mordant wit and deserves a wide readership.’
Like the previous two Marlow novels, the plot again revolves around Soviet penetration agents. The man in question this time is Lindsay Phillips, a senior MI6 officer who suddenly disappears while tending his bees. Has he been kidnapped, murdered – or was he perhaps, as some are now starting to fear, a mole all along? Our man Marlow is sent in to investigate, and begins prying around the family: how much did Phillips’ wife and daughter know of his secret life? The basic set-up is familiar from several spy novels of the era, and would be put to great and best-selling effect by le Carré in A Perfect Spy six years later, but Hone handles it very differently. The narrative is once more a mix of first and third person, and features murders at funerals, chases across Europe, faked deaths and hidden affairs galore. Isabel Quigly wrote of it in the Financial Times:
‘This is the best thriller I’ve found in years, perhaps the best I remember – too serious and rich for the world thriller and what it implies, though sticking closely to the thriller genre – a novel about the mysteriousness of human beings rather than the mysteries of intelligence and diplomacy. The weaving of the story is so close, so tight, that no image, no hint, is ever wasted: everything links up with something else pages or chapters ahead… It all works without pretentiousness, going far beyond the limitations of its genre.’
That ellipsis isn’t to cut parts that weren’t as flattering, by the way, but rather a couple of hundred more words raving about the novel’s merits. Ms Quigly, I salute your good taste.

The Valley Of The Fox (1982) was the final novel in the series. Marlow has retired to the Cotswolds, where he is slowly writing his memoirs. Then a man breaks in and shoots his wife, and he goes on the run. This is a classic chase thriller, in the tradition of Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male. Some passages pay explicit homage to that book, with Marlow surviving on his wits in the countryside. Here's how it opens:
'He'd trapped me. But had he intended to? Had he meant to drive me up against the old pumping shed by the far end of the lake? Or had I carelessly allowed him to do this, moving after him into this impasse where there was no soundless exit, either across the stream ahead or up the steep open slopes behind the ruined building. Either way, I couldn't move now. And since the laurel bush only partly hid me I knew that if he moved past the corner of the shed he must see me and I would have to kill him...'
So there you have it. Five novels, all superb, all pretty much forgotten. All are also long out of print, but are easily found online, and well worth seeking out. Faber Finds also has the four Marlow novels as print-on-demand titles. They are not only very readable and exciting, but also psychologically astute and beautifully written. The passages I’ve quoted from them give only an inkling of their impact: it’s the melding of the prose style with the twists and turns of the plots that make Hone so special, and it has to be experienced over the course of a novel to appreciate.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The secret origins of James Bond

A TRADITIONAL view of Ian Fleming, familiar from dozens of articles, books and academic treatises, is that he updated the 'clubland heroes' of John Buchan, Dornford Yates and Sapper for a modern era. That view gained currency, I think, partly because of Richard Usborne's 1953 book Clubland Heroes, which was a light-hearted and very enjoyable examination of the work of those three authors. Perhaps because Usborne's book was one of the few of its kind, both Kingsley Amis and O.F. Snelling concluded that Fleming had been influenced by these writers, and that view has made its way down to us today.

There's no doubt that they were influences to a degree, but when researching my 2005 article on Fleming's first novel, Casino Royale, I started to wonder if a thriller-writer who came after them was not much more of one: Dennis Wheatley. I first read Wheatley's spy thrillers as a schoolboy, but on rereading them for the Casino Royale piece I thought I sensed something much closer to James Bond than Richard Hannay and Bulldog Drummond. So I delved back into Wheatley. This took me a couple of years (he was very prolific), and I also expanded my reading to other writers to fill gaps in my research and make sure I wasn't making unjustified leaps.

The result of my research was a long essay - a very long essay! I feel it makes a strong case for Wheatley being Fleming's most significant influence in the genre, and reveals a lot of previously unknown information about the origins and development of the character of James Bond. It was published in January on the website, but the site's owner, Wes Britton, and I have now refreshed its layout to make it more readable. It is now laid out more like a magazine article, with several photos and illustrations, and I've corrected a couple of typos and minor errors and added a paragraph about Peter Fleming along the way. You can read this brand spanking new version of The Secret Origins of James Bond right here.

To Russia, With Fleming

'Bond glanced down at his watch. It was 11.30. Bond thought with pleasure of the in-tray piled with Top Secret dockets he had gladly abandoned when the red telephone had summoned him an hour before. He felt fairly confident that now he wouldn't have to deal with them. 'I guess it's a job,' the Chief of Staff had said in answer to Bond's inquiry. 'The Chief says he won't take any more calls before lunch and he's made an appointment for you at the Yard for two o'clock. Step on it.' And Bond had reached for his coat and had gone into the outer office where he was pleased to see his secretary registering in another bulky file with a Most Immediate tab.

'M,' said Bond as she looked up. 'And Bill says it looks like a job. So don't think you're going to have the pleasure of shovelling that lot into my in-tray. You can post it off to the Daily Express for all I care.' He grinned at her. 'Isn't that chap Sefton Delmer a boy friend of yours, Lil? Just the stuff for him, I expect.'
From Diamonds Are Forever by Ian Fleming

There's an interesting piece in The Times today on the auctioning of a letter between Adolf Hitler and Sefton Delmer, pictured. The name Sefton Delmer has always struck me as being straight out of a Graham Greene novel, and indeed he would have fitted into some of those stories very well: he was one of Britain's great wartime practitioners of the dark art of propaganda: counterfeit newspapers articles, pamphlets, even entire radio stations were all in a day's work for Delmer. He was rather a good networker, too, and was in contact with the likes of Dennis Wheatley, Peter Fleming and, as can be divined from the quoted passage above, Peter's brother Ian, all of whom were also engaged in deception operations of one sort or another during the war.

Both Viking and Secker & Warburg published volumes of Delmer's memoirs in the Sixties, and you can buy them fairly easily online (I generally use Bookfinder, which seems to dig up things no other sites do). But you can also read a substantial amount of his memoirs for free online, courtesy of this curious website, which I seem to remember from previous research is run by a member of his family. Perhaps start with this wonderful article on his trip to Moscow with Ian Fleming in 1939.

Where spy fact meets spy fiction

Here's an article of mine that was published in The Sunday Times last year, looking at a century of British espionage fact and fiction, and the links between the two. You can read it at The Sunday Times' website, or here: I've restored my original headline and standfirst, and added some photos and illustrations.

The Spies We’ve Loved

This year marks the centenaries of MI5 and MI6, as well as of the spy novelist Eric Ambler. Jeremy Duns looks at a century’s fascination with espionage, and the sometimes-strange relationship between fact and fiction

In the spring and summer of 1909, Colonel James Edmonds presented himself at a sub-committee of the grand-sounding ‘Committee of Imperial Defence’ in Westminster. Although nominally head of Britain’s military counter-intelligence, Edmonds’ budget was tiny and he only had two assistants – most intelligence was still being gathered by the Admiralty, the War Office and the Foreign Office. But this sub-committee had been convened to analyse the threat of a German invasion, and Edmonds saw his chance. Over the course of three secret sessions, he made the case that Britain was all but over-run with German spies, presenting detailed information about suspicious barbers and retired colonels plotting dastardly deeds across the land.

When this failed to convince the committee, a dramatic document arrived at the War Office at the last minute. It was said to have been discovered by a French commercial traveller who had shared a compartment on a train between Spa and Hamburg with a German who had happened to be carrying a similar bag. The German, it was claimed, had disembarked with the wrong bag. When the Frenchman perused the one he had left behind in the compartment, he discovered ‘detailed plans connected with a scheme for the invasion of England’. This pushed the sub-committee over the edge: a few weeks later, it recommended to the prime minister the creation of a Secret Service Bureau, divided into two sections, Home and Foreign. These sections would later split, and become known as MI5 and MI6.

If the idea of the country being overrun by German agents sounds like the stuff of spy novels, that is because it was. In a desperate bid to stop the police from taking over what he saw as his rightful domain, Edmonds had brazenly taken many of his ‘cases of German espionage’ from a novel called The Spies of The Kaiser. This had been written by a friend of his, William Le Queux, and had been published a few months earlier. The mysterious document discovered by the French commercial traveller also has all the hallmarks of a Le Queux story.

Spy fiction, then, played a key role in the birth of Britain’s intelligence apparatus. In the century since, this curious relationship has continued, with spy novels often reflecting real-life espionage events and occasionally, as in 1909, influencing them.

The First World War was not much of a success for the Secret Service Bureau, nor any other intelligence agency in Europe for that matter. Most discovered to their cost that it was relatively simple to discover the location and strength of the enemy’s forces, but extremely difficult to gauge what they planned to do with them. Spy fiction prospered during the war, though: Le Queux, John Buchan, E. Phillips Oppenheim and others turned out a stream of thrilling if implausible tales of gentlemen heroes who save England from dastardly plots.

It was not until the 1920s that the genre would receive its first dose of reality. This came from Somerset Maugham, whose short stories about British writer-turned-agent Ashenden were the first to present espionage as a rather shabby occupation, filled with loose ends and frustrating bureaucratic muddles. Ashenden is sceptical of the spying game from the start, when a colonel in British intelligence known only as R. tells him about a French minister who is seduced by a stranger in Nice and loses a case full of important documents as a result. Ashenden laconically notes that such events have been enacted in a thousand novels and plays, but R. insists that the incident happened just weeks previously. Ashenden is not impressed, remarking that if that is the best the Secret Service can offer, the field is a washout for novelists: ‘We really can’t write that story much longer.’

Maugham had personal experience of the espionage world, having worked for British intelligence during the war. But his greatest follower in this new school of spy fiction had no such background, having worked as an advertising copywriter. This was Eric Ambler, whose centenary will also be celebrated this year: on May 28, five of his novels will be reprinted as Penguin Modern Classics.

Ambler brought a new psychological dimension to the genre, and in novels such as The Mask of Dimitrios and Epitaph for a Spy he exposed the murky underworld of European politics and finance. His 1930s novels were also dominated by the spectre of the coming war - but he was not the only one to see the writing on the wall. Published just a few months before the war began was Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household. This is arguably the forefather of the modern action thriller: a British gentleman tries to shoot an unnamed dictator, fails, and is pursued by enemy agents across the English countryside. Like Ambler, Household looked beyond the simplistic vision of good and evil of earlier novels, as well as introducing a dose of physical toughness to the genre.

Household’s unnamed narrator acts not out of patriotism, but principle. Once war had been declared, though, the genre would again struggle to make that distinction. The blackout created a huge demand for escapist reading material, and one of the first to capitalize on this was Dennis Wheatley. His thriller The Scarlet Impostor was published on January 7 1940, making it the first spy novel to be set during the Second World War.

Wheatley was firmly in the Le Queux and Buchan school of scrapes and fisticuffs. In order to make his baroque plots more believable, he also used brand names on a grand scale – the first thriller-writer do so. In The Scarlet Impostor, British agent Gregory Sallust is on a mission to make contact with an anti-Nazi movement in Germany. During the course of the novel we learn that he smokes Sullivans’ Turkish mixture cigarettes, drinks Bacardis and pineapple juice, carries a Mauser automatic and has his suits made by West’s of Savile Row. The romantic vision of the spy had returned with a vengeance.

Wheatley spent the war balancing the fictional and real worlds of intelligence. While still regularly publishing thrillers, he was a member of the London Controlling Section, a team within the Joint Planning Staff of the War Cabinet dedicated to planning deception operations against Germany (such as The Man Who Never Was and Montgomery's double). His novels of the time are curious mixtures of thrilling potboilers packed with up-to-the-minute analysis of the politics of the time.

With the end of the war, the Soviets became the new enemy, and it was felt that new methods were needed to defeat them. The Special Operations Executive – ‘Churchill’s secret army’ – was rapidly disbanded and replaced by the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), more commonly known as MI6.

While a new breed of professional secret agents were trained and sent into the field, the spy novel was also changing. The genre had long been dominated by male writers, but after the war female spy writers emerged, notably Helen MacInnes and Sarah Gainham. But the big development came in 1953, with the publication of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale. With his Balkan cigarettes, vodka martinis and Savile Row suits, Fleming’s James Bond was a Gregory Sallust for a new age: the age of the Cold War.

In 1962, the first Bond film was released, and Britain’s fictional spies dominated the rest of the decade. Britain’s real-life intelligence community, however, was in disarray: paranoid, disillusioned, and turning on itself. This was the result of the discovery of an alarming number of double agents operating in its ranks, most notably the Cambridge Ring. As the extent of the deception became clear, spy novelists turned away from the fantasy of Bond. Led by Len Deighton and John le Carré, plots increasingly revolved around the hunt for these ‘moles’ – a term coined by le Carré but later adopted in intelligence circles. Like Maugham and Greene before him, le Carré had first-hand experience of espionage, and was able to give readers the impression they were privy to the inner workings of the spy world.

The genre had again turned from gung-ho physical action to the darker world of human psychology. In the Seventies, the more realistic school of Deighton and le Carré gave way to fantasy once more – albeit fantasy presented as realism. Frederick Forsyth emerged as the inheritor of Fleming, with plausible but highly melodramatic thrillers that paved the way for a new field called ‘faction’. Thriller-writers began to explore the Second World War in earnest, and for the first time Nazis were portrayed in an empathetic light (in Jack Higgins’ The Eagle Has Landed and Ken Follett’s The Eye of the Needle, for example).

During the Seventies and Eighties, the real world of espionage sometimes seemed more extraordinary than its fictional counterparts. A Venezuelan terrorist-for-hire eluded the world’s security forces in a way that would have made Eric Ambler’s Dimitrios gasp – he was even dubbed the Jackal by the press after a copy of Forsyth’s most famous novel was said to have been found among his possessions. In London, the dissident Bulgarian writer and broadcaster Georgi Markov was poisoned with a ricin-tipped umbrella as he walked across Waterloo Bridge. A thousand would-be spy novelists picked up their pens – but as Alexander Litvinenko’s murder in 2006 shows, such techniques were not a one-off, and have not disappeared.

As the Cold War wound down, so too did the spy novel. Innovations included forays into speculative fiction (Robert Harris’ Fatherland) and new territories (Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park, while not strictly a spy novel, certainly felt like one). Deighton retired and le Carré moved on to new subjects. But eventually the genre rose from the ashes, in new forms. Robert Ludlum’s frantic conspiracy thrillers and David Morrell’s brutal action novel First Blood – inspired by Household’s Rogue Male – led to the SAS adventures of Andy McNab and Chris Ryan in the Nineties, and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code in 2003.

In this decade, the spy story has flourished: on television and in cinemas, Spooks, 24 and the Bourne films are reflecting the current reality, while novelists such as Charles Cumming, Henry Porter and Tom Cain explore it in print. Meanwhile, writers such as Alan Furst and Tom Rob Smith shed new light on espionage history – I hope to do the same with my own novels set in the Cold War.

Nobody can know what will happen in the next century of espionage, but one thing is for certain: spy novelists will be there to tell the story.

'The one with the carpet-beater'

Here's another article from 2005, a literary appreciation of Ian Fleming's first novel, Casino Royale, looking at its themes and influences in advance of the film adaptation starring Daniel Craig. Like my article on Per Fine Ounce, this was originally published in the James Bond fan magazine Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, this time in its first issue. If you'd like a hard copy of the issue, you can buy one here.

Cold Male

Jeremy Duns reassesses Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale

‘The one with the carpet-beater.’ For too long, Casino Royale has been defined by one (admittedly brilliant) scene. The novel’s place in the canon of espionage fiction is assured by simple virtue of it being the first novel to feature James Bond, but apart from the infamous torturing of its hero, it is rarely given any serious analysis. This is a shame, because although it was not as commercially or critically successful as Fleming’s subsequent novels, there’s a strong case to be made for it being the first great spy thriller of the Cold War.

That the case hasn’t been made is probably due to several factors. Most obviously, many elements of the book don’t easily fit the genre: the setting is not Berlin or Budapest, but a small seaside resort in northern France, and the plot involves gambling for high stakes in a casino rather than stealing documents or smuggling a defector across a border. With its champagne and caviar, casino chips and cocktail dresses, it sometimes seems more like an F Scott Fitzgerald story than a spy novel.

But it is a spy novel - Fleming marks it out as such in the first chapter, ‘The Secret Agent’, in which James Bond practises some fairly nifty pieces of tradecraft. He doesn’t take the lift up to his hotel room, because it would warn anyone on that floor someone was coming. And, once he has established that no one is in the room, he checks that his traps have not been disturbed: a strand of hair wedged into a drawer in the writing desk, a trace of talcum powder on the handle of the wardrobe, and the level of water in the lavatory cistern.

Bond is in Royale-les-Eaux – a fictionalised counterpart of Deauville – on a mission to bring down the mysterious Le Chiffre, who MI6’s report describes as ‘one of the Opposition’s chief agents in France, and undercover Paymaster of the “Syndicat des Ouvriers d’Alsace”, the Communist-controlled trade union in the heavy and transport industries in Alsace, and as we know, an important fifth column in the event of war with Redland’1.

Le Chiffre is in trouble, although he’s unaware just how much: SMERSH, ‘the most powerful and feared organisation in the USSR’2 knows that he has embezzled some 50 million francs of party funds, which he has lost in the prostitution racket. Le Chiffre’s scheme to extricate himself from this mess – to win the money back at baccarat – is utterly implausible, and MI6’s idea to send an agent out to France to make sure he loses even more so. But, in a trick that Fleming was to make his trademark, we don’t dwell on the absurdity, because it’s surrounded by such a wealth of verisimilitude. SMERSH was a real organisation, now best known (outside the Bond novels) for having hunted down suspected traitors to the Soviet Union in the months following World War Two.3

Fleming used his own experiences and knowledge of espionage throughout the novel, and even the most sensational elements are grounded in reality. In Chapter Nine, Bond tells Vesper that he earned his Double O prefix by killing a Japanese cipher expert in New York and a Norwegian double agent in Stockholm. In 1941, Fleming had visited the New York offices of the MI6 offshoot the British Security Coordination (BSC). He was shown around the headquarters by the organisation’s ‘M’, Sir William Stephenson (the famous ‘Intrepid’), and witnessed the burglary of an office belonging to a cipher expert working in the Japanese consul on the floor below.4 According to one former BSC officer, the BSC did carry out at least one assassination in New York during the war.5 Bond’s mission to bankrupt Le Chiffre was inspired by another of Fleming’s wartime experiences, when he attempted to take on some German agents he had recognised in the casino in Estoril in Portugal – unlike Bond, though, Fleming lost.6

Note, too, that Le Chiffre is not just an agent of an opposing power, but of ‘The Opposition’. In 1952, when Fleming started writing Casino Royale, the Cold War was entering its seventh year - it started in the closing stages of World War Two. MI6’s report refers to ‘the event of war with Redland’. This is no thriller hyperbole – it was a very real fear in British military and intelligence circles at the time. Just five days after the Nazis’ surrender in 1945, Winston Churchill was considering a study drawn up by his Joint Planning Staff for a war against Russia. The date for the start of the Third World War was pencilled in for July 1, 1945.7 Although Churchill’s chiefs of staff rejected the idea, the feeling that the cold war with the Soviet Union may at any moment turn hot was common during the 50s.

But the most significant espionage element in Casino Royale is that of betrayal. A year before Fleming sat down to write the novel, the British diplomats Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean vanished. Although it was not publicly confirmed that they had been Russian agents until their appearance in Moscow in 1956, there was widespread speculation that this was the case, and Fleming, with his intelligence contacts, would probably have known more than most about MI6’s attempts to track down the remaining members of the ‘Cambridge Ring’. Vesper Lynd represents the shadow of treachery that would haunt British intelligence for the next two decades. It also haunted British spy fiction: scores of thrillers in the 60s and 70s focussed on the hunt for a ‘mole’ in MI6. Casino Royale got there first.

That said, the novel has its own weight of influences. It is, of course, impossible to know all the books Fleming read and what he thought of them, but we can piece together some of it. It is often said that Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond was one of the primary models for Bond, but an interview Fleming gave to Playboy shortly before his death refutes that:
‘I wanted my hero to be entirely an anonymous instrument and to let the action of the book carry him along. I didn't believe in the heroic Bulldog Drummond types. I mean, rather, I didn't believe they could any longer exist in literature. I wanted this man more or less to follow the pattern of Raymond Chandler's or Dashiell Hammett's heroes - believable people, believable heroes.’8
The final phrase, ‘believable heroes’, is Casino Royale's real innovation. Prior to its publication, there had been plenty of unbelievable heroes in spy fiction, and plenty of spy thrillers featuring believable characters – but they hadn’t been heroes. By merging the existing two schools of spy fiction, the heroic and the believable, Fleming forged an entirely new kind of spy thriller.

The ‘believable’ school had been born in 1928, with W Somerset Maugham’s collection of short stories about the British writer-turned-agent Ashenden. This was the first piece of fiction to present espionage as a sordid and shabby line of work: until then, its depictions had been closer to propaganda (and in many cases were used as such). Ashenden is sceptical of the spying game from the start, when a colonel in British intelligence known only as R. tells him a story about a French minister who was seduced by a stranger in Nice, and lost a case full of important documents in the process:
‘“They had one or two drinks up in his room, and his theory is that when his back was turned the woman slipped a drug into his glass.”
Ashenden laconically notes that such events have been enacted in a thousand novels and plays: ‘“Do you mean to say that life has only just caught up with us?”’ R. insists that the incident happened just a couple of weeks previously.
‘“Well, sir, if you can’t do better than that in the Secret Service,” sighed Ashenden. “I’m afraid that as a source of inspiration to the writer of fiction it’s a washout. We really can’t write that story much longer.”’9
Writers did continue to create variations of the story, of course, and Casino Royale is one of them. With the Ashenden stories, Maugham changed the rules of earlier thrillers – works by the likes of William Le Queux and E. Phillips Oppenheim, whose romantic tales of derring-do had been best-sellers in the run up to World War One. Both writers were fond of aristocratic heroes with refined tastes who saved England, usually from German plans to invade.

Another master of the heroic vein was John Buchan, author of The Thirty-Nine Steps, although his heroes were not usually professional spies, but gentlemen adventurers thrown in at the deep end. More relevant to Fleming, and Casino Royale in particular, is Dennis Wheatley, who wrote a string of Buchan-esque thrillers from 1933 until his death in 1977. Wheatley, like Fleming, worked in intelligence during World War Two, and had a fondness for the bizarre: as well as spy thrillers, he also wrote occult novels, and even merged the two genres in Strange Conflict (1941), which one can easily imagine a younger Fleming eating up:
‘“I was right about the lobster-claw piece of coast that Marie-Louise and I saw – it is a portion of an island – and I believe that the Nazis have got hold of a High Priest of Voodoo to work them on the astral. The island is the Negro Republic of Haiti, in the West Indies, and if we’re to stop this menace to British shipping, we’ll have to go there.”’10 

All of Wheatley’s work is now out of print, perhaps partly as a result of the sometimes virulent racism in his work. But leaving aside his politics, Wheatley was a considerable thriller writer – his chapters came thick and fast and almost always ended with ingenious cliff-hangers. He was also very successful: by the time Fleming sat down to write Casino Royale, Wheatley had over 20 best-sellers to his name, seven of them featuring a dashing British secret agent called Gregory Sallust, who travelled around the world stopping plots against England. This kind of character was very common throughout the 40s and 50s: in the 1951 novel The Sixth Column by Ian Fleming’s brother Peter, one of the characters is a retired army officer who makes a living writing thrillers featuring a Colonel Hackforth, who becomes involved in ‘violent and, to say the least of it, curious events’ that have ‘far-reaching implications’11. But the similarities between James Bond and Wheatley’s character Gregory Sallust are more striking. Both are lean, dark, handsome, ruthless and high-living. In Contraband (1936), we meet Sallust gambling at the casino in Deauville, ten days before la grande semaine. The first chapter, “Midnight at the Casino”, finds Sallust attracted by a girl at one of the tables:
'Probably most of the heavy bracelets that loaded down her white arms were fake, but you cannot fake clothes as you can diamonds, and he knew that those simple lines of rich material which rose to cup her well-formed breasts had cost a pretty penny. Besides, she was very beautiful.
A little frown of annoyance wrinkled his forehead, catching at the scar which lifted his left eyebrow until his face took on an almost satanic look. What a pity, he thought, that he was returning to England the following day.'12
Casino Royale, of course, opens in the same casino three hours later. And in Chapter 8, Fleming describes Vesper Lynd in very similar terms:
‘Her dress was of black velvet, simple and yet with the touch of splendour that only half a dozen couturiers in the world can achieve. There was a thin necklace of diamonds at her throat and a diamond clip in the low vee which just exposed the jutting swell of her breasts. She carried a plain black evening bag, a flat oblong which she now held, her arm akimbo, at her waist. Her jet-black hair hung straight and simply to the final inward curl below the chin.

She looked quite superb and Bond’s heart lifted.’
The woman in Contraband is a Hungarian called Sabine Szenty, and she turns out to be part of a smuggling gang. We learn that she has ‘sleek black hair’, a ‘fresh and healthy’ complexion, and wears ‘light make-up’13. In Chapter 5 of Casino Royale, we are told that Vesper is ‘lightly suntanned’ and wears no make-up, except on her mouth. Bond and Sallust are also similar, in that they are both attracted to richness that is both understated and simple. This is a repeated theme in Casino Royale:
‘He dried himself and dressed in a white shirt and dark blue slacks. He hoped that she would be dressed as simply and he was pleased when, without knocking, she appeared in the doorway wearing a blue linen shirt which had faded to the colour of her eyes and a dark red skirt in pleated cotton.’14
Sallust also has a familiar hedonistic streak. During the course of Contraband, he quaffs champagne, eats duck dressed with foie gras and cherries, and is briefly held captive in a country house in Kent – although he escapes before he is dumped in a nearby river. He also narrowly avoids drowning in V For Vengeance (1942) – as a large Prussian holds his head under water, he grows contemplative:
‘The game was up. He would never again know the joy of Erika’s caresses, the thrill of a new adventure, the feel of a hot bath and a comfortable bed after a long hard journey, or the cool richness of a beaker of iced champagne…’15
In Casino Royale, James Bond luxuriates in just this kind of activity, although he prefers cold showers to hot baths – he has four of them in the course of the book.

All of this is a long way from the ‘believable’ image of espionage depicted by Maugham and his successors, Eric Ambler and Graham Greene, none of whose protagonists could rightly be called heroes, and who are more likely to think of their collection of rare stamps than beakers of champagne. And yet Casino Royale's prose style is far closer to the believable school than it is to Buchan and Wheatley, whose writing tends to be flat and heavy-handed. In a letter to Fleming in 1953, Maugham wrote that he had enjoyed the novel immensely, in particular the baccarat battle between Le Chiffre and Bond.16 Before Bond, there were dozens of thrillers featuring debonair spies who win the day – Casino Royale was the first that was written with real flair. Wheatley, Buchan and the others could keep you reading – Fleming keeps you re-reading.

But he wasn’t the first to try the trick of merging these two styles. From 1936, Geoffrey Household wrote several vividly written thrillers that added a dose of toughness and realism to the Buchan model. Fleming was a great admirer of Household – we know he sent at least six copies of his 1937 novel The Third Hour to friends,17 even though Household would not become famous until two years later, with the publication of the classic Rogue Male.

It’s not hard to see the appeal: Household had served in the Intelligence Corps in the Middle East during World War Two, and shared much of Fleming’s outlook on life. His books are almost all in the first person, and his heroes tend to be laconic, arrogant and ruthless. In A Time To Kill (1951), the narrator is desperate to save his family, who have been kidnapped by communist agents:
‘I gave him Pink’s knife between the shoulder blades. It wasn’t quite enough. I am now ashamed that I was glad it wasn’t enough. I turned him over and allowed him to see who I was, and to watch the steel as I drove it into his throat.’18

Rogue Male, published a few months before the outbreak of World War Two, features an upper-class Englishman and amateur hunter who decides on his own initiative to assassinate Hitler. When his shot misses, he is chased across the Channel by a German agent masquerading as a British officer called Quive-Smith, and a tense cat-and-mouse tale plays out in the English countryside. To keep off the streets, the narrator burrows himself an ingenious bolt-hole, but this backfires when Quive-Smith finds him and fills the hole in – like Bond in Casino Royale, the narrator finds himself at the mercy of a foreign agent. While he is trapped, Quive-Smith tries to get him to admit that he was acting as an agent of the British government; the narrator insists he was not, which irritates Quive-Smith’s sense of order:
‘“Shall we say that your motives were patriotic?”

“They were not,” I answered.

“My dear fellow!” he protested. “But they were certainly not personal!”

Not personal! But what else could they be? He had made me see myself. No man would do what I did unless he were cold-drawn by grief and rage, consecrated by his own anger to do justice where no other hand could reach.’19
The narrator’s denial that he has acted out of patriotism immediately sets this book apart from the romantic tradition - and yet his ‘cold-drawn grief and rage’ is painted in a heroic light. In Casino Royale, Fleming took this idea a step further. The word ‘cold’ is repeatedly used to describe Bond in the book’s early stages – at the end of the first chapter, he is depicted almost as a villain:
‘Then he slept, and with the warmth and humour of his eyes extinguished, his features relapsed into a taciturn mask, ironical, brutal, and cold.’
As we have already seen from the description of Gregory Sallust in Contraband, this is not entirely out of keeping with the romantic tradition – but it is still quite extreme. A turning point comes at the end of Chapter 13, when Bond’s mask is finally removed. He has beaten Le Chiffre at baccarat and apparently completed his mission, but his celebratory dinner with Vesper has turned sour. He returns to his hotel room to hide the cheque and bed down for the night:
‘He gazed for a moment into the mirror and wondered about Vesper’s morals. He wanted her cold and arrogant body. He wanted to see tears and desire in her remote blue eyes and to take the ropes of her black hair in his hands and bend her long body back under his. Bond’s eyes narrowed and his face in the mirror looked back at him with hunger.’
Bond is frustrated because he seems to have met his match – a woman more detached than him. Despite the previous references to Bond’s coldness, this passage is shocking in its intensity and aggression towards Vesper. Although it is brutal, even sadistic, it is no longer ironical or cold in the sense of being detached – Bond’s emotions have finally risen to the surface.

When, in the novel’s final chapter, Bond learns of Vesper’s betrayal, he utters an obscenity, cries, and then ‘with a set cold face’ walks to the nearest telephone booth and calls London to inform them that ‘the bitch is dead now’. Grief has turned to rage in a few short sentences, and the rage is then turned away from Vesper and directed at SMERSH.
‘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.’
Like the narrator of Rogue Male, James Bond vows ‘to do justice where no other hand can reach’. Things have become very personal for the cool, detached agent. In the course of his mission, he has proved, quite literally, that he has the balls for the job. The glamour of the casino and the champagne and caviar have been stripped away, and we are left with one man battling his own private nightmare.

And this, perhaps, is why Casino Royale still resonates today. Beyond its innovation in the genre, beyond its unerring prose style, it is a novel about what it takes to be a man. How to be a man in the best of circumstances – when you are in your prime, a beautiful woman by your side, winning against the odds – and how to be a man in the worst of circumstances, when you are under pressure and can’t let the side down, and the woman turns out to have betrayed you. Before Casino Royale, the hero always saved the damsel in distress moments before she was brutally ravaged and tortured by the villain; Fleming gave us a story in which nobody is saved, and it is the hero who is abused, drawn there by the damsel. Despite the implausibility of his mission and the sometimes self-consciously crude depiction of a tough man of action, in Casino Royale Fleming succeeded in creating his believable hero.

This may be another reason the novel has been so neglected by scholars of the thriller. Although it established the formula for the series, Casino Royale has a very different tone to the rest of the Bond novels. For decades, critics have painted Bond as an unbelievable hero in the Sapper or Buchan tradition but, as I hope I’ve shown, in Casino Royale he is not quite of that mould.

As Fleming’s subsequent novels and the films made James Bond the most famous secret agent in the world, other writers – John Le Carré, Len Deighton, Adam Hall – produced more ‘believable’ stories than Casino Royale. These were often acclaimed as being ‘anti-Bonds’, but in fact they followed Fleming’s lead in weaving heroic elements into the Maugham/Ambler/Greene tradition. Deighton’s The IPCRESS File (1962) and Hall’s The Quiller Memorandum (1965) were both regarded as more credible accounts of espionage than Fleming’s novels, and yet they both feature torture scenes that, consciously or not, owe a great debt to Casino Royale. With Fleming’s first novel, the spy thriller took an enormous leap forward.

1, 2. Chapter 2 'Dossier for M'.
3. p177 The Mitrokhin Archive: The KGB in Europe and the West by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, Penguin, 2000.
4, 5. pp 610-11 MI6: Inside the Covert World of Her Majesty's Secret Intelligence Service by Stephen Dorril, Touchstone, 2000.
6. Archive interview with Fleming in 'Ian Fleming: 007's creator', written and directed by John Cork, 2000, featured on The Living Daylights DVD.
7. p25 Dorril.
8. The Playboy Interview: Ian Fleming by Ken Purdy, Playboy, December 1964.
9. pp 10-11 Miss King, Collected Short Stories of W Somerset Maugham: Volume 3, Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics.
10. p131 Strange Conflict by Dennis Wheatley, Arrow, 1970.
11. p329 Peter Fleming: A Biography by Duff Hart-Davis, Oxford University Press, 1987.
12, 13. pp 11 & 18 Contraband, by Dennis Wheatley, Arrow, 1996.
14. Chapter 24 ‘Fruit Défendu’.
15. pp 135-6 V For Vengeance by Dennis Wheatley, Arrow, 1965.
16. p264 The Life of Ian Fleming by John Pearson, Aurum Press Ltd., 2003.
17. p85 Ian Fleming by Andrew Lycett, Phoenix, 1996.
18. p95 A Time To Kill by Geoffrey Household, Pennant, 1953.
19. p151 Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household, Penguin, 1985.